No more finger pointing

Thirteen years ago I had a small house painting business that I ran mostly by myself. My wife would help me tape windows and sand window sills occasionally, but I mostly spent long days working by myself inhaling paint fumes and spraying some variant of bland eggshell paint on the walls of new homes.

Not having a lot of income from this particular job, I tried to get a few more coats out of an old spray tip that malfunctioned often, which caused a large drip of paint to partially block the spray pattern. I’d swipe my index finger across nozzle to clean this excess paint and go on with my business.

My left index finger as it appears 13-years after surgery.

On this particular day, I think it might have been a Tuesday morning, I found myself cleaning the nozzle more often than I had in the past, and in one angry moment, I caught my finger in the nozzle guard, and when I went to pull back to release the stuck finger, I inadvertently pulled the trigger lever, which my other hand held in a pistol grip.

Thirteen cc’s of bland eggshell paint blew my finger up like a huge, pale balloon. Surprisingly, it was rather painless at first, and I dropped the spray gun and grabbed the finger trying to push the paint back out the punctured opening. Nothing happened.

I called my father and asked his opinion of the matter. He suggested the emergency room, and so I drove myself there.

Ordinarily you’d have to line up with everyone else in the waiting room, and since I wasn’t bleeding, and I was breathing just fine, I figured to be there for a few hours before hearing my name called. But during triage, the nurse looked at my finger and said, “My, my, that is a bad bee sting.”

“Umm, Ma’am, that’s not a bee sting, I shot my finger full of paint.”

The nurse Betty smile faded from her face, and she turned my arm over to reveal a bright red line heading up the normally blue veins on my forearm.

It was all action from that moment on. I was hoisted onto a gurney and stripped of my clothes and dignity, while a team of people pontificated on the seriousness of my injury.

At one point, I managed to gain the attention of the surgeon.

“Excuse me, doctor, can someone get a hold of my wife for me?”

“Sure, how should I reach her?”

“She’s on a job site, so can you leave her a message on our answering machine?”

Had I not just had a large does of some drug injected into an IV I didn’t even know they’d put in, I would’ve realized that my method of contacting my wife was not that smart.

The answering message went as follows:

“Hello, my name is Dr. Leonard, and I’m a plastic surgeon at the Salem Hospital. I’m the attending emergency room physician on call today, and I just finished a surgery on Tim Akimoff. He’s in recovery and resting well. You can have the hospital page me if you have any questions.”

Had my wife heard that message, she might have just figured that my face had been removed by a rough patch of asphalt, or that my limbs had gone missing in some crazy wood chipper accident.

The top of my left middle finger is now the bottom of my index finger.

Luckily, my dad managed to find her at the job site, and he told her I’d taken myself to the hospital for some kind of finger injury.

Four surgeries later I had a shortened, yet usable index finger on my left hand. Dr. Leonard had used a relatively new technique called a deep tissue skin graft to grow a new section of meat and skin to my index finger, which was missing a quarter or more due to tissue destruction by the injection of all that paint.

I was sick for days because of the paint in my system, but the effects eventually wore off enough for coherency and the realization that I would not be able to work much during the six-month process of fixing my finger.

Indeed, I lost my business and had to sell off all my equipment, while the bills piled up in the corner of the kitchen counter.

The ensuing months are lost in a fog of pain killers, depression at having no direction in life, much less a career and punctuated periodically by big news events like the death of Princes Diana in a French tunnel.

Much of the next five years were spent wandering around the globe in pursuit of something permanent and fulfilling. But that time constituted the first real unemployment period of my life, and the differences between those helpless days and these are that I have purpose and direction now that sustain me, even if I don’t have a paycheck to qualify them.

And while I don’t use my short finger to type, I’m still glad I got to keep it. Thank you Dr. Leonard.

Tim

Bottling 55 gallons of Belgian brown ale.

How I spent my Sunday

Beer waits for no man. And when we brewed this dark, Belgian beauty it was months and months before I  was laid off. It sat for a long time in a French oak merlot barrel soaking up tannins and wine acids, while we went about our business. Well, today was our date with destiny, a long and arduous destiny with what seemed like a million brown and green bottles in the Lewis/McBryde Casa. Sometimes I like the continuous and traditional aspect of beer and the process of brewing and fermenting. It’s unshakable and never changes at all, and yet you end up with something amazing every time.

Prost,

Tim

How Joseph Stalin changed my life

All people share a dream. For the desperate, that dream is freedom. But give a man a sense of peace, and the dream will shift toward security and shelter.

We all want to own a home. Some people call it the American Dream, but it’s the human dream, has been since we wandered the earth looking for a dry cave to inhabit.

