Category Archives: The Bad

The two deaths

Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Phillip Seymour Hoffman

The first was an unfortunate accident, the second an unfortunate circumstance.

Each death somehow invaded my normally tepid and still pond of existence. Their announcements left me cold and my waters troubled.

I don’t mean to trivialize the other deaths which have impacted my life.

My uncle took his own life, dear friends gone too soon and the inevitable loss of grand parents.

Each left a life-sized crater in my heart.

But on the outside of the womb of family, there are satellite deaths that occur with some regularity, enough, in fact, to disrupt our normal orbit.

Continue reading The two deaths

Life after undefeated

By Tim Akimoff

Within 20 minutes of the end of an undefeated streak, your blood pressure, pulse rate and temperature return to normal. 

After 8 hours, the remaining competitiveness in your bloodstream has fallen to 3.25 percent of normal. After 48 hours, damaged nerve endings start to regrow and your sense of finality and despair begins to melt away. 

In 5-8 days after the first loss, the average fan of a formerly undefeated college football team will encounter short bouts of regretful hysteria, but it is unlikely that any episode lasts longer than 3 minutes at a time. 

Within 10 days of suffering a catastrophic loss, the average fan of a formerly undefeated team is down to 1 or possibly 2 bouts of nausea-inducing regret and bitterness a day. 

By two weeks, your risk of heart attack has dropped substantially, and your lung capacity and voice control have improved to pre-football season levels. 

After 8 weeks, nearly all evidence of physical suffering from a single loss on your formerly undefeated college football team has disappeared. However, doctors warn that if your team lost late in the season, then there is a crucial window of time wherein the severely flawed BCS can bring symptoms back to fatal proportions, especially in a scenario where other one loss teams are picked ahead of your team for bowl consideration. Doctors warn that recovering from a second round of this type of stress can last as long as hockey season. 

Life after undefeated is a tough time for any sports fan, but it seems in college football these days, it’s particularly stressful as teams jockey for position by dominating lesser opponents for 5, 6, 7 and even 8 games into the season before finally testing their true ability against worthy opponents. 

I, for one, rather enjoy the less pressured idea of the NFL, where a team with even 5 losses can make the playoffs and even the Super Bowl.

For 9 years I’ve watched my Oregon Ducks get tantalizingly close to the National Championship. Within a field goal, in fact. 

My wife said Stanford got in their heads the last two years, as the Ducks have dropped two-in-a-row, late-in-the-season, to dash their national title hopes. Stanford got in my head the last two years. Like two kids from two different schools. One is middle class and the other comes from money. They are essentially equal, playing to their individual strengths and weaknesses. Yet one will always win, like Malfoy tormenting Potter through seven books. 

At some point I must give up this pointless obsession with a national championship, and I suppose this is the year. Next year we’ll have a playoff system, and there is a chance that at least a few of the top schools will have a better shot at playing for it all.

For now, I’m still suffering short bouts of regretful hysteria and nausea-inducing regret and bitterness. Looking forward to the 8-week mark. 


A prayer for the disaffected, the unencumbered of employment and the aimless wanderer

I started working a “real” job when I was 16. I worked most of the way through high school and began full time work in the summer of 1994, when I took a job with a construction company in Salem, Oregon.

There have been a few gaps in my working life since then.

The last six weeks have been the longest and most stressful moments I can remember in recent history.

Of course that’s not saying much. My memory lives in a Google search algorithm now.

On Friday I’ll get a paycheck for the first time in six weeks. To go back, we didn’t really have a nest egg or an emergency plan in place since we purchased our house a year ago and it ate up anything we did have saved up.

In six weeks we lived off Cheryl’s earnings at Applebees until she left at the end of October. We lived off the sale of various household items we needed to get rid of for our move to Anchorage, and we lived off the sale of our second car.

What amazes me is the fact that we made it through a very rough spot. Families are like small countries. They’re not easy to run, and they cost twice as much as you think they should to run.

But it wasn’t the money that helped us get through. It merely smoothed out a rough road. It was the friendships, prayers, thoughts and words of wisdom provided by some very dear friends and family.

And I mean those who really understood how hard it was at times.

It’s very easy to say, “I knew things would work out for you,” from the comfort of your reinstated 401k, salaried and glass-enclosed comfort zone.

