Nathan Rabin | Longreads | June 2015 | 8 minutes (1,900 words)
“Working in the media in 2015 is like being part of an epic game of Musical chairs. Every day the music starts and you race madly to hold onto your fragile place in the world.”
I published that in a Facebook post after being let go from my latest employer, comparing working in pop culture media in 2015 to participating in an insane daily game of musical chairs. You try your best to keep up, to maintain the heat, the buzz, and the pageviews to stay in a game that has a disconcerting obsession with putting aging writers out to pasture to make way for younger, cheaper, more malleable replacements.
Every time you see that one of your film critic colleagues has been let go or taking a buyout (see: Lisa Schwarzbaum, who was at Entertainment Weekly for 22 years before taking a buyout, or Claudia Puig who took a USA Today buyout after reviewing films there for 15 years), you breathe a nervous sigh of relief. For that day, at least, you are safe.
The music stopped for me on a recent Wednesday, and I was left standing. I was a 39-year-old man without a job, but with many other accouterments of adults: a wife, a mortgage, a baby, and a dog. Within a few days (and in a frenzy of panicked number crunching), my wife and I decided to pack up and move in with my in-laws in Atlanta while my wife hunted for a job, and I figured out life as a freelancer. Truthfully, we had been priced out of the city long before my termination. Between the gaspingly high costs of child care and the mortgage on our modest condo, we were coming to terms with the fact that we would have to leave Chicago. But there is a big difference between choosing to leave a place and being forced to do so by dint of financial necessity.
On the last day of my old job, I stumbled out the door, holding aloft that iconic emblem of termination: The Box. Though from the outside it might look wholly indistinct, we who have felt its symbolic weight know this is no ordinary box; this is a box that can make grown men cry. It is a box of sadness, a box of shame, a box of regret and a box of dreams never to be fulfilled. It is the box the fired are given (generally by an HR person with a very sad face) in which they are to place the detritus of their work life, because they are no longer welcome at their former employer.
The contents of my box of shame represented my attempts to transform a workplace I had entered into two years earlier—brimming with hope and idealism—into a place that felt like home. I surrounded myself with some of my favorite tackiest things, things that told me who I was: I had figures of Homer Simpson as King Kong from Burger King and framed pictures of Tha Dogg Pound and the leads of Elizabethtown as well as a clipboard from Patch Adams where I wrote my weekly schedule that somehow survived Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, now, two jobs.
You see people with Boxes Of Shame on buses and trains sometimes. Sometimes the look on their face is one of noble forbearance, a clear-headed look of purpose that implicitly says, “This is but a mere bump in the road to be endured with stoic dignity.” Sometimes the look on a man with the Box of Shame betrays the sadness and brokenness and rejection the man is feeling. In this case the man and the box are in perfect synchronicity, each silently but powerfully telling an achingly sad tale of rejection and failure.
I am a man who regularly vomits from anxiety, a man who burst into tears upon first reading my infant son the childhood story, Corduroy, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was the latter kind of a man with a Box. As I humped the collection of work knick-knacks home on the Kimball bus post-termination, I imagine I bore the haunted look of a lost man, a formerly capable provider who—how quickly these things happen! By how little are we undone!—had been relinquished not just of his job, but of his professional identity as well. As is typical of the frigid Midwestern city in which I reside, nobody on the bus would look at me, let alone give up their seat. Everybody was too wrapped up in their own business to pay any attention to mine.
I grew up in a group home, the son of an absentee mother and chronically unemployed father, so I clung to security fiercely. Growing up, my greatest dream was owning my own home, something that was mine, where I could raise a family and be the man I always wanted to be.
So, when I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife, I used the money from the advance for my memoir about my terrible childhood, The Big Rewind, to buy a modest two-bedroom condo in Albany Park. It wasn’t much, but I loved it. After a lifetime of skulking about in subpar rentals, I finally knew the pride of ownership and community, of truly belonging to a place and being deeply invested in its future. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking things like, “Get the hell off of my lawn.”