When Joseph Stalin was in the process of killing 10 million Ukrainians through a planned starvation, my grandparents undoubtedly dreamt of freedom or perhaps even more basically, survival.

They fled their native land and walked halfway around the world to northwest China, where they set up shop. Work, shelter, life.

Until Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution caught up with them, and they were forced to flee once again in pursuit of some dream only attainable in a land far across the known universe, if it existed at all.

They found it under fog-laced blue skies sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. No Ellis Island for this family, just California dreams on Geary Street and a lifetime away from the Soviet Empire’s antithetical sense of ownership.

My grandfather, like most immigrants, worked hard to buy the dream, because the dream is never free, no matter how much you want it to be. He worked several jobs and bought up San Francisco real estate as an inheritance for his children.

Immigrant families have an overdeveloped sense of needing security. And that is often satisfied in the purchasing of land or houses, even to subsequent settled generations.

Somehow this did not affect me.

In fact, I had a wanderlust in direct contrast to that urge to settle and seek security. I suppose this, above all else, is what led me into journalism. Always moving, artistic, something new every day.

I wasn’t a loner though, I wanted a partner, and my girlfriend of three years agreed to marry me and go with me. I still feel like I duped her a bit, but she’s still along for the ride.

We traveled and lived in trailers and slept on floors in third-world countries. We had a baby together in Hawaii, and I never really had sense of place or any one place.

But I wasn’t a loner, and my wife, as wives tend to do, developed a nesting instinct and began to clamor for something more permanent than hostels, low-income housing or rented apartments and houses.

At 36 each, we bought our first house in October 2009. A green, two-story Missoula Modern out by the airport. Our neighbors are only 12 feet away, and every fifth house repeats except for color and trim. But it’s home. And it’s ours.

I remember feeling sick to my stomach at the closing, but I smiled and celebrated as we popped a bottle of champagne a little later that afternoon.

The feeling of making the first mortgage payment was good, except I kept seeing that huge number that included all the interest we’d end up paying, and I’d go dry in the throat thinking about it.

It’s not the money though, it’s the feeling of being tied down. Always has been.

So getting laid off is much more about the baggage for me. Generally, the idea of moving on to something new is right up my alley. I’m into the next thing, in fact, friends will tell you that as soon as I’m doing something new, I’m already thinking about the next thing.

Now I feel tethered to this place by this house, even though in reality, it’s just an investment that can go whatever way I decide it should go. No matter, it is a cord around my ankle and the most difficult thing I think about when I think about being laid off.

Place is good, it can define you. You can spend your life seeking a place to call your own, and perhaps that’s all my wanderlust really is, an ongoing search.

Tim

Walking the wrong way on an escalator and "Red Dawn" dreams

I received my severance package today, though I don’t necessarily think that package is the right word for enough cash to get you through one month.

But I paid this month’s mortgage and put another mortgage payment in savings, which left us with enough to keep the lights and heat on for the same amount of time. Here’s hoping for a warm fall.

I’ll get into the nightmare of navigating the unemployment aid system in another post. I’m still reflecting on its vagaries and endless bureaucratic labyrinths.

There is something very terrifying about that remaining number on your bank ledger. Knowing that it’s fairly final, and you won’t see it that high again for an undetermined amount of time. But it also plays into the adventure side of things. I’ve often wondered about our resiliency in tough times.

Everyone talks about putting away six months of living expenses so you can get through those troughs in life. But every time you reach a big milepost, it seems to cost you your six month savings. Buy a new car or make a down payment on a house. Pay a large hospital bill or a surgery for a beloved pet, and poof, there it goes.

Out of everyone I know, I’d be willing to bet maybe one or two actually have the luxury of sitting on six months worth of living expenses. We certainly don’t.

I have “Red Dawn” dreams. Those end-of-the-world apocalyptic, the-Commies-are-coming sort of dreams where city slickers have to re adapt to the wilds and living off the land. Last year my wife and I did a caveman diet, where we tried to eat mostly meats, nuts and raw fruits and veggies. It’s almost impossible to do this anymore.

A layoff doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be eking out a living on mushrooms and goat milk with dirty faced children running around our mountain outpost, but seeing the remains of your working life summed up in a few numbers next to a dollar sign makes you think about what’s over that precipice that we’re trying to stay away from like kids walking the wrong way on an escalator.

Tim

The Village People Unemployment Recovery Plan

The YMCA has been synonymous with unemployment for me for years. I think it came from the time when a family friend lost his job and moved out of his home when I was a teenager. I heard he was living at the Y, and I was astounded that you could rent a room there.