I know it’s difficult to empathize with people in difficult situations at times and that it is sometimes hard to know what to say. But saying that “you’re so talented, I knew it wouldn’t take you long to find a job,” has all the Halmark ring of a belated get-well card when you’re trying to figure out how to make a $500 stretch for you-don’t-know-how-long.

And I’d be over it, but I have a few friends who are still in the same boat I was rescued from recently. Adrift with few prospects, it’s easy to throw them an, “I know you’ll find something soon,” as you walk up the gangplank of your hallelujah boat.

Lord, help me to remember what it’s like to walk through the dark times so that I may never forget those who are walking the same pathways today and tomorrow. Help me be a light to those who are downtrodden and suffering. Let me not look over the edge of dispair and offer nothing more than words with half meanings. Let me remember the dark places so that I may be used to help guide others along the way. Make me a mapmaker, a cartographer of sorts. Let my experiences, both good and bad, serve as a book, a story, a route to follow. As much as I prayed for guidance and the clean foot prints of others to follow. Let me leave my own behind.


Leaving the continental United States

The logistics of moving to Alaska are very much like moving to a foreign country. Some people actually refer to Alaska as a foreign country.

My conversation with several shippers yesterday went like this:

“I need to ship the contents of a small three-bedroom house to Alaska. Can you accommodate that?”

“Are you sure you need to move to Alaska?”

“… Yes, it’s where my job is at.”

“Well, we only ship within the continental United States now sir. We no longer have shipping to Alaska.”

“Alaska is part of the North American continent. It’s attached to Canada, which was still part of the North American Continent the last time I checked. You can drive there from here.”

“That’s contiguous United States sir.”

“I know, I can access Wikipedia too.”

“Well, if you want to move somewhere else, let me know, I think I can help you get a a discount.”

And so on and so forth. I actually had several conversations like this. Turns out there are only a handful of people who ship to Alaska any more.

Another conversation:

“Can you describe the contents of your house.”

“I’ve got a dark brown L-shaped couch, a lightly stained bookshelf…”

“No, sir, I meant an inventory of items you’d like to ship to Alaska.”

“Oh, well, yes, we have a couch, a book shelf, five mattresses, a futon, two televisions, a lamp and maybe 20 boxes of belongings we’d like to bring.”

“Wow, you guys travel light.”

“That’s the dream. The reality is we’ll have twice that.”

“Oh, ok, let me give you a dream price and a real price then.”

Alaska is so near and yet so far away. It’s a short three-hour hop from Seattle by air, a three-day journey by inland passageway via a ferry boat or a five-day drive from Seattle.

There is no cheap way of getting in or out.

I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am for our friends both in Alaska and in Missoula (former Alaskans) who have offered to help us navigate this move. You are all amazing people.

It’s 2010. Why don’t we have a teleportation device that could work for this kind of move yet? The concept existed when I was a little kid watching Star Trek.

As I type, my wife is packing the house and secretly jabbing daggers in my spine. I hate packing up a house. I like the heavy lifting and putting boxes in the back of a truck. Putting stuff in boxes is so not my forte. I think when I was young I never got one of those balls with squares, triangles and circles cut out and into which you’d try to fit the cut out pieces. I just don’t have a good sense of fit.


Try a little perspective

At least two-days worth of growth

So maybe shaving my goatee off was not the best idea when the current rate of change around my house exceeds all of our coin jars and piggy banks put together.

My wife’s reaction was harsh. She can’t look at me without giggling, and she’ll have nothing to do with me until my face grows back, as she puts it.

Change is rough on families. Our middle child, Carson, is feeling so much stress related to the possibility of moving to a completely foreign place, that he made himself sick this last weekend. The other two kids are feeling it too, but they are better about verbalizing their feelings, which in turn helps us process better with them.

Aside from my bad judgment regarding my facial hair, I have been playing the perspective game with my wife and kids the last few weeks. Yes, our situation is bad, but we’ve got a house over our heads and food in our refrigerator. No, I don’t have a job yet, but if we need to go live with grandma and grandpa, I’m sure they’ll be fine with that. (that’s cool right, mom and dad?)

