Friday, March 25, 2011

Laid Off - Not working can be hard work!

Hanging out with nothing to do. Is it Heaven? Or is it Hell? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

My mother always said it was better to be “pissed off” than to be “pissed on.” I always liked that saying, it made sense after all, but two weeks ago, something I never thought would happen to me, did in fact happen – I lost my job.

I was “laid off.”

A lot of things go through your mind when the carpet is pulled out from under your 26-year career as a photojournalist, but the one thing I couldn’t seem to shake from my head after the whole thing went down was the single burning question: Is it better to be “laid off” than to be “laid on?” Because being laid off certainly feels a lot like you’re being laid on.

It wasn’t like it was any big shock or anything, I could sense it coming for a month or so before it actually happened, but when it did happen, it still caught me by surprise. I can only relate the experience to watching a terminally ill loved one suffer for months, but when they actually die, somehow you’re still not ready for it. And like the death of a loved one, the death of a job – of a career – is just as painful, and the steps of dealing with that pain and grief are very similar.

First comes the relief. Why I felt relieved, I’m not sure, but it might have had something to do with the fact that it truly was over. No more walking on eggshells. No more uncertainty (as it pertained to my previous job). In essence, I was free and it felt pretty good, at least for a while – maybe an hour or two.

After that came another kind of uncertainty, and this one, I fear, may stick around awhile. This uncertainty leads to high anxiety – the kind that keeps you up at night while you try to find some way, any way, to think about something other than the fact that you are now unemployed for the very first time since you were 14-years-old.

But it’s not a constant. With the fear comes a dose of excitement. The “Hey, I don’t have to work today!” feeling. Unfortunately, that excitement is usually quickly replaced with the “Holy crap, I don’t have a job!” feeling of doom.

It’s a seesaw battle every day for a guy like me. It’s especially tough when you go from very much being sought after for 26-years, to suddenly no longer wanted - kind of like being Mel Gibson or Charlie Sheen, only I’m not cashing in on being bat-shit crazy.

Nobody can really predict how anything will come to an end in his or her lives, but I certainly would never have figured my last day of work would have ended the way it did – not in tears, but with a chuckle, sitting in an office being fired by the very same folks I’d photographed earlier in the day at a business expo where they were extolling on how great everything was going with our company and how the economy in Washtenaw County was on the upswing.

Well, I guess it's great for them – they’re still working.

The irony of the situation didn’t escape me, I laughed a little as they handed me my walking papers. The whole situation made me think of my mother, the very same woman who died last March nearly a year to the day I was being let go (from now on I proclaim we skip March completely and go straight to April) and even though she didn’t leave me much when she died, my mother did leave me with a sardonic sense of humor, one I knew I could rely on to help me get through this thing - how do you put a price on that?

So what now? I was already going through a full-blown mid-life crisis, now I was about to go through a full-blown mid-career crisis. What does a 45-year-old guy with mad skills do at this point in his life so he doesn’t go mad?

As it turns out, being unemployed is actually a pretty busy way of life. The filing for unemployment, trying to scrape up enough cash to buy camera gear, getting portfolios together, making calls, trying to remember to eat, sleep, and occasionally go to the bathroom, all eat up a great majority of time. It’s like I graduated from college again … or just died, I’m not really sure which.

Luckily, if my perspective was ever at stake, Mother Nature put an end to that by destroying half of Japan with an earthquake/tsunami combo the very next day, reminding me that my "so-called" problems were really just a hill of beans compared to being swept out to sea and drowned, or being slowly poisoned to death by nuclear fallout.

Who knows, maybe the Mayans were right. Maybe it’s all over in 2012 and all I gotta do is get to December and then the jig is up! (Or maybe they just got tired of making their calendar by the time they got to the year 2012 and they just stopped - hard to say).

