A writer gets laid off, considers life lessons from Lassie
I should have seen it coming. The way birds sense a hurricane and flee inland. Or the way Lassie would see the open well in the woods, or the abandoned mine shaft, and head Timmy off at the brink. Never mind that his wide-eyed innocence made you want to push him into the well yourself, Lassie’s devotion was unconditional, her instincts overpowering. So go things in the natural world. In the realm of man-made crises, though, the only reliable harbingers are man’s own creations.
The week before I got laid off, the dryer stopped heating, and a power surge took out one channel of the receiver. Music became deadened and watery, the aural equivalent of a whale at a Styx concert. Two compact fluorescents burned out. The ads for them had hinted at immortality, but they were dead as doornails after three months. The doornails themselves were incongruously alive. They’d worked themselves loose and dug into the jamb when I opened the door to let the dog out. She had nothing to say. A little smile, a little drool, but that was it. No warning whatsoever.
The summons to the morning meeting was innocuous, the numbing agent of a tick bite. The engineering manager herded us into the conference room, scanning under the table for a Sacagawea dollar he’d lost two years earlier. When the president came in behind him, a small alarm was triggered. Still, no need for panic. Then came the folders. The COBRA forms, the nondisclosure agreement, the inventory checklist.
A third of the company was laid off, mainly people who’d been there more than 10 years. I’d been there 19. There were pictures on my desk of my daughter as a baby. There was a Windows 3.1 manual on my bookshelf. There was history. But the reconstructionists had arrived, and the slate was due at the cleaner’s.
The Company, henceforth referred to as The Company, was as cordial as the laws of incorporation would allow. It patted me on the back, bucked me up with severance and cut me loose. The people it kept were software brats whose conversations were unappetizing digestive metaphors. Kernels and nibbles and bytes. They couldn’t have cared less that we were leaving, but would have phrased it “could have cared less” and never seen the error.
One of these days, The Company and I might pass on the street; we might even nod to each other. There will be no hard feelings. Because, here’s the thing: When my key card was inactivated and my login disabled, what I hadn’t expected was this overwhelming sense of liberation. It was Friday, and I was off early. In 19 years, the longest break I’d had was two weeks. Financial ruin was a possibility, but there was still an appreciable bite of summer left and the smell of burned electronics was a distant memory. I felt Lassie tugging at my sleeve. What could possibly go wrong? I grinned my mindless grin and headed into the woods.