The Short Loneliness

My title is a reference to Dorothy Day’s remarkable memoir, The Long Loneliness, which I’ve been reading and hope to have something to say about soon. What I mean is that what I’ve been experiencing the last two weeks gives me insight into myself, particularly the worst experience of my mature life.

I’d already been out of work nearly two years when I had a very positive interview right at the end of the calendar year. It was a startup in legal publishing, my specialty; some venture capitalists had bought a small publishing house’s products: files, lists, inventory, some outdated equipment, mostly macs. The intention was to relaunch this line, add to it, and make money with new and streamlined work processes. They were looking to build a professional, that is legal staff, and had been attracted by my resume’s emphasis on task versatility.

It turned out they weren’t ready to hire right away. Would I come and work for them as a contractor? I took advice and negotiated a very nice rate, which probably got us off on a good footing of mutual respect; I tend to undervalue my worth. So I went to work in the new year.

As soon as I arrived in that small organization, I began to feel an enormous rush of verification and confidence. I knew this business, not just what I was supposed to do, but what the people in the cubicles around me were doing too. The guy making a customer call on this side of me? I knew what the sticking point was going to be. The designer across the way, struggling with the pagination and fonts? I knew what had been overlooked in her instructions, and what the solution would end up looking like.

The contrast with the final days of my long-time job, which had left me wondering what I wanted to do, was stark. Our division, once a small versatile company, had been folded into a large and hierarchical organization, where our very virtues told against us. We came to specialize in taking over small-list orphan titles, the fruits of the very acquisitions that had started with us and eventually swallowed an entire industry, and producing updates and supplements in the same style—in every sense of that word—cheaply and quickly. Oh, we were profitable, but we didn’t fit the plan. It was satisfying work for me, reverse-engineering some ancient data, or merely a book on the shelf, and adapting our processes, which used conventional, often virtually free software to make its equivalent so you’d never know it wasn’t the same as it had ever been. Updated too in the sense of legal style and philosophy, so that the intention of the book, its graces and economies, what had made it good in its day, remained palpable. The other parts of the company couldn’t do this and were so focussed on their own processes and empires that they didn’t even try. The feeble attempts they made after our liquidation, when someone had panicked about the missing revenue our products generated, were grotesque and quickly died. It had been good training for me, I knew—wasn’t that what you were supposed to take from your job, in the 90s? skill sets?—but morale suffered as our days and staff dwindled, a long process, and I was one of the handful left to turn out the lights.

The new contract job was also downtown, a wonderful pick-me-up all by itself. We had been for years in an astoundingly featureless suburban office park. I eventually made something of this by conducting an informal but sophisticated natural survey of the soul-less landscaping and abandoned corners of scrub and grass that surrounded us. I knew every tree, bird and mammal over a wide radius, and the list got long. During outplacement, we did the tests of affinities and personality types—is that Meyers-Briggs? I don’t even know—and the conclusion was that while I was certainly ok as lawyer, editor, scholar or teacher, I had really been intended by God to be a field biologist. Anyway, riding the train into the city for the first time in twenty years, since law school, set the tone for my whole day. Moving in the early morning into its bustle and grandeur, I could have devised a fresh paraphrase of the spirit of Hart Crane’s The Bridge every day.

A lot of the work was design. The files for the titles were being converted to Indesign, just then gobbling market share from Quark because it was native to OSX. But they were behind schedule, and needed fresh product fast. The old titles were in Quark. I was asked if it would be possible, while I performed legal review and updating, to “massage” the styling too, and make judgments about many layouts and figures the designers had no way to judge? So that the designers could just design?

I don’t think they really expected a positive reply to that question, but yes, I could do that. In a way, because they quickly asked as they hired even more designers if I could possibly work at home, this represented a diminution in my quality of life, because the downtown and camaraderie and excitement were so germane to my happiness, but it was what the project needed then, and I was damn useful. So I put a mac together out of parts in my attic, a 601, barely modern but capable of running the later version of the classic OS, got a copy of OS 8.5, of Quark, of the necessary fonts, by scrounging from my friends. I was up and running. Then I chewed through about a dozen titles in three weeks, going downtown every other afternoon or so to exchange files, and soak up the atmosphere.

