Photo courtesy of Andy Bahn

Photo courtesy of Andy Bahn

Last Saturday evening, I played chess in a cafe with the friend I play with on most Saturday evenings. She was telling me about her search for a telephone customer service job, as she has every Saturday since she was laid off in October. She was slowing down out of pure despair—why send out more resumes if nobody answers? Just then, another friend happened by. After exchanging the usual hugs and hellos, I asked how he’d been, as I hadn’t seen him for months.

“Oh, you know,” he said, “Still looking for a job.”

Still? The last time I’d seen him, he’d been very gainfully employed.

“Oh, really?” said my friend. “It has been a while. I got laid off in August.” He went on to explain how jobs were scarce in his field, mechanical engineering, as they are all around. Then he and my chess buddy exchanged creative ideas for paying their mortgages, (She was using expensive early distributions from a 401k, and he, cannibalistically, a home equity line of credit.) and praised the glories of antidepressant drugs.

The next day, I called another friend to ask if he was up for Sunday morning coffee, our weekly ritual. He said he wasn’t, because he, along with his company’s entire sales department, had just been laid off. Being an introvert, he wanted to absorb the shock by avoiding all of humanity for several days.

I started to worry about my friends, and about the state of the world. In addition to the many unemployed, I know homeowners who are stuck in houses they can’t afford but can’t sell, successful self-employed renters who can’t buy homes because mortgage lenders are now too careful, and workers at non-profits who are watching annual budgets shrink, wondering if there will be enough left to pay their salaries. It looked like a dark and scary time, indeed…

…until yesterday and today, when I had more in-depth conversations with those friends. Now another pattern stands out more strongly than fear:

• Over coffee, the “out-of-work” mechanical engineer told me about the inventions he’s come up with in his free time, and his plans to get them to market. He also told me how he’s analyzed his investments (Playing the stock market is one of his many hobbies.) and how excited he was about buying now, at what may be the bottom, before President Obama gets sworn in and his HopeTM drives prices back up again. Then my friend

offered me ideas on how to market the knitting patterns I’m always making up, and encouraged me to look into monetizing my blog.

• I’d been worried about my newly-unemployed introvert friend, so I was relieved to get an email from him. (He still didn’t feel like talking.) He told me he’s spending most of his time in his living room, which doubles as a recording studio. A songwriter and musician, he’d been meaning to work on a new album for months, and now he finally has time. It will surely be colored by his feelings of loss and worries about money—and the fact that he’s now spending all of his non-recording time listening to Joy Division, (I’ve got to keep an eye on that boy!) but in any case, his muse is working overtime. I can’t wait to hear the album.

• Yesterday at noon, I got an out-of-the-blue call from another friend, one of the non-profit workers who’d been wondering whether he would soon be non-salary. He’s still wondering, but he’s largely forgotten about that, as he’s very busy figuring out what would completely different career path he should take next. He’s reached the top of a steep learning curve at his current job, and now he’s wondering whether to go back to school so he can do biological research, and how to fit that in with his family life, his job, and his growing career in experimental jazz. He’d called me, not because I had the faintest idea what he should do, but because I love hearing all of his ideas, and bouncing them off me helps him organize his own mind.

Taking them as a whole, I have to say: Damn! I have cool friends! On top of that, I’m noticing a larger trend here, and it’s an exciting one. Yes, the economy is in the toilet, yes, jobs and loans and charitable donations are hard to come by, but this is, above all, a time of incredible creativity. We’re being forced by economic realities to move in with people we normally wouldn’t meet, take very odd jobs, and create our own side ventures just to keep our heads above water, not to mention our juggling of debts and strange ways of paying them. In addition, laid-off employees finally have time to remember their passions, be they music, woodworking, painting, or communtiy theater. We also finally feel we have time to volunteer to help each other out—nothing puts our misfortunes in perspective like helping someone even less fortunate.

I figured out, nearly four years ago now, that having an ordinary, day-to-day job was not for me, so I’ve been experimenting with other ways to live. Now that the usual way of making a living is hard to come by, more and more people are joining me in the experiment, and I’m seeing some amazing ideas. Yes, the economy is in trouble, but I think we’re also in for a gorgeously creative time. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with.

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