Monday, August 24, 2009

The Gym Is My Salvation

Being without a job means your new job is finding a new job. It takes a long time. It can be tedious. It can be frustrating. But there’s another job I’ve also been focusing on in my full-time work hiatus. That is improving myself physically.

As I write this on a hot Monday afternoon, I’m donning a pair of overpronate running shoes, white shorts with blue and orange trim and a blue Syracuse Orangemen T-shirt. It is my gym apparel and I love putting it on and making the 5-mile drive over to Planet Fitness in Shelton, Conn. to continue working on something I should have a long time ago.

Sure, I’ve had this gym membership since I got here, but like many Americans, I occasionally slacked off and didn’t get over there as much as I should have. I blamed it on the work. As I explained in my previous entry, journalism is pretty heavy work and you pour a lot of hours into it. Doing so usually means you don’t eat as well (how many of us have had a dinner consisting of Smartfood popcorn or a piece of pound cake?) and, you skip out on the importance of maintaining physical fitness unless you’re totally addicted or committed to that task. That happened to me plenty of times while I worked for the Connecticut Post. I’d pull a long day in the office, write a couple of stories, plan for the next day, go to a night meeting to get one more story and go home by 10:30 p.m. By then, you’re exhausted and your bed or a meal is on your mind, not hitting the treadmill or the elliptical machine.

Since I’ve been sans job, however, that’s changed. I spend part of my day looking for new work, sometimes watching CNN, ESPN or whatever’s interesting on TV, read some newspapers online, make a few calls to my friends or to prospective employers. But I’ve made a point of getting that workout in.

At the gym, I am, to borrow from Jay-Z, focused, man! I spend about 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, mix in some weights, mostly focusing on the arms, back and chest, ride the bike for 20 minutes or so and finish it with a good walk/run on the treadmill before heading out to the sounds of M.O.P.’s “Cold As Ice.” (Chosen because before I bought an mp3 player and still used a CD player, that song was always the one playing when I finished my workout.) The gym is a great place to get your energy up and your confidence flowing. It also leads to more positive thoughts and energy, important when you’re in a situation that can be a negative if you let it. Plus, I don’t mind working up a sweat. You’re not there to try and impress people. You’re there to focus on yourself and set it up so that you can live longer.

Of course, you can also have conversations with people also working toward their fitness goals, be it trying to lose weight for an important social event (how many women – and men – have hurried to drop pounds in time for a wedding?) or just so they feel better in a pair of jeans or a shirt they got on sale. But as I noted before, I’m usually focused on myself and don’t socialize too often. I throw my earphones on, press play and get to work. By the way, my goal is to feel my clothes baggier on me. I won’t put a weight goal on anything because I was told by a nutritionist not to focus so much on the scale, but on how your clothes fit and how your body feels. If I feel my clothing just a loose on me when I go out for an evening in New Haven, Conn. or even back in New York City, I feel damn good about it.

Many of my close friends and the folks at the Schegg Group in Shelton, Conn. helping me in my job search have told me to keep my gym membership for the physical and mental health benefits and I couldn’t agree more. Even though it costs a little bit of money and I can be active by simply going outdoors, I like feeling the burn with the weights or seeing if I can go for more than 45 minutes on the fat burn setting. I make it a point to go to the gym at least five times a week, barring illness or an important financial/employment search matter. And time isn’t the excuse it used to be now that my gym is open 24 hours during the week. (Not on the weekends, though.) If I don’t trek to Shelton, I’ll go for a walk on the Derby, Conn. Greenway Trail, which stretches 1.7 miles from Main Street to Division Street. It’s a nice walk and pleasant when there’s just a slight breeze going. Just thinking about a workout makes me feel better and makes me feel as if I’m accomplishing something. I hope I’ll be just as dogged and determined about keeping up this routine once I’m back in the active workforce.

Not saying I’ll be looking like a Greek god with a chiseled frame in the next few months or so. But as my favorite saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
So now, I’ll take my Syracuse T-shirt wearing self out to the gym. If you see me on the treadmill, you’re welcome to wave hello, even if I might have GangStarr’s “Moment of Truth” blaring in my ears.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Welcome to the life of the laid off.

Sometimes, it feels surreal.
Occasionally, it feels depressing.
All in all, you’d rather be doing something else.
Like working.

Welcome to the life of an unemployed journalist in 2009.

Some people might not empathize with a guy who says he took the entire summer off. But this respite, if you choose to call it that, did not come of my own choosing. I entered this phase of my life on April 24, 2009 when I was told to come into my editor’s office in Bridgeport, Conn.

Prior to 1:30 p.m. that Friday morning, I worked as a reporter for the Connecticut Post, covering news and events from the Naugatuck Valley Bureau. Sure, it had plenty of challenges, with long hours, deadline pressure and the not-so-simple task of finding stories interesting enough to have your editors excited to petition for its placement in the next day’s paper during the late afternoon editorial meeting. But I liked what I did in the 2 ½ years with the Post. Being a reporter means throwing yourself into your job. You care about the task immensely. Even if you don’t have sympathy – or empathy – for the people you cover or are not enthralled by the subject matter, you care about serving the readers and writing a good story that mostly informs and occasionally entertains. Even if it’s something as miniscule as the annual paczki-eating contest in Ansonia, you want the readers, your sources, your editors saying that you are worth reading. Call it ego, but I always feel like a story with my byline is worth you taking a few minutes of your day to read.

