Long Story Short: 2008 in technicolor

By the time we got home Christmas evening, my entire family was ready for some individual down time. The day had been great. Perhaps, the best all-around Christmas morning we’ve ever known, but a day of family, presents, paper, ribbons, turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, two fruit pies and one cake warrant some quiet.As I settled in to write this column, I realized that, even though our timing was a little off, not a creature was stirring all through the house. It was late, and we were all exhausted.

Only my camera was between the keyboard and me. It was time to get the column done and go to bed.

However, I can stall with the best of them.

After I uploaded our house’s version of Christmas morning glee to share with all my “friends” on Facebook, I found one image leading to the next.

I’m not proud of this, but every time I find a new chip that holds an amazing quantity of images, I find myself testing the limit. Sitting at my desk, “working” on my column, I saw:


  • Action shots of my family and friends catching more than our share of Mardi Gras beads  
  • Dozens of photos of my daughters at the New Orleans zoo – on the carousel and climbing Monkey Hill (if you haven’t done this lately, make plans to do it soon)  
  • Walking across the National Mall after our spring break marathon drive to Washington, D.C.  
  • Riding the paddle boats around the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial with old friends  
  • Dozens more shots of bubble-making and dancing at a Persian New Year’s party  
  • Kindergarten graduation  
  • An “Artmospheric” series of going-away parties  
  • Swimming and diving through June and July  
  • Making new friends in New Brunswick in August  
  • Picking satsumas with Petunia Scouts  
  • Making homemade pizza  
  • Running through the rain at Vermilionville  
  • Rare snowballs being thrown in front of our home  
  • Cutting down our Christmas tree And on through the holiday season.

    There was 2008 – flying right past me, in full color, some of the series of images creating a sort of jerky flipbook style kinescope on a screen smaller than my palm.

    The 12 months of images brought plenty of smiles to my face.

    On the other hand, some of my favorite childhood memories are with at least one of my grandparents sitting around a shoebox full of old photographs, letters and postcards. My grandparents told me the stories that went with the pictures.

    Sitting there with a year-in-pictures in what amounts to a high-tech shoebox, I thought about how the way one generation tells the next the things of the past continues to change. Though we don’t know how the details of that passing on of yesteryear will happen, I have the faith that it will. That urge to tell the next generation how it was is strong.

    As I looked at 2008, I wondered what 2009 has in store. Given the chance, I could get all worked up about the possibilities of the economy, the geo-political structure at home or abroad and the basics of my own family’s decisions in the coming months and year. However, I’m trying hard to put focus on something someone far wiser said.

    “What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. E-mail her at jan@janrisher.com.

  • Christmas glee vs. laid-off living

    My husband and I made a promise about Christmas this year. You know the kind of promise husbands and wives make. The kind when they swear that this year they’ll keep the promise and not buy each other any gifts? That’s the promise we made. We were serious. We had good reason not to go crazy with the Christmas “stuff,” what with the laid-off living and all (meant to be said in the tone my grandmother would say it.) 

    Last week, two rather conspicuous gifts appeared under our tree. Both marked “Jan.” I had this hope that I knew what they were, but I was literally afraid to say what it was I was hoping for. I knew the hope was unreasonable and ridiculous. Why would I pick this Christmas to really hope for a MacBook? But I couldn’t help myself. Every time anyone asked what I wanted for Christmas, I hedged. I wouldn’t allow myself to say the words aloud.

    So, come Christmas morning, the girls started bringing boxes over for me to open. The first one was the most perfect wicker basket for my bike. It was better than I could have imagined. It has a handle and can be used on and off the bike. Then the second gift came. I opened it and found a super-cool neoprene laptop case with Mac Office inside. I was ready to sing and dance. Julio said, “I guess you should have opened the other one first.” It was the first time since Santa brought me a white 10-speed English Racer when i was 8 that I got exactly what I wanted and hoped for for Christmas. It was perfect. Julio rationalized the extravagance by saying that I use the MacBook for my freelance work. Now I’ve got to get busy getting some more assignments on the horizon.

    birthdays all around…

    We’re celebrating our little girl’s birthday today. Nothing like it, is there? I worry the little thing gets shortchanged because her birthday is two days before Christmas, but she seems to be perfectly OK with this arrangement. She shares my maternal grandmother’s birthday. I know my grandmother would approve of all things Piper. We told her she could pick dinner for this evening — that we would cook whatever she wanted or go out to the restaurant of her choice. She chose to go out. And the restaurant choice? “Picky-dilly,” she said.