The aftermath from the whole event has been fairly amazing, if not amusing. The other day I got a letter in the mail made out to me in scribbly children’s handwriting. There was no return address, but inside the letter was a Meijer gift card for $25 and a little typed note that said, “Please accept this gift, we feel really bad for you and your family.”

I was touched, and I did go out and buy dinner with the gift card, I just feel bad for the poor little guy (or gal) who probably envisions me standing all disheveled by the side of the road holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Will shoot family portrait for food.”

The amount of help I’ve received has only been surpassed by the amount of advice. Everyone seems to know what I should do, or at least, could do, with the rest of my life. Everyone, that is, but me.

“Now you can go and do something you’ve always wanted to do,” they tell me, “something you really love.

But what if you were already doing what you really loved? What if it was your dream job? What if the next job you get should have been your first job? You know, the one you hated so much you left it to go and do what you really wanted to?

It’s an interesting thought.

Soon, all the kind thoughts and support will begin to fade in much the same manner they fade in the weeks and months following a funeral. It's not that people won't, or don't still care, but life goes on, like it or not, whether you're alive or dead, working or unemployed.

In the meantime, I’ll try and stay a photographer and I think I’ll keep writing too; both bring me joy, and if I were to be swept out to sea tomorrow (or if the Mayans weren’t kidding around with this whole Armageddon/calendar business and the world really does come to an end in 2012) I’d rather not spend my last days doing anything other than what I’ve been doing for the past 25-years.

It’s the one thing I’m really good at and what I truly love to do.

Why change now?


  1. Aw, crap, I am so sorry to hear this, Lon. I have not pithy advice to offer, nor would I do so. I am happy to hear that you intend to find a way to continue doing that which you love. The world will be a poorer place if you aren't allowed to do that.

    P. S. And here I thought I was the one who originated the phrase about it being better to be pissed off than pissed. I'm with you. John A. Bayerl

  2. John,

    Your picture ran the very next day after I was canned. Nice shot too. Made me smile a little thinking back fondly at a life with newspapers.

  3. I don't know...I think a disheveled photographer standing by the side of the road holding a cardboard sign that says "Will shoot [whatever] for food" is a pretty accurate portrait of the profession...

  4. First of all, the myth of perspective is limited to scale. I don't know how folks manage to swallow the whole 'at least we aren't in Japan' thing... you still wake up tomorrow and whatever is facing you is still there, waiting on you. The problems don't solve themselves because someone else has other problems that on the surface makes other things seem small.

    Being grateful for what we have should be something that happens anywho. One of the reasons that I described myself as a 'positive cat' is precisely because I made sure to appreciate what I had going for me and working on the things that I didn't, believing that I would achieve the best outcome.

    It is difficult when you move from one circle of life to another one that is not one of your choosing. Though I can't really say that I chose to be diagnosed with brain injury, I did choose to box, so there you go. But I understood then just as I understood about anything I did where great risk was inherent that stuff could happen. So I made sure to wring the joy out of whatever was there to be wrung.

    Anywho, this is a challenging journey you are now on and I wish you the best of luck. No doubt you are a talented cat and very resourceful. Maybe this is where you put a book out with some of your photos... some of the ones you have displayed in your blog certainly evoke a strong reaction from me, and they have been uniformly positive and enviable.

    Take care and be well!!

  5. Thanks Big Mark - didn't know you were a boxer, sounds like an interesting tale in itself.

    I've got plenty of irons in the fire, just have to stay patient and pounce on the right opportunities, or better yet, create them myself.

  6. Lon,

    Sorry to hear the news, a friend of mine Ed Wright who wrote sport for the Canton Observor 2.5 years ago was let go. He is a great sports writer and admired by the local community. He ran a website since then and had some struggles. He was just rehired by the Observor within the last month. You can't keep talent and passion from rising to the top. Send me your resume and I will circulate it around. Greg Cottrell

  7. I am sorry to hear about your job Lon. But you still have the teaching job at WCC right? That should help.