Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part III

"There's an almost mythic - hero's quest - quality to this part of your history," commented Mary.


That means two things. One is that I'm probably distorting the past, and the other is that I'll have to disappoint people at the end, here.

I don't triumph at the end of the story. It's sort of a draw. I did start "making a living" -- in the phrase which Rana rightly identifies as sinister, in its equation of earning money with life. My two computer science buddies and I got hired as research assistants, writing some code for our apparently-stern-but-absurdly-soft-hearted German Database professor's experimental database. Eventually we all got hired by a company at which said professor had connections. I've been working on database engines ever since. Has it been ten years? Not quite, I think.

It was surreal, again -- my life has had a lot of these surreal reversals -- to walk back into the world with a computer science degree in the mid-nineties. It was only then that I realized how wounding the academic job-market, or rather the lack thereof, had been. Suddenly I was wanted. Interviews were a matter of employers eagerly trying to sell me on working for them. It was very strange to go from saying, "well, I'm working on my dissertation at the top-ranked school in my field, and I've done some teaching..." & being cut off with a brusque "We're only interviewing people dissertation-in-hand." to saying, "well, I have a decent BA from the local state college, and no experience..." & having them say "let us buy you lunch at a fancy restaurant! Are you free tomorrow?"

I was a far better literary scholar than I will ever be a computer programmer. It's a little humiliating how much more my reception affected me than what I knew of my own capabilities. I'm a mediocre computer-guy, a jack-of-all-trades, reliable but decidedly un-brilliant. And now I've just watched another round of lay-offs wash past me, and I'm waiting for the one that will sweep me away; I doubt that I'll get a job as good as this again. But willy-nilly, even knowing as I did that I had just happened to catch an economic wave, being wanted built up my confidence, when the bleak sense of being superfluous had been eroding it. Ordinarily I don't put much stock in trying to make a career by second-guessing economic trends. "Do what you're good at, and never mind the market" I think is generally good advice. But there are some markets that get so flooded that applicants become mere supplicants, and the power differential between employers and employees becomes so huge that everything is distorted by it. Much of the academic market was like that in the eightiess. I suspect it's that way again, now. Power differentials do not often bring out the best in people.

So where am I now? Middle class. Putting my daughter through college is going to take a big chunk out of us, and if my son comes in about the same in the scholarship lottery (why do people bother with Vegas, when they can apply for scholarship money?) we'll come out at about zero. But I'm happier financially than I've ever been. My money troubles are just like other people's now.

I'm still sorting through the fallout of a life of easy money. My work habits still reflect, all too well, my sense that my career is a surreal fake, an odd fluke of fortune. I often don't take it seriously. I blog. I procrastinate badly. But as always, my old skills as a student -- so uncomfortably close to those of the sycophant -- keep me afloat. I listen. I know what people pay attention to and what they care about. Those things, I always make sure I do. But the conviction of unreality persists. I flirt with disaster, I think, in hopes that at some point something will seem real. But disaster never comes, and neither does reality.

This is real life, I tell myself. I tell myself that often, nowadays. Some things have become real to me. My relationships with people (other than at work) mostly seem real to me now. With my children. Mountain, water, stone and tree have always seemed real to me, and seem so still. But this cubicle, and these people I work with, the tasks I do, are never quite in focus. I never quite believe in them.

Alienation of labor? Alienation of spirit? The inattention of a spoiled brat? I don't know. Or maybe this is an existential drama, or a nihilist pit, that owes nothing at all to my history or to anyone else's. Is this real life? I don't know. I begin to feel the question, though, with more urgency. It's a pretty large portion of my life to leave in the dream-box.

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