Monday, May 24, 2010

Who says you can never go home again?

This weekend, the “Pennsylvania Experiment” will come to an unceremonious conclusion. After 3 long (and short) months, we are heading back home to New Jersey. Unfortunately, I am not returning as a triumphant hero, but rather a humbled man.


It was a Monday when we decided which house we wanted to buy. On Tuesday, I was let go from my job. The house was everything we ever wanted. It was quiet and beautiful. It was a place where my son could thrive. We were supposed to grow old in that house. That house is now a symbol of what could have been.


The sad truth is that I saw my future here, or at least a future here. I was proud to be a Pennsylvanian. It represented an opportunity to lay down our roots – a chance to finally start our lives. As an added bonus, we were no longer going to be the punch line for the myriad of NJ jokes, no matter how untrue most (or just some) of them are.


My whole life has been about NJ. I was born in NJ. I did all my schooling in NJ. My first job was in NJ. I practically bleed NJ (and a little NY Yankees). It is entirely possible that Pennsylvania simply rejected my NJ blood. NJ people are of a different breed. Not everyone can handle us. It’s true that we have a certain way about us. Now, I will return to NJ.


I keep telling myself that there’s nothing wrong with coming home again. It’s a place where I can be accepted despite my shortfalls. However, I’d rather not return under these circumstances where I had no other choice but to retreat. I always thought that if I came back to NJ, it would be on my own volition – I would choose to come back. But, because of things out of my control, the direction of my life has changed again. This time, I feel as though I am not in control of my own destiny, but rather at the mercy of a system and circumstances that don’t offer rewards for hard work, good intentions, and honesty. As far as I can tell, there is no pot of gold at the end of my elusive rainbow.


As this chapter comes to an abrupt end, I’m hopeful for a new start in an old, yet familiar place - a place where the local pizza joint doesn’t close at 9pm and I can do my grocery shopping at 1am. I am hopeful that this is a true American tale where the protagonist is at his lowest point of the story with his back against the wall, only for a drastic turnaround into something bigger…and better. And let’s face it…New Jersey is way better than Pennsylvania.


Finally, a life unexpected has opened a new email address:


alifeunexpected.jtm@gmail.com



I understand that leaving comments on a public forum is not always the ideal situation for everyone. However, as I share my experiences during this uncertain time in my life, my goal is to show that we are not alone. Everyone struggles through life at times, whether it is fatherhood or motherhood, unemployment, or just the ups and downs of daily life. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to this blog. There are so many people in a similar situation. Some of us have made it through the tough times and it helps to know that it will get better. Writing this blog has been a cathartic experience that has allowed me to verbalize my feelings.


So…I want to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment or email me and share your story. We can trade advice. Tell me what you like or don’t like. I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Second Chances

Second chances can be an obscure commodity. When given a second chance, even if it is shrouded in uncertainty and fear, I can choose to dwell on my unfortunate circumstance and wonder “why me?”, or I can make the most of this opportunity to do something great.


I’ve heard it a million times, “It could always be worse”. In fact, it’s something I hear on a daily basis. I’m not even sure what that really means. Of course it could be worse. In reality, no matter what is going on in your life, someone will always have it worse. However, it doesn’t minimize the impact my current situation has on my life. The fact that somebody has it worse than me shouldn’t invalidate my feelings. I can, however, gain some perspective.


Life is hard…some days more than others. As humans, we are constantly in search of things that we can control. We desire control. Chaos ensues without control. But here’s the bad news…we can’t control it all, or even much of it. So, why not embrace the things we can control?


The best I can do is value the good times…and survive the bad. I can safely say that my life has been fairly cyclical. It pours…a lot (lately). Then it stops. And it gets better. I am constantly humbled by life. I hear the tale of the couple who both lost their jobs. I hear stories of sick children. I hear of people losing it all every day. It hurts my heart. But, I gain perspective. When I hear these stories, I can’t even imagine a life with so many struggles, yet none of these stories minimize the current impact of my struggles on my life.



