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Don't Call Before Noon (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Time Off!)

How do you cope with getting laid off? How do you come to accept the fact that a paycheck isn't coming in every week? Sari Gennis has experienced it and is here to tell you the stages and how to get through them.

The author at her desk pondering the pros and cons of having a job. © Sari Gennis.

With the animation industry going through one of its...cycles, if you're like me, you've found yourself with more time off than maybe you'd planned. It can have its ups and downs, but I've actually come to peace with being laid off. Okay, I like it. Who doesn't, really? Your time is your own, you can sleep in, you get to spend time with your loved ones, finally work on all those art projects...What about the money thing, you ask? No, I'm not independently wealthy and it does get scary being unemployed for any length of time. So let me share some of my tips and tricks for staying sane...

First, my daily schedule. 6 AM: to the gym, one-hour workout 7 AM: yoga 8 AM: coffee and toast, getting me at my computer by 8:30 to continue work on my screenplay and/or short film.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaa! Okay, for real:

9:30 AM: the alarm goes off. 11 AM: the cats decide it's really time for breakfast...and coffee and toast for me. Check CNN to make sure we're not at war yet...head for the shower. Sometimes I make it there and sometimes...well, the kitten takes a post-breakfast nap, why not join him?

Then lunch, and checking in with my other out of work friends, and plans for later. Maybe some job search calls, then settling in with my work. If I'm lucky, I can get in a good 4-6 hours on one of my projects. Sometimes I sit down to work at 2 or 3 PM and five minutes later...it's eight o'clock...talk about being in the flow! But I have to admit, I wasn't always like this.

Money

Oh yeah, the money thing. Funny, isn't it, the way the bills keep coming? Aren't they supposed to stop when you don't have an income?

Back in the good old days of hefty salaries and signing bonuses, my incredibly mean accountant made me save almost half of everything I made. All I can say now is, thank you, Harvey! And unless you know Harvey or you've learned to live on unemployment, I can't help you much there. I can tell you I've found some creative ways to save money. I mean, how often do you watch the Cinemax Western channel? And...resist that urge to put everything on credit cards! No good will come of it!

One of the brilliant ideas I had early on was not to go grocery shopping until I used up everything in my cupboards. THAT can be fun. After a few creative meals like hummus and tuna fish with cherry Jell-O for dessert, I gave that up. And I once had a boyfriend who made me a Kraft macaroni and cheese burrito...but that's a whole other story.

Watch Out for Stage 3!

Not to scare you or anything, but I've found that the stages one goes through while being unemployed are very similar to the stages of someone with a terminal illness...only don't worry, I promise it's not terminal! The definition of a 'stage' is a period, a level, or degree in a process of development. It's important to know that a stage is dynamic and not fixed. In other words...if you don?t like the phase you're in, you can change it.

I've also found that each stage comes with its own mood, soundtrack and even style of dress.

Those horrifying bills. © Sari Gennis.

Stage 1 (Denial and Delusion): This is great! I'm going to catch up on my movies and get so much done! Sign up for all those classes: Maya, Shake, Figure Drawing, Wine Tasting, Psychic Communication with Animals...There's plenty of work out there; it'll find me. Usually accompanied by frenetic list making and bursts of energy. You still get up every morning and put on normal clothes. Head out to Starbucks and smile at all the other creative people over your latte. You listen to high-energy house and rock, and even show tunes. Life is good!

Stage 2 (Bargaining and Anger): This is the roller coaster stage. One minute you're hopeful and then...crash. You realize that recruiters don't seem to be pounding on your door and maybe it's time to put together a new resume and reel. Of course, by now either the company you just worked for has gone out of business, the people you need to talk to have been fired, or the movie you worked on isn't out yet and you can't get hold of anything you need...that's where the bargaining starts. ('Just let me have my scenes...I'll only show one person...I'll bring the tape right back after the interview...I'll make them watch with their eyes closed...') You start looking for work on the Internet and get glimmers of hope...there is work out there! Then you realize that the jobs are either all in India, or it's for somebody's student film, or you need a doctorate in programming and physics. The promising ones have gotten so many replies they've disconnected their e-mail.

Now your energy is starting to slump. You're listening to mellow jazz and 'Morning Becomes Eclectic,' that is, when you can turn off the television. Here starts the intense television watching and avoidance-of-life phase. Eating lots of takeout and not leaving the house for days at a time. Sometimes associated with, well, a decline in personal hygiene. The uniform for this phase becomes sweats and baseball caps.

Stage 3 (Abject Apathy and Depression): You can't pick up the phone and call anyone because it weighs a thousand pounds. You're sure you'll never work again and you'll be living in that sexy car you bought back when you were under contract and the paychecks were flowing. Pajamas and/or bathrobe. Break out the blues CDs...Bessie Smith singing, 'Nobody knows you when you're down and out,' is a good one to play over and over. (It's fun to belt out in your bathrobe, too.)

Stage 4 (Acceptance!) Acceptance is the magic stage and the hardest one to find. This is where you want to end up, and as soon as possible. You decide, okay, if this is how it is, so be it. You finally get up out of your bathrobe and, well, maybe not into real clothes yet, but at least back into sweats. You start taking showers again. You start job searching and sending out more resumes and reels. You haul out those neglected projects and start working on them. Kinda feels good, doesn't it? Now you might even get into the romantic starving artist mode. Then one morning...you slowly open your eyes and wiggle your toes and take those extra luxurious minutes to meditate and wake up all the way...and realize how lucky you are to have some precious time to yourself, to not have to drive in traffic, to do what ever you want... almost like being back in art school...and that's when the phone will ring.

How could anyone resist crawling back into bed with this guy? © Sari Gennis.

Moving Forward...and Danger Signs

But how to get through the hard part and to that all-important stage, acceptance? Watch out for signs that you're stuck in a phase and not moving forward...     You start conversations with strangers at Ralph's;     You know the names and style of every designer on Trading Spaces;     You catch yourself showing the barristas at Starbucks (who you're on a first name basis with by now) photos of your pets and/or children;     The UPS guy has started to call you "darling" (and the neighbors don't even bother to ask anymore if you'll be home to accept a package). You're not even embarrassed when he makes a delivery at 3 PM and you're still in your bathrobe.

You just have to stay sane while you're unemployed (just!). The key is to 'act as if' you know you have a job coming. Pretend you've only got, say, three weeks left to play and be creative. Of course, WAY easier said than done. Some suggestions:

Join everything! Over the years, I've become a member of ASIFA, Women in Animation, The Visual Effects Society, LA SIGGRAPH and the Writers Guild. There's a screening or some kind of presentation almost every week, and more around awards season. All very helpful in getting me out of the house during Stages 2 and 3...Not to mention it's a great way to 'network' and stay in touch with what's going on out there.

Is there any unemployed person who's never said this at 11 AM?:

Do your footwork! Finish that updated reel. Force yourself to make a certain number of work calls every day... even if it's just one.

Remember you're not alone. Talk to other people. This isn't a great time for our economy...it's not just you! Although it may feel like it some days, there is no secret 'blacklist' Website with your name and picture on it.

Take those classes you signed up for! It really is a good time to add to your skills.

Pursue other interests. Design that tattoo. (But be careful, 'Will animate for food,' may not seem so funny in 6 months.) In my time off, I was finally able to devote big chunks of time to the short film I'd been toying with for years. It forced me to learn different styles of animation and new computer programs...all of which painlessly qualifies me for a variety of new jobs...which will be handy if traditional animation is going to tank for a while. And I finally finished The Screenplay after only about a zillion drafts...which feels indescribably great. You can come out of this with nothing, or you can end up with great new experiences. Looking back, after you do go back to work, (and you will) which would you rather have behind you?

So you'll do all these things, and start feeling better, and not be freaking out all the time, and SWEAR you're really okay with being unemployed for a while...and then, still, nothing happens. It's like what my sister says about being pregnant. When you get to the point where you absolutely positively can't stand being pregnant one more second...then you have 6 more weeks. For me, it took being so okay with my time off that I committed to writing this article. THE NEXT DAY I got a call from the studio I most wanted to work for asking me to start that following Monday! And my first thought? 'Wait! I need 3 more weeks!' So here I am, late on my article because I'm working on a great film at a great studio. Stay positive and it will happen to you too.

Sari Gennis has been in the animation field long enough to have seen several of its cycles. She's worked on a variety of films including Fantasia 2000, Space Jam, James and the Giant Peach, Titan A.E. and 8 Legged Freaks as an animator or visual effects supervisor. Remembering fondly her carefree days on unemployment, she's currently working at DreamWorks and doing her best to help the economy recover.

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