Nothing does the trick like taking their minds off the bad things and transferring them to good things or even new adventures on the horizon. Playing the there-are-starving-children-in-Africa card has never worked well on my kids, but understanding the complex set of issues around getting laid off has allowed us to communicate things and set goals.

We put the house up for rent this weekend, then my wife and I had a late talk one evening where she expressed sadness at knowing that all her dreams for this place, the color schemes she picked out, the decoration projects for the kids’ rooms were all going away. Yes, we’ll still own the house, but someone will rent it from us.

I can understand this. She waited a long time for me to get comfortable with the idea of buying a house. Somewhere last year before our closing date, I murmured the term, “watch us buy this place and then I get laid off.” Harmless, seemingly innocuous, something everyone says when they buy a house, right?

It’s a house, not the house we’ve always wanted, but it was our own for a little while. Just enough to start to get creative. We actually painted the mud room and made a flagstone patio. still, it’s just a house, probably one of several we’ll own in our lifetime together.


I stood talking to a friend after church on Sunday when I felt someone stuff something into my back pocket. I thought it was one of the kids stuffing the church program in like they usually do, but when I walked out to the car I reached back and pulled out a wad of cash. We’re not broke yet, but we’ve felt the pinch of having only a few weeks of expenses left in our bank account. A friend felt our need and blessed us with enough money to pay some remaining bills and provide a little breathing room.


Whenever I’d get the E-mailed goodbye notes from other friends laid off from the journalism field, I’d inevitably get depressed all day after finding out. But a day would pass, and I’d think about their situation less and less. A lot of those feelings came rushing back at me when I was laid off. It’s a thin line between having a job and looking for a job.

When a friend was diagnosed with brain cancer a few months ago, we felt bad. The struggle for hope is something most people can only watch from the sidelines.

Getting laid off is a big hit to one’s ego. It’s a big hit to one’s finances and a hit to family stability. It’s a big deal.

Last week doctors gave my friend nine months to live.



Your job and your vocation…your money or your life

A friend of mine who was laid off from another newspaper in the last few months recently told me that after three or four weeks of downtime, he got rather bored and wished to return to work. Vacation, he said, was nice but not fulfilling.

Vocation is the centrifugal part of us all, so integral to who we are that it impacts every aspect of what we do.

“A society in which vocation and job are separated for most people gradually creates an economy that is often devoid of spirit, one that frequently fills our pocketbooks at the cost of emptying our souls.” ~ Sam Keen

A little time away from the rat race of work is nice. It is vacation. It is a chance to clear the mind and refresh the soul.

But anyone for whom their vocation is centrifugally tied into their being will shortly grow tired and restless at not being able to fulfill their purpose. 

This is where I find myself now. 

I love being able to spend entire days watching my daughter perfect her art work next to me at the dining room table and to make creative lunches to share with my wife. I love being able to pick the boys up from school and deliver them to their various sporting activities in the afternoons. Our conversations are alive and I feel more involved with their daily lives than I have in a long time. 

“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves.” ~ Logan P. Smith

But they can sense something is wrong. They can sense the longing in me to return to my vocation. They ask me at dinner if I miss the ugliness of work, those instances where our most basic human issues rise to the surface and cloud our vocation with politicking, greed and envy.

No, I don’t miss those issues, but they are part of vocation if your vocation involves others. Mine certainly does. 

Somewhere along the way we choose what we want to do. Or sometimes we are chosen for what we can do. I have worked many jobs in my search for my true vocation. Each one points a finger toward your destination, but the complicated life sometimes interferes and clouds our ability to recognize it.

An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.” ~ Honore de Balzac

I loved construction and being out of doors and working hard with my hands, developing a strong mind and body. But I always knew it wasn’t my vocation. It was something I did to pay bills and pass from one time period into another. 

I was never sorry when I walked away from that into another job. That initial rush of excitement at doing something new can be deceptive too. Sometimes, in a really fun situation, it can last a long, long time. The arrows pointing to your vocation become difficult to discern. 

But when you stumble upon it, as I did in my late twenties, you know you have found what you’ve been looking for. Work is no longer work, it’s the satisfaction of your soul.

More often than not, people have told me they expect me to land on my feet. They’ve said they always knew I would be all right. They’ve wished me well and explained that my skill sets would serve me well in my search for new work. 

