Thursday, September 19, 2013

Work Ethic

During the adventurous path of your coming of age, you have held a number of positions without real potential of future.  This is a polite way of saying the jobs were the sorts you needed to take because you were not qualified for others that might have had a potential not only for growth but for comfort.  By this logic, you were in a series of jobs, willing to give your best efforts but not your heart.

By this same logic, you were spared jobs that might have become comfortable or even interesting enough to turn you away from the person you have become.  As a result you have been a telephone solicitor, an assistant in a camera shop, the deliverer of newspapers, the manager of a parking lot, a shill at a carnival gambling enterprise, the manager of a booth where the goal was to entice customers to throw baseballs at aluminum tubes shaped like milk bottles, an auctioneer's assistant,a box boy in a number of supermarkets, a library page,a dogsbody in a woodworking shop, a substitute mail carrier, a copyboy for the Associated Press and, most amazing of all, an installer of telephone circuitry at a telephone company facility in Beverly Hills.

The biggest threat came at the telephone company, where you had, without any attempt to develop the skill, an enviable ability to solder connections.  The job was a luck-of-the-draw result of a friend's recommendation as a summer job while you were still at the university.  The job had the advantage of being in the same building as a cadre of telephone operators, but the disadvantage of there being a cast system in which operators did not date men who worked at your job level.  "Infra dig,"  one operator told you when you'd asked her out, giving you an eye-opening sense of office politics you'd not previously considered.  Her attitude changed when she saw you with a group of friends at a Beverly Hills restaurant, gone to listen to a musician friend who played piano in the main lounge.  

In the brief lapse between semesters, you were given two raises and the offer of a promotion, should you commit to at least two years at the phone company, which would have meant quitting school and trying to write through the dregs of job boredom that had already begun to form.

Another friend from the university had taken such a job, and when you last saw him, a year or so after you'd left UCLA, he appeared to have aged, his political acuity all but vanished.  He grabbed your arm, confessing he'd accrued so much seniority that quitting was no longer an option.  Only twenty more years and he could retire, then go after his writing.  That was the carrot on the stick, he insisted.  The carrot dangled to lure the donkey.  "Don't take good jobs," was the last thing he said to you.

By then, you'd come to realize you were safe, you were beyond the reach of good jobs, especially good jobs that had nothing to do with writing.  A job that had everything to do with writing became the accident that got you into editing books and magazines, which was in its way a seduction because it was not something you'd had any plans for.  The job that got you that got you into editing was a writing job, but it was writing about books, which left you enough energy and enthusiasm to get in five or six hours of writing after dinner.

The seduction was even worse because the editing job led directly to teaching, which you had also neglected to plan.  In a sense, you were stuck.  There was editing and teaching to distract you, but still you had the energy to get some writing done after dinner.

In the best sense of unintended results, being distracted into teaching has provided you the unanticipated riches of the hidden life of the university.  Many of your stories reflect the labyrinthine ways of faculty meetings, committees, conflicts of interest, professional jealousies, and ambitions.  Two stories in particular reflect the way absurdity becomes real to the point of plausibility.

And there is a constant opportunity for awareness.  For over thirty years, you were at USC, the private school across town from your alma mater.  At one frightening time in your life, you lived within walking distance from USC with your maternal grandparents, convinced you would need to attend the nearby high school and then, USC.  In a sense, each time you set foot on campus, you were reminded that telephone operators don't date installer technicians.  Not a rational circuitry, but one of some persistence, until you began bringing Sally with you.  Sally made everything better, including her instinctive understanding of how and when to visit the dean, who began to keep treats for her.

A former student of yours, who has gone on to write six remarkable novels while teaching inspirational classes,is now engaged in the kind of political battle with the university that in its way reminds you of one of the most wonderful novels set in a university you know of, Richard Russo's Straight Man.  For the last twenty or so years of your stay at USC, the department chair was a mediocre poet, trying to extend his reach into celebrity.  Aware of one of the seminal terms defining poetry, Ars Poetica, you began referring to the department chair as The Arse Poetica, a term that caught on.  Your student is now caught up with a department chair who has regular conversations with a dog psychic, a touch nearly as good as something you hinted at in your story, "Coming to Terms."

Many of your friends have in one way or another come from those thirty-four years at USC and that special crucible it will always be for you.  Scarcely a day passes without some contact, actual or in nostalgia, of those years and those persons.

You are on another campus now, itself a Super Mario of intrigue and frustration, and the most wonderful outcomes of all, the students.  As you drive on campus, you have to remind yourself of a few things, a few shifts in time.  Not UCLA.  Not USC.  But for a time, your crucible, your home, your place to wonder and take notes.

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