According to the Village People, there is a lot you can do at the Y. And I suppose the whole unemployment/Y connection is a fairly common association for more than just me.

Just listen:

Young man, I was once in your shoes.
I said, I was down and out with the blues.
I felt no man cared if I were alive.
I felt the whole world was so jive …

That’s when someone came up to me,
And said, young man, take a walk up the street.
It’s a place there called the Y.M.C.A.
They can start you back on your way.

We started a family membership at the Missoula Y last fall, when an early freeze made running outside miserable, or at least more miserable than normal.

I don’t know if the membership at our Y is different than in other towns and cities, but there is a curious mix of wealthy, middle class, blue collar and unemployed folks. My general practice doctor works out there, which always makes me self conscious and somehow willing to raise my heart rate more than I normally would. Some strange confidence that he would whip out a defibrillator and save me if I collapsed, obviously.

Once I overheard an unemployed man say he had nothing else to do besides working out now and wait to collect benefits. He had worked at one of the local mills that shut down. I’d covered the last day at Stimson Lumber Mill for the newspaper and produced this video, so I felt a connection to this guy.

Still, when he approached my workout partner and I and wanted to chat about life, I kind of dismissed him. I think I felt some pity for him at the time, and it made me uncomfortable. Now that I’m in his shoes, I realize it was pity.

There’s something about the well-used feeling of most Ys. They lack that polished, moneyed feeling of high-priced gyms, and users often feel a greater sense of ownership. At least I do.

Stan is always leaving the locker room at around 6 a.m. I only know his name from the big STAN embroidered on a patch on his work shirt which hangs on a thin rack near the door.

Since I’m arriving and he’s leaving, I assume he shows up at 5 a.m. or earlier to work out before going to a full day of manual labor at whatever auto shop or tuneup place he works at. I always admire Stan’s dedication.

Stan once asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I’m a reporter at the local newspaper. It was easier than explaining that I was the digital manager. His eyes lit up and he said, “Gosh, I bet that’s a great job.”

I told him I felt like the luckiest guy in town.

I don’t know what Stan thought as he went to work that day. He may or may not have thought about my job some more.

But later, as I was on the rowing machine, I listened to two lawyers talking about their plans for cycling through Spain with their wives and some friends in the summer.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about what it would be like to be a high-profile lawyer with a sailboat and a cabin on the Flathead.

Greener grass and all that.

The Y is such a classless meat pit where doctors toil side by side with laborers. I could people watch and eavesdrop there all day. A microcosm of community, the Y certainly has the potential and obviously has given some a new start. We’ve seen a lot of layoffs and job losses in Missoula in the last three years.

“Hey, can I get a spotter over here?”

Perhaps the Village People said it best:

Young man, are you listening to me?
I said, young man, what do you want to be?
I said, young man, you can make real your dreams.
But you’ve got to know this one thing!

No man does it all by himself.
I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A.
I’m sure they can help you today.

Unemployment by the numbers, or my beef with business reporting

Numbers don’t mean a lot when you’re not particularly affected by them. One key to great journalism is to be able to connect people to numbers by making it about their audience. Investors read business reports, because the numbers speak a personal language to them that others cannot necessarily follow. But a good business reporter can connect their readers to the numbers in ways that can make a deep impact on a community.

Knowing that the number of people drawing unemployment aid dipped by 27,000 to just under 4.5 million, the lowest number since late June, is pretty meaningless until you become a statistic. And I wonder how many Americans actually understand the significance.

I certainly didn’t until I read an interesting caveat at the end of this AP story titled:

Hopes rise as jobless claims fall, trade gap eases.

Yes, the numbers dropped significantly, and the reporter actually states that this could indicate that employers are unwilling to make deeper cuts in their workforce.

Yes, hope springs eternal!

But at the end of the article, we find that these numbers do not count millions of Americans receiving extended benefits from emergency programs put in place during the recession. More than five million Americans are listed on these extended benefit rolls.

That’s a meaningful number for me. Not only am I up against a lot of unemployed journalists for rare job openings in the media, but I’m up against a lot of Americans in the general job market as well.

As numbers go, statistics like these can be soul crushing.

And yet these numbers tell a story about where we’re at as an economy and a country. They tell me that I have my work cut out for me, and that I might have to look outside traditional job sources.

I always argued with editors that attracting younger readers to newspapers would mean reaching them through other means than a print paper and by making traditional news coverage more meaningful by putting them into the coverage and showing them how various issues do or will impact their lives.

The problem is that most traditional newspaper coverage is written for and to a mature audience. Most publishers are loathe to disturb the 50+ set for whom number reporting has remained unchanged since they purchased their first houses many years ago.

