Men, especially those of us who are husbands and fathers, all too often define ourselves by the work that we do. It’s our ability to provide for our families that makes us men rather than boys, and, speaking for myself, I have no other frame of reference. That’s how it has always been in my lifetime; my father would say the same, and I’m sure my grandfather would have said the same. For a man to lose the ability to provide for his wife and children, to become dependent on someone else, is emotionally devastating. This is the hidden tragedy of a depression economy, the depression—in its other meaning—inflicted on the working people who are thrown, as I have been, on the economic scrap heap. It is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, the presence that no one wants to acknowledge.
To be sure, economic dislocation has a severe emotional effect on its female victims; there is no doubt about it. Especially today, when so many women are in the work force, when so many women are the sole support of their families, it would be wrong on so many levels to downplay the effect that this economy has on working women, and I have no intention to do so. But I won’t be writing about it. I can only speak for myself, and this post is not sociological, political, psychological, or academic. It’s personal. It’s not even about men; it’s about one man—myself.
All of us know that our culture expects men to be strong and not to “lose it” emotionally. The late-night comedians’ jokes about Speaker of the House John Boehner’s tendency to become choked up and wet-eyed when speaking of people and events which are important in his life show how we as a society expect men to keep their emotions to themselves. In my case, one may add two other factors: I’m a native Midwesterner and a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant—yeah, the infamous WASP. You know the stereotypes about us: “How do you spot the bride at a WASP wedding? She’s the one kissing the golden retriever.” “Why did God create WASPs? Because somebody had to pay retail.” If a WASP woman confronts another WASP woman who is having an affair with her husband, she will offer the woman Chardonnay and compliment her earrings. That’s the joke. Actually, the WASP wife will avoid the issue altogether, because the important thing is the avoidance of scandal. We do not air our dirty laundry in public.
Then throw into the mix the hard-nosed self-reliant Midwestern farmer or small-town businessman or professional, with his Calvinistic self-denial, his dedication to family above all else, his willingness to work hard every waking minute, and his absolute honesty and trustworthiness. The singer-songwriter Merle Haggard (whose relatives were among my great-grandfather’s patients) wrote in one of his songs: “Dad, a quiet man whose gentle voice was seldom heard, who could borrow money at the bank simply on his word.” Midwesterners are used to droughts one year, floods another year, and tornadoes the year after that. Some years are good; others are lean. A Midwesterner doesn’t complain; he doesn’t whine; he doesn’t beg. He deals with adversity. He might accept help from a relative or friend—but he will make sure to offer help in his turn when a relative or friend needs it. And if you lend him money, he will pay it back: his word is his bond. The roots of my raising run deep. Just by sharing my story in this electronic narrative, I am acting contrary to the values held, for example, by the man to whom this narrative is dedicated.
Even if we keep our feelings to ourselves as much as possible, that doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. We know how to keep a brave face, but that’s all it is: a face. I can smile and be cordial like the WASP country-club gentleman and tell you that everything is going just great, or I can pretend to be tough and deal with adversity like an Oklahoma dirt farmer, and I can fool all of the people most of the time. It’s when no one is looking that I drop the pretense.
When the boss said to me that I was terminated “effective immediately,” I felt all at once disbelief, panic, embarrassment, betrayal, and more than anything else a cold emptiness. This was a man who had once told me that he did not believe his business could succeed without me. This was a man to whom I had given twelve years of loyal service, hard work, and a lot of good ideas. This was a man whom I had even thought of as a friend. How could he do this? He said, “it’s not personal.” Well, what can be more personal than possible homelessness? What can be more personal than not being able to be treated for an illness or injury? What can be more personal to a man than not to be able to provide for his family? When he said, “it’s not personal,” what he really meant is, “I don’t give a damn about what happens to you.” That hurt worse than a punch in the gut.
When I went back to my desk and found out that I had already been locked out of my workstation, a feeling of humiliation was added to the mix. You’re nothing. We don’t need you. We’ve already forgotten you. Then I realized: this has been in the works for a long time. These people who have been pretending to be my friends, these people whose viruses I cleaned out of their computers, whose clogged e-mail inboxes I cleared out, whose Virtual Private Network connections I established, allowing them to work from home when their children were on break from school, they knew this was happening to me, and they didn’t care. And when I said “goodbye” to them, they couldn’t even look at me. But I held it together. I would be damned if I was going to show them that they had gotten to me.
It was more difficult for me not to lose it when I said goodbye to my production colleagues. I had worked with both of them for over ten years. I had interviewed and recommended the woman we engaged to do our Far Eastern work, and we had developed a warm friendship over the years. I expected to miss both of them; I did and still do. Both were genuinely upset that I was not going to be working with them anymore. It was a sad leavetaking.
The boss said goodbye to me, too. He offered his hand, and I shook it—always the WASP country-club gentleman. He offered “anything I can do,” as I said in the previous post. I accepted his “offer” with equanimity, keeping the swirling emotions to myself. And then I carried my pitiful personal effects out to my car in a ratty cardboard box, leaving behind the photographs and other personal files that I had been foolish enough to store on the office computer. To this day I have not been given access to retrieve them, and to be sure, most of them were backed up on other devices anyway.
I opened the driver’s side door and sat down behind the steering wheel. For a minute or two I could not think, talk, cry, or put the key into the ignition switch. It was as though I was in a dark immobilizing fog. There was no direction in which I could turn, no path into the light, no firm ground on which I could stand. I released a big sigh, letting all the old breath out of my lungs. Then I called my wife Linda and told her the bad news, before I started my car’s engine. I expected a panicked, hysterical reaction. I didn’t get it. “I kind of expected this,” she said. And then she said, “We’ll get through this. We will.” She was right. I started the engine and started the next chapter of our life.
It is not comfortable for me to talk about my feelings—about anything. As those who have read every entry in this narrative will know, my job loss is not the worst thing that has ever happened to me; however, that story will remain private, because there is nothing to be gained by sharing it. I don’t necessarily believe in the therapeutic value of “letting it out.” No, my purpose in sharing every aspect of economic dislocation is so that everyone who reads this will be outraged that this could be happening in the richest country in the world. I want every American to take away from this account that rewarding hard-working people with poverty, homelessness, or illness or injury without care is not up to the standards of the United States of America. I was brought up to believe that our country was better than that, and I believe that to this day. I don’t believe that our government or business leaders are up to American standards; I have given up on them. No, it’s up to you, and it’s up to me.