ON Friday we learned that the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent last month and that the economy lost 263,000 jobs.
I have been unemployed since February. I have also been incredibly busy.
My last job lasted one afternoon. I showed up at a large parking lot in a semi-remote area with a group of other job seekers. In a large area cordoned off with orange traffic cones, we walked around wearing fake suicide bombs and emitting low-level radiation. Our job was to test bomb-detection equipment. I earned $44.
After that, even temporary work petered out. I am not unemployable. I have a master’s of fine arts and spent two years in the Peace Corps. All that looks fine on my résumé. But there are also gaps in my work history: long empty months punctuated with only temporary periods of employment. I have had lots of opportunities to practice glossing that over for potential employers.
The truth is, I don’t have a lot of real-world career experience. I worked my way through college as a baby sitter, sandwich-maker, camp craft director and nursing-home aide. After graduation, I held to my chest a spotty collection of skills sprinkled liberally with artistic theory and personal vision.
In my master’s program, we talked a lot about theory and personal vision. We could experiment with whatever we wanted and it was wonderful. We tried not to dwell on earthy, unpleasant topics like money, or how to make it.
In the Peace Corps, I taught art as a vocational skill. Artists, the headmistress at my school in Ghana told me in words that were less than prophetic, “can always make a living.”
If I were to make an artwork expressing this period of unemployment, I would make stacks and stacks of little box-shaped rooms wallpapered with résumés. Each room would have one little person inside and one window. That is what I felt like. Boundless possibilities, but hemmed in by the walls of an apartment where I spent every day looking for a way to afford all the things I wanted to do.
The worst thing was the feeling of uselessness — the fear that I was simply unskilled and unable to compete. Where had I miscalculated when I was planning out my life?
An unlikely solution finally pulled me out of my metaphorical shoebox wallpapered with résumés.