Two of the best show-don’t-tell journalism examples I can think of in the last two years happened on the radio. This American Life’s “Giant Pools of Money,” and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy” made for some of the most informative journalism I’ve seen, read or listened to ever. Period.

Yes, I’m a thirty something, and yes, This American Life appeals to my news delivery preferences. (I like to download episodes to my iPod Touch and listen in transit or during workouts or first thing in the morning while checking E-mail and the social networks) Still, the way the economic situation was simplified and brought to life in a full-hour show opened my eyes to the greater potential in number-related storytelling. Namely that numbers are a backdrop until you connect the impacted with the actual cause or causes. Once you’ve made this connection, the audience can follow the numbered pathway to its conclusion. Or lack thereof, as this continuing economic nightmare continues to show.

And if radio can do great show-don’t-tell journalism, newspapers ought to be able to take it to a whole new level.

Tim

A little righteous indignation goes a long way, and I don’t want a new career

Went for a run with my buddy Jon in the beautiful North Hills of Missoula this morning. It’s a great dumping ground for a lot of life’s problems. They just don’t seem to stand up against the early morning beauty of the trails, the cool air and the mountain vistas.

Jon is a good filter too. Letting the frivolous stuff fall through and managing to retain the nuggets that he often relays back to me in technicolor through his own rich perspective.

Today’s run topics were anger and how not to let go of a dream.

Anger because there is a sense of righteous indignation one feels when their livelihood is taken away, and it’s tricky to balance that anger and focus it into something positive as opposed to the naked anger of a bruised ego that might turn into a hatred of those individuals one perceives to be responsible for taking away one’s livelihood.

Executioners no longer wear masks, but it doesn’t mean we’re permitted to blame them for pulling the trigger. However, a righteous anger at a rotten situation can serve to build a fire of purpose under one’s rear end.

My complaint to Jon was that I want to make sure I’m a practitioner of a good and healthy anger rather than a hateful and vengeful anger. As in there is already enough destruction here, so let’s be a builder rather than a wrecking ball.

The second portion of our run, conveniently when I’m most out of breath, centered on the topic of how not to let a dream go, or more pointedly, how to politely tell people that while you appreciate their offer to go to work as a receptionist at their dog-grooming clinic, your dream remains intact.

This is a bigger issue than I imagined. From initial texts encouraging me to look at the bright side and all the new options that are available to “It’s a brand-new day for you!” I was a bit overwhelmed by the offers of employment from almost every vocational possibility.

My problem is that I don’t like to make people feel bad, and I find it difficult to explain to people that I didn’t study journalism in school for four years to take a sales job. That just sounds mean to me, especially in a climate where good jobs are so difficult to find.

As my resume has at times shown, I’ve worked a lot of jobs. From bus driver to barista and oil change expert to contractor, I hold dozens of certificates and a lot of forgotten experience.

But I view most of that as the proving grounds on which my writing career would rise or fail.

Journalism, aside from being the perfect solution to my life-long desire to watch people and catalog human behavior, was a great way to write every day and to learn to pay attention to details and grammar and spelling.

While only one of many writing disciplines, journalism fulfilled many of my desires in a creative and fun career.

This blog can’t possibly convey all my feelings about journalism, but I wanted to point out that all the job offers and promises of keeping an eye open for me are completely meaningful and appreciated.

And many careers are honorable and even desirable, but I’m just not ready to give up the dream yet.

Tim

The first day of the rest of your life

Getting laid off brings out the well wishers in droves. It also seems to be an automatic funnel for advice of every imaginable kind, including those appropriate yet cliche words, “welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.”

I got a text within an hour of walking out of my old office that said just that.

Nevermind.

No advice can prepare you for the issue of how to tell your kids that life just turned upside down.

After calling my wife and inviting her to the next great adventure in our already adventure-full marriage, my thoughts turned to how my kids might handle this news.

We decided to meet at a brewery about a mile from our house. The thought being that an hour or so prep over a beer or two would provide all the answers we needed in this new and untried parenting situation.

Unfortunately beer is a depressant and doesn’t always provide the inspiration one might hope.

Just to note, my wife is absolutely amazing. She might be cooler under fire than anyone I’ve ever seen. Not much surprises her, but when you’re married to me, nothing should surprise you. It helps that we’ve known each other since third grade. Something about the consistency of years has tempered us into best friends able to handle some crazy turns. I don’t like to test those boundaries, but I have to say that Cheryl has withstood more challenging situations in her life than anyone should have to. She is my hero.