Today, I blurted out that damn cliché. It was just filler for an awkward pause in a seemingly normal conversation. I didn’t even really mean it. Instead of the usual response of, “that’s true”, today I was called on it. I was told, “It doesn’t have to be worse for you”.


I wasn’t expecting that…


It resonated with me because it was true. It doesn’t have to be worse…it doesn’t even have to be whatever this is. I can do something…anything. I may not have control over my employment opportunities, but I have control over my life and what I choose to do with it. I have a second chance to truly embrace something more important than my job. I can be great for my son.


Before being laid off the first time, I tried to maximize my time with son. This usually occurred during the hour or so before his bedtime and on weekends. It was never enough. When I lost my job, I was given the amazing opportunity to stay at home with my son – to have a truly great impact on his life. And I think that I did. Viewing life through the eyes of a 1-year old is a gift - one that I got to live daily. However, my unemployment was always in the back of my head as a constant reminder of my shortcomings. It consumed me at times. When I finally went back to work, it was too late to live in the moment with him. I missed what I had.


This is what most people don’t understand. When I get a job again, I will be congratulated on my resolve and told my persistence paid off. But, by going back to work, I will lose something more. The sad part is, this time I already know it. It’s a silent, often misunderstood struggle that I don’t think I will ever balance.


So, that’s where I’m at. My employment may be uncertain and I may be filled with “professional” self-doubt. But today, I choose not to dwell on my misery. This time around I can appreciate the moments as they happen. I know it won’t last forever, but until that day, I get to enjoy things like this:






It may not seem like much, but doing arts and crafts with my son as his mind absorbs everything, is priceless to me…and his mom. My time with my son is unmatched.


I will continue to hear woeful stories of loss and I will continue to sympathize. Someone will always have it worse. One day, perhaps I can help…or maybe I can’t. Perhaps, the least I can offer is some solace in my words.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Identity

I’m worried.

Since I was let go by my job, I have been unable to claim unemployment – my only real financial lifeline. It’s not a game or reality TV. There are no second or third lifelines. My finances are stretched too thin.

I have to call the unemployment office. After 10 consecutive calls to a recorded message claiming high call volume, I finally have the right to be placed on hold. The previous 9 calls were all rejected.

I’m being tested.

The initial wait time is 25 minutes. Nine minutes and 35 seconds later, the wait time doesn’t change. What’s the point? I’m going nowhere. It has to be temporary, right?

Ten more minutes pass, the hold time is 15 minutes. I see a glimmer of hope. This call is a microcosm of real life. It’s a long journey. It’s a reminder that life is a battle – not just for the unemployed, but for everyone. For me, I never know how close I am to the end. Does 15 minutes really mean 30? Even if I get there, will my problems be solved?

I am at the mercy of the system.

That’s the life of the unemployed. The ebbs of daily living are exacerbated and the flows are too short. Unemployment is persistent self-doubt. Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Can I be happy? When will this test end?

I’m constantly judged – by everyone. It’s hard not to judge. We all do it. I must look right, act right…say the right things. It’s a never-ending interview. One mistake ends it all. It’s competitive.

29 min, 25 seconds into the call, the wait time is 10 minutes. At this point, the recording asks me to call back later. But, I’m so close. I’m being tested, I know it.

There are days that I feel invisible. There are days I can barely look at myself in the mirror. That must be natural, right? The truth is, most days I struggle with my feelings of self-worth. Let’s face reality: for a lot of us, our self-worth is inextricably linked to our jobs. Of course, life is complex, so there are many things that determine our self-value - family, friends, health. Often though, who we are, is what we do. Your day can be shaped by the outcomes of your job and it affects everything. Facebook and twitter status updates confirm this, usually in 140 characters or less. Our self-worth is often attached to our business card. Why shouldn’t it be? Most of us spend more time at work than with our family.

When you remove the job from the person and replace it with an environment of complete uncertainty and financial worry, you take away part of an identity. Can I change that? I want my life to be defined by my actions and not just by my job.

I’m not a martyr.

