Friday, September 18, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Layoffs


A couple days ago, I was reading Lucas some bedtime stories; among them was one of my favorites, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. As I read, Lucas was mumbling about something else, so I had to focus extra hard on the text. Reading deliberately, it turns out, has its dangers; in the middle of the book I had a revelation that the book wasn't at all about the challenges of having food fall from the sky.

In case you're not familiar with Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett's book (1978), a quick plot synopsis: A man tells his two grandchildren a tale of the tiny town of Chewandswallow, where instead of having supermarkets or raising their own food, the townsfolk depend on the weather to bring in storms of hamburgers, orange juice rain, clouds of sunny-side-up eggs, and Jell-O sunsets. But then, inexplicably, the weather takes an erratic turn, and, besieged by pea soup fogs and house-crushing giant food falling from the sky, the people of Chewandswallow flee the town for a new land, where they must adjust to rainwater, packaged food, and supermarkets.

As I read the book this last time, it increasingly seemed at once an allegory and a parable for my own life.


Recently, I caught up with several far-flung friends and colleagues, and I heard--explicitly, in the anecdotes they shared, and implicitly, in the alternately wistful and frustrated tone of their voices--a desire to move on to something new, even if it meant walking away from their current careers, where over decades they have built up a good deal of respect, authority, and expertise. They're in their 40s and 50s, and I'm 34, but I must admit I was feeling the same existential angst.

We admitted to intellectual fatigue, to wanting to have new conversations rather than rehashing the same old ones that kept arising. We wanted to move forward, to be creatively productive, to be proactive rather than merely reactive.


As many of you are undoubtedly learning through articles in higher ed publications or--God forbid--first-hand experience, the University of California is kind of a sucky place to work right now. We've gone beyond the point where the budget cuts are damaging the quality of our programs; the cuts have become personal. Some of us have been more than cut to the bone. We're oozing marrow.

We're in hedgehog mode, rolling up in little balls hoping to escape the budget scythe, hoping we don't lose our jobs and health insurance and our ability to provide for our families. We're being kicked while we're down.

So is it any wonder that when I read "Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate," I felt as if I had been punched in the chest?

Last week we were informed that employees represented by the clerical and technical unions that had not agreed to furloughs would be laid off for the same number of days that they would have been furloughed. I'm not represented--not by my choice, I assure you--but half of our office staff is. We non-represented employees are having our annual salaries cut by a percentage that varies with how much we make (e.g. I'm taking a 6% cut), with each paycheck being reduced by that amount. So yes, losing 6% of my salary sucks, even with the 16 furlough days I've "earned" as a result, but at least the pain is spread across 12 pay periods. Not so for the union-represented employees. My coworkers will be temporarily laid off for a certain number of consecutive days. If I were union-represented, for example, I would be laid off for 16 consecutive workdays--meaning my paycheck for that month would cover only 4 days. How many of us could live for a month on 4 days' wages?

Worse, these union-represented employees will also be required to observe the 11 mandated campus closure days (during which the rest of us will be using furlough days). They'll need to cough up some vacation or comp time or take those days off without pay. Which means a union-represented employee earning my salary could lose 27 days of pay this fiscal year.

Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate. Overcooked broccoli. Brussels sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise. Or nothing but Gorgonzola cheese all day long.

Another day there was a pea soup fog. No one could see where they were going.


I asked our budget person about upcoming cuts. As I said, we're already hemorrhaging, losing staff and being asked to find grants to pay for our own keep. She said she expected another $100,000 in cuts to our unit this coming year. We've already lost at least $200,000, maybe $250,000--I've lost track. Here's the deal about the $100,000, though--we only have $70,000 in our current budget for non-salary expenses. You do the math.


Confession: Fang and have $30 in savings and something like $75,000 in debt from student loans, debt Fang brought into the marriage, emergency car repairs during grad school when I was only making $13,000 a year, dental bills, vet care for the last dog, etc. We try to live within our means, but our means are a bit modest right now.

Alert: Fang needs $1900 in emergency dental care at the end of the month. We found out today the dog might need shoulder surgery. And we're spending $1,600 to attend a relative's wedding next month. We can't not attend the wedding because the groom is shipping out to his first tour in Afghanistan shortly thereafter.

When you take into account the university's freezing of staff (but not faculty) salaries the past couple of years, my pay has actually declined 13% over the past two years--and that doesn't account for inflation. Considering only one year I've worked here has the university offered merit increases (of 4%), I'm making considerably less than when I started.

We live, in short, hand to mouth. The cost of living in this town outstrips our salaries. And I'm tired of freelancing, of selling used books on Amazon in an attempt to make ends meet. I don't want to have another yard sale.

I know there are people in far worse shape. At least we have jobs. (For now.)

Everyone feared for their lives. They couldn't go outside most of the time. Many houses had been badly damaged by giant meatballs, stores were boarded up, and there was no more school for the children.


So what do we do in the face of tomato tornadoes and hurricanes of hard rolls?


Well, what did the people of Chewandswallow do?

A decision was made to abandon the town of Chewandswallow.

It was a matter of survival.

The townsfolk made sailboats out of giant pieces of stale bread and set sail on their rafts for a new land.


So I ask myself: What constitutes a new land?

Never have I had so many ideas and so little hope. I feel over the past few years I've set sail a dozen tiny boats, none of them seaworthy on their own.

