Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolve to Help the Unemployed - 10 Suggestions

After nearly a full year of unemployment I can honestly say that I have been comforted and helped in many ways by the support and generosity of my friends.  I am one of the lucky ones who has been able to make the most of it, but it has still been a frustrating, frightening and humbling experience; never have I felt more vulnerable. 
If you know someone who is unemployed, and almost everyone does these days, you want to help, but may have no idea what to do.  The most important thing to remember is rather than asking “What can I do to help?” -- just do it. 
As with other unfortunate situations such as divorce, death of a family member or serious illness, an unemployed person is often paralyzed by fear, stress, depression, financial pressures or simply being overwhelmed by life.  The unemployed cannot focus on how to help you help them; they just need for you to do something.
Here are 10 of the most helpful things people have done for me, illustrated with photos from the United States Botanic Garden:

1.  Stay in touch, especially if you are a former colleague.  Call, write, or drop by.   Do something out of the ordinary such as offering to bring lunch or dinner.  If they live alone, share the meal with them.  Isolation can be devastating and your presence will help.

2.  Don't ask if you don't want to know.  Most people ask “how are you?” and don’t really want to know. Letting out the real truth is invigorating and the unemployed need reinvigoration.  Encourage them to dump on you if you can take it; if you can’t, don’t ask.

3.  Include your unemployed friends in opportunities to network.  Painfully obvious when you become unemployed is that your identity in Washington, DC is about who you work for and what you do.   Invitations stop because you no longer have the work identity; you lose your connections quickly. Include your friends in events with networking opportunities or simply to stay current in their field.

4.  Share relevant information.  Send helpful articles about employment trends, movements in the industry, or actual jobs.   Tell them about your work and ask for their guidance.  Give them the latest gossip.  When you are unemployed you miss the rush of being able to give advice and help to others.

5.  Invite them to meet for lunch during the work week.  You do not need to buy, but do suggest a place that is inexpensive.  While well-intentioned on your part, it is awkward to be on the receiving end of a free lunch if it is not your usual arrangement.  

6.  Help them network by asking some of your contacts to meet with them for an informational interview.  Forward their resume and give them contact information to make the follow-up calls. Building a network is the foundation for job-hunting success; each person they meet with should provide additional contacts.  Follow up to make sure they have a clear plan of action for follow-ups. 

7.  Offer to critique their resume and sample cover letter.  This is invaluable help. Nobody can be objective about their own writing; you may identify obvious errors, lack of clarity, or inconsistencies that could cost them an interview.

8.  Help them practice their elevator speech.  In particular, those making career changes need practice selling their qualifications and their career objectives to others.  Offer to listen and critique or get others involved and provide group support.

9.  Put on a little bit of pressure.  We unemployed are insecure and defensive. Unemployment breeds lack of confidence and your encouragement and gentle push can move them through the fear that poisons the ability to act.   Be firm but kind when they need to do something differently or more diligently. 

10.  Ask them to use you for accountability.  It may help for them to report to someone daily or weekly about the number of contacts they make or resumes they send.  It helps to have someone to crow to and receive high-fives from.  You could spur someone to action when they are feeling depressed and deflated. 

Please make it one of your resolutions to reach out to someone who needs employment. 

Update:  I am still not fully employed, but things are better.  
information on current unemployment issues for women

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas: Enjoying the Small Stuff

This was the simplest Christmas I can ever remember.  And it was one of the most relaxing and special.  Traditions continued, but excess was absent.

Due to the employment situation, I gave fewer gifts.  Those that I gave were very personal and I had some role in their construction. I had to be more creative as well as budget-conscious.

Our centerpiece for Christmas Eve dinner was made from holly from the garden, three lovely pomegranates and candlabras  with white candles.  What a savings to eliminate the flower arrangements, and the simplicity was quite lovely.

Early in the season both of my sons suggested that perhaps I had been a bit over the top in past years and that this was a good year to cut back.  As one said, "I couldn't find enough people to give all that chocolate to," referring to the bulging Christmas stocking.  This year instead of feeding my tendency to over-consume, I was more thoughtful and careful with my purchases.  

We made charitable contributions.  With friends, we agreed to keep it simple.  Isn't this what the spirit of Christmas is about?  Family, friends, sharing, and giving thanks?

We have some traditions that are perhaps not the norm, but cause me to smile when I think of them. 

  • Dining with friends on Christmas Eve followed by late church service ending at midnight and walking home under the stars when it is Christmas Day.
  • Bubble wrap must be stomped and popped.  Contents of packages are forgotten until every bubble has been burst, causing the dog to go crazy, tearing the plastic to shreds.
  • Present-counting.  There is some status to being the one with the most presents and someone always rakes all the presents out from under the tree, sorts them into piles by name and counts.
  • Waking up early.  Regardless of how late the children (now adults) sleep, Mom wakes up at 6 and is too excited to go back to bed.
  • Eating special foods:  garlic cheese  grits, ham,  mimosas, strong hot coffee, and homemade sweet rolls (yeast dough, cinnamon, pecans, brown sugar, butter).  We talk about them for months leading up to Christmas.
  • Baking extra cinnamon rolls and delivering them on foot to nearby friends.
  • Working a puzzle or playing a game together. This year we played Scrabble and my first word earned me 82 points, a record.

