Sunday, January 23, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 239: Biomythography - Note 16, Course Correction

A Biomythography - Note 16
by Secret Hippie

Course Correction

In March of 1990, I stood on the shoulder of route 695 next to the flat tire on my car. In my hand I held a tire jack that doubled as the lug nut wrench. The tool was both ingeniously designed and terrible. It was compact and cheap, part of the default emergency rescue set that came with the car. I could have bought a better, faster one for five dollars. And I should have.

I had a AAA membership but no access to it. The company had taken my money, nearly fifty bucks, but I was stranded on the highway and that meant I had no way to call them. Before, in situations like this I had hitched rides to call AAA from a payphone. On this day I didn't have the time.

As I knelt to change my tire, it started to rain. I was pretty sure it was because I had brought no coat. I pumped the car jack faster.

My main concern was not the weather. It was not even the heavy machine screw through my tire. It was that I had a hiring appointment at the Gaithersburg Gazette. I'd been offered a position as a copy editor - not a good offer. The salary was $17,000 per year plus my emotional resignation to having no financial future. Salaries for writers had flatlined a decade before. What's more, at this point in history, computer software had progressed far enough that I had to wonder why a newspaper was still hiring copy editors. Surely they had to wonder, too.

If I took the job, I would be accepting less than my previous offer to continue at University Publications, which I had turned down in favor of Control Data Institute, a technical school.

Contrary to the spirit of my school, I had left classes in Baltimore early that day with the idea of joining the newspaper. I'd worn a nice shirt and everything.

But I knew it was a bad decision.

My arms kept warm, first from pumping the jack, next from turning the lug nuts. The back of my neck and my stomach started to shiver in the cold rain. But I kept at it. While I did, I considered my prospects at the dead-end copy editing job. It was going to be boring.

In contrast, the technical school was fun in its way. I had enrolled in the computer hardware course, where I'd gotten to make JK flip-flop circuits like a kid in physics class. Since I was finishing their curriculum with months to spare, I had cracked into the school's Unix systems (all Xenix), with instructor permission because they'd forgotten the passwords. That let me run through most of the CDI operating systems course. To explore something unrelated to either hardware or systems, I had signed out all of the COBOL books. Doing the COBOL assignments made three technical courses all together but I reasoned that I'd already sunk my training money into the school. I might as well steal what extra education I could find. Besides, I liked it when my COBOL programs did what I wanted.

It's not as if any teachers objected. Like most instructors at any level, they were pleased and surprised to find someone who wanted to learn more than the mandatory minimum.

As I worked on my car, I started to shiver-sweat, hot and cold at the same time. There wasn't any way to hop into the vehicle for temporary shelter until I finished changing the tire. I'd lifted the rear of the auto body off the ground using the tiny jack system. I didn't trust it; I kept push-testing to make sure it was safe. Even when I put on the spare and lowered the car part way to tighten the lug nuts, I didn't want to take a break. I was nearly done.

Before I finished, I became aware that the traffic around me had slowed. On the highway ahead, someone must have had an accident in the rain. That was going to hurt my travel time.

After I tightened the replacement tire, a cold squall drove me back into the car. I still had the hubcap to replace. There were tools to put back into the trunk, too. But I couldn’t take the freezing rain for a minute longer. I tumbled into the passenger seat. Immediately, the windows started to fog. My gaze moved to the clock on the center console. It was twenty minutes to the hour. I stretched my back and sighed. I wasn't going to make it.

As I sat panting and opaquing the windows, I thought about the consequences of being late to the hiring appointment. It was a real failure. Even newspapers have their pride. I could arrive late and beg the manager or I could give up. There wasn't a chance of getting to a phone in time to call and explain. I had no money for a payphone. Calling AAA was one thing. Those phones were designed for toll-free numbers. Calling collect, meaning the charges reversed, to an employer's office as I tried to explain why I was going to be late was another thing - and it wasn't going to go well for me.

Over the course of sitting and thinking for a minute, I made an unusual decision. I decided to give up. Usually, admitting defeat went against my instincts. This time, it felt right.

Fuck correcting other people’s bad writing. Fuck the Gazette newspaper. Fuck my aspiration to join beat reporters who covered the town council, the 4H club, or the county fair. That was a stupid, halfway-to-nothing goal anyway.

I know, most stories are about positive decisions. Life changing affirmations. Newspapers are good. Working for them is romantic. Who would tell a story about giving up a dream?

But I had given up. That was the truth. It was a decision I needed to make. My real, material-world goals involved writing novels and poetry, plus maybe having some kids who would have to listen to my poems. I didn't need a newspaper job to do those things. What I needed was to earn some kind of living.

So I put my hopes on the technical school certificate. No graduate school or advanced degrees, no more class after class, no accepting subsistence wages as a writer, no needing to throw drunks out of bars or dismiss stoned waiters from my restaurant staff. Those ways of living were in the past. My technical school certificate and a job repairing computers would solve the living-wages problem.

As it turns out, I was wrong. The technical school failed to deliver. I aced the courses and the job interviews but I graduated in the midst of a recession. No one hired me.

So I made another course correction. I started on my a graduate degree a few months later, this time in computer science. For practical experience, I wrangled my way into a menial job as a custom computer cable technician. Another grad student got me into it.

Months later, I made another correction as Adam, my friend for a decade, got me a low-level position at a newspaper. It wasn't a writing job. It was in the advertising and art department. I assisted Adam in maintaining their Novell network, built new machines, and generated computer-assisted ad art. The small-town newspaper writers spilled coffee into their computer keyboards, broke their monitors, and lied about what they had done. I shook my head and fixed their hardware with a joke and a laugh. Because I was becoming a computer guy.

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