Still, we stood around a standing table at the brewery and sipped half-heartedly on a couple of Imperial Pilsners trying to float some ideas on how to approach the kids.

Straight up: Dad got laid off today kids, we’re up shit creek without a paddle.
Downplayed: Dad’s job is changing, and he’ll be spending more time at home, yay!
Around the Bush: Dad got laid off, but we were really looking for a change anyway, right?
Soften the Blow: Hey, dad won’t be working at the newspaper anymore, but that means you can run track, because now dad can pick you up after practice.

In the end, we sat the kids on the couch and invoked a practice my family has done since my grandparents escaped the Soviet Union some 60-years-ago. Something that could easily smell of desperation if it wasn’t so consistently fruitful in our lives. We prayed together.

Then we talked together and tried to assure each other that all would be all right, but we were pretty straight about all the uncertainty, and we committed to being understanding even if we have to cut privileges in our lives for a while like cable television and eating out at restaurants.

The kids, like their mother, are resilient, and perhaps more important, they believe in me absolutely. It’s enough to bring a dad on the brink of some kind of new day to tears, but I figured we had enough drama for one day.

Tim

Are you ready for the next adventure?

The phone call came at a little after 2 p.m. on the Monday before Labor Day. I glanced down from my computer screen to see my boss’s name flashing across my phone’s small display in large digital type.

It was at that instant I realized something was wrong. My boss often had meetings on Mondays and rarely came in. In fact, I realized she was in the office before I was that day. Like puzzle pieces falling into place or a mystery about to be revealed, I watched something flash before my eyes.

I picked up the receiver, and she said, “Can you come to my office, we want to talk to you.”

Sheer dread as I laid the receiver down.

I grabbed my notebook and a pen just for appearances, then everything went numb, the lights dimmed a little, and a sort of low-grade buzz developed in my ears. Probably high blood pressure, or so I’m told.

I didn’t hear much of the actual layoff. A few words. Your position, luxury, cutbacks, budget, sorry. Whatever.

Just tried to hold still and breathe through it like you do on the first drop on a big roller coaster.

It’s strange to just let go of everything you were working on, a load that is almost unbearable at times is now a pile of useless rubble, as there is no one else in the world who could possibly pick up where you left off. Or so you tell yourself.

Cleaned out a few things I wanted on my computer, handed over my key card and my company credit card and walked out.

A brief conversation with a former co worker in the parking lot got me thinking about this job as my past for the first time, and by the time I started the car and dialed in my wife’s phone number on the cell phone, I had a handle on the fact that I was just laid off.

Thanks God for kids, a wife and a mortgage. When you are forced out of a career that is so much more than a career, it’s good therapy to have to consider others over yourself.

My mind raced as I waited for my wife to pick up the phone. In those split seconds I was analyzing my reaction, the few questions my former employers asked and the future all at once. I saw it all go down again, but this time I was sitting on the window sill watching the boss and her layoff assistant struggle between pity and remorse. Or maybe I just thought that.

I found myself thinking about opportunities and excuses all at once. Some sort of apology I could give my wife for my failure before she would have a chance to think it.

I was beyond feeling sorry for myself and not once did I feel the embarrassment some thought I should feel. Bewildered but not surprised, I reached a conclusion that I had known this all along and that I had not planned accordingly. Whatever one needs to tell one’s self, I guess.

“Hello.”
– Hi babe, how are you?
“Fine.”
-Are you ready for the next adventure?

The Left and Leaving

“All this time lingers, undefined. Someone choose who’s left and who’s leaving. Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me: some matches, a blanket, this pain in my chest, the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away. I wait in 4/4 time. Count yellow highway lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” ~ Jon K. Sampson of the Weakerthans

This song sums up journalism so much for me. Of course for Mr. Sampson it seems to sum up his experience playing a hometown venue or some such meaningful place. Songs are beautiful for the fact that they can produce so many different meanings and emotions for different people.

If I had to make a list of all that journalism gave me, it would look and sound an awful lot like what the soldiers had in Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried.” Journalism, like few other jobs, packs an emotional wallop and leaves you both humbled and under the burden of a weight most would not choose to carry.

For the last five years I’ve watched those who left, those who are leaving and those who were given the boot reach blessed obscurity, though I know no one who’d actually call it that.

They were the best and the brightest, the innovators and the ones who would not, could not toe the line. Today they are blessing others with their prowess, their imagination and limitless ideas. I miss them.

Today I’m counting yellow highway lines and relying on them to help me find a home.

Tim

"THE WORLD BREAKS EVERYONE, AND AFTERWARD, SOME ARE STRONG AT THE BROKEN PLACES." – HEMINGWAY