    Long Story Short: Today’s column in the newspaper

    I’ve avoided writing this column for more than three months. The topic may seem a little too real for some. It’s something they’d rather not think about. It’s not something to talk about out in the open.
    Some of you probably have your own versions of the tale I’m about to tell. Please e-mail me your stories if you’d like. There’s comfort in finding others who are or have experienced similar situations.
    Here is what happened to us:
    Three months ago, my husband lost his job in a round of corporate restructuring. Just as the television newscasters began to use the “R” word (recession), my husband was laid off.
    Background: When he was 19-years-old, his best friend’s dad hired him. One position within the company led to the next – and last month would have been his 35th anniversary with the same company.
    He worked for a big corporate machine, and he knew how it worked. Somewhere along the slippery slope of the past few years, he would tell you that something shifted. While he had been a small part of turning the machine’s crank for so long, he felt the machine’s wheels beginning to nip at his heels.
    It’s taken us both some time to wrap our heads around the psychology of that shift. First, the company gave him great opportunities along the way. They had a decent college program and paid for part of his education. They contributed a small amount to our adopting our youngest daughter. For that, we’re grateful. We wish them well.
    Nevertheless, the loss of control of what a family believes is its future can instill a great deal of fear. There are still moments, but we’re pretty much over that fear now.
    I won’t lie. I still have some trepidation about how the shifts in things will work out for us long-term, but there’s liberation in the forecast as well.
    Even though my husband is 54-years-old and has never been on a real job interview in his entire life and even though when he and I met nearly 20 years ago, neither of us could anticipate his rising career would end up in a lay-off, we’re happier now.
    I know you’re thinking, “That’s what people say to make the situation seem better than it really is.”
    For real. Life is better. Granted, we’ve made a few adjustments, but we’ve learned that there are other ways to make life work.
    From what I’ve read of other people’s (greats and not-so greats) biographies, it’s times like these when they do something spectacular. Maybe it’s because they know they have less to lose.
    Now that he has some time, here’s hoping my husband invents the next sticky notes, liquid paper, or a better fingernail clipper.
    In the meantime – back in the stratosphere where we live and operate, he has several real possibilities on the horizon. While he has the time, he is becoming a certified teacher. He’ll be a good teacher.
    Unorthodox, but good.
    Funny, caring teachers were always the best in my book. Teaching will be an opportunity (and a challenge) for him to impart some of the goodness he has learned along the way with a different generation – including our own daughters whose schedule he will share.

    Day Whatever…

    For a variety of reasons that may or may not make complete sense once explained, Julio (the spousal unit) and I decided to take this time in our lives to do the remodeling on our house that we’ve been wanting to do for more than three years. Construction is well under way, by now. Why, you ask (as many have), would we start a contruction project after my husband got laid off? Well, because now we have the time and energy to figure it out. In all likelihood, we’ll stay here for a good long time. Even if we don’t, our changes will make the house more palateable to other folks — did I mention we live in a rather odd house? But it suits us. Quite well, in fact.

    Another reason to do the work now is Julio can particiapte in the process. I’ve joked all along that he’s used the lay-off to find his innter Mexican. First, he did the yard. Then he remodeled one of the bathrooms. Now, he’s moving on to full-blown wall framing. Next week comes the dry wall.

