Mike Tharp: Lesson learned from being laid off

March 7, 2009 

Mike Tharp

Laid off.

Separated, each word holds lighter meanings. Sex. Holidays.

Together, though, they tell of the end of times. The end of a job. The end of a paycheck and benefits. The end of one-third of your day. Two-thirds of when you're awake.

Laid off.

It's no secret that McClatchy and the Sun-Star are going through another round of layoffs, on top of the two rounds last year. Nearly every newspaper company in the country is taking the same tack. This is the worst financial quarter in the history of the American newspaper business.

The litany of layoffs is all too familiar to us Mercedians. We all know somebody who's been laid off or fears being laid off. Companies here -- big, medium and small -- all have been forced to resort to layoffs to stay in business.

However rational a management decision, it doesn't matter much to those now without a job. All that matters is that their lifeline to labor has been cut. All that matters is how they will cope -- or not -- with the so-called New Reality of the global depression.

I know. I've been there.

I've been laid off.

June 8, 2001. The 45th anniversary of a tornado that roared through Topeka, where I grew up. It came within three blocks of our house, killed 16 people and did $100 million in damage.

On its anniversary I answered the phone in my home office in San Pedro. Over the next five minutes a tornado swept through my life and career. The managing editor of the news magazine I worked for was on the phone. So was an HR functionary.

My 14-year career as a bureau chief in Tokyo and correspondent on the West Coast was history. I sat in the chair, trained by decades of reporting to take notes -- but it was in a scrawl shakier than when I interviewed a Somali imam or a Kosovar warlord.

I wrote down what they told me to Fed-Ex back to the home office: Sony Vaio laptop, cell phone. Papers for me to sign for severance and a nondisclosure agreement that would arrive tomorrow. Sign and send back. COBRA health care for six months.

Do you understand, the HR apparatchik asked.

"Why?" I croaked. "Why?"

"Economics," said the managing editor. "Strictly economics. No reflection on you or your work." More than 100 others were laid off that day, the first of many layoffs at the magazine.

I'd been through the deaths of a father, a mother and a brother, who was closer to me than anybody. I'd been through divorce. I'd been through war, as a soldier and as a correspondent.

This hit me as hard, or harder, than any of those. My life had been my work. Since 16, off and on, I'd been a reporter. Forty years. My business card had been my backstage pass to life.

I never considered what I did a job. It was a calling. It was a mission. Now I'd been relieved of duty.

Now it was over.

How did it affect me? How did I handle it?

"You became a recluse," says Greg Bien, my best friend since high school.

"You were totally not yourself," says Debbie Vasquez, my neighbor for 17 years in San Pedro.

"It depressed you beyond belief," says Randy Riggins, my Gulf War buddy.

For a long time, I was the life of the party. Steve Cameron, our former sports editor here, knew me in the early '70s. "You should hire out," he told me back then. "Any party you go to will be wild."

The party was over.

Dylann, my 15-year-old daughter, had to become my mother. That was an unbearable and unworthy task to impose on her. I lashed out. She left. She was right to leave.

My son Nao came to the United States a few months later from Tokyo to start college. I couldn't control anything, so I tried to control him. We got into fist fights. He left. He was right to leave.

My lady friend for two years bailed within two months of my layoff. She wanted a commitment. I wanted a job. She was right to leave.

Then things started turning a little. Norm Pearlstine, the brightest star in American journalism over the past 35 years and a longtime friend, helped get me a gig stringing for People magazine. I could keep my hand in the game.

Doc Egeler, a combat infantryman in Vietnam at the same time I was, about four miles away, created a writing job for me at the government agency where he worked in downtown L.A. I stepped up my teaching load at Cal State Fullerton.

I won't tell you how deeply Churchill's Black Dog of Depression descended on me. But it fell hard enough that my cousin Angela flew over from Austin; Greg and Randy showed up from Topeka and Phoenix; Evelyn Iritani, who would go on to win a Pulitzer at the L.A. Times, ordered me to supper with her husband and kids; Linda Holly, my late brother's widow, drove down unannounced from Oregon; Billy Schwartz and Linda Chaput, two genius-level friends, flew in from San Francisco to take me to breakfast. On their way out, Brian Lanker, another genius friend, walked in the door from Eugene, ready to have me "help" him arrange a basketball photo shoot for a shoe company.

That was in late '02, early '03. Time doesn't heal wounds. It simply makes scars. Thanks to family and friends and a med to help me sleep, I beat the Black Dog.

Thus beginneth the lesson:

You can get through this. You can get back your pride, your sense of accomplishment. It takes hard work -- hard brutal psychic work. It takes family and friends. It takes luck -- like the luck that brought me to Merced almost two years ago.

The worst thing I did was to stop working out. I'd played basketball, run distance and lifted weights since I was a teenager. I stopped doing that. You've got to push your body to get your mind and soul right.

My second-biggest mistake was to become, as my friends said, a recluse. You've got to reopen yourself to human contact.

Exercise and companionship.

Seems like a simple enough formula. But you've got to overcome what feels like a mountain on your shoulders to reach out and do that.

You may also have to take a job you don't like. You may have to learn new skills. You may have to accept a lower salary. You may have to commute. You may have to move. You may have to take a pill. I had to do all those.

Some of you will find solace in God, religion, faith. That wasn't my way. It may be your way. If so, follow that path.

All that's left in the lesson is that I know all too well how anybody feels who has been -- or will be -- laid off. My life was changed forever.

Until I came to Merced, I didn't know if it was for the better. Now I know.

It was.

I'm close to my son and daughter again -- although it took years of effort from all sides. My friends are still there for me -- and me for them.

I wish you good luck and all the best to get beyond getting laid off.

If I did it, so can you.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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