My department head emailed me a week ago to set up a meeting. He’s the third department head I’ve worked under at my current job, but the first to ever request a meeting. We agreed to meet Monday. I wondered what the meeting was about. Three thoughts ran through my mind:
- I forgot to include some required information on one of my syllabi; perhaps he wanted to let me know in-person such slovenly behavior was unacceptable or even legally precarious. My boss has a military background, so I could imagine him being very attention-to-detail.
- We’ve never really spoken much, despite working in the same department for five years. From his social media posts, it’s evident he’s a curious, open-minded dude with a potentially robust sense of humor. Maybe he wanted to have a brief chat and get to know me better, man-to-man.
- I was getting laid off.
I spent the weekend rationalizing why it wasn’t the third idea, rationalizing why even if it was the worst-case scenario, why that really wasn’t such a big deal. I exhausted all the logical possibilities and spent some time in the mushier world of my emotions, a realm I have an attraction/repulsion relationship with. I got to work Monday and looked for my new boss in the big office the old bosses had used while in power. He wasn’t there; he still resided in his smaller, humbler stomping grounds. This seemed a good omen. I reached his office. He welcomed me in. As soon as I sat, he got up and closed the door. I knew then what he announced moments later. Bad news. You’re being laid off.
I prefer British English to American English. Listen to a soccer game with U.K. broadcasters and you may, too. Their English is more elegant, more eloquent. It’s like they’re speaking in cursive while Americans are still talking in print. For example, we say “laid off” to mean “fired.” Which is odd, as the expression “lay off” someone usually means to “leave them alone.” Leaving someone alone seems the opposite of stealing away what they love to do, and their paycheck, too. It’s the same thing as when head coaches or Trump cabinet members lose their jobs — they’ve been “relieved of their duties.” I’ve read numerous accounts of medieval executioners demonstrating astonishing courtesy toward a fellow human being, moments before chopping their head off.
There are two words I’ve heard the British use to describe being fired (which was a perfectly encapsulating term for the experience for years; the fact that it’s used less-and-less seems to me another canary in the coal mine warning us that if society’s a see-saw, the tilt is way too extreme toward the lawyers and CEOs these days). One of these words is “redundant.” This term is too modern for my tastes. It alludes to the sensibility of a world that has produced more food and medicine and technological marvels than it would need to bring all of humanity to a place of shared affluence, yet wastes this potential and accelerates an unsustainable vision that will kill most if not all of us off. Our world makes arbitrary, murderous distinctions every second of every day in determining which people or groups may flourish and which may suffer and die outside our scope of vision. All people are people, but some are more redundant than others.
The other word the Brits use is “sacked,” as in “I’ve been sacked.” A brutal, honest word from the older, brutal-er, honest-er world. When cities were sacked they were set upon by devastating external forces. Their way of life erupted into something unknown and unwanted. Their was no discussion to be had; the people could not talk to their invaders about how any of it made them feel. To be sacked was to be subjugated to violence without conscience or mercy, to be irrevocably impacted by an outside source. In the old world, the military leaders were often knee-deep in the chaos they created. Today, I’m waiting for a letter in the mail that will tell me my “appointment” is not being “renewed.” I suspect the signature at the bottom will come from a stamp.
When people ask how I’m feeling, I say I’m not really sure. That’s not because I’m unaware of how I’m feeling, but rather because how I’m feeling changes from hour to hour. At first I felt very little, and what I did feel was similar to the smile you feel forming when you play Powerball on a lark and the first three numbers called match yours, only for the rest to be different. You 99% accept that you don’t live in the universe where you win Powerball, but for a brief moment you indulge in the sensation of letting yourself pretend. My employer is New York State. New York State is one of the great idiot bureaucracies in existence, run by some of the great idiots of our time. You can’t trust an idiot to not press the red button.
For a while I felt unjustified feeling upset at all. I have a job through May. This isn’t the real world, where people lose their jobs and have to clear their desk out the same day. Thank God for unions. I have a relatively soft landing, especially when there are others who will lose their job or their benefits right around Christmas. I felt I was being very First World with my feelings. Perhaps this was a subconscious sedative, an attempt to escape my emotions by logically denying my right or need for them.
But I couldn’t shake that I was feeling things. In some ways it felt like being dumped. Specifically, it reminded me of a breakup from grad school, one that cut so deeply because it had felt like this other person and I had created something so momentous, so connective, that it was like a third party in the relationship, an invisible child, sort of. Then one day someone decides they’re out, and that’s it. But that’s not it. Because that kills off the third, too. That thing that only existed between you can’t survive the split. And the worst part is the only other person who might share that pain and mourn its loss is the one who’s killing it.
Today I suspect the challenge is not figuring out which emotion is the one I should feel, or even do feel, but to digest all of them together. I am losing my job because somewhere out there a bureaucrat who isn’t a slave to student loan debt is playing with numbers, in a room I’m confident is rather dimly lit, both literally and figuratively. I’m not losing my job because of the quality of the work I do. This makes the sacking explicitly impersonal, which consequently makes it seem existentially, conspiratorially personal.
Colin Kaepernick is unemployed. Dick Cheney is still collecting paychecks in his blood-soaked, sulfur-stinking talons. I’m in good company.