Surviving Un(der)employment

This is my story. It will inevitably be different than yours. It is not so much a guide as a giant thank-you note.

As of Monday morning, I have returned to full time employment. I am incredibly excited to be the new Digital Cataloging Specialist at the Hartford Public Library. I will be splitting my time between maintaining the classical music collections and working with the collections of the Hartford History Center. Though I have spent much more time working with historical collections, I am equally excited to be working with the music collections.

Altogether, I am incredibly fortunate. My un(der)employment only lasted six months. I was able to work part time, so I was never completely unemployed. Financially, it wasn’t easy, but I made it through without any permanent damage. The worst was the perfect storm of heating bills (I advocate summer underemployment), Christmas credit card bills (again, no pesky Fourth of July presents), and the property tax bill for my vehicle (hmm, that does happen in July, too). I could have lived quite happily without January.

There is so much that I thought about doing during the lull in my employment. I considered trips to the beach, museum visits, taking the train to New York for the day. If given a choice, I would have chosen to be out of work during the warmer months of the year, those more conducive to cycling. It doesn’t really matter which half of the year a person is out of work, though. While underemployment provides plenty of free time, it is rather stingy with the spending money. I constantly faced the emotional tug-of-war of wanting to leave the house, but not feeling that I could afford to. Fortunately, I live in a great place, with highly talented people, and plenty of affordable entertainment. Over the past six months I attended Envisionfest, Nightfall, Other People’s Stories, The Ear Cave, and two events at The Hartt School, most recently the Women Composers Festival. I even attended the Colgate Women’s Basketball game at UConn, which added to my alma mater’s [thirteen] minutes of fame. All of these were free! Ok, the Colgate game was free with four years paid tuition, but I digress… I volunteered for The Connecticut Forum and was able to attend their events, too (the Vision & Brilliance panel was phenomenal). Without a steady paycheck, I managed to be happier and do more things than in the past when I had much more money.

While events are fabulous, the emotional support of my family and friends has been priceless. My parents did everything from sending me home with leftovers to making sure I could attend my nephew’s first birthday party. My sister put her son in front of the webcam whenever I needed a smile. A giant hat tip to everyone with whom I regularly interact on social media, as well.

A growing part of my life, particularly since the fall, is my relationship with the Mandell JCC. I am in awe of how much more than a gym marionmembership it has become for me. Toward the end of the summer I was invited to participate in the Stavis Leadership Forum (a joint program with the JCC and the Jewish Federation) and asked if I would like to be on the Hartford Jewish Film Festival committee. I can’t do justice to either in this paragraph, but both have been great experiences. For the film festival I suggested a Kickstarter campaign, and the committee was willing to try it. The extra time I had allowed me to put together our project (please watch the video and support us!). Most recently I was recommended to help with a project for the JCC’s centennial. In the process, I found out my Great Aunt was an Executive Director of one of the agencies that became the JCC. I guess I’m meant to be involved!

Sure, these six months were not entirely puppies and rainbows. There were job interviews and rejections. Weeks went by without there being any positions posted that grabbed my attention. Evenings out with friends were far more likely to include a glass of ice water than wine. As a contractor, if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid, which took away from the glamour of hurricane and blizzard days. I’m also still recovering from the fear that I wouldn’t get this job, and would eventually find myself in a nightmare situation, such as unemployed. In Greenland. But I survived by having a strong, supportive, and varied network that allowed me to enjoy life as much as I could. This had the possibility of being a very dark period, but my community kept it light. Certainly there were days when my spirits were down, but those days were the exception. I don’t wish un(der)employment on anyone, but if you do find yourself there, I hope you have plenty of community support to see you through.

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“Rediscovering Old North” at Hartford Public Library

Among my favorite things about Hartford are the parks. I walk through portions of Elizabeth Park on an almost daily basis. When biking downtown, I often ride through Bushnell Park (it is perfectly fine to ride on these sidewalks, it’s part of the East Coast Greenway). I don’t have too many opportunities to visit the others, but they are all beautifully designed.

