Chicago, Illinois, US
October 15
I enjoy riding my bike around Chicago in my free time, perusing art and gardens, enjoying good beer, and musing on the wackiness of life.


Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 5, 2012 8:18AM

my unintended vacation

Rate: 15 Flag

In the spring of 2009, I was feeling burned out and frustrated at my job.  The brown nosers and backstabbers made the law firm where I worked a daily hell more often than not.  I celebrated the days when the worst of them were out sick or on vacation.  When they were around, Stim and other friends helped keep life bearable.

I was checking the job ads, but there were no promising prospects.  I figured I'd keep on surviving day by day and checking the ads more often. Meanwhile  I kept getting more pressure to deliver on accounts receivable, my least favorite part of the job. 

The economy had already been hammering a lot of our business clients for a while. In the previous year, several had filed for bankruptcy and more had downsized significantly.  Bankruptcies had left us with over a million in uncollectible billings in the last 2 years.  More clients were teetering on the edge, and my bosses were breathing down my neck to collect anything from them.  I did what I could, but how could I get blood from a stone when there was little or nothing to be gotten?

Disputes were breaking out more often between the partners. Many of the uncollectible billings were coming from clients who were their soft spots, who other partners thought they should have cut off long before. What had been rare arguments were turning into monthly or even weekly arguments.  Most of the support staff had no idea this was going on, because they weren't dealing with billing, daily bank deposits and collections like I was.  For me, it was like seeing a train wreck coming but having no way to escape.

One Monday morning in June,  I was diving into my usual routine, reviewing pending tasks and setting my priority list for the week, then going through the mail, recording payments and starting to prepare the bank deposit for the day.  The phone rang.  I checked the display: HR.  I picked up.  She asked "Can you come and see me?"  "Sure."  As I walked down the hall, I was not encouraged by the tone I'd heard in her voice.  When I walked into her office and saw the expressions on her face and the senior partner who was in the meeting, I knew before she said the words I was expecting: "Your position is being eliminated."  It happened to four of us on the same day (one young lawyer, three support staff), but none of the others had a hint that it was coming.

HR and the senior partner went through their spiel, gave me a packet of paperwork, and asked me to stay on a few more days to train a few people to cover various aspects of my job, which was being divided between them.  I spent most of my time in those last days getting  my co-workers up to speed on the additional tasks that I knew would be a burden in their already hectic days. The others who were laid off were walking around stunned on that day.  This cut seemed to be all about the money.  In the months after we left, I heard from friends who were still there that the operation was too lean and not functioning well. 

When I walked out of there at the end of the week, every inch of my body screamed with joy.  "I'm free, I'm FREE, I'M FREE of this hellhole!!!!!!" I never imagined that I would be without a permanent job almost 3 years after walking out of there.

I filed for unemployment right away.  I also got six weeks of severance pay, and that helped.  I took a week as vacation, then started applying for jobs and signing up with agencies. In the first year, I got a handful of promising leads, a few temp assignments and a few interviews.  Over and over again, the continuing theme was "almost."  I collected unemployment for a year while I continued looking.

Having a financial safety net kept me from living in stress 24/7.  About a year and a half before I got laid off, my dad died after suffering from Parkinson's disease for years.  In the process of settling the estate, I learned that he'd been more frugal than any of us realized. My brothers and I each ended up with a substantial chunk of money, and I'd barely touched it before getting laid off. My husband makes good money, and we were able to cover most of our monthly expenses from his salary.  I take a bit of that nest egg each month to cover the rest.

I've kept in touch with a few friends from the old job.  When I left, I was at a point where I was searching for a new direction.  A few of the others were, too.  Some had no desire to work in another law firm, because the legal field had tanked so spectacularly around that time.  Some of the largest firms in town each laid off a hundred or more people that year or the year before.   I heard through the grapevine that my old office laid off more people after I left, and one of the more successful litigation partners had reached the point of enough and left for another firm.

Between temp jobs, I started spending a lot more time volunteering for a few non-profits and found it much more rewarding than the old job - except for the money, of course.  

I went through an extended period where health issues made it difficult even to look for work, because chronic pain from old injuries affecting sleep and everything else.  I didn't feel like I could physically handle a daily commute, much less spending five full days each week at a job in addition to that commute.  At times I've considered looking into disability status, because the pain was so debilitating.  I'm grateful that I was able to be added to my husband's medical insurance without significant additional cost.  That's been a lifesaver.  Last week we closed on a HARP refinancing of our mortgage, lowering our monthly expenses by over $400.  That helps, too.

