Work is my vocation. It gives me purpose, it makes sense to me, it bends to my will. Love comes and goes, but work never disappoints. And I would say this even if I hadn’t been fired five times. Wait, six.
If you made a shoestring documentary of my life of work, mostly in media, it would look something like this: a kid is on a two-wheeled bike for the first time. She grips the handlebars like life itself, pedal, pedal, CRASH! Get up, pedal, pedal, ride, ride, CRASH. Get up, CRASH. Get up, knees bleeding, ride, ride, ride, ride—she’s going the distance! Look, no hands!—CRASH. Add in a couple of steep hills, three crazy descents, biting dogs, and a head wound, and it’s the story of my forty-five-year career. I’ve seen thrilling heights and poke-pins-in-my-eyes daily drudgery. Most of what I understand about loyalty, and some necessary self-regulation, I learned by going into an office and being around people every day. Work let me figure out what was important to me, how I thought about things, what moved me, and what was worth fighting for, if not always what wasn’t worth fighting for. But, for all the years I’ve worked in my life, I’ve never learned more about work than when I haven’t had any, usually after being fired. CRASH. It’s the pitiful sloughs—crying into my Cheerios, in my pyjamas, in the middle of the day—that offered the moments of enlightenment I’m about to share. I call them Six Lessons of a Six-Times-Fired Working Woman. We’ll begin with my most recent firing, as editor-in-chief of a chain of Metro daily newspapers across Canada.
I was called into my boss’s bland pale-brown office. It was 11 a.m. on Thursday, November 15. Each of those details was important. I knew from my own history of doing the firing that any date closer to Christmas than mid-November was regarded as unseemly, that morning was preferred, and that Fridays and Mondays were verboten because they were too close to the weekend. I don’t know why not Wednesday, but it was never on a Wednesday. There’s a rule book somewhere.
I sat down between the head of human resources and my boss. They looked woeful.
“Hey, guys, how are you doing?” I liked these men: they seemed to have held on to a ribbon of their humanity as much of their job became to kill papers and fire people. Although my guys, we’ll call them Thompson and Thomson, didn’t use words like fire. R. W. Holder’s Dictionary of Euphemisms (later renamed How Not to Say What You Mean) holds up, thirty years later, as a funny and astute guide to the language of “evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit.” Let go, laid off, made redundant, discontinued, relieved of duties, released, downsized, lateralized, streamlined, managed out, dismissed, negotiated departure. This firing of mine was part of a “restructuring measure to improve overall efficiencies and help fund our transformation.” There was a large envelope on the table. There always was. “It’s nothing personal.” This was Thomson, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell: someone who was interesting to know even as he chopped your head off. It felt pretty personal to me as my head bounced off the round table.
A brief period of buoyancy generally followed a firing. The worst had happened, the slog of work—there was a mountain of it right before you were axed—had finally ended. The possibility of something new, or, blessedly, of nothing new, opened up just ahead. Also, I had the satisfaction of being right. “I told you I was going to get fired,” I said to the various people I called to share the news with. My friends had thought I was paranoid. Well, yeah. It takes only one firing for you to understand that there is no such thing as terra firma in the world of work.
My first job was picking cherries at one of the lush fruit farms that stretched between the escarpment and Lake Ontario, in Grimsby. Meryl, my first friend and workmate, was twelve, I was thirteen, and we stood on our wooden ladders, six-quart baskets hooked to thick leather belts around our waists, and picked the trees clean of their fat clusters of red cherries, twisting them from the end of the stem as we’d been taught. We were paid seventy-five cents a basket, which at our pace meant we’d made three bucks at the end of the day.
“You needed more cherries in that one,” said the farmer, who wanted the baskets overflowing.
“Full is to the top, so it’s full,” I protested and was docked ten cents. After a few days of this, I said to Meryl, “What we need is a factory job.”
The local boys had jobs at E. D. Smith, where the fruit was turned into jams and jellies, and they were paid by the hour. E. D. Smith wouldn’t hire us at our age—or, more likely, because we were girls, a theme to be continued—but we got taken on by the Grimsby egg-grading factory instead.
