Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Whisper of the Axe

The house is quiet this Wednesday morning. The rain, which rumbled and hissed over our heads most of the night has ceased and the sky has cleared; there's even a hint of dawn over the houses across Amherst Street. I'm learning to enjoy my wife's upstairs workstation. Birdsong and light instead of the cold arachnidenous gloom. The coffee is hot, blatant in my mouth cut with the silky creaminess of the half-and-half.

I have a busy day today, finishing up work on a state highway project. And most of my week looks pretty busy as well.

But that's becoming unusual.

My business, like all businesses associated with development, construction and building, is in trouble. We're losing money, or holding our own. We're a small firm, and though we don't have the ugly overhead costs of some of the larger outfits, we also don't have the deep pockets. We're running harder to chase less work, and so are our competitors.

So I go to work now hoping to see new jobs on the schedule, hoping to see my week - shortened to four days - full to bursting with reasons for my employer to keep employing me. Fearing the emptiness of a blank week on my Outlook calendar. That fear is one reason I've been less and less motivated to post here. I'm worried, and worry is stopping my mouth with fear.

This should he a happy time. We're enjoying a beautiful spring. My little boy is learning to read and write, to play chess, growing strong and smart and loving. My little girl is a wonder; bubbling over with laughter like a ravenhaired spring of happiness whose reach lengthens every day. My wife is a lovely companion, helpmeet and partner, working, playing and loving me and her children. I look around me and I feel all bliss, like I could close my eyes and float weightless in a sea of love.

And then I cringe, feeling the cold kiss of that blade, the razor-edge of fright. What happens if business doesn't get better? What happens if my employers need to shed even more cost? Will I lose my job? Can we keep our house? What will happen to us?

My wife is a contractor - my value, as much as the salary I make, is in that I carry the insurance for the entire family - and if I lose my job we all lose our insurance. Now I read the political games the insurance companies, politicians, and pundits are playing about "health care" and my hands fist with anger. THIS is the reality of most people in America, assholes. If I lose my job, if something horrible happens to one of us, we will be devastated; we're one automobile accident away from poverty. And even if not, without insurance, how will I manage my deteriorating knees? Who will pay for Mojo's antidepressants? What about little Miss' dental work? What happens if my big Peeper falls and breaks something?

Who will want to re-hire a fiftyish geologist in an overpopulated geotechnical community, when a dozen can do what I do younger and cheaper?

Is this how the fathers of the Depression felt, looking at their children playing heedless of the ruin around them, feeling the clenching in their guts as they could only stand by helplessly hoping that the axe was whispering to another and not to them? Knowing that if - when - it struck it would cut down the children they loved as well?

There are times I can forget. Times I can join in the happy silliness of my children, or the quiet serenity of my bride, without a thought. But there are other times, and those times are increasingly insistent, when I feel the cold, crisp shiver of fear up my back, the sting of the steel, and I dread the moment that the blade of Hard Times will strike me dead.

Update 5/13 p.m.: Nasty day today. Nasty. Cold wind, driving rain. Rainy hand augering in the painful field. That, and working by myself most of the afternoon gave me way too much time to think about what I posted above.

Please don't feel like I'm buying trouble, or giving up, or curled in a fetal ball whimpering. I work for a good little company, my bosses are good engineers, terrific workers and aggressive marketers. Our overhead is low, we're very lean, and we should have a even shot at the work that's out there.

But...even the best companies don't always come in first. Even the best people don't always get the happy ending. And in this economy it doesn't take much...a missed deadline here, a slightly high proposal fee there...and then you're standing in an office with your hands tightly clenched, the intentionally bland face on the man telling you the bad news designed to defuse the frustration and anger he knows you feel.

Then the stunned drive home. The look on her face when you tell your wife what has happened. The smile papered over her tight eyes and drawn face.

Then the desperate round of fruitless applications. Bills shoved, unpaid, into a file. Slow disappearance of disposable things, slipped out in hopes that the children won't notice. Frightened glances at the shrinking bank balance.

Finally the "family talk". Coaxing a weeping child to choose what toys he can take. Holding back the tears as you touch the woodwork you lovingly crafted in her cheerful little bedroom, now echoing and empty. The truck and the boxes, the crying and the anger...the slow pull away from the curb towards an uncertain future.

One curse of an overactive imagination is the ability to see all this in excruciating detail while standing in a rainy field, under a gray lowering sky.

It may never happen. I will try like hell, I will HOPE like hell, that it never happens.

But right now my fears make it very real to me.


Red Sand said...

Please know that I'm thinking of you and hoping for the best. I hope that the optimists/cornucopians are correct and that recovery is just around the corner, although I remain doubtful. I'm not sure that anyone is safe during these times and I'm playing out my own scenarios in my mind. Regardless, I send wishes of stability and security your way. (tongue-in-cheek) After all, where else would I get my geo-political analysis if you are driven to abandon your writing? (/tongue-in-cheek)

sheerahkahn said...