Several weeks ago I started on a new medication that has radically improved my quality of life and ability to function.  After so many months when I couldn't maintain a regular daily routine because I was so exhausted most of the time, it's been a real effort to re-establish a regular schedule. I'm still not there yet. 

I've taken a series of classes in non-profit management, hoping to improve my chances of getting a job with a non-profit.  I've done some networking at times, and I'm spending more time reviewing job ads, although I'm still finding few that are a good fit.  I'm about to start a grant writing class - one more tool in my quest to transition into the non-profit sector.  This period of lower income has shown me that I could live with less money than I made before.  I'd rather have more job satisfaction and not feel like I'm on a pointless treadmill every day.

I've mulled the idea of starting a new organization, either for-profit or non-profit.   Launching a small multi-faceted business looks the most appealing right now - perhaps a combination like making and selling small items on Etsy, offering organic garden planting and garden care in the neighborhood, doing bookkeeping for small businesses, and boning up on my web design skills and trying to get some web development business.  Volunteer work is my job for now, on a flexible basis. 

In some respects, this whole odyssey has been like an unintended vacation.  Doing the volunteer work (bike projects and events, environmental work, and clean-ups on our neighborhood trail) has been a very positive experience.  I haven't missed the stress of my old job.  We've cut back on expenses - not the end of the world.  We have enough to pay the bills. That's what really matters.

If I had enough money to go on indefinitely without working again, I'd gladly do so.  I have more than enough volunteer projects, gardening projects and other interests to keep me busy 24/7.

Compared to some of my unemployed friends, I feel very fortunate.  I haven't been forced to take a really horrible job, or one with a grueling commute, in order to survive.  That's an incredible blessing, especially in light of my health situation. 

I have no idea what's will happen with my health over the next 5 years.  If the medication keeps working, and I can continue to function with a lot less pain and minimal side effects, perhaps I can regain a more normal life.  If it stops working, or side effects become unbearable, the alternative may be knee replacement surgery, followed by a lengthy recovery.  If I could develop a home-based business that earns a moderate amount of money, that could be ideal.

 For everyone who's working at a job that they suffer through, just to be able to pay the rent and keep food on the table, and those keep working at the job search and keep finding dead ends and almosts, this song's for you.

 I'd like to be working - at something worthwhile, in a situation that won't kill me from stress and physical pain.  I'm hoping that I can find an answer (or combination of answers) within the next year.  The unintended vacation can't go on forever.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
bike---I hope a lot of people read this because this is the new reality for a lot of people.

1. Work comes and goes. The concept of "the job" no longer applies to everyone.

2. Principles---(like quality of life) trump processes (like 'first I do this than that)

3. Everybody's story is their own. So generalized advice becomes a waste of time and can often be patronizing.

4. Becoming part of a community (not just geographic--but any community) becomes huge.

5. Taking care of something (like your non-profit bent) is huge.

Finally health. Turns out it matters to everyone!

Hang in there. You're on a great path.
Roger - You said it very well. I agree SO much about generalized advice. Because our economy and society have become so much more fragmented, one-size-fits-all answers are less helpful than ever.

The sense of community I've found through volunteer work has been an enormous asset in this long strange journey. I've found more overlap than I expected between the bike community and environmental community. Having all of you in the OS community has also made a positive difference in my life.

Health affects everything. That's been one of the biggest lessons. I have a friend who's been in kidney failure for a while and going to dialysis 3 times a week. Needless to say, that's been a life changer for him.

Thanks for the positive words.
This was a great post. Not sure if you are interested, but you might want to check out the Association of Fundraising Professionals, AFP. I commend all that you are doing and I think it will bring you something that will greatly satisfy you. There is a lot of frustration in non profits with the economy and also the inherent aspect of it. If you chose this as your path, be passionate about what you are doing and it will carry you through the ups and downs. You might want to start your own to have the most control.

I found my way to non profits as a development director after years of volunteering. I am currently engaged in other projects but I did that for a number of years. I wish you success and fulfillment.
Sheila - Thanks for the suggestions and encouraging words. My experience with non-profits so far has taught me that choosing a cause I believe in can make a world of difference in getting through the difficult times.

I've volunteered with one non-profit for years on a standing committee to plan many of the logistical aspects of a couple of major fundraisers. That's been a great learning experience. I've met a lot of great people and gained a lot of valuable contacts. My most recent almost was applying for an advocacy job with the same non-profit, which got over 100 applicants for ONE job. They had several candidates who had good job experience in most or all facets of the job. I've got volunteer experience with many facets and some relevant skills - an almost.

