01 October 2012
The year is 1972, and we've pretty much sewn up second place in the Southeast Asia War Games. I'm about to receive my math degree, and with it, relief and a quandary. For four years I've been parrying the inevitable "What can you do with that?"with a muttered "Maybe I could teach." That usually keeps the wolves at bay, but likely I'm finally going to have to face them down. I seem to have two options: teach, or go to grad school and then teach. My gut tells me I don't have the wherewithal for either.
Teaching is to me the calling of the ultimate extrovert, a protracted and diabolically extreme form of public speaking. As an introvert with rock-solid credentials, the mere thought of teaching horrifies me. I've never felt the call. I certainly didn't have the balls then, and though the passing decades have given me ever-increasing respect for teachers, they have not vouchsafed me any masculine enhancement.
Nor was the question of the wherewithal to do grad school an idle one. In high school, the work came easy, and I was good at it. But I incline—some would say recline—to laziness and avoiding unpleasant confrontation, so I never persisted in anything unless I could do it well and effortlessly and right off the mark. I never had to really work to achieve. This was a damn poor character-building strategy, and I shudder to imagine my state of dysfunction if the Self-Esteem movement had had any traction in my green years.
In college I got a nasty surprise when my grades took their right and proper turn south. Salutary self-doubt seized me. That I could do what I'd set out to do was no longer a given. An eternity of agonizing compressed itself into a few panic-filled weeks. Clutching at straws, I bandied about the idea of changing my major to English, at which I knew I was competent. My friends slapped me around a little. Several times I came within the proverbial hair's breadth of switching, but my innate inertia held me on my side of the Rubicon. I'm grateful that some salvaged shred of gumption let me suck it up—the obvious solution—and avoid disaster. But the English courses I continued to take were the only thing that gave me a respectable GPA, and I'd learned that even with work, my mathematics future was limited.
Late in my last semester, Central Hudson Gas & Electric held on-campus interviews to fill openings in their personnel department, looking only for a technical degree. My barely-earned BS in math got me through the door. The interviewer asked if I thought I was a people person. Of course I was—there are people who aren't? With the effrontery that comes of profound lack of self-knowledge I met his eye with a "yes." Not even a split-second's hesitation. The ice broken, lie followed lie—being a people person felt so liberating. I wasn't invited for a second interview.
The end of academic life relieved me; I wouldn't go back to school, either as grad student or teacher. I held a certificate attesting to my intelligence and enterprise, saying nothing of my emotional maturity or character, ostensibly of more practical use than, say, a BA in French poetry. Of course, with relief came the quandary: now what? I punted, deferring the reckoning yet again.
For years I had delighted in using tools to create physical objects—electronic, ornamental, pyrotechnic, my hands didn't care. To balance four years of a lopsided life of the mind, I itched to produce something tangible, and I'd developed the romantic delusion that I was capable of making a living as a skilled artisan. In that little fantasy world, a self-employed silversmith with a math degree would find inevitable worldly success. But I was not so far gone that I didn't realize it might be good to first get a real job to make a little money and hone my manual skills. In September I got hired at Holtzer-Cabot, manufacturer of fractional-horsepower electric motors. Not as creative as I might have hoped, but any shop with lathes, drill presses, and grinders was OK with me.
On my feet eight hours a day, I smoothed the inside surface of motor casings, tapped holes, pressed eyelets. At noon I walked out into the wreckage of the woods they were cutting down to build an industrial park, where I'd eat my lunch, read ostentatiously, and synthesize a little vitamin D while the autumn weather held. From sheer timidity and perhaps the recollection of Groucho's aversion to joining any club that would let him in, I resisted the overt blandishments of the factory flirt, occasioning a nine days' wonder among my colleagues. I did join another club, the United Steelworkers. Membership was mandatory, as were the dues I paid for three months. The union was useless: no card to carry, no secret handshake, no decoder ring, no fat pension, no protection from the soon-to-come debacle.
Working at Holtzer-Cabot may well have been a blunder, but not because I knowingly walked into the denouement of a corporate death spiral—I had no idea. Even today, more experienced in corporate machinations, I'd find it hard to believe that a company that was hiring for any reason, however byzantine, could be moribund.
The last day before the Christmas holiday, we were summoned to the lunch room. Mr. Karp, his suit unmistakably advertising his alpha dogginess, announced we were shutting down, effective right then. There was audible shock and dismay. He closed by wishing us, in so many words, "Merry Christmas." Now and again I wonder what he was thinking when he blurted that out, hard on the heels of his bombshell. He seemed sincere, as if he were trying hard to convey true Christmas spirit. But then I doubt my own judgment at the time, as I was even at that moment planning a marriage which was, to all interested observers, obviously fated to end in a death spiral of its own.
On the way out I approached Mr. Karp and asked him if elsewhere in the corporation he could use someone with a degree in math. God only knows if I mentioned my French minor. He said, "What can you do?" I stood tongue-tied, stymied. If only I'd been clairvoyant and glib I could have answered, "Program in assembly language as if it were my native tongue, and plenty of other things I can't even begin to see."