Tag Archives: unemployment

Quantitative Comparisons

I’m about to apply to MFA programs for my degree in fiction writing, so for the past few weeks, I’ve been studying for the GRE, armed with a book called “The Ultimate Math Refresher” and a Kaplan guide to the test. Most of it won’t be a problem: a cursory review of the vocabulary words showed that I knew all of them, and while I haven’t written one in a while, I have a pretty good recollection of how to churn out the five-paragraph essay. Math, however, isn’t a subject that I’ve checked in with for five years or so. I fulfilled the Quantitative Reasoning requirement at college with an introductory demography course, which was more about making generalizations and using Excel. Geometry and I haven’t spent much time together since 9th grade. I never even took calculus– one of the great virtues of the IB program was that we were offered two math tracks, and I was able to take statistics instead.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m even stressing out about math. I’m going to writing school, after all. Here’s why: while GRE scores have virtually no importance for admission to writing programs, they do count for many scholarships. If I want to pay for school, it’s important that I score well on every part of the test. So I spent the morning slaving over a practice exam, with my sainted boyfriend by my side to explain the problems I didn’t understand. This turned out to be most of them, and I didn’t make it halfway through the test before I began to sob with frustration. I’d memorized plenty of formulas and stratagems, but the logical underpinnings of math just elude me, and the book’s glib, “isn’t it obvious” explanations weren’t a help for many of the questions I didn’t understand. I conquered some questions with sheer effort, but the natural aptitude isn’t there, and I still have no clue how I’ll be able to do a problem a minute, sixty times over, come the day of the test. All my old fears and frustrations in math class, every drop of that sea of tears, came flooding back in an instant, as if five years hadn’t meant a thing.

Before our round of test-prep this morning, I had read an article in the New York Times with which I deeply empathized: it was about a pair of twins, Kristy and Katie Barry, who are seventeen months out of college (just like me) and have yet to find permanent, full-time work (same). They were journalism majors at Rutgers, and we’re pursuing similar jobs both in the full-time sphere (assistant positions at magazines, marketing positions at companies) and in the just-getting-by sphere (working as extras, temping, freelance writing, bartending). They’ve been rejected from 150 jobs, about the same amount as I have, most of those rejections being delivered only with silence. We’ve both exhausted every friend, contact and opportunity we have. (One difference: They have five months of unemployment on me; in about a week, it’ll have been a full year since my layoff.)

The comments on this article were absolutely brutal. People went after every aspect of their lives: their $2900 apartment (which, mind you, is a two-bedroom shared between FOUR people), their occasional cup of Starbucks, the fact that one of them went on vacation to Cancun. (These incidents of spending are debatable; I can only deflect criticism on my part by saying that I try to spend as little as possible on everything.) But the thing that made me craziest was how many people attacked them for their choice of major. A few selections from the pool:

“Jounalism [sic] degree, what a waste. Why don’t these colleges advise their students to take more math and science? That is what the country needs. If a student wants a degree in Jounalism, Psychology, Sociology, History or the Humanities, fine but get a degree in something that will provide them with a livelihood. Why don’t the colleges find out where the jobs are and educate their students accordingly?”

“Journalism degrees. Hmmm. How would this story be surprising, even if the economy was in better shape? Unemployment is at a 30-year high, yet the US is still importing scientists and engineers. Figure it out.”

“I am surprised the editors at the Times allowed this piece to be published. With 7.1% unemployment for this demographic (27 year old college graduates), that means that 92.9% are employed. What distinguishes those graduates with and without jobs? Not to be too cruel, but one would bet that these gals did not major in electrical engineering, molecular biology, or cognitive neuroscience, fields with an effective unemployment rate of zero.”

Comment after comment follows, many with the same blunt message: You’re an idiot to study the humanities. If you studied math and science, you’d have a job by now.

Naturally, math and science are good things to study. I’m so grateful that there are people out there who have talent in these fields, who engineer the plumbing for my shower and the computer on which I type. In many ways, I envy them. My patience for learning how things work is incredibly poor. I’d rather put a gun to my head than spend ten hours taking apart and putting back together a radio. The fact that someone can do these things at all, much less derive joy from them, is wonderful.

But that’s not something that all of us can do. While I think everyone should have the chance to be exposed to math and science, to catch the spark if it exists within them, some people don’t have the tinder, and I’m one of them. My spark caught when I learned to read, when I wrote little stories in my battered spiral notebook, when I copied Yeats and Wordsworth admiringly from the board. And that should be okay, too.

I’m not naive enough to think that all sparks are of equal worth in this capitalist society. More people want cars and iPhones than books. I’m never going to get rich, and that doesn’t bother me. But now that the situation has deteriorated so far, now that a meager living has turned into no living at all, must I be ashamed of what I chose to do as well?

Nor am I saying that I’m exactly the same as these girls. They have a Midwestern, blond exuberance that isn’t really my style; I doubt we’d be friends in real life. That said, it seems like they did their best to choose a career that suited their interests and skills: talking to people, engaging with new subjects, being creative and resourceful users of information. Yet the only response that seems to merit is, “Why the hell didn’t you become an electrical engineer?”

Our culture has always played the opposing sides between passion and a pension: love or money is a classic dilemma. But recently, the odds seem to have been stepped up, with every career guide imploring the reader to find what he or she truly loves, and the money will follow, and simultaneously, with money forming shallower pools where there were once lakes, and drying into dust where there were once puddles.

I’m certainly not blindly proud of being mathematically illiterate. I would gladly trade in my skills at writing and creating, whatever they may be, for happiness in finding the circumference of a circle or tinkering with an engine. Finding joy in a place where there is also job security seems like paradise to me. But I am the person I am, and my brain does what it does. I would be no asset to neuroscience or engineering, even if I could manage to pass the necessary classes, even if I could manage to accomplish the basic tasks of the stable, well-paying job.