We didn't miss the excess of past years.  In fact, I  think we enjoyed each other more than we every had.  It has been fun.  Next, we make our New Year's Resolutions and return to healthy eating habits.  
Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Making the Most of It by Indulging in Simple Things

The record-breaking snowstorm that hit the Washington, DC area this weekend provided opportunities for family time and enjoying the simple pleasures of just being.  We had no agenda or to-do list to work from.  It was a wonderful free-for-all, just like the snowstorm.

Friday night, after about two inches of snowfall, two of us took a walk with the dog and marveled at the beauty of the thin blanket already covering the neighborhood.  Walking through the park, we talked about how the falling snow glistening in the walkway lights looked like falling diamonds.  The dog enjoyed chasing what meagre snowballs we could scrape together.  We looked in windows to see who had the prettiest Christmas trees.

On Saturday, it snowed the whole day.  We built a fire and kept it burning.  I took photographs; the dog ran about chasing "it"; the birds enjoyed the suet cakes; and we baked cookies (chocolate candy cane cookies and snowballs).  Later we made hot chocolate and ate our baked creations.  We decided that the chocolate candy cane cookies were the best new cookie.   On Sunday night, only four remain from a double batch.  See below for recipe information.

Later Saturday, we made ham and cheese biscuits, took naps and looked at the snow falling. We talked about Christmas plans.  We read books and worked sudoku and crossword puzzles.  That evening we attended a neighborhood Christmas party.  It had been a perfect day and we had 16-17"of snow.

Today was sunny and glorious but due to the heavy snow, even church was closed.  We drank coffee, ate good leftovers and took a long walk with the dog to survey the neighborhood.  We each ate at least one cookie before lunch!

The almost 12 year old dog ran loose in the park and became a puppy again, chasing snowballs and that elusive "it" again.  Back home, he collapsed for hours.  The human family members shoveled snow, shook snow off of stressed tree limbs, surveyed the property for damage and cleaned our cars, which were nearly buried in the snow.  Neighbors were doing the same and we compared stories.  While shoveling, the boys especially enjoyed beers iced in the snowbanks.

By late afternoon, the eldest was on the road back to his home in Maryland and his brother was working at the local independent toy store which was busy with neighborhood shoppers.  The dog continued napping.

I went back to my work, still smiling about the perfect weekend.  I love my time with my sons and this weekend was an especially nice one because it was unstructured and list-free.  It gave me plenty of time to douse myself with their radiance and observe their likable, lovable, individual personalities.  What a blessing.  Let it SNOW!!!


Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies:  For the recipe:  

Snowball Cookies:  Mystic Seaport's Christmas Memories Cookbook 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Unemployment: Unintended Consequences: Escape to Manhattan

Friends had repeatedly invited me to visit them in their home in the Flatiron District in New York.  With children grown or away at college, they had space – an unusual occurrence in New York.  It is a perfect time of year to visit the city.  New York knows how to welcome the Christmas season.

After I finally agreed to make the trip, with plans to do some job hunting and networking while there (via my laptop and with a list of positions that needed resumes and cover letters), I received a call for a real live job interview in NYC with the national office for a position in their DC office.  

Note: good things happen unexpectedly when you make decisions and stop hesitating to make travel plans!  

With the interview set, this trip was no longer an indulgence and I could keep my costs down thanks to my friends.

I traveled on the BOLT Bus from DC for a total cost round trip of $35.  The electricity and wireless connections on the bus enabled me to post a blog on the 4.5 hour trip there and edit photos all the way back.  It was great. 