My profession is a biomedical engineer. But if I want my actions to define me, then who am I? I am a man. I am a husband. I am a father. That’s a good start. My feelings are raw. I’m an animal rescuer. I’m compassionate. I’m loyal. I’m persistent. I’m determined. I take advantage of second chances. I can help you. I’m going somewhere.

My call is answered. I am no longer waiting. They don’t ask for my name. I am just a number arbitrarily given to me by the government. I’m sad to realize that.

Then something amazing happens. She helped me. She was kind. My problem was solved. It was a small victory that was wrapped up in a neat little bow. It won’t always be like that and I know it. But today…I won my battle.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dad Ate My Popcorn...

I wanted to take the time to post the other Mother's Day videos I made for my wife.

One of my missions when my wife became pregnant was to document my son's life through a "video journal". Ultimately, I plan to give these videos to my son so he can understand the joy he gave his parents. I want him to know how much he changed our lives. Mostly, I want him to see how hysterical his mom became over his silly antics!

The very first video I made was when we told my mother-in-law that we were having a boy. To this day, it remains my favorite video. Her reaction was so genuine and pure. The simple things in life really resonate.

I try to make the videos every 6 months, but I often sprinkle in "short films", which are usually a couple minutes long of my son doing something funny or sweet. Typically, the videos start with a photo montage that depict his journey during that time period. This is followed by a series of edited videos, which celebrate his BIG personality.

We laugh, we cry, we smile. In the end, we just enjoy being with our kid.


video video

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hot Mom!


“Hot Mom”…Those were the words my son spoke this morning as I was getting him ready for the day. He often has something interesting to say first thing in the morning, but this was a bit off the charts, even for him. Since his most recent verbal explosion, his constant narration of life happens to be the best parts of my day.

His first words each morning often set the tone for the rest of day. On the days he says, “I pooped”, you can only imagine what I have in store for the rest of the day. The other morning he couldn’t wait to tell me about the frogs we saw at the pond the afternoon before - “Big mama frog ready eat bugs now”. I can thank his mom for his affinity for nature.

However, his words this morning caught me off guard – even this was a new one for me. It was a bit earlier than usual, so it was understandable that I was still groggy. There are times I need a toddler translator to really understand him. Often, he recalls things that happened days prior that I can barely remember. His mind is a sieve and upon hearing the words, “Hot mom”, my first thought was that I need to be more careful what I say around him!

After I asked him to repeat himself, he said, “Hot mom shirt, dad”. Now I get it. My wife and I had previously told him that he was going to wear his “My mom is hot” shirt for Mother’s Day. He was dutifully reminding me of his appreciation for his mom on her day. Coincidentally, it just so happens that a week ago I found a brand new “My mom is hot” shirt in the back of my car. I can’t help but think it was planted there by someone.

My task for the day was to make sure my wife felt appreciated – not just for today, but for her amazing ability to be a great role model for our son. In the past, I have budgeted for nice gifts that I knew she would never buy for herself. While I’ve never been a wealthy person, I have tried to spend my dollars wisely, so there was always enough to show my love and appreciation for those who mattered most.

Besides, the whole situation was always “temporary” (there’s that word again!). The whole idea to further my education, while my peers started their careers making money, was predicated on the idea that at the very least it could open up more opportunities for me. It seems logical, right? Ironically, during my recent job search I was actually turned down because of my degree. I was told, “People like you don’t fit in our culture”. Wow.

But…the truth is that my wealth is evidenced by the friendships and relationships I’ve cultivated over the years. It’s not always about getting or giving an extravagant gift. As it turns out, the ability to spend on your loved ones is a luxury. Who doesn’t have an Ipod, or a digital camera, or an expensive cell phone? These are things we can’t live without, right? I’m guilty too (except for the phone – I’ve had the same phone for about 4 years). As I am forced to cut costs, I must become creative. How can I express my appreciation for my wife as cheaply as possible? When it comes to gift giving, the words “appreciation” and “cheap”, when juxtaposed, are in opposition to each other. If you really break down that sentence, it essentially reads, “Be cheap to your wife”. But, that’s the point. So, in addition to the video gift attached to this entry, I decided to take my wife to a Mother’s Day dinner at Friendly’s (I know, really cheap, right?).

