I Tried It: Being Furloughed Left Me Unshaven, Confused and Slightly Crazy

One man’s battle with sanity during temporary unemployment

About two weeks into my time working at home instead of at the Milwaukee Magazine office, I sat at my computer unshaven, pale and gassy with a mug of intensely mediocre homemade coffee in hand. That’s when I learned that I was being furloughed.

“Is that … like a nautical term?” I asked. “Are you sending me to sea?”

With the protracted sigh that often accompanies peoples’ interactions with me, I was informed that no, a furlough is not a swashbuckling voyage, but instead means being temporarily laid off, which I found far less delightful.

In order to combat coronavirus costs, my annoying alliteration abilities would no longer be needed at the magazine. Thankfully, my furlough is like a stone that gathers no moss – it’s rolling, which means I was on furlough for two weeks then off then on then off.

“I’ve been furloughed,” I told my father shortly after the news came down the pipe.

“Like father like son,” he said.

And I said, “Wait, what?”

And he said, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

And I said, “Hold up, say what now?”

And he said, “You’re a chip off the old block, sonny boy.”

And I said, “I’m really not picking up what you’re putting down here, Dad.”

And he said, “I’ve also been furloughed, dumbass.”

And I said, “Oh.”

With that, family furlough fun time began.

I think everyone’s furlough probably starts the same why mine did – with an examination of financial viability. Luckily for me, my overhead is low and my savings are relatively high, so the furlough is manageable, unlike many others.

The next part of my furlough experience followed the first – applying for unemployment.

Despite writing a guide to applying for unemployment benefits in this very magazine, I still ended up frustrated by the system. My previous two jobs were both in Illinois – I quit the first to take the second and quit the second to take my job here at MilMag. This meant that I had to fill out an out-of-state employment section and a quit explanation form for each of them.

A few days later, I received a letter in my mailbox, which was frankly both frightening and confusing, as it is The Year of Our Lord 2020, and I haven’t sent a letter since I wrote to Blue’s Clues to tell them I would make a better detective than Steve, which was like three whole years ago.

The letter was from the unemployment office and required that I gather my W2 and paycheck stubs to verify income earned and all that jazz and confirm that my out-of-state quitting situation hadn’t disqualified me. I gathered my disparate records together like a pHD candidate compiling research for his thesis:

Not That Much: A Data-Driven Investigation Into the Earnings of a English Major With Few, If Any, Practical Skills

The unemployment folks gave me the option of mailing it in or faxing it, which kinda seemed like a mean joke. So I bundled it up in an envelope and sent it along.

Throughout this whole process, I helped my father apply for his benefits as well.

“They need to know about my military service?” he said, as I walked him through it. “That was half a century ago – who gives a —”

This is a family-friendly magazine, so I’ll cut off the conversation right there.

He waited five weeks to receive approval for his benefits, alongside hundreds of thousands of other applicants. The system backup is frustrating for everyone involved, and since we’re not in desperate straits, I never bothered calling the busy phone lines or pestering anyone, but it’s not hard to imagine what people who need their checks now are feeling.

Once all of that unemployment benefits stuff was out of the way, I got hard to work on pretty much nothing at all.

Right before my furlough, we had just finished a deadline week for our May issue, so the first few days off were a decent break from that, but I’ve always found that the quickest way to confront the futility of existence is to not have anything much to do.

I could … eat a cheerio.

Ok. Did that. How about … clicking this pen a few times.

Great. Fun. Now I could … contemplate the damning and inescapable knowledge of our own unavoidable deaths with which we are mercilessly cursed, left to wander in hopelessness, alone, in an uncaring and violent land.

So I tried to fill the hours with activities quick. I worked out in the morning and then wrote. This was the best thing I could have done, as it meant that by noon, I had done two productive things, which kept me ordered and helped stave off the inevitable self-loathing.

It was the afternoons that got real smelly. And I mean that literally. Over those two weeks, I beat Death Stranding, Control, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Resident Evil 1, Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil 3 (twice – once on standard difficult and once on hardcore), and boy oh boy, that many video games does not do wonders for a person’s mental state.

In between video game sessions, I read a lot, watched television and occasionally stepped outside and wandered around my backyard staring at birds.

The situation was not helped by my decision to quit shaving, which was left me looking like a prepubescent vagrant.

I’ve learned that the weight of zero obligations grows heavier with every passing day, and by the end of my second week of furlough, it had to started to tickle my bored brain’s absurdity cortex, and I found myself engaging in bizarre behavior to amuse myself: Making aggressive caveman noises and slapping the walls as I walked from room to room, wearing a hockey mask around the house for no discernable reason, singing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” in intensely out-of-tune falsetto, freestyling about my lunch.

“Archer on the beats / eating some ham / I’m folding lunch meats / and my name’s not Pam.”

“Archer, you have to stop this.”

“No. Leave me alone. I’m on a Zoom call with my associates.”

“What are you talking about? You don’t have associates. You’re eating cold meats alone in the kitchen, talking to a fictional construct in unattributed dialogue.”

Thankfully, just as my furlough experience got confusingly meta and self-indulgent, I resumed work for this week. I count myself as fortunate to be able to do that, when many people, including my father, are furloughed indefinitely or just straight-up laid off, not to mention the many others sick and dying across the globe.

This whole experience has been a lot like falling off a canoe. You thought you were enjoying a relaxing day on the river, and now you’re soaking wet, hopelessly lost, missing your phone and your left shoe, and have a small leach hooked to the inside of your thigh. The constant health worries, the financial uncertainty, the isolation – it’s upsetting and disorienting, and no one really knows when or exactly how we’re getting out of it.  

I’ll say this much – the best moments of my furlough were when I was writing or when I was on the phone with someone. I think that’s because it made me pull my head together and think about others – whether that was trying to write something people might enjoy or just trying not to sound like a drained vessel of empty humanity while I engaged in conversation. So if you’re in a similar position and are able to work on something for yourself, I think you should. And if you can call up your family and friends, you should do that too. You never know who you might be saving from a one-man falsetto Billy Joel concert.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.