It’s 2003 and I am stuck in the bowels of Verizon’s IT department, in a g-d-awful boring job. I’ve been working for various IT departments in Corporate America for 20 years and writing jokes for imaginary stage performances on the side. With a house, a husband, and two millennial children who need to be fed a constant diet of pizza, smoothies, and games for their Xboxes, Game Boys and PlayStations, I am resigned to staying put. October marks my 47th birthday. I only have 20 more years of this corporate drudgery, I reason. I am coming down the home stretch.
One morning, I come up with a phenomenal business idea, which will propel me out of Verizon and make me rich and famous: I’m going to start my own line of custom corporate fortune cookies. I will write up work-appropriate fortunes and stuff them into homemade fortune cookies, to be handed out as party favors. But, here’s my brilliant spin: On the back, instead of “Speak Chinese” it will say “Speak Yiddish.” I call my new enterprise “Work Favors the Fortune-ate.” Instead of the morning marathon of packing the kids’ backpacks, getting myself out the door to work by 8:03 a.m., and applying my makeup in the car at each red light, I will sleep in, then waltz out at 10 in sweatpants for coffee. Instead of shopping at supermarket sales, I will luxuriate in Balducci’s, buying cantaloupe-sized grapefruits and grapefruit-sized oranges. I will get a driver to take me all over the city to lunches, dinners and galas in my honor. I will visit production plants across the country, speak about my rags-to-riches endeavor on the morning shows, and take a real family vacation to the Fiji Islands and Japan, not just a quick road trip to Cape Cod. Most important, I will buy a whole GameStop store for the kids, so that they will shut up about what they “need” next.
I arrange a prototype run by scheduling a mandatory team-meeting-slash-luncheon-slash-dessert-swap for the week before the December holidays. There are 22 people on my team, so I create my first line of 24 Verizon IT-friendly fortunes.
I type up the fortunes, using the same rose-colored font and style of type used in Chinese fortune cookies, and print the fortunes, front and back, on my color printer. I cut them into little strips of paper, and they look perfect. For example, one says, “HTTP 404: Not Found.” And on the back, it says, “Schmear: A spread or a bribe.” Another says, “Talk is cheap. Often cheaper on nights and weekends.” On the back: “Chutzpa: Nerve.”
Now I need to figure out how to make the cookies. I find a recipe online that seems impossibly easy to do, uses everyday ingredients, and sounds delicious. I can almost taste the success emerging from my oven. The night before the meeting, I throw pizza at the kids for dinner and lock them in their rooms by 8 p.m., giving me a full 12 hours before my 8 a.m. meeting. The recipe calls for baking the cookies for five to 20 minutes. I’ll do 12 minutes. At that rate, I figure, I can bake four cycles of six cookies each. I’ll be done in 48 minutes, then I can work on the actual meeting agenda.
It’s difficult to smooth out each round into a four-inch circle. After 25 minutes of mushing and pushing, I settle for three-inch circle-like masses. The first batch goes in — and comes out crumbly and overdone. I try for eight minutes. I get one cookie out, fold it — it works! I slip the little fortune in and drop it into a muffin tin.
I go to pick up the next one, and it cracks in my hand. I taste a crumb, and it’s yummy. I pick up the pan, forgetting my oven mitts, singe my fingers, and drop the pan on the floor. As I soak my burning fingers, I recalibrate. I will bake the cookies for six minutes, and I will only bake three cookies at a time. It is now 11:30 p.m., and I’ve made exactly one cookie. At this rate, they’ll be ready for the spring company picnic.
By 4:30 in the morning, 22 fortune cookies are done, although a stiff breeze would break half of them. The paper fortunes have turned translucent from the grease. They look like rice paper, not office printer paper. I gingerly place them in a Rubbermaid tub, cloak them in a tea towel, and carefully transport them to the office, where they join the other treats in the conference room for our holiday dessert buffet, which is a force to be reckoned with.
Amy, who’s missed all of her work deliverables all year, has turned out 100 chocolate snowballs with perfectly crisp outsides, covered in powdered sugar snow. Sandy, who works so hard in the office I never imagined she would set foot in a kitchen, has fashioned perfect miniature green wreaths out of Corn Flakes and Red Hots, with bright green icing. Janet shows up with sleighs made of Christmas candies. She has driven through three states to get here, yet her sleighs are fastened by melted peppermints, with such expert engineering precision they could tackle a sleigh ride in a blizzard. And Joey produces his “remarkable” chocolate pecan cookies. He’s been touting their remarkability all fall, but there isn’t actually anything remarkable about them. They’re just cookies (no humor or education or brilliance in his cookies). In the middle of this fabulous buffet is my Rubbermaid container with the stupid, cloaking tea towel.