Just as I filled my workspace with knick-knacks, I filled my home with symbols of previous achievements: blow-ups of my books and framed copies of glowing reviews from The New York Times and TIME and Rolling Stone. I kept them at eye level in an attempt to trick my bipolar brain into thinking that I genuinely was the man of substance and importance described in the articles and not the sad, broken, overwhelmed pretender I felt like most of the time.
Now this condo that I love so much will have to become a part of my past. There is so much collateral damage when someone loses their job. My wife and I adore our nanny and her three-year-old daughter, who seem to love our son just as much as we do and surprised us regularly with unusually beautiful pictures of our child at play, at rest.
Now, because I had been let go, I needed to let this wonderful woman go as well. It was a game of dominoes, with only two dominoes, really. One fell, and knocked over the other. “I just want to say how much we appreciate everything you’ve done for our son and just to see you guys together just warms my heart,” I said sobbing, as I incoherently ambled up to the subject at hand.
“And I would love nothing better than for you to be his nanny forever but,” the crying started again, “I just lost my job and I’m not going to be able to pay you, or to keep our condo, or stay in Chicago, so we’re going to have to let you go.”
Our nanny was far more understanding than I had any right to expect. It was the rare instance when the person doing the letting go is more upset than the person being let go. But beyond having to leave Chicago and the modest little condo of my dreams lies an ominous proposition: The Basement.
Now, I love my in-laws dearly, and they have a lovely home with a very nice basement. If, as a 39-year-old new father, you should find yourself in the untenable position of having to live in someone’s basement, my in-law’s basement is about as good as it gets. But I have lived the last 18 years of my professional life online, and, within our online culture, basements occupy a very specific and very negative emotional space. One might even argue they occupy a very specific and very negative emotional space right next to the screaming sadness of the Box of Shame.
In online culture, parental basements are the official homes, literally and figuratively, of trolls: nasty little people who devote their days to saying nasty things about people under the comforting cloak of anonymity. In the world of online culture, parental basements are tiny little Loservilles, pathetic havens for people who cannot deal with the crazy rhythms and random cruelty of our hectic online world.
One of the most ubiquitous insults on the internet is to accuse some poser acting like a big shot online of living in his parent’s basement. In movies and pop culture, an adult living in his parent’s basement is shorthand for the character being a loser, or, at the very least, an emotionally stunted man-child.
Now, after four books and 18 years at the top of the pop-culture-media food chain, I am preparing to pack up my family and move into my in-laws’ basement. I’m not even moving into my own parents’ basement: My dad lives in government housing and my mother abandoned me, so I didn’t even have the resources to move back in with my biological parents; I have to move in with my wife’s parents.
When I met my beautiful, glamorous South African wife I wanted to give her the world. Instead, we ended up on a crazy five-year roller coaster that somehow ended with us both being rudely ejected into her parent’s basement, with our newborn and crazy-ass Yorkie in tow. And now we are preparing to box up our belongings and put them in a U-Haul as we prepare for our new life in Atlanta with equal parts trepidation and excitement. We’ll be doing our damnedest to transform this basement into the home our son deserves. He’s an unusually sunny little man, so I hope that he’s still too young to associate boxes with anything negative. Surely, the darkness of these boxes can be redeemed by the incandescent light of our son’s oblivious but life-affirming smile and laugh.
Boxes and basements can be dark, grim places, but they don’t have to be. I’m trying to see Atlanta as a healthy and necessary fresh start. I’m excited about doing new kinds of writing for different kinds of people. I’m excited for my son to grow up surrounded by sunshine and love and grandparents who have embraced him as if he were their own child and derive no greater joy in life than in spoiling him.
The Box of Shame is a grim thing to carry, but once you bring it home and sift through the contents, it ceases to be a Box Of Shame. When you open a box, a lot of light can flood in. For the sake of my family, and for the sake of my future, I’m a whole lot better off contemplating all that light and all that potential rather than brooding over the infinite darkness inside of a box.
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Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V Club and the author of four books, most recently You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.