These people have not found their true vocation. In fact, I suspect that a majority of Americans who have jobs have jobs. I know many of those with whom I most recently worked have jobs and not a vocation. I suspect that is why it was easy for them to cut my position.

And for those who think it’s easy to let go of one thing and move into another, it might be easy if it was just a job. But a vocation is deep within you, and severing even the most surface links like a paycheck and benefits is a painful injury to one’s soul. 


The Job Interview

Normally I’m the one asking questions. Sometimes I design the questions, and at other times I let them come to me as we explore the interview topic together. I don’t often think about being on the receiving end of hard questions.

A job interview is a different beast altogether.

I used to tell my journalistic comrades to apply for jobs periodically simply for the purpose of perfecting their interview skills. Most journos I know don’t like to talk about themselves at all, with a few exceptions of course.

The easiest job interview format is the E-mail interview. Almost no one does this, for obvious reasons. But to have what amounts to an eternity to carefully craft your answers is a beautiful thing. Second to the E-mail interview is the phoner. This interview style is live, so you have to be quick on your feet. Not only can anything go wrong, (like your cell phone dying mid-interview) you are at the mercy of voice inflection and bad connections. The Internet age has ushered in the now-popular use of Skype and Google Chat for video interviews. For me, this remains the most awkward form of job interview.

During one interview a few years ago, I had to look at three people out of a panel of seven who were interviewing me. Body language is a huge issue here, as you tend to forget that the interviewers can see everything you do. Picking your nose mid-interview is a sure-fire way to not get a call back. I’m not saying I did this, but you become super self conscious when you’re on a Skype call in the living room of your home.

The last interview style is the face-to-face interview. If you made it this far, you’re usually in good shape. However, this is where everything can crumble. You can have a lot of confidence during a phone interview, and there are tricks to buy a little time when answering a difficult question. But a good interviewer can read you like a book when you’re sitting across from their desk or at a dinner interview. If you feel nervous, you’ll generally look nervous. What sounded great over the phone can make you sound like the village idiot when you’re stammering in front of your would-be boss.

This is especially true when you’re interviewing in groups. Four or five of what could be your future co-workers, subordinates or bosses can throw a huge kink in your well-polished interview technique.

In dealing with jobs related to digital and social networking, you can’t always assume that everyone is on the same page. You can’t go for total digital geek when the potential employer is looking for well-rounded and balanced. And you can’t go too general, for fear the next person they interview is better at explaining complex digital practices that are for all intents and purposes still theory.

After nearly four weeks in the unemployment line, (still without receiving a single unemployment check) it’s comforting to be back in the interview process again. Just knowing that there are potential employers out there on the other end of phone conversations is a huge boost to moral, not only for me but for my family as well.

The kids are hugely involved in everything I do at this point. They often help me process a call and decided whether I did well or not. They’ll ask me every day if I talked to the vice president of this or that, or if I was offered a visit for a face-to-face interview.

I don’t know where they learned this, but it’s nice to have a little support network like this at home.

We’re well past the initial E-mails and even the phoners at this point. It’s time to prepare for my first face-to-face interview, a proposition that can make or break this opportunity.

My wife and I will fly out to Alaska on Saturday to check out an amazing opportunity in Anchorage. I know the kids will expect a phone call each night to update them on how I did and to give me advice on the next steps.

Everyone should be so lucky.


The Art of Fathering

The Art of Manliness is one of my favorite web sites. I’ve written for them before, and I like their take on the restoration of manliness from its tarnished reputation to full luster on the current lexicon. But there seems to be a bit of a debate lately on what manliness actually looks like.

After three weeks at home, some patterns have already been established in our house. We’ve been a two-income house for quite a while, and my wife’s choice to work evenings so as not to have to put Gabrielle in day care means that we’ve had a slightly different house management style than most of our friends.

On a typical week Cheryl’s only weeknight off has been Monday, which is the only day we take care of cooking, dishes and putting the kids to bed together. The rest of the week these chores are mine, even if I had a terrible day at work. My days were often 16 to 18 hours without much down time. I’m not complaining though, the value of raising our kids ourselves as opposed to paying someone else to do it has been tremendous.

Gabbers learns how to cook pasta with her dad.