Then they pulled the plug on the project, and went down to a skeleton staff. They’d become suspicious of the titles, that they’d paid too much for them, and that the potential might not be there. I’d contributed in my way by writing memos about the shortcomings I was finding, but I’d assumed this would be useful for a determined effort, to be fixed in time, not a reason to change course.

So as suddenly as it had started, it was over. And having been so high, I didn’t just go down to the place I’d been before, but right through the floor into free-fall. It was the shock, of having my needs for professional and personal fulfillment met, and then just as suddenly withdrawn, that did it.

The next half year or so was horrible. I had what I now know are classic depressive symptoms, but which I didn’t know how to interpret then. I couldn’t work, nor do much else. I missed deadlines on free-lance projects as the world went dark, and thereby lost the connections that generated that work. I eventually got prescribed drugs, which left me numb. It actually felt that way, but it’s also a good euphemism for all its effects. I started seeing a therapist I still see, and on my wife’s suggestion, for she was very distressed about where they left me, stopped the drugs. I was soon back to my sub-optimal, normal self.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve been building myself to the most confident and un-depressed state I’ve been in my entire mature life. My online life under this identity has played a very big role in this, as I’ve sorted through my identity, and brought things back into view that had been lost for ages. I began working as a contract attorney, with a long commute as described on this blog, and while that basically paused my activity here, I commented plenty, and the paycheck and regular routine, however draining were wonderful. But when that came to an end, I didn’t miss it so much. It was in that sense quite a bit like my long-time job, even to the work environment, inside the building and out. It was easy for me to attack the deferred maintenance around here in a good mood, as in the Flood post below.

And then, for several weeks, I was on an exceptional document review project. Even though starting from a much higher place, the lift, the high was vertiginous. The team was amazing, much older and more varied than the typical collection of recent grads, many veterans of the process. High quality people, whom I could talk to all day without running out of things to say; we all felt that way. The reasons they were there at all resembled my own: an unconventional career path had run its course, leaving us high and dry, essentially with an unemployable specialty. People weighing legal careers should consider the assurances you’ll receive that you don’t have to practice law in the light of my experience.

Even by the standards of this group, I was very efficient. I would guess that only the guy on my left, a U of C Law grad and one of those shambling geniuses whose clothes would fall off within the hour if he stood still, was more productive, and he missed things I didn’t. We finished on time and the firm met its production deadline, and we dispersed.

And of course, I feel the decompression again. This time I know what it is, and have plenty of hope for more work, but losing it now, even in the normal course, leaves me bereft. I’m tempted to compare myself with someone thrown in a cell, but of course that’s absurd and obscene, at this moment. But I do have to start up my life again, and at least get back to where I was a few weeks ago, before this episode, in my capacity to fill my life with useful activity and company. I need to brace for the surges and undertows of these experiences, and what they tell me about my responses are a valuable key to my needs.

2 Responses to “The Short Loneliness”

  1. Doug Says:

    Gah, long-term projects on a freelance basis. Does anything recur in your field?

    I did the freelance thing for six years, and what was really good (apart from the weekly reporting gig) was the kind of project that would come back quarterly or annually. They’re hard to get starting out, but they’re the foundation of freelance stability.

    One thing I never did but should have was a business plan, as if I were a startup looking for funding, or just to define where I wanted to go.

    Good luck!

  2. idontpay Says:

    Thanks. I’ll either eventually land an editing job w/ benefits, or work document review long enough to either take it in-house as an expert or get really good at lining up projects one after the other. And for every day of work I missed at what should have been mid-career, I’ll have to work at least two at the back end. For that, at least, temporary assignments should be possible so long as I’m physically able. I see myself needing to work as hard and often as I can in my late seventies.

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