"What kind of idiot," I wondered, aloud, looking up from my keyboard in a windowless office, "takes his vacation from being a newspaper columnist in one city to go be a newspaper columnist in another?"
That would be me. We not only love our jobs, we become our jobs. Which makes sense, since we do them so much.
To even contemplate losing those jobs is hard. It's like thinking about dying. Worse, because when you die, you're no longer here. Your woes are few. But the unemployed have lost their livelihoods — a freighted word — yet continue to live these suddenly frantic, diminished existences, dog-paddling in the frozen slurry of the jobless, desperately looking for a ladder or a rope out before they drown financially and emotionally.
During the past decade of recession that risk is a palpable menace for many, a thing in the bushes, sometimes quiet, sometimes growling. Thousands saw the dark thing stir reading the June 29 Crain's, whose front page story is on the mass firings coming to Kraft, which is merging with H.J. Heinz next month.
"The layoffs will be swift, proceed in waves and cut deeply," Peter Frost writes in a story that must be twisting guts among Kraft's 22,000 workers, nearly one-third of whom can expect the ax.
Since sarcasm is so common in this business, I should stress that I am not gloating. My heart breaks for those Kraft folk, happily selling cheese and pickles and salad dressing. Headquartered in Northfield, not far from my house, I pass the headquarters all the time; it seems so sprawling and secure, like a college campus or a military base. A newspaperman expects to live a haunted existence but there's no joy in realizing those selling Jell-O are also crouched on shifting sands. Is no one safe?
The shadow of the destroyer approaches Kraft. What does an imperiled employee do? Scan the horizon for a new job. Not a lot of sails there. Clear the decks. Cut expenses. Batten down hatches. Prepare for the storm.
Then you wait, the low level terror of uncertainty eating at you. What to do? How to brace, mentally? Look back to the person you were at 17. What would that idealistic teen think of you now, in agony at just the thought of being cut loose from the Miracle Whip team? Gather your courage. I believe it is not the financial instability, bad as that is, so much as the blow to our identity that we fear most. To fight that fear, remember that we are many things beyond our jobs: husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Parts of us that can't be taken away with a memo.
You need to practice pumping yourself up in the way your job does now. When the atmosphere of your corporation is gone, you'll need to exist in your own little spacesuit of self. It can be done. Seneca has two relevant thoughts. First, do not run ahead to embrace woes. They may never come; then you're worrying about nothing. Or if they do come, then you suffer twice, first in anticipation, then in realty.
Second, view it as a test of your mettle. Seneca asks: What's the point of being a good, strong person if you never face difficulties? Do you really believe that you are only able to cope with life when it goes well, when the paycheck ka-chings into your account and the head of the Shake 'n Bake group singles you out for praise?
The Daily News sacked me out of the blue. They never even told me I was fired; just stopped running my column one day. I found out when puzzled readers asked where I had gone.
It still hurt, even though I still had my regular job here to fall back on. Maybe that's my advice to Kraft employees. Start stuffing that mattress with savings, with job applications, with freelance work, with spiritual enrichment. Something to make the stone floor less hard when you hit it. Seneca be damned, I've been preparing too. At least I've come up with a line.
When a flailing ax gets to me again someday, I plan to smile enigmatically and say, "Now I am rich in time."