I started cooking for the household back in college as a way to deal with the stress of studying. It helped me separate my school life from my home life. Cheryl is a great cook, a real meat and potatoes girl with a flare for the traditional. But my creativity with limited resources gave me the starting job as home chef.

And while I don’t like doing dishes any more than any other guy on the planet, I have a pretty firm policy about cleaning up one’s own mess. And I can’t stand starting with a messy kitchen.

I’m still not allowed to do laundry, and I believe this stems from my inability to distinguish certain fabrics and their individual temperature settings. My wife’s domain is the huge laundry pile downstairs, and I don’t think I’d trade her anything for it.

The boys clean their own toilet, as we didn’t want to send them off into the world without the knowledge and ability to clean the porcelain throne. And I’m largely responsible for outdoor projects that don’t involve design work of any kind. I cut grass and move rocks around for the most part.

These tasks have always seemed good to me, and I find joy in them. I would say the same is true for my wife, but I think she actually despises the laundry pile downstairs and secretly wishes it would just disappear one day for good.

We take a pretty split role when it comes to raising the kids. Discipline is handled by whichever parent discovered the sin, and that parent is responsible for handing down swift punishment. Though this is often discussed at some length, as it is felt that I am too lenient on one very cute little girl, whose finger I’m apparently wrapped around. I tend to disagree.
I usually get up with the boys and make sandwiches for their school lunches on weekdays, while Cheryl keeps tabs on their homework so I can focus on getting dinner ready in the afternoons. Really it’s pretty economical and fair.

Being laid off has thrown a bit of a kink in our well-oiled machine as of late. Because I’m home during the afternoon when the kids are out of school, I have been getting hit with homework questions that are quite beyond me. I will admit it freely, I’m not smarter than a 5th grader.

While standing in the kitchen with a dirty apron on stirring a pot of simmering vegetables, I was asked to solve an algebra problem. My bowels quivered momentarily as I thought back to Mr. Nordhagen’s 7th grade pre-algebra class. You’d think I was being asked to solve the question on a board for all the students to mock. I was sweating and cursing to myself while my 12-year-old, who doesn’t think he’s cooler than me, he knows he is, looked on with a raised eye brow.

No doubt looking and sounding like a mad professor straining over a calculation for some chemical concoction, I handed back the scratch paper with my answer on it. My son looked it over and checked it in the back of the book. It was wrong, of course.

My solution was that he should just ask his mother, who is much better at math than me. But I found some redemption at dinner when my 5th grader asked a question about a historical matter for which I was well prepared. You see, I excelled at history, and my sons looked on as if I was a professor of history bequeathing a veritable treasure trove of wisdom buried in the sands of time.

We’re not confused about our roles, and I’m not uncomfortable doing roles that are traditionally described as womens’ roles. I would in fact do laundry if I was allowed, and lord knows I’ve cleaned a toilet or two in my life, not to mention all the diapers I have changed from raising three kids.

This Newsweek article called “Men’s Lib,”  suggests that men need to buckle and take on more of the parenting and chores often associated with stay-at-home moms. The idea is that in the wake of disappearing manly jobs like construction worker, logger, empire builder, men need to be equal in the home and in child rearing and domestic duties as well as jobs that haven’t been traditionally associated with manliness like nursing, social work or teaching.

But what about the American business model for the middle-aged male? Well, there are a lot of us laid off right now who are deciding what to do with careers that have gone seemingly nowhere. The skies are the limit, and if what this article says is true is, well, true, then men can become nurses, social workers and teachers. Indeed, they are becoming these things.

But I would argue that the type of the career really has nothing to do with it. If becoming a nurse is important to you, then you should pursue that. But if building things with your hands and creating words and sentences on paper is important to you, then those are noble things you should pursue. Raising kids won’t change just because men are finding themselves in jobs and roles traditionally belonging to women. Neither will it make for a more reasonable and understanding generation to follow.

Being a better father simply means being a better father. It means carving time out of a busy schedule to create moments for fathering. Things like answering a history question at the dinner table or showing your son how to grill chicken are as effective as game nights and father-son camping trips. All are important, and government induced work leave benefits, as the article mentions, might encourage more of this type of behavior, but most men simply need to understand balance in their lives.

I’m no expert on this, but having the last three weeks off has shown me the importance of balancing my own desires and responsibilities when it comes to my role in the home.