Inside the massive shed, our new boss explained the huge noisy roller coaster of an assembly line, which was right out of a Dr. Seuss village. There was the egg-washing station; the egg-grading station, where you studied the eggs under ultraviolet light and discarded those that had blood or tiny chick fetuses; egg size sorting; and egg cartoning, in that order. The most important part of this three-minute safety lesson was the large red button, which was to be pressed only in case of emergency. I took my place at the egg-washing station, where it was important to place the cartons on the correct groove so the eggs wouldn’t be smashed by the washing brushes. “Cathrin!” Meryl pointed up the line after I’d loaded my cartons for a bit: my eggs lay there in a crushed, slimy heap. I ran and pushed the large red button, and the assembly line came to a creaking halt. It was a satisfying amount of power.
Day two, Meryl’s yellow work smock got caught in the assembly line as she stared at the eggs under the ultraviolet light, lost in thought. “Help, Cathrin! Help!!” I looked over from my station to see Meryl running along the line, her smock jammed in the spinning wheels of the conveyor belt. “Take your lab coat off!” I yelled. “Help me! Save me!” shouted Meryl in a real panic. So I pushed the large red button and the line stopped again. It was terrific.
On the third day, we decided to ask for a raise and when we would get our paid holidays. I was hoping it would be very soon. It was hard work on the line. “We would like two weeks,” I said. “You’re fired!” the boss shouted. “And don’t come back!” he added to our rapidly retreating backs. We did get a very tiny paycheque, at some later date, for our three days’ work. Meryl and I had steady chores at home, for which we were not paid, and the egg-grading factory was where I learned the first essential lesson of a working life, the defining purpose of labour, even: it is better to be paid for work than to do it for free.
The second job I got fired from was where I learned the second most important lesson of a working life: you need to show up. I was hired right out of university as an editorial assistant for Gifts & Tablewares magazine. One problem was that the concept of Gifts & Tablewares was elusive. Another was that this job was a very long way to get to by subway and bus, so I was often late, and this lateness became so embarrassing that I soon concocted stories about why I couldn’t show up at all. My sister called me at work one day to be told I was not there because my grandmother had just died. “Oh no!” she said before she remembered that both of our grandmothers had died years earlier. A month or so later, my boss, a tall man with a long hank of black hair that he kept pushing out of his eyes, called me into his office from the sickroom, where I’d been lolling on the slender cot, reading. “You’re fired,” he said sadly. I felt bad for him. He was a kind man. And note the use of the word fired. Those were clearer times.
I’ll just mention the third firing, and the not one but two lessons it taught me, before we move on to better times. It was the next job I got, as a copywriter for a public relations firm located in a vertiginous office tower, and it had the benefit of being near where I lived. The men at this firm had large windowed offices overlooking the city; the women sat either outside those offices or, like me, in small windowless rooms at the end of a long corridor. I’ve never worked with a man who abused me physically or sexually. The abuse was of money and power. Men in the bigger office. Men calling the shots, running the show, pulling the strings, getting the top job. The white guy sitting next to me, doing the exact same work, made about $400,000 more than me over the long span of our careers, if you added it up, which plenty of pay-equity studies had done. It wasn’t only gender: discrimination based on race or disability was worse. It hasn’t changed nearly as much as it should.
The problem with that copywriting job, aside from the in-my-face sexism, was that I couldn’t sort out what public relations was. People thought one way about a pen, say, and I was meant to make them think a new and exciting way about the pen, to tell its story so winningly that journalists would run it on the front pages of their newspapers. I couldn’t think of anything to say about the pen except that it wrote and was slender to hold, which was when one of the men in the big offices said, “You’re fired.” I was indignant. “I have more talent in my baby finger than you will have in your whole life,” I said, one of the least evidence-based statements I’ve ever made. Still, the public relations job did teach me my third valuable lesson as a lifelong woman of work.
To review the first three of Six Lessons of a Six-Times-Fired Working Woman:
1. Make money.
2. Show up.
3. Have a nominal level of competence in the job you choose or the career you think you want.
Another refrain that ran through my early work life like a second theme in a concerto was me getting in the face of the men I worked for, starting with that farmer I argued with over how full my cherry basket was (who, by the way, paid the boys five cents more for their baskets). I’m not going to add “Don’t argue with your boss” to my list of things I’ve learned about work. Or maybe I will.