Things I had forgotten about New York
  • It is noisy.  I slept restlessly the first night due to the constant street noises.  
  • The architecture is so interesting and the tops of buildings are so high.  I got a stiff neck from constantly looking up; I love the lions and historical figures in the facades -  many were several stories high.
  • Depite how close everything is, it takes a while to do anything.  There are people everywhere.  Someone is always in the way. Buses are crowded and it isn’t always easy to get a cab.
  • Steam heat is warm.  Despite the very cold temperatures outdoors, you really need to be able to strip down to short sleeves inside some buildings.  Thank goodness for coat check at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Something is always going on.  I saw hundreds of 20-somethings bar hopping in the interesting event called “Santa Con” .  I have never seen so many jolly Santas and in such creative get-ups.  My one photographic regret is that my camera was packed in my backpack and I couldn’t catch these red-clad euphoric celebrants in all of their drunken glory.
  • Even the familiar is different is New York.  I shopped at Trader Joe’s for ingredients to make dinner.  The store was packed at 10 am on a Thursday.  It was large and much more crowded with three times more checkout stands, all open for business. I waited in line for more than 20 minutes to check out.   I noted that for $9.99 you could have all of your purchases delivered – a bargain.
  • Although often crowded, the bus is a good way to travel.  When I am not at home, I want to see the sights so I do not like to travel the subway.  Usually I walk and take cabs, but this trip I saved money by taking the bus.
  • Suggested admission fees are for those who can afford them.  I gave $10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the suggestion was $20.  Unemployment counts for something and I made up for it by buying my lunch in their cafeteria.   I was pleased that my Smithsonian Contributor Membership got me in free at the Cooper-Hewitt museum in the lovely old Andrew Carnegie mansion.
Important things to see at Christmas
Fifth Avenue.  The store windows and decorated buildings are so interesting and dazzling.
Bryant Park – Watch the skaters, enjoy the European-style holiday shops and treat yourself to lunch at the Bryant Park Grill.  The park also has a lovely small carousel with beautifully painted animals.
New York Public Library - On Fifth Avenue, sharing the block with Bryant Park, is this beautiful beaux-arts building that was completed in 1911.
Macy’s on 34th Street – the modern Christmas fantasy windows are so creative and lively.  The people-watching is fun here.  Inside, the store is resplendant with holiday cheer.  Every floor has special holiday touches.  Watching the children and parents in line for the Santa visit is fun, and visiting the floor with Christmas decorations makes you realize there is no theme without a tree decoration.

Metropolitan Museum of Art:  See the Christmas tree and its eighteenth century Neapolitan Baroque Creche.  Photographs of the tree and creche are not allowed ,but you can visit the website   The dome of the entrance hall is lovely and from the second floor you can look over the mass of humanity or up at its graceful arches.

Rockefeller Center - Follow the crowd.  Watch the skaters and see the beautiful tree and decorations.

Chelsea Market - The market is located on the site of what was originally the National Biscuit company in the 1890’s and became the New York Biscuit Company where Uneeda Biscuit, Premium Saltines, Vanilla Wafers, Fig Newtons, and Barnum's Animal Crackers were once manufactured before production was moved to New Jersey.  In the 1990’s, the main building was renovated to create an unique marketplace that incorporates many of the original features including weaving old floors, ducts, heavy industrial metal pieces and signs, creating what the website calls a “post-industrial theme park”. The market is filled with eco-friendly holiday decorations including trees decorated with used CDs with creative lighting, wreathes made from old plastic cups, and snowflakes made from plastic forks and knives.  It is a good place to shop for holiday items and features cafes and shops full of gourmet and baked goods, seafood (The Lobster Place), and Bowry Kitchen Supply selling an amazing array of kitchen necessities.
Union Square Park - This park is surrounded by beautiful architecture and lots of shopping.  In the park you can buy your Christmas tree, beautiful wreaths, maple syrup, fruits and vegetables and gifts.
Central Park
After walking north on Fifth Avenue to look at the stores, visit Central Park South and see the horse-drawn carriages, the living statues of liberty and enter the park by the zoo.  It is a pretty walk and, even in the winter, there is much to see.  I enjoyed the park in the late afternoon after a big rain.
Hoboken, NJ
We took the PATH train and arrived quickly.  The faces on the train were all young and fresh; Hoboken seems to be the spot for the young professionals who want an easy commute and not the hassle or expense of living in Manhattan.  Our dinner at Tutta Pasta was excellent and the mild weather allowed us to walk and marvel at the choices of local shopping, restaurants and bars.   
Hollywood Diner
We enjoyed an early breakfast at this Chelsea authentic diner.  Their delicious hot coffee and omelets fueled us for a long walk in the cold.
The High Line
Constructed in the 1930’s to elevate dangerous freight trains off of Manhattan’s streets, The High Line is today an innovative park providing unique city views, innovative uses of the old railroad tracks, a safe pet-free walking trail and attractive natural plantings and creative architectural design. Running from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, the first section is open to 20th Street.
Heavenly Rest Stop
After a long 40-block walk up Fifth Avenue from Bryant Park to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, I stopped a block shy of the museum to peek into the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest and enjoy coffee and a delicious blackberry scone at their cafe, the Heavenly Rest Stop.  After fighting crowds all morning, the lovely church and the quiet cafe made a particularly nice respite.
Home Depot
Their attractive Flatiron District Home Depot has holiday window displays!

It was a great trip.  The interview went well and I learned that it pays to get away. Nothing beats visiting with old friends, relaxing and enjoying all of the wonderful additions to the Christmas season.  I arrived home relaxed and ready to tackle what is left of the year.  My new motto:  Take advantage of travel opportunities and good things will happen.