here’s a story to get us started.
this time last year, i was the senior lead of an interior design studio at a small architecture firm here in seattle. i had joined almost two years prior, at the height of the boom times, to help them grow a business. and grow we did! from the days of just myself in a room full of too-quiet architects, we topped out at almost thirty people, a 33 percent increase from my date of hire, and i was able to bring on some of the most fabulous, talented, genuine, funny, smart young designers to work with me.
we had it all. small office. boss in another state. autonomy. company-paid happy hours. flexible schedules. coworkers who acted like grown-ups. (well, most of them.)
and then it all came crashing down.
first, clients stopped paying their bills. and then new clients stopped showing up. we ran out of things to clean up, archive, file, put away, and toss. we played on facebook. we joked about looking for other jobs. at one point, managment sent us home for lack of work–and lack of pay. and then an email on october 9, 2008, that said simply, “are you going to be in the office on friday? we should talk about a few things.”
you can pretty much guess what that meant.
so on october 11, 2008, amid a lot of tears and way too many boxes of design magazines, i packed up my working life and moved it home to my garage. we packed up one of my favorite designers too, and two weeks later, he was on the road back to san antonio to live with his parents. (don’t feel too bad for him though. his mom cooks for him, he spends time by the pool, and he has a fabulous new boyfriend in austin. some things just have a way of working out.)
i have spent the last eleven months trying to start my own business. i went to entrepreneur class, designed business cards, bought a multifunction scanner/printer/copier that probably also does my laundry and brings me coffee if i could just figure out which button to push. i’ve had a few opportunities–a remodel of an apartment building, designing a child-care facility, a couple of office remodels–but mostly, everyone’s hands are tied. we are all in the same little leaky, underfinanced boat, and frankly, it’s getting crowded in here.
back in february, i decided on a whim to check out the “worker retraining” program at the local community college. it was good for a laugh, i figured–“worker retraining” sounds like something out of communist china, or “the manchurian candidate.” the room was full of good, hardworking people who just didn’t know where to go next. a few architects, some engineers, bankers (thanks to the wamu buyout), journalists let go from the seattle p-i that had just shut down its presses. the community college folks are good souls, i’m sure, but let me tell you, they were not prepared for the tsunami of unemployed people looking for what to do next. especially those of us with college degrees and careers we actually liked, even though job prospects were slim to none for the forseeable future.
flashback to my last career crisis, in 1995. i was working in publishing in nyc as a book editor, a bit far from my college dream of writing for a magazine somewhere. (graduating in a recession will do that to you. just ask any 22-year-old these days.) i wanted to do something more creative, engaging, social. i couldn’t see myself as one of the midlife women who were in offices all around me, copyediting book manuscripts with their omnipresent red pencils and newfangled post-it notes. so i decided i would go back to school. though i’ve always had the desire to work in the restaurant industry, i headed toward interior design instead–and ended up with a career in restaurant design. again, things have a funny way of working themselves out, don’t they?
flash forward to seattle, 2004. restaurant design is not the same animal here as it was in chicago or even boston. small firms do some of the work, but mostly it seems to be done by restaurant owners themselves (?!), so instead i jumped headlong into the housing boom and spent almost five years designing condos, apartments, senior housing, etc. and if you have so much as glanced at a newspaper or turned on a tv in the last year, you know how that story turned out, too. no banks lending money = no developers to hire architects and designers. hence the whole unemployment thing.
i spent my summer of “sabbatical” by the pool, trying to figure out what to do next. the culinary school inklings from fifteen years ago came tip-toeing back, and they’ve been tapping me on the shoulder for about six months now. i have toured every culinary school in the area, and settled on the program at south seattle community college. (one, for their classical french training. two, because i could get in, and they pay for a quarter’s worth of tuition if you’re unemployed. thank you, state government. my tax dollars at work. )
the registration process was a story in itself, so tune in for that. my new best friend, darnell, in the worker retraining office, was like a guardian angel of government-induced paperwork. he is a good man, and when he found out i got moved from the winter 2010 quarter to starting in september 2009, he jumped up from his desk and slapped me five. i love darnell.
so here i am. thirty-nine years old. fifteen years of design and management experience in three major cities. international design projects on several continents. two dozen restaurant design projects. and i am three weeks away from donning chef whites and dansko clogs for my first day of culinary school.
what do i hope to get out of this experience? frankly, i don’t have the answer to that yet. it may be a fork in the road (ha! punny…) to some new career. it may be a detour to ride out the recession. it may be so i have something to do besides sit at the computer and read blogs all day before my husband gets home. i really have no idea what’s coming next.
but as padma says, i will pack my knives and go. wish me luck.