The Story behind the Story

Sometimes we choose our careers, and sometimes they choose us. And sometimes we run out of choices. That’s what happened to me when I was laid off during the Great Recession. I had applied for work at every place in town, but no one wanted to hire me. Jobs were scarce, and the few companies looking to fill positions weren’t interested in hiring women over 50. I knew this was true because at every interview I walked into, I was met with the same tight smile and blank stare. The interviewers would exchange glances that said, “Let’s make this as quick as possible and move on to the next candidate.” They didn’t see “MBA.” They didn’t see “decades of experience.” They didn’t see “senior management, team management, project management.” They didn’t see “Mensa member,” either. They just saw “old.” Old woman. Old unemployed — and unemployable — woman.

Those were the earliest days of my unemployment, when I could still hide my age on the job application and get invited to that first interview. But then companies got clever and started including the question, “What year did you graduate from high school?” An answer was required, so you couldn’t skip it. Giving them that date gave away my age and precluded me from getting even a first interview, so when it began popping up on online applications, I stopped applying for jobs online. Ageism may not be legal, but it’s widely practiced. Unless I’m applying for a bartending position, why does an employer need to know when I finished high school?

This painful experience, which lasted for more than two years, was the topic of a talk I gave at the Shrine Club. It wasn’t what I had intended to talk about, but it turned out to be the best topic for me and for my audience. A few weeks earlier, the Colorado Springs branch of the American Association of University Women had invited me to speak at their Author’s Day and Silent Auction. The annual event, which includes a breakfast, raises money for college scholarships for local women. Of course, I said yes. I speak regularly at local libraries and visitor centers, like Garden of the Gods. I have several slideshows, each about a different guidebook I’ve written. One of my presentations covers the 47 hot springs I’ve soaked in across the state, while another introduces the audience to more than 100 waterfalls. A third presentation is all about Colorado mountaineering. All three programs are packed with glorious photos of where I’ve been and information on how to get there — with a little help from my guidebooks. I was ready to speak to the fine women of AAUW and had all the waterfall, hot spring, and mountain maps, photos and graphics to back me up.

A few days before the event, I learned in an email that I wouldn’t be doing a visual presentation after all — I just had to talk for half an hour. What? Talk? Oh, no. No photos? How many ways can I describe a waterfall, a hot spring, a mountain? As long-winded as I am, filling 30 minutes was going to be a stretch. So I tried to write a speech. I tried hard, but nothing came. With nothing to say, I drove to the Shrine Club that Saturday morning, hoping something would occur to me over coffee and quinoa.

The first two authors were so good. Eleanor Brown, the author of The Weird Sisters and The Light of Paris, was funny and polished. The keynote speaker at the event, she was a pro who knew how to engage the audience. Elizabeth Fox, author of We Are Going to Be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Letters, was next, and her poignant story included letters from the battlefield written by her father and read aloud by her husband, Sid. Sitting there listening to their eloquent speeches, I discarded my plan to talk about my books and decided to tell a different story: how I ended up writing stories in the first place. It would be a tough story to tell, but I looked to the only two people I knew in the audience and focused on them instead of all those strangers. My friend, Lisa, had also been displaced during the recession and had reinvented herself in the higher education field, doing what she loves and is very, very good at. Another friend, fellow Woodmen Edition columnist Bill Dagendesh, was in the writing business, an industry that suffered greatly during the last recession. I figured that at least a couple of people would understand where I was coming from.

I launched right into it: how I had gone from a high salary in high-tech to being unemployed. After two years, I wasn’t just running out of options; I was dangerously low on funds and self-esteem. Writing saved me. I wrote a book proposal, got a contract, and with that published book on my resume, I not only got job interviews — I got hired. More book contracts and other writing gigs, like this column, followed. After four years I quit working for other people to stay home and write full-time.

That’s the short version of what I told those ladies and a few men at the AAUW. It was the first time I’d spoken publicly about what I had been through and putting it all out there felt good. I could tell right away that other women had been there too, and I suspected they had never talked about it either.

There is a lot of shame in being unemployed. I started working at 16 and supported myself my entire life. I stayed in my jobs through two pregnancies, even having my second son on a Friday, being discharged from the hospital on Saturday, and going back to work on Monday. I still remember walking into the 8 a.m. sales meeting and people looking at me like I was nuts. But that’s what you do when you have two kids and you work on commission.

Being self-sufficient has always been a priority in my life, but when no one will give you a job, paying your own way isn’t possible. It’s a miserable experience that you can’t talk about. It’s too hard to be around your employed friends; they just want to talk about their jobs and how they’re spending all their money. Your unemployed friends are just as miserable as you are, and neither of you can afford to commiserate over a beer. You can’t connect with people on social media either: everyone’s either posting photos from their vacations or complaining about how their lazy unemployed friends are leeching off unemployment benefits — you know, “their” tax dollars. Never mind that many of us had been paying into unemployment for decades.

I got a lot off my chest at that talk. It felt good to say it out loud. It felt even better when women approached me afterward to confirm my suspicions: it wasn’t just me. Lots of women — and men — had been gutted during the last recession simply because they were too old to ever be taken seriously again in the job market. Some told me they got lucky and eventually landed a position that wasn’t as good as the one they had come from, but it was decent and paid the bills. Other women told me they eventually gave up and retired. A few, like Lisa, reinvented themselves, discovering new ways to leverage talents they’d developed in the workplace and exploring passions they’d set aside to build a new career that was profitable and even more fulfilling than the one they’d left behind.

It was a good talk, even without the slides.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 12, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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