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Terminal Vacation: A Grizzled Veteran of the Publishing World Returns to the Scene of the Crime

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"Do you still hate me?"

My former boss Mike (not his real name) and I are driving into New York City together for a special "Class of the 90's" reunion-cum-fundraiser held in the cafeteria of our old publishing house. His question catapulted me right back to that fateful day seven years ago.

Mike had shut my office door behind him, then launched into a wildly glowing assessment of my work as a book editor. His preamble was so complimentary, even loving, that it took a moment for me to realize I was being laid off. My fourteen-year run at this publishing company was over. And I was hardly alone.

I'd quickly called my husband to inform him of our new tax bracket, then trudged down the hall to where Human Resources had commandeered a conference room with clear glass walls for corporate mop-up. Joining the long line of recently right-sized, I'd watched in fascination as the HR manager, flanked by a tall stack of manila envelopes and a box of Kleenex, addressed a woman slumped over in tears. When it was my turn, I was told I could leave right away or work for the next two weeks to ease the transition. Priding myself on my professionalism, I'd chosen the latter option; I wanted to give all my authors and their book projects a soft landing.

Back at my desk, my emotions had taken over and I'd sobbed on the phone to my best friend. Mike, looking like a shamed kindergartner who'd taken a Sharpie to a wall, stuck his head into my office and offered to take me out to a consolatory lunch; because of cost-cutting, it'd have to be at the employee cafeteria. I declined.

That night I broke the news to my son and daughter. "The sad news, kids, is that we're not going to be able to keep our wonderful babysitter, but the good news is, you're going to see a lot more of me!" "But Mom," my nine-year-old daughter wailed, "We already see enough of you!"

The next morning I found my e-mail, voice-mail and electronic entry card decommissioned. HR explained: "Sorry. You were the only one who decided to stay." Sucker. Most of my colleagues were supportive. For a small cadre, however, I was Dead Man Walking. They dropped their gazes as I walked by. A coworker stared speechlessly when I asked him if he had any empty cartons, "because, you know, I'm packing stuff up." Dumbstruck, he pursed his lips together, looking horrified that I'd expelled into his air space. Was I contagious? Or did he have survivor's guilt?

I began the endless rounds of calls to authors and literary agents to reassure them that their books would be left in good hands. Tom Sawyer at my own funeral, I listened nobly as they raged against the injustice and guardedly cursed my bosses (who didn't, after all, cancel their book contracts -- just me). The publisher who'd wanted to hire me away months ago regretted that the job was now filled, but promised to send some free books. An executive recruiter wanted to see my resume. (Resume? The last one listed my typing speed and college PO box.) The toughest conversations were with outraged, teary colleagues who'd likewise gotten the axe, although the condolence calls weren't much easier. I vowed to tear out the throat of the next person who told me this was a "blessing in disguise."

Besides, the unassailable logic of 3:00 a.m. knew better: "Waves of shame!" I mewled nightly, shaking my slumbering husband's arm gently, "Waves of shame!" I'd steal off to the family room for a soporific infusion of infomercials. More 3:00 a.m. logic: It was now crystal-clear that I was not only jobless, but a flabby-ab'ed, acne-spotted wretch who had haplessly allowed the flavor and nutritional value to leak slowly out of her home-cooked meals. Light bulb! I'd take a month off and do nothing but exercise, eat healthfully, heal my spirit, and learn to use eyeliner (cooking can wait). My body would be a temple. I'd already jump-started the process by losing six pounds since the axe had fallen. (Possible bestseller: The Recession Diet?)

My last day was an exhausting blur of slapdash packing and good-byes. Mike threw me a little party with cost-cutting milk from the office fridge instead of the traditional champagne to go with a cake baked by his assistant instead of the usual patisserie.

The next morning, my first day of unemployment, Mike contritely e-mailed me a "true story of idiots at work" he'd pulled off the web: A manager has taken all his employees out to honor a downsized colleague. Looking fondly around the table, the boss announces, "Gee, this is really nice. We should do this more often!" His faux pas is met with a ghastly silence. I met the email with a ghastly silence.

Snail mail brought a direct deposit notice from my ex-employer to cover the days off I'd never taken; the stub read "terminal vacation." A few days later, my W-2 arrived, and I welled up with the kind of tears generally reserved for re-readings of old Mother's Day cards from my children.

Mike emailed me constantly, more than when I was in his employ, telling me how great I was and how bad he felt. Finally, weary of trying to make him feel better, I wrote, "Please don't feel guilty; I'm not mad at you. It's just business. And I stole a lot of office supplies." Our emails tailed off after that.

I ignored all my resolutions and settled instead into a new routine of napping, curled into what my yoga instructor calls "corpse pose." To jolt myself from the inertia, I chased a crushing amount of freelance editing and writing. To compensate for no more meetings or coffee with coworkers, I spent a lot of time chatting up the cats. Frankly, they weren't giving much back.

A single molar-gnashing mishap with a nut, and suddenly I was holding a large chunk of tooth in my palm. My stomach churned at the cost of a crown without dental. Surely yoga would de-stress me. Our instructor showed us "The Wood Chopper." "Picture someone who fills you with rage," she advised us, "Then clasp your hands, raise your arms over your head, and bring down that axe with all your might." I closed my eyes, exhaled, and whooshed down the blade. Mike's head split like a pumpkin. Perhaps I was just a teensy bit mad at him.

I phoned another executive recruiter. Apparently they all wanted resumes. Weird.

A fellow GV (grizzled veteran) called; she'd lost the bake-off to a rival and was out of her publishing job. I dreamed up the mythical "F 'n' F" (F--ed and Fallen) Club and called the first meeting to order. GV and I spent hours on the phone, took long walks in the park. "Are you waking up at 3:00 am?" I asked her. "Yes!" she wailed. "Do you feel waves of shame?" "Oh my God, yes!" she cried. "You're right on schedule," I assured her.

Time hardly heals all wounds -- scar tissue is stubborn stuff -- but it did yield work as a freelance writer. The day my latest book proposal went to auction became known as Black Wednesday as legions of publishing colleagues were laid off. It made my own Black Monday look like a bad hair day. My proposal wasn't their top priority. But I knew what soon would be: 3:00 am viewings of infomercials. Would it be the ShamWow, PediPaws, or the AbRocket? And not long after that came a Black Tuesday, where the F 'n' F Club greeted its newest member: Mike.

En route to the reunion, Mike and I clear the air -- I never hated him; he's a nice guy who clearly felt awful about having to lay me off--and he shares the story of his own unceremonious dumping. The reunion was chock-a-block with GVs whose stars have rightly risen and I bask in their glow. But the joint is also brimming with members of the F 'n' F Club--now reinvented as successful literary agents, editors-at-large, link-festooned bloggers, novelists-cum-critical-darlings, packagers par excellence. They have their own glow, doubtless born of the extra gym and yoga time they likewise took on the road to recovery. Astonishingly, they all seem happier than the folks still working on the inside, one of whom takes me aside to complain about the new CEO, a transplant from a non-publishing industry. Apparently the fellow keeps asking the $500,000-plus-NYT-bestseller-bonuses question: "I don't understand. Why do you pay twice as much for the bestselling author's next book when we know it'll only sell half as well if we're lucky?" "It's awful," she tells me, "We're all hearing the axe is going to fall again soon." I give her a rueful smile, and wonder when I'll have to call the next club meeting to order.

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