I was in the Police Academy, and we had reached the hand-to-hand combat stage of the academy. A full two weeks of "OW!" "YEAH!" and "OH HEY, THAT HURTS!"The instructor was a koga master, and we were learning to take "control" of one another.
Yes, control, such a sweet, innocuous term for acutely applied pain, but we did it.
So the instructor, going through class tells us that now, the assailent must break free.
Well, I'm a candy ass, so I'm half-hearted as is the rest of the class.
"Do I have you?"
Well, no, but I'm not keen to feeling my finger tips touching my forearm again so lets just cut to the chase and say yeah, you got me.
My turn, "do I have you?"
As it turns out, my partner was of the same mind as me, finger tips touching the forearm ilicits a lot more pain than we're willing to go to, so yeah, he says, you have me.
The instructor righteously calls bullshit on us, and then pulls out the biggest guy in the class and tells him to resist.
The guy is half-hearted about it.
The instructor is now furiously mad, and basically yells in the guys face to put everything into it.
So he does, and the instructor slams him down...very, very hard.
The guy yells, "I give!"
The instructor looks at us, looks at him and says, "no give up."
"No give up. I'm bad guy. You good guy, fight your way out."
So the big guy begins to go hard, twisting, turning, trying to break free, but he couldn't.
The instructor tells us now that we're all to do the same because when we get a bad guy down, he's not going to give up easy if he decides today is the day either he dies, or you die.
So we went through it.
I broke free, the instructor assists my buddy.
I break free again.
The instructor nods, says very good, and then we both go at it.
I fight, I scream in pain, but I fight more.
"No give up, very good!"
I keep fighting right up to the point where I dam near dislocate my shoulder again.
Instructor taps me, and says hold.
"Very good, no give up."
Really, I'm getting tired of hearing that from him, but it stuck with me.
The pain doesn't go away, and in fact it stayed with me for a few days, but then it went away.
No give up, Chief, you got a lot going for yourself, never short change yourself or your options.
Be bold, and daring...hell, who knows what options will open for you and your wife in the coming days, weeks, months, or even years.

Brent said...

Don't let the down economy force you into seclusion and silence, Chief. You need to stay fit and sharp during the slow times so that when it all speeds up again, you won't be lagging to catch up. And one of the best ways to stay sharp is to keep writing, talking, and dicussing. I've always thought that writing about sad times keeps me balanced. I often look down at the pool of depression (or poverty or loneliness or pain) for perspective, but never for my reflection.

walternatives said...

Oh, Chief... this makes me very anxious for you and yours. Very. I can't imagine what it feels like to be in your shoes right now....

Pluto said...

Just reading your comments is throwing me back to the bad old days when I faced the same situation several times (and got laid off every single stupid time!). As you already know, it's no fun.

Getting laid off is something of a relief because the pain of not knowing has ended. Getting your last paycheck ends that relief pretty quickly by bringing on all sorts of other unpleasant issues.

I'm sure you've already done this but I'll go down the checklist one more time on the off chance you've missed something. Contingency planning is a good idea (at least until you go slightly crazy from overplanning).

Does Oregon have any sort of state healthcare program? Can you claim any sort of assistance as an ex-vet? Can you get Medicaid assistance somehow? You don't have squat if you don't have your health.

Do you have any sort of out-of-the-ordinary skill that can be used to keep your current job or get another one? Networking is a good idea at this time.

Everybody responds to getting laid off differently. I go out and job-hunt aggressively taking any sort of temp assignment I can find. This keeps me from going stir-crazy at home and generates some much-needed income.

I don't know if it will be much of a consolation but you're most certainly not alone. The company I work for is also doing the profit limbo of death. It's a good outfit with smart management but they've had to lay off a third of the work-force and more lay-offs and shortened work weeks seem inevitable in the near future.

I have savings and some decent computer skills that are pretty marketable so I'm not too concerned for myself for the near future, but it's no fun watching everybody else in the company suffering the same nagging dread that you are feeling.

As Red Green would say, "Hang on, we're all in this together."

Aviator47 said...


We're rootin' for ya. Ain't pretty times for working people.


Ael said...

Canada has all sorts of problems including high taxes, but I am *so* glad that I don't have to worry about losing my house if someone in my family gets sick.

Lisa said...

I do hope your life continues on even keel. However, as Sheerah says, one never knows what is around the next corner. Serendipity happens, for better or worse. All the advice you've received here is good.

I remember when my dad was laid off in the late 70's. Lean times, for sure, but survivable. He sent out 200 apps before he found the right position. (I understand he was just as dogged when he landed his first job -- they hired him just to get him to stop sending in apps!)

But never let fear silence you. Your expression is impeccable as it is essential.

FDChief said...

Thanks for the advice and support, gang. As I said, I'm not giving up or laying down. But I still hate this feeling of constant, low-grade nagging worry.

The thing is that I worked for another great little company that fell apart in the late 90's, victim of a badly timed recession and the infighting of the principals. And there was nothing I could do to save it, or myself. So this is a sort of deja-vu-all-over-again. Ugh.

Anyway, it's a sunny day, so I'll try and be a little more upbeat for the weekend.

basilbeast said...

Chief, I wish my Magic Wand (R) was still working, and I'm banned for life from Hogwarts, for some minor infraction.

And due to cuts, I'm going part time and officially retired from education, now more than ever, a ward of the state.

So this will have to do to cheer us up.

I wonder if I can make it as an elderly burger-flipper?



Publius said...

Chief, I'm thinking of you and yours as well as many others like you in these times. I'm also thinking you're just too talented to be kept down.

Keep the faith, baby. And stay in shape mentally and physically.