    In the meantime, he’s also planning to go back to school. Why not? It seems, for Julio that after doing the same thing for so long, having the opportunity to redefine himself is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you this, I’ve never known the man to be as happy as he is right now. In that sense, his lay-off has been sort of a strange, but still wonderful gift. It really has made us look at how we spend money — foolishly in some senses — and how we’re able to live full and productive lives without spending all the money we were before. I hate to write all of that, because I really don’t want anyone reading this to think that life after being laid-off is all about the money. Again, the change in status is very liberating. If you read many biographies, you’ll recall that there’s a common theme that precedes most “great moments” in people’s lives — something drastic changed the reality they had come to accept before. Maybe they lost their job. Maybe they lost someone they loved. Maybe they lost a limb. Maybe they went bankrupt. Maybe they just moved to a different place. The bottom line is that breaking from the status quo — by choice or not — prompts many people to do things they had never considered before.

    blah, blah, blah — I don’t mean to sound like a motivational speaker. I’m not. Neither of us has done anything spectacular since his lay-off in September. But that doesn’t mean we won’t. There’s still time.

    Day 3:

    So, here’s the thing. I think there’s a real possibility that living in fear of being laid off is much worse than actually being laid off. Once it happens, you get on with it. You have to make decisions. You have to figure out what will work for you and yours. And you find out that there’s a world out there that really isn’t so bad — at least yet! There is that fear of what happens down the road. For me, that fear was instilled by a little book that I like a lot, but it still scared me silly. It’s called “How Starbucks Saved My Life.” It’s written by a man who was laid off from his high paying ad exec job in New York City when he was 54-years-old. At first, he made it OK. Things went down from there. For him, like so many of the rest of us, much depended on health care. Ultimately, he couldn’t get it and ended up working at Starbucks — and got health care.

    I may have mentioned this earlier, but it confounds me how so many people in “the greatest country in the world” are paralyzed by the fear of losing health care coverage. Something’s got to change along those lines. Think of the entrepreneurship that would occur if more people could take a chance, quit dead-end jobs and start working for themselves? There’s something very un-American about having to depend on “the man” to get health care coverage for you and your family. Blast away if you’d like, but that’s what I really believe.

    I guess when it all boils down to it, there’s a part of me scared of our lifestyles changing drastically. And then there’s another part that says, “That’s a silly thing to be afraid of.” At any rate, I definitely feel like we’re right on the apex of some big decision that will shape the rest of our lives. I think it’s times like these when people invent post-it notes or liquid paper. Let’s hope.

    Day 2: Laid-off Living

    First, a disclaimer: I’m wasn’t nor am I now “laid off.” Though I did leave full-time journalism, I did so of my own accord. It was my husband who, after 34 years of working for Gannett, was laid-off in September. As I mentioned in another post, he got a nice severance package for his 34 years of service. It is not the short term that concerns me.

    It’s the long term.

    Our children are 6 and 11. The question of how we make life work after his severance package ends is what he and I are trying to work out in our heads. We’ve come up with lots of options. Everything from teaching to cracker making (see post from Monday).

    To further explain the cracker making idea…a month ago, I was working on a story about Louisiana-made gift ideas. I kept talking to people who just started doing/making what they love to do/make. And one thing led to another for each of them. One woman took making and selling five pints of salad dressing at a Saturday market to making a living for hers and two other families — off the very same salad dressing. Another guy made his wife a wooden spoon out of scraps of wood from a guitar he never finished. Now he and his family travel the globe selling beautiful wooden spoons to chefs and foodies. I was inspired. When I struck upon a tasty homemade cracker, I was like, “Eureka, this could be my wooden spoon.”

    The other thing I’m doing is taking almost all the work I can get right now. I feel like I can’t pass up the opportunity to make some dough (not as in crackers). So, beyond my work at Barnes and Noble, I’m doing all the freelance writing I can find. A few weeks ago, I was about to lose it from too much work and writing. Thankfully, Thanksgiving revived me.

    Julio, in the meantime, is the happiest I’ve ever known the man to be. He is a wonderful person to be around these days — not that he wasn’t before. But, he’s pretty much beeming these days. It took him a while to detox from Gannett. For a while, he was, as I called it, “finding his inner Mexican.” He did the yard. He did some interior renovations. Frankly, family life works MUCH better when one parent stays home. This new situation has prompted me to think a lot about how out of balance life can become when two parents are working all the time, and kids are running from one event to the next. It’s exhausting, and I’m fed up with that kind of lifestyle. In that realm, Julio having a few months at home has been a beautiful thing.