Instead, I puzzle my way through the GRE’s questions, so simple in the mind of the engineer, and cross my fingers for even the part-time gig, the day of temping, the hours of pretending to be a hospital patient for minimum wage. Where I once felt the mild sting of resignation, I now feel the burning, sinking shame.


While You’re Waiting For Moments That Never Come

Blogs, as anyone who’s ever kept one knows, are a pretty easy thing to give up on. The minutiae of life go by, people get busy, the initial excitement fades. For me, however, this blog wasn’t preempted by other stuff I had to do; if anything, I’ve had a surfeit of time, waterfalls of the stuff, in the three months since I lost my job. 

And while I thought about writing almost every day, I didn’t want to burden anyone with what I really wanted to write about: the endless pain, loneliness, depression, and isolation I was feeling. I had just started my life in San Francisco, and so many tiny tendrils of that adult emergence died along with my job: the nascent friendships with co-workers that were quickly dashed, the financial freedom that flip-flopped into terror of losing my house and terror of leaving it for the spendy outside world, the confidence that the American dream was buoyant and that my place in the meritocracy was buoyant. 

I’ve decided to write a little bit about these things because I feel like I can’t go forward trying to plumb for honest opinions on entertainments without first honestly expressing what I’ve felt for the past few months. And I know that it’s a buzzkill for a lot of people. This passage from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York sums up a lot of my feelings on the subject of sharing, oversharing, and the deaf ears that receive them both: 

Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you’ll never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. Even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. And the truth is I’m so angry and the truth is I’m so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve been so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long have been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own, and their own is too overwhelming to allow them to listen to or care about mine. Well, fuck everybody. Amen. 

I won’t go so far as to say “fuck everybody,” because people, a few people, have reached out from the world of their equally potent misery to try to sop up a bit of mine. Whenever I’ve been able to reciprocate, I have, but the truth is that most of my social world has stopped calling. They’re biding their time, waiting for the day when I emerge with my shiny new career (as, God willing, I someday will), waiting for the reassurance of discussions that don’t center around pain they can’t understand and problems they can’t solve.

And I really do want to give them that conversation, without grudges. But what I can’t help but feel as I probe the ruins of my adulthood-so-far is that there isn’t going to be any end to that grief, even in a best-case-scenario world where everything is done to a turn and I show up on the cover of Oprah’s magazine shouting with joy about how I’ve turned my life around. The paths we don’t take (or, in my case, the path that was closed off to me) still have their own strange lives, half-children of experience floating sadly in the imagination. New paths emerge, time moves forward, but these wraiths still swim and whisper about what could have been. 

In the empty days of November, I could have had the courage to keep typing away about movies while everything fell out underneath me. I could have the courage now to just say enough, and go back to writing about my cultural theories under the guise of the cheerful person who penned them six months ago. I could suck up my pain. 

But I’m not courageous. I’m just scared. What is unique about this fear is that it finds a rare release in the joys of taking in and taking apart art, and I’m no longer going to be afraid of admitting that it will have an enormous influence on what I see. This doesn’t mean I’m going to go ultra-morose, or turn every analysis into self-analysis, just that it feels better to have a contract (with you, the invisible reader), knowing that from here on in, you know the score. 

In my time away, I’ve read a million books, watched a slew of films, drunk 50,000 beers, and soon, I’ll try to lens in on all of them. But what I see when I look in the mirror isn’t the same, and the things that are a mirror of me have to change with that.

Seven Years of Bad Luck

Most of my friends (and, subsequently, most of my readers) are probably aware that I was laid off from my job with no warning last week. I won’t bother taking the time to rail about the SUPER AWESOME ECONOMY right now, as people with actual mortgages and kids are undoubtedly feeling things even more thoroughly than I am. However, in the immortal words of Martin Lawrence:

It’s hard to know what sort of culture to turn to when you’re feeling sticky and depressed and just generally unhappy as all hell. As I rode the 10 bus home a mere half an hour after disembarking it for my office, the music I kept hearing in my head was the tinny tin-pan clacks of Modest Mouse’s “Wild Packs of Family Dogs”: My father quit his job today / Well, I guess he got fired, but that’s okay. 

At that moment, I think I really did want the dogs to come and take me away. 

I put on the album, to distract me from my sniffling self and from all the people who were staring at me. And I listened to that song, and it was just as hollow and painful as I remembered. I wallowed in the sharp sting of recent memory, fingered my meager severance agreement, wondered what I would do next. The album kept playing. And through the fog between my ears, I could hear Isaac Brock singing: It’s our lives / It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the first time / It’s hard to remember we’re alive for the last time. The album I had put on to wallow in had grown up and gotten perspective without me. And even though I’d heard “Lives” a million times before, it seemed to have come to me in that moment, irrevocably right. 

Music does that to you sometimes. The things you put the favorite song or record on for, hoping to achieve a bit of catharsis, don’t always touch you the way they’re supposed to. And new meanings fall out of things previously parsed, like fruit from the top branches of a barren tree. There’s no doubt that we listen to music in order to complement our emotions: miserable songs and singers for moping, ebullient ones for the best days, loud punk to fuel our workouts and soft jazz to put us to sleep. But I wonder how much of our instincts are also drawn there to unconsciously listen for the part that gets the better of our intentions, whether it’s the sadness and vulnerability behind the screeching guitars or the piercing trumpet that breaks the piano lull. 

So my hope is that my life will be more like my albums: even at the dark moments, the track inevitably changes. Brighter things, or reminders of them, are always lying in wait. And the things you think are stable, for better or for worse, will always possess the power to surprise you. 

Besides, if you could be anything you wanted, I’d bet you’d be disappointed, am I right?