4. Argue more.
“I have no secret but hard work . . . . Labour is the genius that changes the world from ugliness to beauty, and the great curse to a great blessing.”
—J. M. W. Turner, circa 1800
One of the fallacies I’ve heard throughout my working life is that no one ever wished on their deathbed that they’d worked more. No one ever said, “I wish I’d worked harder.” But, at two of the deathbeds I attended, both men spoke proudly of their work. It was among the last things they said. “Work hard, try hard, do your best,” said my uncle Jack to my son. “Find work you love, and someone you love to work for, and work your heart out for them,” said my father, also to my son, three days before he died. I forgave those men for not telling my daughter to work hard. It didn’t occur to them. They were the last of the unquestioning patriarchy; they’d done their duty by their families and society as tax-paying workers for fifty years, without pause. And they were on their way out.
“‘I wish I’d chilled more.’ Who’s going to say that on their deathbed?” This was my colleague Jason, who’d just been fired himself. Jason and I were having a drink at the plush-cushioned bar of the King Edward Hotel, in downtown Toronto. He’d ordered a rare beer because being fired is no picnic. A few months earlier, Jason had been pulled out of his role as a talented creative director and put into a job that involved idea sprints and imagination boards, supposedly to find a solution for dying media. “We began each day standing in a circle to say what we had accomplished the day before, what we would accomplish that day, and what we would accomplish the next day,” Jason said, leaning back in his chair and grinning at me across the wooden bar table. “The problem was, I could never remember what I had done the day before.”
“Oh my God, I love it.” Dianne arrived and was already laughing as she shook off her coat. Jason, Dianne, and I had been work friends for many years and had taken to rallying for a drink whenever one of us got fired. It happened more often than we might have liked. We didn’t have dinner parties or call one another every day. We rarely talked about kids or marriage or private sufferings. It was our particular talents and obsessions that gave us commonality. We gave one another fast entry into a whole world, our world of work.
I told Dianne about my deathbed theory, how people spoke of work in their final hours the way you might remember a dear and meaningful lifelong lover. She became serious.
“If it hadn’t been for working, I don’t know how I could have lived,” she said, putting down her wine. “Work changed everything. Finding the right job and the right people, it was bigger than marriage.” Dianne’s voice and colour rose slightly as she spoke. “They knew me in a way that my husband and my parents and my kids did not.” She looked from me to Jason. “You get into the work you do by accident and find it was there waiting for you. It was pure happiness.”
“Work friends unlock a part of yourself that’s realized only when you’re with them,” said Jason. “We share a collective work-brain palace, like a disco ball shedding light in every direction.” He held his hands in the air, and we all looked up at his imaginary disco ball. “The way we agreed and understood what was important.”
“The look across the table in a meeting.” Dianne wrinkled her nose to demonstrate meeting-face. “The raised eyebrow. We knew exactly who we were together.”
We all thought about this for a few moments. “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, is it?” I was thinking about how my most painful firing (coming up) was as deep a blow as the loss of my marriage. And why wouldn’t it be? Humans spend about a third of their lives working, around twenty-five years if you strung one working life from end to end, like a clothesline. “I think labour creates its own meaning,” I said, waxing. We’d all ordered another drink, even Jason, which was unprecedented. “The sacred power of work that Karl Marx described.” I thought about my egg-grading and pen-pushing. “Not what you did. More the simple fact that you worked.”
“We’re built to work,” Jason said simply.
After the rocky start in my early twenties, I landed a great job at Domino, one of a raft of new magazines the Globe and Mail started in the can’t-spend-enough late 1980s. It was run by a woman named Ray, my first female boss. She had a strict diet of cigarettes, black coffee, and rare steak. She also had a strict no-colour rule. Her Fiat Spider convertible was beige. Her two Doberman pinschers, who were as frightened of her as the rest of us, were black and beige. Her impressive closet of large-shouldered Armani suits: beige, beige, beige.
The new red dress I wore the day she hired me would have immediately disqualified me if I hadn’t spent two weeks preparing for the interview. A week later, I started my first day as managing editor of the brand-new fashion magazine. It was a terrific stint. Ray would send four of us at a time to Milan or New York or Paris, not to cover the fashion shows but to soak up their world, wobbling through the streets on our high heels, talking about how wobbly our high heels were.