I'm going to keep volunteering. Many of the people I meet and work with that way know people in a lot of different organizations. It tends to be a bigger, more connected pond than I commonly find in the for-profit world.
The thing about non profits is that they always need money. So the job of fundraising or 'development' is frequently the easiest place to get a job.

And, since you did collections at the law firm, development takes some of the same skills but is much better.

Knowledge of tax and estate planning is important. It doesn't seem that hard to me, but certainly isn't obvious.

It's kind of like the 'for profit' version of 'you kill what you eat'.

I don't really know. But I would try to volunteer to do either something technical or fund raising.

Good luck. Totally.
Good thoughts, Nick. I'm about to start a grant writing class, and one of the first things on my TO DO list for tomorrow is calling people at the organizations where I volunteer and asking if they'd be interested in a little grant writing and/or fundraising help. (Took a fundraising class previously.) Figured it would be good supplemental learning experience AND a foot further in the door.
A million in uncollectible billings!? We should've talked more often. When HR and Comptroller/Spy bounced me, I sat there emotionless. You know how much I hated that place. I'm really glad to hear that the pain meds are working well.
Stim - You have no idea how bad some of the "behind the scenes" stuff was - probably better that way. It was toxic. I'll leave it at that. Comptroller/Spy - too polite a label for that evil little bitch. I know you don't miss that place.

It would be great to have dinner with you and Mrs. Stim now that you'd had a little time to settle into your new place. Let's figure out a date soon.
Wow, what a great post. I'm happy to see it on the cover. ~r
Joan - Thank you. It was a nice surprise to find the EP earlier this afternoon.
Last summer I interviewed for an office manager job at a small law firm. The job duties and size of the office were a perfect fit for my previous job experience. I had some concerns due to the location (Joliet), but figured I had nothing to lose to going for the interview.

The salary would be about 40% less than I could earn at a comparable job in Chicago's Loop. My monthly train pass would be 34% more than for a commute to the Loop. Joliet is rather depressed area that doesn't have much in the way of stores and restaurants. Instead of having the Loop advantage of many favorite destinations within walking distance - for convenient shopping before work, over lunch or after work, I would have to make extra trips (usually out of the neighborhood) to run errands.

I got on the train, going in the opposite direction of my usual downtown trip. Door to door time was about 1:20 - in good weather with no delays. I was early and spent some time walking around downtown Joliet - grim and bleak. My expectations were low, and the town lived up to them. It's an old blue collar town whose major industries (Joliet prison and manufacturing) aren't what they used to be. It has casinos now - not my cup of tea.

When I got to the interview, my heart sank. The office was a in a dark depressing cave of a building, with very few windows. When we discussed hours and commute options, I said that the train would get me there, but schedule options wouldn't be very flexible because it's a reverse commute. The senior partner said "What about driving?" One of the other partners said "Have you seen that traffic on I-80 lately? The train makes more sense." My answer: "Exactly." I left it at that.

The idea of spending even more money to buy a car, then spend over an hour driving almost 40 miles - in each direction - was just too obscene to contemplate. It would be the train or nothing.

Most of my after-work volunteer meetings or social events happen in or near the Loop or on the north side. The trip from Joliet to the Loop is long enough (almost 1.5 hrs) that I'd get downtown too late for many of the meetings, which would effectively kill most of those volunteer commitments and most of my social life.

When I added up how little I'd actually net from the job, how much extra time and money I'd have to spend running errands, and how much of my life I'd lose due to the combination of longer commute, incompatible schedule and less money, the big picture just didn't work. That didn't even include the mental health bomb of spending 40 hours a week in a dark depressing cave and having no relief when I walked out the door for lunch. I said no thanks.

If I'm going to make that much less, it has to be in a location with a shorter, less expensive commute. There were way too many negatives about that situation, not the least of which was the smug cluelessness of the senior partner that was immediately apparent even in a brief interview.
It's great to see this on the cover! I will keep hoping you find a non-profit job, but in the meantime, your gardening business sounds intriguing. Especially with so much negative information about the commercial food supply out there.
I wish you much luck in pursuing a job that makes you happy, but I am going to rain on your parade a little. Do not assume you will have a better experience working in the non-profit sector. You should follow research coming out of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, like this and this, so that you don't go into a new job with unrealistic expectations of the field.
wishing you the best Bikes- wherever you find it
Tremendous post and how wonderful that you're able to explore new possibilities without the pressure of having to jump right back in. Your odyssey is giving you the opportunity to find out what really matters to you and maybe even make a difference. A friend of mine is at a similar point in her life and she's decided to start a campus food pantry for college students. Huge interest & support from the university, and lots of grant money out there for it. She never would have thought about it if she hadn't had to recently use a food pantry herself and now she's on fire. Funny how one thing leads to another. I think you'll find your answer soon and hope when you do, you write about it.
500words - Thank you for the article links. Yes, I'm going into this with realistic expectations. One of my almosts was for a job with a small non-profit that was having severe problems. Some of my clues came from the interview and circumstances leading up to it. Some came from a contact at one of the non-profits where I volunteer, an organization that works closely on some projects with the one I interviewed with.