At dessert time, I whip off the tea towel and declare: “Time for dessert.” Everyone is filling their plates with the other desserts, but no one is taking a fortune cookie. I walk around with the bin to each person and say, “Here, take one.” Everyone politely takes one. They work for me. They have no choice. But no one is eating them.
I walk over to Joey.
“Joey, open yours. Read it.”
He obliges. “May you have more bugs in your code than you have in this cookie.”
No one smiles. “Read the back,” I command.
Joey struggles. “Chaz – a – ray … Chaz a?”
“CHAZERAI!” I correct him. Joey’s from Canada. He can’t speak Yiddish.
“Amy, open your cookie,” I say.
“Can you hear me now?” she reads. She doesn’t get the joke.
“Look at the back!” I shout.
“Schmat … ”
I dive in: “SCHMATTA: RAG!”
Everyone opens their cookie. There’s barely a chuckle from the group. Certainly not the hearty guffaw I had expected from this team. There is one cookie left. I open it and read the fortune: “Do not quit your day job” it says. And on the back: “Oy vey.”
My fortune cookie debut and the team’s reaction are signs. I do not quit my day job. I’m still at Verizon three years later, in 2006. I’m about to turn 50, and I’ve made the sad transition from reading Glamour magazine to reading MORE magazine.
MORE is my North Star — 130 pages of bladder leak protection ads, interspersed with motivational tales of women reinventing themselves in midlife: becoming life coaches to other women, building cupcake empires, moving to Australia to save the wallabies.
A decade later, in 2016, MORE will cease publication. They will be no MORE. They will be edged out because they target an older female demographic, and we all know that women over 40 are supposed to be invisible.
The death knell is when MORE changes its tagline to “Women of style and substance.” No one wants a woman of substance. Everyone wants a woman with no substance, a vacuous wisp of a thing who has starved herself with a juice cleanse and had her eyebrows microbladed.
Aside from MORE weight and MORE debt, there isn’t anything MORE in my life — there’s a lot LESS. Less life left to live, less money, less sex.
My job at Verizon is a dead end. Literally. My office is below ground level, so if I jump out the window, I must jump up. I’ve been forced to downsize my dream team of 22 people to three. The three of us juggle 13 conference calls a week — mostly calls to justify why we’re behind on work.
We’ve been reorganized under an evil boss — a vile, miserable woman who works 200 miles away and only contacts me when she wants to pin blame for whatever mishap has befallen the creaky computer applications we maintain.
In late October, the day before my 50th Birthday, my boss sends me an email: “Ivy. We’re having a reduction in force. I need a name.” “Reduction in force” is another term for “involuntary separation,” which is corporate-speak for giving someone the boot.
I write her back, “We’ve been cut to the bone. We are only three people for 13 status calls. How can we lose one more?”
“I need a name.”
A shiver grips me. If I put my own name in, I may get seven months of severance, surely enough to reinvent myself. I’m turning 50, for god’s sake. I have half of my life ahead of me to do something brilliant and be profiled in MORE. I could do this! My neck gets hot, my eyes burn, and I type: “SUBJECT: A Name,” and in the body, “I-V-Y___E-I-S-E-N-B-E-R-G.”
Two minutes later the phone rings. It’s my boss. She never calls.
“Ivy, do you know what you’ve done?”
“Yes, I am putting my name in for the involuntary separation.”
“Are you sure?”
I’ve done it! My last day is December 31, and indeed, I’m granted a lot of severance pay, plus a year’s worth of medical coverage, and complimentary outplacement assistance.
I have plans. I will lose weight, overhaul my wardrobe, take up Zumba, cut my hair, become a famous singer, write a humor book, organize my house, plant and reap a vegetable garden, and potentially, open up a bed-and-breakfast as a weekend pastime. If I have a few months left, I’ll travel.
January 1, 2007: I wake up … and it’s a holiday, so I don’t need to do anything.
January 2, 2007: I wake up … and get a call from Suzanne, an eager-beaver representative from the outplacement assistance firm that Verizon has hired.
