The Great Depression 

In 2001, the people I laid off last year were laid off a second time.

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Chris Gardner abandoned fourteen rewarding years as a news photographer because I filled his head with earnest nonsense about how together we would improve the lives of photographers everywhere. He did it even though he knew it would be difficult to return to his profession, a notoriously difficult place to find well-paid jobs. But like me, he dreamed the golden dream. And surviving the death of this dream was even harder than weathering the financial uncertainties that accompanied his return to reality. "I was devastated," he said. "I've always been an underdog guy, and I really believed that this had potential to be a really great tool for the aspiring artist and photographer."

By the time the 38-year-old Gardner knew the dot-com phase of his life was over, he was a different person. "I had definitely been feeling unhealthy and was obviously in the worst shape of my life," he said. "So I decided I'd get a checkup. The doctor asked me, 'So how's your appetite?' I said, 'It's good.' He said, 'I'd say it's a little too good.'" The once-slender Gardner was no longer thin, having doubled his cholesterol intake on a steady dot-com diet of Pop Tarts, cookies, soda, and TV dinners.

Meanwhile, Gardner's wife, Mary, lost balance due to her own technology career. She was earning more money than she'd ever made before, but she'd gotten away from much of what she loved. "I couldn't keep up with my friends," she said. "I couldn't keep up with the things I wanted to do. My life was out of balance in many ways."

Mary, 36, soon got her home life back, albeit in a terrifying way. Just days after the birth of her second child, she lost her job. "When I first received the phone call from the CEO I was so furious," she said. "That's what I said to him: 'How can you call me when I'm here with my ten-day-old baby and lay me off?'" Yet she soon came to view her job loss as a blessing in disguise. She was able to spend seven months at home with her newborn son, twice as long as she'd taken off after the birth of her three-year-old daughter. Still, it was an anxious time, and financially brutal. "I was feeling pretty good back when I had $30,000 of savings, and now I have nothing," she said. "Chris wanted to buy food and I had to call him up and say, 'Don't go to the store, we're out of money.'"

Chris eventually overcame his pride and filed for unemployment. He also put himself on a diet and lost 26 pounds. And just last week, he landed a part-time position as staff photographer for an alternative newsweekly in San Luis Obispo. Mary, meanwhile, is finishing a ten-week replacement stint for a marketing manager who's out on her own maternity leave. But soon she'll again be unemployed. "We still have a question mark at the end of the sentence," she said.

For people like the Gardners, it was a year of denial, resolution, and personal discovery. Many spent the better part of the year wrestling with regrets: how they didn't work hard enough or worked too much, how they chased money, neglected their families, or suppressed their true desires. Many, like me, were forced to confront failure.

Jonas Halpren found himself alternately supported by his wife and working jobs he didn't really like to make his own contribution to the family income. He left Cybergold for a better job elsewhere, only to be laid off on the very same day his former colleagues also lost their jobs. He started waiting tables, then took a job selling taxicab ads for Eller Media. It didn't excite him, but it was all he could find. "It sounds really pretentious, but I just wasn't happy doing it," he said. "I became extremely depressed. I have never been like that in my life. I couldn't sleep." When the advertising market tanked, he was laid off.

But even as Halpren, 31, faced the toughest job market of his lifetime, his wife, an attorney, was fielding multiple job offers. "It's really affected my wife because she has this husband now who doesn't work," he said. "It's put a strain on things. I never thought that having a job or not having a job could really affect your life with someone you love." Ultimately, the couple abandoned their San Francisco apartment to save money.

Halpren was not the only Cybergoldian smothered by the area's high cost of living. Former salesman John Reberger explored Lake Tahoe as a strategy for reducing expenses. "It probably costs me close to two grand a month now just to live here, between car insurance, groceries, and rent," he said while clearing out his San Francisco apartment for his new job as a Squaw Valley ski instructor. "Just for the winter, I'll probably save close to five grand."

In taking to the slopes for the season, Reberger, 32, is returning to a career he first held ten years ago. He hasn't lost faith in technology jobs, but thinks it's fairly likely that his next one won't be in the Bay Area, the nation's costliest rental-housing market. "It's an expensive place to be, and it's definitely an expensive place to be when you've been focused on high-risk jobs," he said. After living on savings and relying on credit to make ends meet, Reberger left the area more familiar with unemployment insurance and five-digit charge-card debt.

To people who never drank the high-tech Kool-Aid, the recession may look like nothing more than an overdue triumph of the immutable laws of business and economics. But for the generation that fully embraced the Bay Area's latest cultural-reinvention project, more than just a job was lost. Something as profound and potentially transformational as the '60s had died.

Unemployment set in motion Joe DeMarco's search for meaning. Following the loss of the technology sales job he took upon leaving Cybergold, DeMarco departed last week for a month-long trip to Brazil, which followed several other trips in the last year. Before that, he completed a ten-day Buddhist meditation retreat. He also has volunteered at the San Francisco Food Bank and Camp Okizu, a retreat for kids with cancer and their siblings. Everywhere he's gone, he's run into similarly situated ex-dotcommers.

"I think we were hoping to find something in our jobs, in the so-called dot-com lifestyle that we had, but it ended up being meaningless," said DeMarco, 35. "So we tried to find it some other way -- through travel, through new hobbies."

Like many who have tangled with the recession, DeMarco still is grappling with his priorities. Upon returning from Brazil in January, he expects to consider a career change after years of success in sales. "I've actually considered working for a nonprofit," he said. "I've considered police work. I've considered becoming a mortgage broker. I've considered a bunch of stuff. I've also considered getting back into sales.

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