Lately, at my “other job,” I’ve been working on a finding aid for the Hartford Parks collection. For this reason, I was quite interested when I learned the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library would be presenting a program on the city’s Old North Cemetery and one of its most famous inhabitants, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. Yes, 190 years ago yesterday, the day of the program. This year (perhaps every year, I haven’t done the research) his birthday fell during National Parks Week. Neither Old North nor any of the parks in Hartford is a National Park, but they are all worthy of a celebration.

The program was to include three speakers: Norma Williams, Philip Barlow, and Andrew Walsh. Unfortunately, part way through her presentation, Williams, a landscape architect and President of the Connecticut Olmsted Heritage Alliance, became ill and was unable to continue. She gave us a brief overview of the history of cemeteries in New England, but did not get to the history of Old North. Brenda Miller, Curator of the Hartford History Center, and Andrew Walsh did go through the remainder of Williams’ PowerPoint slides, so we were able to pick up a few nuggets of information. What follows are my notes from the program. Please excuse anything I may have remembered incorrectly!

Cemeteries went through three stages of growth, all of which are visible in Hartford. The first style can be seen at the Ancient Burying Ground. The oldest cemetery in town, the Ancient Burying Ground holds the remains of Hartford’s original settlers. By 1806 there was a need for a new cemetery, and Old North was begun. Among those buried at Old North are Rev. Horace Bushnell, Olmsted and many members of his family, and members of the 29th Connecticut, Connecticut’s African-American regiment in the Civil War. As attitudes toward death and dying changed in the nineteenth century, so did cemeteries. The third style is evident in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old North has been neglected over the years and now Philip Barlow and his firm, TO Design, are in the process of rehabilitating the cemetery. Among their tasks is restoring the iron work, including a seven foot high fence on the perimeter and ornate fences around family plots. Barlow was saddened to have to take down trees, but they were rotten and it was necessary. Nineteen trees were cut down and they plan to replace all of them.

The firm has also been reestablishing the historic driveways of the cemetery. Maps have provided some of the details, but they are also able to determine the paths based on the locations of markers and trees. Tree roots and water have proven to be obstacles. An arborist has been onsite to ensure no damage is done to trees as the roads are restored.

The original entryway into the cemetery contains two brick columns. Unlike columns today, which are made with a concrete (I think) core, these columns are completely made of brick. Old mortar is being removed and replaced. Broken bricks are being replaced with the most similar bricks they could find.

Roads in the cemetery are constructed of asphalt pavers. Authenticity being key to the entire project, Barlow and his crew requested that replacement pavers be “tumbled” (think clothes dryer!) to look older.

Three kinds of low mow, low maintenance grass are being tried at Old North. They plan to monitor the patches, and whichever works best will be used in the rest of the park system.

Next on the task list is the restoration of 87 monuments this summer. Barlow stated that this is a small percentage of those that need it.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College, provided background on Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for parks. Olmsted’s Hartford was much different than 21st century Hartford. The families had all been there from the time of the city’s founding (Olmsted was the 8th generation of his family) and, more or less, had spent the previous 150+ years trying to transform the wilderness into farm land.

The key to understanding Olmsted, Walsh told us, is that he believed people shape landscapes. The land reflect peoples values. To that effect, Walsh related, when Olmsted was asked what a proper epitaph for New York’s Central Park might be, he replied, “See what our fathers have done for us.”

For Olmsted, exposure to nature was the essence of life. He had spent his childhood wandering around the Connecticut River valley. Park designs, both Olmsted’s and other designers, would ultimately reflect this.

Around the time of Olmsted’s birth, Hartford residents began to head west to the Connecticut Western Reserve (now Ohio). The city at this point was leaning toward manufacturing and was in need of workers. The labor shortage was filled by immigrants from Ireland.

There was a great amount of contention between Irish and Yankees. Hartford’s wealthy, well-established residents looked down upon the poor new arrivals. Rev. Horace Bushnell decided this needed to be changed, and set about to create a park where the newcomers would be able to see and emulate their more proper neighbors. Olmsted would ultimately be influenced by Bushnell, but was much more open to change.

Walsh continued by discussing images of the Connecticut landscape, as it might have appeared to Rev. Thomas Hooker and his followers when they first arrived. Unfortunately, at this point I had to stop tweeting (my source of note taking), and the details from that point on are fuzzy. The evening ended with a question and answer session.

The two books Walsh referenced during his talk were Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski.