Dark Days in OKC

FullSizeRender (6)Yesterday, in response to “the current commodity price environment,” Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp. completed what we hope was its first and only round of mass layoffs. The company laid off an estimated 700 in Oklahoma City alone.

You’ll recall, perhaps, that the Oilman works for Devon. He was spared, and we are grateful. Our own good news was cause for relief, but not for rejoicing, as it came on a day when respected colleagues and friends received announcements of an opposite sort.

Since a companywide townhall meeting Jan. 20, we knew to expect these “reductions” — but that merely heightened our anxiety rather than eased the reality when it came. Suffice it to say that the last month has been nerve-wracking and yesterday even more so.

The Oilman spent a long morning in his office, awaiting the arrival of HR representatives on his floor, and I spent a long morning at home, awaiting his text messages and distractedly amusing Sweet Potato.

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“HR is on our floor,” he texted at about 10 a.m. “About to start up now.”

A few minutes later, he texted to let me know a fellow engineer — one for whom he has nothing but the highest respect — had been let go. More names followed — fathers of four and three, husbands of stay-at-home wives.

“Oh, I hate this!” I texted. “Can tell I’ve been out of the working world for a while because I’m a total softie now!”

“It’s hard,” the Oilman texted back. “This is hard.”

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Yesterday evening, we went out for dinner and drinks with several of his former and current coworkers.

“It is what it is,” they all kept saying.

It is what it is.

Later, I found myself wondering, “What exactly is it?”

Anyone who works in the oh-so-cyclical energy industry expects highs and lows, upturns and downturns. Anyone who works for a profit-driven company expects that its executive committee will attend to its bottom line; indeed, the leaders of the company owe that to their employees and shareholders. To hold on to employees only to bankrupt the company is not kind, however kind it might seem in the interim. Anyone with a working knowledge of OPEC expects a monopoly like it to attempt to drive competitors out of business by producing, producing, producing, even when demand comes nowhere near to supply.

What we do not expect — or, at any rate, didn’t come to expect until recently — is a presidential administration staffed from top to bottom with those who would rejoice to see American oil companies fail.

To be clear, this is not an apologetic for crony capitalism, for special treatment for U.S. oil companies. (Incidentally, the most epic argument the Oilman and I have ever had was about the NATGAS Act, to which I was vehemently opposed even though it would benefit the company for which he then worked … He’s since come to agree with me that the Act was an awful idea.)

It is, though, an unapologetic argument that national leaders should consider energy as a matter of national security. When a monopoly comprised of both friendly and enemy nations attempts to freeze us out of the game, give us a fighting chance.

What does that look like practically? I don’t know, but, for starters, it’d be nice if the president would be at least as diplomatic toward Saudi Arabia as he’s been toward, say, Iran. It’d be nice if lifting an outdated export ban didn’t have to cost Congressional Republicans as dearly as it did earlier this year.

Those are just two ideas off the top of my (very mommy-brain-rotted) head, but, if they use their imaginations, I’m sure policy experts can come up with more. As it happens, low oil prices do no favors for alternative energy companies, either, so everybody should get in on this brainstorming gig!

When I worked in policy, I’d hear that cliche phrase from time to time and be galvanized by it: “Policy matters because people matter.” The Devon employees who lost their jobs yesterday weren’t purely casualties of the market; they were also casualties of poor policy.

Which brings me to the last thought I had when I considered “it”: Political rhetoric often casts the free market and government intervention in opposition to one another as though they are the only forces worth considering to confront a problem. Phooey for political rhetoric! At times like this, we can have recourse to and take refuge in far greater forces than either the market or the government: The faith and the family.

Only in these contexts — the faith and the family — is the worth of the human person determined not by what he does but by who he is. It matters not how a child contributes to the bottom line, nor even, really, how a father does, although the responsibility to provide does fall to the parents. At the end of the day, the child is still son or daughter; the father is still father.

Today is the Oilman’s biweekly day off. I listen to him as he plays with Sweet Potato. Earlier, they were upstairs, shouting and laughing. Now, they’re sitting on the couch reading. I’m grateful that we don’t have to wonder where the Oilman’s next paycheck will come from, but I’m even more grateful to know that, even should we someday have to wonder precisely that, this — his personhood, his husbandhood, his fatherhood, our existence in relation to one another and our children, our family — is what it is.

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