    But, we still don’t know what exactly how we’ll work out the details of the future. More about that tomorrow.

    explanation of last post…

    Most of you know I left full-time journalism about six months ago. Since then, my husband got laid off from his job of 34 years with Gannett (in early September). In the meantime, I’m working at Barnes and Noble. There’s much I’ve wanted to write about, especially since Julio lost his job in early September, that I haven’t been sure the newspaper would want to publish. My column/husband situation — a teeny bit complicated. At any rate, starting today, I’m going to try to write daily episodes of what it’s like for your family’s bread winner to lose his job at the onset of a recession. And then, the trying to figure out what to do from there. It may or may not be interesting, but I’ve decided it’s time I write about it rather than continue to dance around it. Today’s introduction is done. Tomorrow we’ll start getting to the meat and potatoes of the matter.

    Laid-off living in the recession…

    “As great newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and publishing houses dismember themselves around us, it would be marginally consoling if the pink slips were going to those who contributed so vigorously to their companies’ accelerating demise—the feckless zombies at the head of corporate bureaucracies who cared only about the next quarter’s numbers, never troubled to understand the DNA of the companies they took over, and installed swarms of “Business Affairs” drones to oversee and torment the people ‘under’ them.” — Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

    Since Tina Brown said it better than I could, I decided to start off with her overview of what’s going on in media companies in the good ole USA. The Fourth Estate is ailing. And as it ails, democracy itself teeters on the edge of becoming something different. Good journalism has the power to keep those who rule in check.  But, my task today is not to write about what’s going to happen if all the jobs in journalism go away. My task is to write about how losing one continues to affect my life — and the life of my family.

    Here’s the back story. My husband, Julio, worked for Gannett for 34 years. As the newspaper industry began to wither in the last few years, we knew the writing was on the wall for him to be one of the ones to go. He had been there too long. He made too much money. In tough times, newspapers lose marketing — and he was the marketing director. Now mind you, “tough times” needs a definition here. Last week, the Gannett Blog (gannettblog.blogspot.com) listed the 2007 earnings for all of its newspapers. The little ole Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana — with all of the uproar about how much it was losing money and how tough times were and how much I, along with many of my co-workers, worked untold hours beyond the 40 we were compensated to work — only had a 33 percent profit margin last year. Yes, that means they only made about $7.8 million dollars. Where did that money go? Well, I’ll put it this way — the pens they bought for reporters to use would barely write — I kid you not. So, my only conclusion is all that money left the state of Louisiana and went to line the golden halls of Gannett’s corporate offices. I worked there for a while back in the early 1990’s. The difference in the way even the peons at corporate have access to money and the way the local sites scrounge still blows my mind.

    But anyway, Julio and I knew he would be among the first to go. We also knew in as chaotic an arena as this newspaper was being managed, we had to find another way to ensure that our family had benefits. I started looking for another job. In May, I found one and went to work for Barnes and Noble as their Community Relations Manager. It’s been a good fit and a good job. The benefits are great.

    It’s amazing how much of our working lives are about “the benefits,” — health care. I watched this PBS special on health care around the world and how other countries manage it. The U.S. is the only country in which someone can actually lose their home because of their efforts to pay for health care. In my humble opinion — and no offense to my doctor friends — but something needs to change along those lines. We can’t live in “the greatest country in the world” with so many people living in constant fear that they’ll lose everything they’ve worked to build if someone in their family gets sick.

    And I’ve given that a lot of thought in the last three or so years.

    So, in September, just as we had expected, Julio was called into a meeting in the publisher’s office and “let go.” He received a good severance package because he had worked 34 years for the company. In fact, the short term is not a concern for us. It’s the long term that has me constantly thinking about new ways to make money — sort of while the getting is good. For example, I figured out a way to make unbelievably good homemade crackers. And my first thought was, “I could sell these.”