Illustration by Yosh Ito

The Upside of Unemployment

Alumnus finds the silver lining in his prolonged job search. by Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Two hundred seventy days and counting.

The time rolls on since I graduated from the Medill School of Journalism and entered the ranks of the unemployed. Financial pressures are mounting as our 11-year-old son, Aidan, still requires food and clothing, and I have not yet shed my weakness for daily showers and a heated home.

It was not supposed to be this way.

After years of early-morning writing sessions and rejected applications, I gained admission to Medill in March 2002. The school sweetened its offer with a generous scholarship, and I left a stable and rewarding career as an educator. My wife, Dunreith, and I packed up our belongings and Aidan, wrenching him loose from his friends and cousins to follow my writing bliss. Fame, fortune and the next big investigative story awaited.

Graduate school could not have been better.

After more than a decade away from student life, it was difficult to get accustomed to doing homework again. Nevertheless, I worked hard in each class, from journalism ethics to a narrative nonfiction seminar to a research methods class. While nerve-racking at first, writing on deadline became more fluid as the year progressed. My wife and I fell in love with Evanston. When she secured a job last June, we took a calculated risk and bought our first home.

Medill's support continued throughout the year. The department invited my family to events, allowed me to readjust my schedule so that I could take the seminars I wanted and let me do work-study assignments at home. They even offered to let me do some temp work after I finished my studies.

I have been there since.

Along with daily-mounting debt, self-doubt has crept in like a gradually spreading rash as the days have stretched into weeks and months. Professors who used to inquire about the job search now say, "You're still here?" with surprise and a hint of disappointment mingling in their voices. First-quarter students start moving away from me as if I have a contagious disease when I tell them about what I am doing.

My follow-up on job prospects has lagged in inverse proportion with my domestic irritability. Talking with my friends who are still in education reveals that they are running departments, completing dissertations and making their way up the coaching ranks, deriving tremendous satisfaction and big enough bucks as they go.

But it hasn't been all bad.

My routine of writing, afternoon time with Aidan and evening reading has given me time to reflect on how my identity has been disproportionately tied to my work, and to slightly change that assessment. Daily workouts have led me to bench-press more weight at one time than I ever imagined possible. And I have reclaimed my personal writing voice, which had been silent for more than a year.

The job search's numbing quality has afforded me a more empathic understanding of the Great Depression, while its duration has forced me to become more patient and appreciative of the gifts I do have, even during a time of economic duress. However, these Zen-like moments are usually punctuated by the arrival of four more gray hairs.

Dunreith's support has been a key factor, as has my son's industry in settling into the neighborhood, making friends and having a positive school year. As hard as it has been not to find full-time work, I have felt my bond with Aidan strengthen as we go to and from school and chat about his day over a tasty snack before he settles in to his homework and The Simpsons.

Some day soon, I expect to receive a call offering me full-time work. I will negotiate before accepting and will end my period of unemployment, grateful for my newfound financial stability and external affirmation. Yet, as I prepare to make afternoon child care arrangements for Aidan, I know that I will do so with a hint of sadness for the loss of the daily connection with life's most important priorities. And I will start the creation of a wistful nostalgia for the days when I attained an inner balance I had sought for many years, but could not wait to lose once it arrived.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein (GJ03) is a freelance writer in Evanston.

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