“I survived the cancer but was fired from my job”

You might remember Deborah Copaken from the fascinating kerfuffle around the release of her book Shutterbabe. Her name was Deborah Copaken Kogan at the time. Since then, as she recounts in a raw and intense personal essay at Cafe.com, her life flipped over like a speeding car:

Last year, during a ten-month period, the following happened in this exact order: I got separated from my husband of two decades, who, having lost his job to the recession, moved across the country to start a business, leaving me as sole provider and parent to our two children still at home; I abandoned the novel I was working on and found a job with benefits as an Executive Editor at a health and wellness website; I took a boarder into the room newly abandoned by my college freshman to help pay my rent, which the new owners had hiked up an extra $900 a month because they could; I was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer; I watched my company, which was preparing to go public, fire dozens of qualified people within my first month of work, after which I was informed that my job, too, was on the chopping block; I survived the cancer but was fired from my job. Then, unable to afford my rent any longer, I moved my remaining family into smaller digs.

At that desperate point, this Emmy-winning, New York Times-bestselling author and Harvard grad got an email advertising holiday openings for jobs at the Container Store.

Of course I applied! You would have, too, if you had one kid paying his own way through college, another applying, no health coverage, a bum boob, a broken marriage, and an empty bank account. There is no time for shame in a recession. You do what you have to do.

Reader, she didn’t even get an interview; she got a form letter rejection.

There are lots of relevant, widely applicable, and sobering takeaways here.

+ Even with the improvements made possible by Obamacare, our for-profit, tied-to-employment health insurance system is a horse poop cupcake topped with FML sprinkles.

+ Sometimes having gone to Harvard is a hindrance rather than a help. I mean, no, I’m not going to spend much of my precious reserves of energy feeling sorry for people who spent their formative years wearing crimson in Cambridge, MA, rowing crew, getting inducted into secret societies, and lounging lazily on one of the fourteen perfectly maintained quads wondering how many degrees they are away from JFK. But various friends of mine have sworn up and down that it’s not merely a four-year-long soak in a hot tub filled with privilege bubbles. They have stories of distant professors and annoying fellow students, of not getting jobs afterwards because of hiring committee biases and of potential bosses who dismiss them saying, “It’s beneath you.”

+ Not getting a job that is beneath you is the worst. Actually, getting the job, and then getting let go from the job that is beneath you, is the worst-worst. That happened to me. Also to CJ, so at least I don’t feel alone.

+ If you’re going to work in retail, the Container Store is the way to go. Employees make, on average, about $50,000 a year, “more than double the $23,690 average national salary ($11.39 per hour) of a retail sales worker.” Other profitable employers who invest in their workers: Costco, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s.

+ We try to exert control over our circumstances. We collect the trophies of modern adulthood — marriage, children, professional recognition — in the expectation that they will protect us. They won’t. As Copaken puts it, “most of us are just a single job loss, a single medical diagnosis, a single broken marriage removed from a swirling, chaotic, wholly uncontained abyss.” Oh goody. What can we do? Well, live carefully even in good times, I guess. Sock away as much money as we can. Have back up plans. Help out people who have run out of luck, knowing that we could be next. Vote to secure the social safety net for everyone. Be grateful for what we have while we do have it. And read lots of Amy Poehler.

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