Despite this confidence in my work, my journalism career of 10 years was put on hold that afternoon after I sat down with Post Editor Tom Baden and Human Resources Director Sharon Ferguson. Not because of my skills as a reporter. No, I was a victim of the bottom line. On that day, April, 24, 2009, 44 employees at 10 Hearst-owned newspapers in Connecticut were told that their services were no longer needed as the company attempted to save money. The letter dispatched to all Hearst employees that morning came from Mark Adlam, a senior vice president and group publisher at Hearst. The letter said the company was attempting to lower operating costs by 20 percent. And so, positions had to be eliminated. Mine was one of them.

Even though I was laid off as opposed to being fired, I couldn’t tell the difference. Sure, I’d get a little time off from work and get away from the daily stresses of editors clamoring for copy from the Valley and Hearst gave us free “outplacement” help through the Schegg Group in Shelton, Conn., to seek new work. But there would be no job to return to on Monday morning. In a down economy where you’re cutting back as much as you can and when you were essentially living check to check while on the job, it’s not a good thing. All of a sudden, your job is finding a new job.

The first few weeks after losing my job were not so bad. I signed up for unemployment benefits the day I was let go. I watched some games and movies to get my mind off of my situation. I began going to the gym a lot more. I eventually traveled to see stuff in the state that I had curiosity about. I went with my brother Al to Boston for a weekend because he was dying to visit Beantown. I ventured up to Thomaston, Conn. to see one of my favorite buildings, the Thomaston Opera House, but have yet to see a play there. (I will soon, Sharon. I promise.) I visited friends and went to a concert to enjoy my summer as best I could.

Truth be told, I took to being jobless pretty easy. I spent a lot of my days free and easy, reading online newspapers or books, going to the gym just about every day, exploring and staying up as late as I wanted, knowing there would be no immediate repercussions or bosses to answer to. I’ve kept my writing hand fresh by doing stories for a local start-up news Web site, the Valley Independent Sentinel, which, bias aside, is doing a great job of covering the Naugatuck Valley, possibly better than my former employer and other area newspapers.

Around mid-July, though, things changed. I really began missing work and being in the newsroom to go over the stories of the day. So many big things happened over the summer that I wish I could have been a news environment to discuss with editors and colleagues. (Michael Jackson’s death, Steve McNair’s murder-suicide, the health care debates, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s affair in Argentina, David Ortiz being on a list of Major League Baseball players that allegedly used performance-enhancing drugs six years ago.) Even if I was not covering those stories directly, I loved the idea of knowing that folks in my profession were out there covering this stuff and bringing it to the world.

There was also the more tangible reality that I had bills to pay and a much smaller check with which to cover those expenses. I’ve tried to do things that do not involve a lot of spending. (Which is funny because I was pretty conservative prior to losing my job as well. Not like I went to the club every weekend and made it rain before.) Job searching on some days became mundane as well as costly. Going to FedEx Kinko’s to copy and digitize your past stories can take a nice bite out of your wallet, especially if you’ve got a lot of good stories you want to show to prospective employers. At home, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on job search sites like journalismjobs, journalismnext,, careerbuilder, and the like. I’ve found a few jobs I’d be interested in, including a few sports writing gigs. I also visited the federal government’s job site to inquire about what’s available. So far, though, no dice. The return calls have been few and far in between, ideal positions are too far away (I’m not moving to Wyoming or New Mexico, thank you.), or the jobs are already filled. I have been contacted twice for possible full-time jobs and been on one interview so far. I’m still waiting to find out what that company wants to do.

When I’ve become bored or frustrated by the search, I’ve drifted to do some other things on the Internet. I check my Facebook account every day, often updating my friends of my job search status. I visit a message board to talk sports, politics and whatever else is interesting whenever I’m in a lull.. I look for a funny or catchy YouTube video to entertain me or inspire me. (Most recent was the Queen video for “Princes of the Universe.” Television buffs will recognize it as the theme song to the television series “Highlander.”) I’ve also had to handle other irons in the fire, such as trying to negotiate a lower month-to-month rent for my apartment and working on making sure my health insurance remains in good standing. (Long story. I’ll let you know more later.)

One of the toughest things about searching for a job is the sense of isolation. I’ve talked to my brother or my best friends from college to get a little fired up whenever they’ve been available. I’ve gone to the gym to get a solid workout in to get the juices flowing or to work off the frustration of a less than ideal job search. (The folks at the Schegg Group recommended this and I think it’s good for maintaining good health.) Still, unless you’re out frequently networking, it can be a lonely experience at times. Your friends that are working have their own duties and stresses (Work, bills, kids, etc.) and those that are looking just like you have got to do what they’ve got to do. It may sound cliché, but you have to soldier on. You have to keep your chin up and your spirits high. You have to feel confident that one day the job listing you find or the contact you make at a mixer, a networking event or even the library will lead you to where you want to be. But it is good to have a few friends along the way and I do thank those of you who have opened your ears and your hearts when I needed it.

Let me just say for the record that I am not scared. I am not panicked that I might end up out on the street or that I’ll be begging for change to put food in my refrigerator or cabinets. But I’ll be happier once I’m able to say that I’m gainfully employed – or that I’ve hit the lottery and someone else can have that job I so desperately wanted.