I know the whole nature versus nurture argument, and I do believe men and women are gifted differently in various roles, but I also believe a lot of what we do and why we do it has been established by society for as long as we’ve been forming societies.

To recap, it’s easy to get lost in a gender argument or the imbalance of life when you’re out of work. One is inclined to become lazy or grab responsibilities from their partner as one compensates for the loss of income. But if we’re going to become better fathers, it doesn’t revolve around how much time we spend at home or what activities we do with our kids, it’s far more about finding balance between what we love to do and what we have to do.


Apparently the recession ended in 2009, but someone forgot to tell the economy

According to some strange committee with an exceedingly Soviet-era name, the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession actually, officially ended in June 2009.

Let’s see, in June 2009 I was three months into a new job for which I had received a $10,000 raise. For the first time in our lives we actually talked about buying a house, and the cars had their first oil changes in almost a year.

I spent the remainder of 2009 learning how newspapers don’t work, at least under the current system of trying to sell ads into something with a shrinking circulation and free online advertising, if you know how to get it.

I watched mills close down, which was actually good for business, because everyone wanted to read about how this mill closure would affect our mountain community. Car dealers couldn’t sell cars and Realtors acted more desperate than usual.

Ripple effect. Apparently Missoula isn’t anywhere near the center of the pond, therefore a rock, in this case, the recession, makes waves that won’t hit us for many months, and which will continue to hit us for many months after the pond has settled.

But there are almost five million people on some form of extended unemployment insurance in America. Did someone forget to tell the economy that the recession is over? Why are employers so reticent to hire?

Why are malnourished newspapers still cutting their workforce and cannibalizing their future in reactionary measures tied to quarterly earnings?


Who are we?

I remember growing up in the waning years of the Cold War. We had Ronald Reagan and Star Wars and warheads pointing at Russian satellites and cities. We were Americans working hard because we had freedom and a dream with no limits.

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we had a national identity. We had a purpose and a common enemy in Communism.

Today we have two wars and a murderous idealism as an enemy. But you can’t bomb that out of caves, as we have come to learn. And you can no more force freedom on people than you can force Communism on them.

Our identity is no longer that of automaker, iron worker, mill worker, logger, empire builder. I see mill workers learning how to become IT managers in school, government retraining for their lost jobs.

Our leaders won’t create health care reform, because we don’t know we’re sick. Our schools are suffering, because we’ve invested in everything else under the sun except for our children.

We’re in an identity crisis of epic proportions. But then nearing 300 years as a national conscious is a long time when you’re at the top of the food chain. If struggle shapes your identity, perhaps we haven’t struggled enough lately.


The Spectre of Moving

I am a collaborative person by nature.

Because most jobs that would fit my criteria are out-of-state, we’ve been slowly getting the kids used to the idea of moving. It’s not easy. They’ve developed friendships, they’d like to finish running cross country and playing flag football. Even my four-year-old wants to play soccer, which we signed her up for before I was laid off.

But I know that if and when a job offer happens, we’ll have some tough decisions to make, and we’ll have to make them fast. For this reason, we’ve been talking to the kids about where some of their favorite places to live might be. Just to get them verbalizing their fears and their desires.

I don’t look forward to the sad goodbyes they’ll have to say to their friends or the fact that my oldest son Cole was looking forward to his first hunting season. He also worked really hard to get on the student council so he could broaden his school experience. These things really cut me when I think about moving.

But I don’t want a sudden announcement of where daddy got a job to freak them out, so dinner has been a game all about all the cool possibilities out there. Warm climate or cold climate. Mountains or oceans. This state or that state. We’ve listed the things we like, like rock climbing and cross country skiing as well as our favorite sights, smells and sounds. Personally, I like living next to Big Sky Brewing Company. The smell of warm Grape Nuts in the morning is almost as good as coffee.

Apparently Bermuda, San Diego, India and Alaska are all fair game. 

In they end, we might not get a choice about where we’ll end up, but being collaborative is a process that works for our family. The kids feel they have a stake in the outcome, even when that might not be the case exactly.

As for me, the specter in moving is the massive logistics of moving a household anywhere, be it across town or across the country. It’s tough to set up a life, dismantle it and then set it all up again. But, is the old adage says, life must go on.