Right now I'm trying to find the one or two projects on which I really want to focus, the ones where I can get busy slathering peanut butter between two huge pieces of stale bread before I jerry-rig some sails from oversized slices of pizza and Swiss cheese.

And I'm doing it all without the benefit of medication, which is making it especially hard on me, and on Fang as well. It's hard to be positive or to imagine--let alone chart a path to--a better future. In my current financial situation, it's hard not to resent the university--both as the grantor of a three graduate degrees I'm realizing are largely unmarketable and as my current employer. It's especially hard because in a perfect world Lucas would have a sibling, but my fertility and I are staring down the barrel of "advanced maternal age" and we can't afford another child, and won't be able to for a long time. I feel as if that decision has been taken out of my hands somewhat by my decreasing salary, and I resent that, too.

I'm so ready to be somewhere else--mentally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, perhaps physically. I used to be the kind of person who could steer her own life in an appropriate direction. But for now here I am, with my stale bread and my peanut butter, wondering which way the wind will blow us next.


ScienceWoman said...

Oh, trillwing, I don't know what to say, other than I hope you and Fang find a better place (financially, emotionally, geographically) for your family.


Unknown said...

I hate that I have nothing to offer to help. I wish I ran a successful business or something cause I'd totally hire you. I think there are people in this crisis who've been feeling the fatigue and frustration you describe a lot longer and I think they've largely been ignored. And they're still being ignored.

I am crossing my fingers for you and hope that beautiful sunny weather comes your way soon.

BrightStar (B*) said...

I am so so so sorry. I hope that you find a better situation, somehow.

I do like the metaphors that you're playing with in this post. But I am sorry that they feel so real to you.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I am so sorry, trillwing. I wish I could at least send you some fresh bread (though, alas, it would probably be stale before it got there).

I think this post ought to be required reading for anyone contemplating graduate school in the humanities.

Kate said...

No words, just hugs. A gorgeous and heartrending post that every university administrator had better read. And hopes in your direction that you decide whether to try to change the weather, or set sail for new horizons.

I guess that's my only issue with this metaphor. Are these budget woes inexorable like the weather? Can we do something about it? I'm asking seriously, not rhetorically, not to make light of this very serious situation the UC system and many other systems (including my own -- my dept *might be cutting its whole grad program*). But does the loss of hope stem from an idea that the folks in power get to tell us how it's going to go? Is collective action possible? Again, I'm asking honestly, not to be a Pollyanna.

Is it possible to change the weather? What would it really take from us, working together?

Anonymous said...

I have been a reader, but never a commented. I feel for you and working in higher ed also fear everyday what the weather will bring.

I also love this book and know there are others out here wishing you well!

Karina said...

Wow, what a tough place to be. I hope that you'll find a better place to work soon. You are so eloquent.

Rick Bishop said...

Dear Trillwing ...

I spend almost all my time researching one thing or another. I happen chance any number of sites, blogs, etc. My current project on Brazen Hussies led me to several sites, incluing yours; "The Clutter Museum".
I don't know 'why?', but I decided that reading your blog was important and necessary to my current article that I am in the process of writing ... Which just so hapeens to be titled, "Brazen Hussy". If you are ever interested in wanting to know 'why?' I chose that topic to write about, please let me know;

I rarely comment on peoples blogs, because I believe that blogger's friends and/or family will comment enough. But after reading several of your entries, I feel compelled to offer some comment. Not that it would matter, whatever I said. You are one of the more gifted writers I've come across. In fact, your award of "Rockin' Girl Blogger" by Dr. Brazen Hussy is what got me interested in studying your blogs in the first place. All of which I found in my general research.

I chose this blog entry to respond to, because of something I sensed ... You have every right to be angry, frightened, and confused. The current economics of the U.S., as well as the rest of the world is very inhibiting and challenging. I have spent 17 years with my wife, whom I lovingly refer to as SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed), referencing the BBC Television Series ">Rumpole of the Bailey" ... The point I want to make is that, I hope to grow old with her. At close to 56 years of age, I am part way there, I know 56 is young, but certain life events have taught me that anything can happen to anyone, at anytime. Regardless of their health or situation.

I mention all this because you are a gift, Trillwing. Just as those in your life are gifts ... People ... In as much as some of them drive us to perdition, they are 'why' we do anything. I decided to comment at this time because I had sensed something in what you wrote. I am grateful to you for your words, because they are inspirational. They provoke thought, they compel understanding, and they glimpse us to parts of your world, Both real an imaginary. You have given your readers moments that were held laughter, that were insightful, and some, like this one ... That pull upon ones heart felt emotions. Thank you, Trillwing. I don't know 'why?', but I was compelled to tell you this. I hope you can understand that I meant no offense in writing my comments, only encouragement. I truly wish you and your family the best.

Leslie M-B said...

Thank you to everyone for your comments, sympathy, empathy, and encouragement.

I know that many of you are facing the same--the exact same--issues, and I wish we had better forums for making public exactly how all this BS in higher education is affecting not just the quality of teaching and learning taking place on our campuses, but also how it's hard, really hard, on those of us who labor to make it all possible.

What Now? said...

A beautiful post, eloquent in its depiction of the suffering so many folks are dealing with either in the moment or the near future. I'm wishing you and the entire state of California better weather. And I think Kate is asking some great questions here in the comments.

JustThinking said...

While I am terribly sorry to hear that things are going poorly for you, I have to tell you that your writing in this post is beautiful.

Sending my love and good thoughts to you and yours!

Jeff Mather said...

We're here for you. Let us know how we can help.