Home for the Holidays:
Middle-Aged and Unemployed


In one of Bob Dylan’s best songs, Tangled Up in Blue, Dylan describes the abrupt end of a cook’s dismal job in the Great North Woods by saying: “And one day the ax just fell.”

After four years of dutiful employment at The Starr Companies, I felt the heavy ax of unemployment fall on me last month. No more than twenty-five minutes after being summoned to Human Resources, I staggered out of the building into the bright sunlight of Park Avenue. I headed toward Grand Central Station and my earliest ever homebound Metro North train - 2:24 p.m.

There I was, stumbling down the sidewalk, cradling in my arms a box of personal items and wondering what had just happened. The reason given for my dismissal: my job had been eliminated. My next step in life: uhhmmmmm…….

Sociologists note that most office workers will be suddenly discharged from their jobs at least twice in their careers. Many of them may know or suspect a termination is looming. But suspicion of impending doom does not allay terror. Even the phraseology used to describe a loss of a job is disturbing. The words “fired,” “terminated,” and “eliminated” all suggest a violent death, like something ordered by Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers movie.

Once my “exit interview” ended, questions immediately began ricocheting around my mind. What about severance? How much money do we have in the bank? How much is left on the mortgage? When is the next college tuition payment due? How much is in my 401K plan? Are the kids’ 529 plans well-funded?

And if you’re moving nonchalantly through middle age, like me, you might ask yourself the main-event-question: when can I retire?

Since my wife and I have two kids in college now, and our third graduates from high school in seven months, the answer to that question is, well, grim.

Interestingly, at almost the same exact moment my job was wrenched from my cold, dead hands, I realized that my family’s lifestyle is based on two incomes. I am really fortunate that my wife works and makes a good salary. But for me, and for nearly every working couple in the New York metropolitan area, budgets are based on two combined incomes, not one. Why? Because New York is just too damn expensive. (Yes, the rent really is too damn high).

And when you realize that two incomes have just been reduced to one, you instantly see in living color the costly life you are living. And then you ask yourself some more questions.

Did we really need to take the family to California last summer? How necessary was it to replace all our kitchen appliances? Why do we go out to dinner so often? Should we have spent all that money to repair an old car that we could probably do without?

And then some even more disturbing questions fill your head. Do I really want to apply for unemployment? (If so, that will certainly be embarrassing). Do I want to remain in the insurance industry? Is it time to do something else with my life? But wait: can I afford to follow my dreams? And lastly, worst of all, as a middle-aged professional, how employable am I?

Eventually, the shockwave subsided and the dust storm of despair stopped. I have now moved to a life without work. I have begun to adjust to a complete change in routine, and a new lifestyle.

Showers are now, well, optional. One can sit in pajamas all day long, and no one knows. Even in the Skype era, you can fool them all, with a little creative dress up.

And you can remake your body into that which you once possessed, say, twenty years ago. The opportunities for exercise are limitless. One can work out for an hour a day, at any time of day, every day, and begin to shed the flabby, unhealthy shape of a sedentary office chair sitter. Of course, if you do choose to exercise, then showers are again mandatory. But at least one can shower at any time of day or night; the mandatory 6:15 a.m. shower is passé.

If you know how to cook (and it really isn’t that difficult, so if you don’t know, you can use your new free time to learn), every meal takes on a meaning and a purpose. The formerly rushed breakfast that consisted merely of ramming a breakfast bar into one’s mouth can be replaced with a full American Plan Breakfast, or at least a bowl of Cheerios enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

The routine dinner with family that alternated between chicken and pasta can now be supplemented with all sorts of time-consuming dishes. Fake mashed potatoes are replaced with real ones. Jars of tomato sauce give way to homemade sauce cooked for hours in a big pot. And you can chuck out that electric crock pot because now you have endless amounts of time to prepare and cook a real meal.

Best of all, you can actually get to slow down. Rather than bolting out of your house to race to a train or bus, you can pause and reflect. You can see as many of your son’s basketball games or wrestling matches as you want. No longer do you have to agonize about taking half a day off to attend a school sporting event that begins at 3:30 p.m. You can show up, socialize with the parents of your son’s teammates, and fully enjoy the game.

Sure, you may miss the camaraderie of your old office friends. And you may actually miss the regular routine of a normal work day. Many people, whether they admit it or not, actually enjoy the predictability of a daily routine. Granted, a sense of stability is engendered by a set schedule that begins and ends at basically the same time every day.

But to me, acquiring some unexpected free time is incredibly precious, even if it is destined to be cut short by the intrusion of a new job. This is especially true as one continues to wind his or her way through middle age. Clearly, the older we become, the more we cherish our free time.

In Shakespeare’s famous, “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, an oft-quoted phrase, both simple and timeless, is uttered: “perchance to dream.”

“Perchance to dream” might simply mean to pause and be able to dream. To get the chance to dream. To reflect and meditate. To think about what you’re doing now, and what you want to be doing next.

Strangely, in some odd way, it naturally follows Bob Dylan’s line:

“And one day the ax just fell.”

Perchance to dream.

- Mark Gardner, Dec. 2013