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Back to the bliss of the ordinary

Furloughed risk analyst happy to return to work

Mary Schmich

October 18, 2013

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Corrine Stone went to bed Wednesday night not sure she would be allowed to go to work on Thursday.

But she was ready, revved up like a kid who couldn't wait to get to summer camp.

By late afternoon, she had packed her lunch (apple, pear, turkey sandwich). She had laid out her clothes (slacks, shirt, sweater). With a surge of hope, she had set her alarm for the old workday time, 3:30 a.m.

"It's a funny thing," she said when I talked to her Wednesday evening as she waited for MSNBC to announce whether the federal government would reopen.

"When you work, you think 'I wish I didn't have to do this anymore.' But boy, I've really missed my job."

In the strangely quiet days of her two furloughed weeks, Stone, a risk analyst at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, wrote her Christmas letter and addressed her Christmas cards.

She strung holiday lights on the pine tree outside, never mind that October was too soon to turn them on.

She read a book called "Paris," which she otherwise may never have read since, at 809 pages, it's too fat to lug on her train ride from Lake Barrington to her downtown job.

And she cleaned. Then cleaned some more.

"I've cleaned my house from top to bottom," she said. "My neighbors have been asking me to do their windows."

In the vast ranks of the furloughed, Stone, who is 67, was among the lucky. She and her retired husband could still pay the bills. Yet the uncertainty — when would the shutdown end? would it happen again? — convinced her to stop spending on other things.

"I'm a risk analyst," she said. She felt in peril.

So she canceled repairs on her front walkway, feeling bad for the small-business owner who was counting on the work.

She didn't write her monthly check to her favorite charities (a scholarship fund at Waubonsee Community College, an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee).

She changed her holiday gift plans. The high chair she'd hoped to buy for her daughter? It would have to wait. The Omaha Steaks she usually sends to relatives? Probably not this year.

And every penny she pinched, she knew, would wind up pinching someone else.

"I'm one person," she said, "and you multiply me by how many? It's a ripple. This is just horrible for our economy."

Stone and her husband will be OK, she's quick to say, but she worries about all the furloughed workers who have been plunged into financial quicksand.

"I wonder how many people ran out and did one of those crazy loans where you give them the title of your car and you pay 50 percent interest," she said. "It will take them forever to get out of that. And I bet loans were taken out on retirement money."

If the shutdown had lasted much longer, Stone, too, risked dipping into her retirement funds. As it was, when she woke up in the wee hours Thursday, she found the good news on a website that federal employees had been told to check: Just after midnight, D.C. time, President Obama had signed the debt bill that would liberate the workers. The shutdown was over.

At 5:30 a.m., Stone was back on her regular train, thrilled to see the five guys she always rides with. She assured them she had not been on vacation.

Then she was back in the Loop, the elevator, the office, back to the co-workers she had sorely missed. Every one of them had shown up, glad to be there, although, she said, they're mostly men so there wasn't a lot of hugging.

They talked about how it felt to be captive in the house, divorced from each other and routine, forced to figure out how to fill the 14 hours a day they usually devote to work. Furlough was an unsettling preview of retirement.

Then it was back to email (tons) and meetings (several), to unlocking file cabinets, opening binders. Back to the bliss of the ordinary.

"I am deliriously happy to be back," Stone said Thursday morning.

But she's still worried. The short-term deal the politicians in Washington struck was just that, short-term, and she worries, especially for the young workers caught in the chronic uncertainty.

You don't have to be a professional risk analyst to know that the risk of a return to political foolishness remains high.

mschmich@tribune.com