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LAce Posted Monday, July 28th, 2003
Unemployment: Confessions of a Closeted Optimist
Mary Bauers

2002 was my year. I graduated from college, got engaged, and survived six months without a TV. During my hiatus, I learned how to surf the ‘Net and discovered talk radio. When the inevitable American Idol conversation came up, I smugly sighed, “Justin who? I don’t own a TV.” I assumed that I was storing important information, like Darwin’s theories, in those pockets of my brain that used to keep track of the Days of our Lives storyline. Facing my next adventure (urban twentysomething), I felt proud of my willpower, my abstinence. I was a doer! A thinker!

After graduation, I moved to New York. I packed a suitcase full of closed-toed heels and optimism. I was a doer! A thinker! Not to sound trite, but I really believed I could change the world. First stop: cubicle, next stop: Capitol Hill.

Unfortunately, the world was not quite ready for change. Didn’t I know about the stormy economic climate? Didn’t I know that the nation had sunk into a deep, dark mire of unemployment? No. As you will recall, I didn’t watch the Nightly News. But I could still recite Darwin’s theory of evolution!

I unpacked my youthful optimism and carefully hung it in the closet, like a beautiful soft pashmina shawl that you ache for an opportunity to wear. I wanted to drape it around me and sashay into the world.

I attacked the job market with all the tools available to me: the Internet. I browsed the job search engines, responding to advertisements with sophisticated cover letters that took me hours to prepare (“Sincerely,” or “With Regards?”). Kinko’s quarterly earnings rose as I copied and faxed dozens of resumes. I developed personal relationships with the voice mail of every Human Resources employee in Manhattan, and a few in the outer boroughs. After a few months, I threw my (now dusty and wrinkled) optimism into the back of my closet, with the old platform heels and tacky Christmas sweaters.

Unemployment is not the vacation you dream of when you are overworked and underpaid, aching for a chance to sleep late and wear your pajamas all day. I woke up early, desperate to maintain some semblance of productivity. The so-called “Employment Experts” recommend viewing unemployment as a full-time job, and I really tried. In the morning, I changed out of my pajamas and stared at the new postings on Monster.com. I called my mother’s cousin’s ex-husband’s best friend who knew someone who maybe knew someone. I left follow-up voice mail for Human Resources.

This took about thirty minutes- only 450 to go.

In case you thought I was wandering from my subject, I am coming back to it now. This is when TV reentered my life, for better or worse.

I had moved in with my fiancé- a television connoisseur, i.e. addict. He proudly owns a huge TV and an extensive digital cable package offering about 1,000 channels. He also owns a Bose surround sound system (he asked me to include this). While I imagined I was intellectually superior to televised entertainment, I found myself flipping through the channels like a kid tasting all of the flavors at Baskin Robbins.

So after my half-hour of work, I watched TV to “take a break,” and keep myself from getting hysterical at 9:00 am. I plopped down on our big, velvety couch, which is so soft that sinking into the smooth cushions is like descending into a warm bath. I started with The Today Show. Technically, this constituted job-hunting, because I took mental notes on Katie Couric’s cute skirt suits and contemplated the importance of the Newscaster bob hairdo. If I cut my hair, would I look more successful, and thus more hirable?

I am also planning my wedding, if flipping through Martha Stewart Weddings counts as “planning.” So I never felt guilty watching back-to-back episodes of TLC’s A Wedding Story. Okay, so this activity is not employment-related, but if I had a real job, I would waste a lot of time on the wedding-focused website, www.theknot.com, so wedding research was allowed. I made important decisions while watching other couples wed. For example, I like chapel-length veils, but not embroidery.

Besides job-hunting and nuptial planning, I devoted time to domestic activities. Who knew how long I would be unemployed? I had a possibly limited amount of time to feminize my apartment. My fiancé had lived alone, and the décor and messiness reflected my absence. I wanted to bake, sew, and craft. I dreamed about building a shelving unit that would fulfill my dreams of organized storage and display.

Who better to turn to for inspiration that Christopher Lowell? Along with the gangs from Trading Spaces and While You Were Out, Lowell made home improvement look effortless. I watched the well-dressed designers build a love seat out of plywood, cotton batting, and staple guns. The chirpy hosts punctuated each scene with slapstick humor, perpetuating an airy mood even when disaster seemed imminent. They promised that I could finance a complete renovation project with the coins found between my couch cushions. I made lists of project ideas.

I am actually a date book kind of gal, and filling those blank pages with activities and goings-on makes me feel important. But I couldn’t create a busy schedule without writing entries like, “Thursday, July 17, 9:00 pm: Dateline interview with Ben and J. Lo.”

So I switched to list-making, an activity that made me feel productive because I could cross off the accomplished tasks. A typical list would look like this: 1. Send resume to Adam’s aunt’s friend’s boss; 2. Paint dressers with homemade paint, design with handcrafted stencils; 3. Sew pillows out of old clothing; 4. Frame artsy black-and-white photos with bamboo sticks and sticky tack (also take black-and-white photos).

I have yet to cross any of these off my lists.

Before I knew it, my day ended. The networks switched from housewife fare to sitcom reruns. 6:00 pm is a confusing time of day for the unemployed. Your fiancé (or mother, or roommate) returns home looking disheveled and exhausted. You remember that there is an entire world outside your living room, where people get to wear their closed-toed shoes and carry briefcases, where bankers and teachers and secretaries proudly wear their optimism like a stylish scarf, using it to propel them through a boring work day or a rowdy field trip, rubbing its soft fabric against their cheeks, to remind themselves that they are changing the world.

And one night, instead of watching another rerun of Seinfeld, I dragged myself out of my velvety bath of cushions and opened my closet door. I dug through shoes and mothballs and the humid darkness till I reached the back corner. I found my crumpled optimism glowing in the dark. There it was: wrinkled and dusty, reminding me that good prevails over evil, that the worst of times leads to the best of times, and that there is a glimmer of light in the back of every dark closet.

I wrapped my optimism around my shoulders and retreated to the couch. Survivor was on TV, and I made a mental note: call CBS to inquire about openings for ordinary citizens to live on an island and compete in gross-out contests. I was working overtime.

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    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Ellen Janis on Monday, July 28th, 2003 at 12:08 PM
    My only question is what kind of job is this girl looking for? Someone with such a witty, eloquent writing style should not be relegated to the administrative duldrums of a run of the mill office or social work job. Her calling is clearly to be fabulous sophisticated NYC free-lance writer a la carrie bradshaw. since she is now equipped with 1,000+ channels, she'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

    Posted by Laura Bauers on Monday, July 28th, 2003 at 12:11 PM
    Excellent and funny comment on television today! you are genius, mary.

    Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Monday, July 28th, 2003 at 1:30 PM
    Want a job in publishing?

    Posted by Lauren O'Connell on Monday, July 28th, 2003 at 7:40 PM
    Insightful and understood! I no longer have a job as of today (it was a terrible job)! Mary, your writing impresses me more and more every time...bravo!

    Posted by Jerry Bauers on Wednesday, July 30th, 2003 at 1:21 PM
    Great stuff....maybe a guidepost for you Mary.

    Posted by poo bear [ poobear@ultrasmooth.com ] on Friday, August 1st, 2003 at 3:26 PM
    Speaking of jobs, I would like to post the following listing.

    Do you want to bang 5 fine honeys at the same time? Can you drink till your friends are in the hospital? Have you ever punched a cop in the face? If you answered yes to any of the above, read on: Greatest frontman ever, looking to put together kick ass metal band. I am 6'5", with cool hair, and the worlds baddest attitude. I am 34, but don't look a day over 20. I am looking for 4 good looking, bad assed dudes to back me up (age 20 to 30 only! - you may look young, but you don't look as good as me - trust me!). Anywhere in NYC is cool. I live on long island but willing to commute, plus we can play at my place if you want - the family I'm renting from has a pool and it could be cool for some kick ass rock parties when they're out of town! I'm looking for a guitarist: must play better than Hendrix, Malmsteen, Hammett, and Halen combined!, a drummer who plays TAMAS-only!, and a bass player who can play every Dream Theater song just about perfect. I must have the best cause I am the best! I'm no vocal teacher, but I'm pretty sure I can scream somewhere between 4 and five continuous octaves. I'm also the wildest showman you have ever seen. I break stuff, light things on fire, hit people in the face with my huge penis, and cuss it up like a sailor on stage. I've never played live, but rehearse like crazy, so I'm ready to go! who's coming with me?!!!!!!! Skinny white dudes preferred, but absolutely no gays or bitches. -Hey it's rock n' roll and I don't make the rules (even though Halford still kicks ass!!!). So what are you waiting for?! Let's rock this town!

    -anon-13806687@craigslist.org



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