There was some very frank discussion in my non-profit management classes. I'm also "inside" enough with one of the organizations where I volunteer to be aware of some of its internal issues and personnel conflicts. I know that the current economic crisis has had major impacts on the bottom line for non-profits. The "culture of NO" in the Republican party has also hurt, because it's affected funding for so many grant programs. I've been doing my homework.

Julie - Thank you!

Margaret - What a great story about your friend, and how she's been able to turn things around and start helping other people. A good friend of mine has been an inspiration in starting a new bike-related non-profit in Milwaukee. I'd like to start a similar organization here, but I'd need to find the right partner(s) to help get it off the ground. Still working on that. There are similar organizations in a few other Chicago neighborhoods, and affiliation with one of them could be an option.

The Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods, just a few miles from where I live, have some serious problems. These neighborhoods lack bike shops, don't have a lot of jobs, and need more positive options for their kids. This certainly would NOT be an easy project. The right community partners would be essential. It might take years to happen, but hopefully it will in time.

West Town Bikes is the oldest organization of this kind in Chicago. The founder is a friend of mine, and he's provided some helpful information. He helped another friend launch a short-term youth program last year in a nearby south suburb, where a group of junior high students had the opportunity to learn basic bike repair skills and earn their own bikes. Getting a program like that off the ground in another location would be a great way to make a difference.
I had no idea the legal field had been hard too -- I thought it was impervious. I work at a job that feels almost unbearable some days and when I look ahead it's hard to imagine still working there in another five years. But it's secure, and I get benefits so I feel I can't leave. Good luck to you in your new pursuits.
Pauline - I absolutely hear you about the benefits. That's keeping a LOT of people in jobs they hate. Many law firms handling corporate, defense and many other types of law have been hurting for a while. The ambulance chasers, workers comp lawyers and others representing individual and class action plaintiffs are still on their feet. In some cases, large punitive settlements severely hurt or bankrupt businesses that have the bigger firms as clients, which then hurts the bigger firms. It's good for plaintiffs' lawyers and their clients. Not so good for all the employees of the defendant businesses and the firms that represent them. Those job losses (coming from a variety of causes) number in the thousands in the Chicago market alone.

David is often looking better than Goliath in this round.
I can relate to so much of what you have written here. I interviewed for PR jobs at two law firms, and my husband told me to count myself lucky I wasn't hired! He told me it was a grind beyond belief. I'm so happy that you are out of there, and you have such a great attitude that I'm sure things will turn around for you. And you've always got the bike! (I ride an Orbea Aqua Dama, and couldn't live without my bike days).
In one way you're fortunate that you can survive without a job. Many aren't in that position. Like others here, I agree that you're best of staying the course while trying to pick up something in the NFP sector. And keep on volunteering - it fills what would otherwise be holes in the resume. Good luck in any case bsb and kudos on such a well written post.
Very strange. I tried to post a response to Deborah's comment last night, and OS apparently malfunctioned. Arrrggghhh!!!

Deborah - I spent about 19 years working at two smaller law firms, less of a meat grinder than a larger firm. Some aspects of it were intellectually stimulating and challenging (including some of the cooler people). Then there were the evil people, who could make life hellish. I never wanted to go to a large firm, where friends have said it's REALLY all about the numbers.

I interviewed at one very large firm years ago. Getting a walk-through of the office on the 2nd interview and seeing the miserable expressions on the faces of most of the support staff killed any glow that the good pay and benefits may have given me for the job. I turned them down for a job at a smaller office (not a law firm).

Orbea - nice ride! Hope it gives you many enjoyable miles.
Abrawang - Yes, I do feel incredibly fortunate. I'm making a point to list the various volunteer commitments on my resume. It shortcuts the process of answering the interviewer's inevitable question: "So what have you been doing since 2009?" Thanks for the positive thoughts.
You're husband's working, why not just relax and enjoy life? Money can't buy true happiness (but it does a great job of imitating).
We'd need to cut down on expenses a bit more to eliminate any need for me to earn income. Also, with the current pension funding situation (not good), we're growing increasingly concerned about having enough for retirement.