“How are you doing?” she asks, in a tone suggesting I might be in recovery from a major surgery.
“I’m great! I was just sleeping, and now I am toasting waffles.”
“Well, I thought I’d reach out so we can get started working on your résumé. So, what sort of job are you looking for next, Ivy?”
“Job? Oh, no, Suzanne, I’m not looking for a job. I am reinventing myself. I’m going to be looking for something very different.”
For the first time in my life, I go to the supermarket in midmorning, midweek, rather than on Friday or Saturday night. I can’t believe how many lettuce heads there are in the produce section. Mounds of them, full of fresh leaves and dew.
For the first time in my life, I’ll be able to see my kids getting off the school bus. I’ve worked nonstop from the time my son was 11 weeks old. He’s in middle school now. That first day, I run out to the front lawn at 2:43 p.m. to see him get off the bus and walk toward the house.
“Get in the house,” he whisper-yells at me. “Don’t you ever do that again!”
I am crushed.
I form a pattern: I go to Whole Foods for lunch daily because, as MORE magazine says, I should treat myself well while I am reinventing myself. The unemployment office is right next to Whole Foods, and I learn that if I go through the charade of applying for jobs at the unemployment office, they’ll just hand me money.
Here’s a little thing you might not know: When you get unemployment, you can elect to get a debit card, which gets magically filled with money every month. It’s not a lot, but it is enough of a windfall that I can buy Rainier cherries, heirloom tomatoes and smelly French cheeses at Whole Foods. The joy of paying for Saint-André cheese with a New York State Workforce Development debit card? Priceless.
I take up Zumba, and I discover that Zumba gives me a pain in my hip joint.
I spend February researching how to run a bed-and-breakfast. I learn it is the worst way to earn money: long hours, crazy guests. And I remember that I hate people, especially in the morning, sitting across from me, eating eggs benedict. People who will have sex on the Laura Ashley sheets and opine about the beautiful tree-filled bike rides they’ve taken. Yeah, no.
Still, I have fun purchasing decorative coffee pots and gingham valances on eBay, just in case. Maybe I should open a coffee store. I love coffee. I love coffee-related doodads. I love coffee cake. And tan walls. And body-pierced baristas! No wait, I hate body-pierced baristas.
I am exhausted by the end of February, and I discover that the one routine I’ve managed to keep up is napping. It is healthy. It is filling my soul. I am napping more than the cats. When I come downstairs, they cock their heads from their perch on the radiator, as if to say, “Eh, look who decided to get up.”
January’s gone. February’s gone. It’s March, and buds are beginning to form on the trees. I apply for a job or two. Four, five. OK, I send out about 115 résumés. I figure I’ll take a little job while I’m reinventing myself.
A few months pass, and I have only one interview — for a job cataloging online documentation at a huge financial services company, with a two-hour commute each way. I’m ready to take it, but in their eyes, “I am not the right fit.” The only not-right “fit” to my mind is my suit. All my non-Zumba-ing and stress snacking has shrunken my interview clothes.
In early June, I land a short-term IT consulting gig — sight unseen — out in the remote suburbs. It’s a job that no one else wants to do. I’m inside the tan walls again. I have my own little tan cubicle. And they’ve even tacked up a piece of paper with my name on it. I have to say, I love the smell of corporate coffee: that syrupy, burning smell of the Bunn coffee maker. It’s good to be back. The gig lasts 10 weeks, just long enough to destroy the possibility of a two-week summer vacation with the kids.
In early September, I get a call from my old boss, who is now at Company Y. They have an opening for someone with my diverse qualifications. He’s heard I’ve left Verizon. He’s heard through the grapevine that I am reinventing myself. It’s probably a very long shot, he admits … but, do I want a new job? Would I maybe? Pretty please? Would I consider taking a job? It’s way out in an even more remote suburb — about 50 miles east of my home. It’s a collection of job responsibilities that no one wants to do.
Do I want a job?
Yes, yes. I do. I DO want a job, I DO want a job. Damn, I WANT A JOB.
A girlfriend encourages me to take this less-than-ideal job in a less-than-ideal location by saying, “Nothing is forever.” She’s right. If I don’t like it, I can just leave and seek another opportunity. They are so easy to come by at my tender age. The week of my 51st birthday, I slink into Company Y, my tail between my legs. But I will have another brilliant business idea. I can just feel it.