The publisher who built the magazine division and then watched it flame out five years later was a tightly wound Irishman with a volcanic tick on his right cheek and a serious motorcycle in the parking lot. When ads began to decline, I protested some ugly shape for the way it disrupted the flow of words. “Bradbury,” Ed the publisher began quietly, his twitch a warning, “if someone wants to run an ad in the shape of a snake on every goddamn page, that’s what we’re going to do.” It was the beginning of the end of big-spend media advertising. We had the best of it, but we didn’t know it at the time. Ed quit his own job the day he finally had to shut down the magazine division and fire the rest of us, me included. He was in the prime of his work life and announced his decision to a small huddle of staff without fanfare and refusing accolades or send-offs. It was an act of bravery I’ve not seen replicated at work by anyone, myself included, and it taught me the fifth of my Six Lessons of a Six-Times-Fired Working Woman:
5. It’s the moments of integrity and decency in the rumble of work that you don’t forget and want to emulate. I try to remember that when work pushes me to compromise on the important things, like truth and basic humanity.
I was in my thirties when the magazines shut down, and I thought work was over for me, but a few months later, I got hired back by the company that had just fired me, this time to be the national editor of the Globe and Mail. The problem with this job was that I didn’t know anything whatsoever about the news. Reporters would loom over my desk six-deep and ask how many inches I wanted them to file on parole hearings and school board mandates; the editor beside me would discreetly nod yes or no, and I’d follow her lead.
Worse than the incomprehensible story pitches was the blurred pace. I was in over my head. Ed called with advice. “Walk in every day with your head up and say to yourself, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’ Never let them see you blink, Bradbury,” he said, thereby cementing a work principle I have stood firm by ever since, which is not to be afraid of what you don’t know: it’ll come to you as you do the job.
My boss and the editor-in-chief at the time, my second male editor (let’s underline that), was Richard, a raffish product of London’s finest public school system. His body was loose and his tongue sharp, and he used the combination as a form of torture.
“Cathrin,” he said as I held up the press to get in a feature’s complicated-to-format footnotes. He spoke in a singsong voice, smiling so sweetly I thought he was going to say, “Your editorial judgment is unequalled.” “You are a complete disaster, aren’t you? You don’t have a clue what you’re doing, do you?” He promoted me all the same because we worked well together, and I flourished under my next editor-in-chief too, another man, and gained “renown as one of the country’s best feature editors.” That last part is from my firing letter, written by my fourth and final male boss, a cracker-thin, three-month-in editor who was so keen to fire me that he all but swung an axe at my head whenever he saw me. New editors liked to fire people right out of the gate, to make their presence felt. I’d survived three of them, watching as they came and went. I wasn’t going to survive a fourth.
“Let me put this into the bigger perspective,” the editor said as I sat across from him on a Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. “I’m going to be doing everything differently.” It was a little short on perspective. “I hope you believe me when I say you are a brilliant editor.” He spoke in a low, considered voice, and I could see why people said he had integrity. The bright-green envelope in his disconcertingly pretty hand shook slightly as he put it between us.
My sister got me an excellent lawyer, who loped into our first meeting with a fitted dark-brown suit, tightly cropped hair, and the focus of a coyote about to rip into dinner. With a good package to tide me over, I watched the empty days multiply like a marauding virus. The lowest point in this, my worst firing, was the afternoon I failed to change a complicated light bulb. “You can’t even change a light bulb,” I said out loud, standing in my pyjamas on my dining room table, and I went back to bed for the rest of the day. It was a long recovery. But it was a reckoning too. I found out I wasn’t as funny as I had been when I was the boss and everyone laughed at my jokes. And I learned that not having a title beside my name was daunting but also freeing.
My final lesson of Six Lessons of a Six-Times-Fired Working Woman is this:
6. It’s painful as hell to get fired from a good job, and it hurts your whole life. You’ll go off, too, when you least expect it. Someone at a dinner party might say, “I was reading in the Globe the other day,” and you’ll leap to your feet and shout, “You know what, fuck you and your fucking bullshit,” and then storm out into the night. Just go with it: there’s nothing you can do about it.
A life of toil. You live, you work, you die. The end.
Excerpted from The Bright Side: Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks and One (Maybe) Miracle by Cathrin Bradbury. Copyright ©2021 Cathrin Bradbury. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.