For my son, his appreciation for ice cream goes beyond even his adoration of Diego. It is pure gold. Our extravagant dinner of quesadillas was accompanied by laughter, kisses, tickles….even a few squeals of delight when the ice cream arrived. While his words early this morning may have at first caught me off guard, I can only smile and laugh at the things he says. Towards the end of dinner, I was surprised again when he turned to his mom and offered to share his precious ice cream with her. He then said, “I make mom happy”, as he grinned ear to ear. It may not have been an Ipod, or a cell phone, or even a posh dinner – it was ice cream. It was her son’s ice cream. It was true…She was happy.

Happy Mother’s Day to my hot wife!


video

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How the hell did I get here?

Today was not unlike any other recent day. I’ll admit that I’ve had a rough time the past few months. Who hasn’t? I hear tale after tale of people having it hard. “They” keep saying it will get better. So, I just sit. And wait. I’m on my couch staring at the blank walls in my “new” apartment living room. There’s nothing. Just white. No pictures. No colors. It’s dark outside. My son is playing with his train set on his new train table that we bought for his second birthday. Dora the Explorer is blaring on the TV. It’s the one where she and Boots help someone get somewhere with the assistance of her friends, the map and backpack. They sing…they dance…and everyone finds their place in the end. They always overcome the obstacle. I’m not really paying attention, but I know what happens because essentially that’s the plot for every episode. I briefly think I would like to be on Dora the Explorer (can it be real?). Instead, I’m just sitting...staring. These walls…these walls. All I see are these walls. Why do they bother me?



At first, I didn’t care. This was only supposed to be temporary. That’s what I kept telling myself…temporary…temporary. I moved my entire family from NJ to PA for a job and into this apartment with these lifeless walls. We left family behind. Actually, it was not just a job. It was THE job. After all my years of schooling, all of my 16 hour days, all my years of paying my dues, all those months of being unemployed, I had finally made it. We could finally start our life – a real life as a family. Everything I wanted, I was about to get:



High salary

Profit sharing

Big bonuses

A new house



Before I got this new job, I always felt my life was on hold. I felt like we were always just waiting. Waiting for me to graduate. Waiting for my fellowship to end…waiting…waiting. We were living in my grandmother’s house, which we were so fortunate to be given after she passed. There’s a strip club down the street. It was a means to a better tomorrow. I told myself, “No worries, this is just temporary.” In reality, we had it pretty good or at least better than most. At least we had a house. So many were in foreclosure.



In truth, this story is probably not unlike yours. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a role model. I’m an educated professional. Today was not unlike any other. Then “they” dropped the bomb: “We don’t think we can keep you on anymore”. Today, I’m unemployed…again. After 4 short weeks at THE job, THE job was over. All at once, it came flooding back:


Scared

Stressed

Embarrassed

Worried for my family



How the hell did I get here? I thought I made all the right decisions for us. I uprooted my wife. I yanked my son out of daycare. Now, we are floating a house and an apartment on one salary (a non-profit salary) and an unemployment check.



Go Diego Go comes on the TV. My son shrieks for joy. It’s the one where Diego saves the beavers. My thoughts are clear as I focus on my son. He runs over to me for our nightly ritual where he sits on my lap as we watch Diego, my arms clasped tightly around his stomach. I notice the vivid colors. They make these shows so bright. My son is laughing and talking, and talking, and talking. My hands unclasp for a second around his stomach. He says, “Sorry dad”, as he pulls my hands back around his stomach. I remember the same thing happened yesterday during our nightly ritual. I had told him I was “sorry” for letting go of him , at which point he put my hands back around his stomach. How does he remember these things? During these times, as I hug him tightly, I don’t even notice these walls anymore. Maybe this is all I need...my family, my son, clasped tightly together watching Diego rescue another animal.