Monday, November 12, 2018

Careers Your Guidance Counselor Never Mentioned


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 14, 2018] ©2018

I continue to be impressed with how many really interesting careers are out there that I never knew existed.

For example, in a column I wrote some months ago on colonoscopies, I came upon the work of one Mike Levitt described as “the world’s authority on intestinal gas.”  As I noted at the time, the would have to be every 10-year-old boy’s ultimate dream career.  You could just imagine the utter rapture on their little faces: “That’s a real job?” Think how much harder they would have studied in school if they knew that this was a future option!

At a dinner party last year with a group of scientists, one of them was lamenting that her company can never find a good “fungal physiologist.”  They are apparently in great demand, and even if you hire one, some other company will likely poach him/her from you. This definitely goes under the heading of “Careers that sound icky but pay great.”  And that your guidance counselor never mentioned to you.

A reader, responding to my recent column on low-flow toilets wrote: “I wanted to alert you to the existence of a very funny book dealing with every aspect [of excremental functions] including toilet design… It was written by an emeritus faculty at UCSD who was an internationally-respected algologist.”  As fun as the book sounded (it was; I read it), it was the “internationally-respected algologist” that immediately grabbed my attention.  A quick Google search revealed that an algologist is either a person who specializes in the study of pain…or algae.  (Could make the annual convention confusing at best.) The author, as it turns out, specialized in the latter and was in fact known as “the father of green algae genetics” which, like fungal physiology, is a career path I never knew existed. If he were alive I would ask him what inspired him to go into algae.  Did he have a pool guy as bad as mine?

I recently came across a career aptitude test report for my father from July 1937.  (I really have to get on those file boxes.)  The report noted that “Solely from a consideration of Henry’s work sample scores, his outstanding characteristics and those which he should make every effort to use are:

1.     Extremely subjective personality
2.     Inductive reasoning
3.     Tweezer dexterity

OK, I get that tweezer (fine motor) dexterity is really useful in a lot of professions but if I were his parents, I might have considered killing myself that it made the top three of my 16-year-old’s assessed skills.  What was most intriguing to me was the limitations of careers within the four possible career categories of the time: Science, Business, Language, and Social.  The Language category consisted in its entirety of Advertiser, Journalist, Lawyer, Salesman (Real Estate) and Salesman (Life Insurance).  The Business Group career options – all of five – were Purchasing Agent, Specialty Salesman, Office Clerk, Accountant, and Certified Public Accountant. Were these really the only choices in those categories then?

After my divorce 35 years ago, I underwent a battery of career tests myself at the behest of my husband’s lawyer who was less interested in my job aspirations than getting me off his client’s payroll.  What I remember about the test battery was that parts of it really were battery.  One test in particular gave you two choices and asked “Would you rather do this or this?”  Often the answer I wanted was “neither” or even ‘NOT IF THEY WERE THE ONLY TWO CHOICES BETWEEN ME AND DEATH.” But you had to pick one.

The results accurately showed that I was social and people-oriented but liked to work independently (amen: committees drive me bats--t crazy) recommending that three careers to which I would be ideally suited would be Nursing Home Supervisor, Chamber of Commerce Executive, or Liquor Store Manager. After the fact, I fantasized a career creating new career tests.

Of course, much of the time, despite the best laid plans (or more often, a total lack of plans), people just fall into professions.  A La Jolla friend has made a successful career (defined by living in La Jolla) out of manufacturing coloring books and crayons. Another lives off the manufacture of filters for home heating systems – you know, the ones you’re supposed to change every four months and actually change every four years? A friend of my husband’s lives a good life off the manufacture and wholesaling of woven door mats. Recently I saw ads for Waste Water Operators. I think I can safely say that not one of these guys had a guidance counselor who said, “I see your strengths as being in the coloring book/heating filter/door mat/waste water field.”

By the way, Dad ultimately went to an Ivy League school then, post war service, to Harvard Business School.  Inquiring minds want to know: was it the tweezer thing?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Generations Forward And Back


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 7, 2018] ©2018

I’ve mentioned before that the problem with living in the same house for 45 years is that one has a tendency not to clean out files in a timely manner.  One advantage of this, however, is that in my efforts to finally tackle this task, I came upon a folder of several hundred pages of letters written by my mother to me from the time I went to college until she died when I was 25.  Over the last few months I have slowly savored them.

What is unusual about this correspondence is that it represents much of our interaction since it was well before email, and during a time that long distance calls were reserved for dire emergencies.  What’s especially nice is that my mother was a wonderful writer.

A disadvantage is that I don’t have my letters to her, just hers responding to me.  And while I remember myself as a dutiful daughter who brought nothing but joy to her parents, I was obviously at times a total pain.  And sometimes genuinely mean.  But there it all is, in writing.

If she were alive today, I’d be doing some serious apologizing. 

My mother was a third-generation feminist (I’m a proud fourth).  Both her mother and grandmother had been rabid suffragists and proponents of women’s rights.  The 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) passed when she was a toddler.

Maybe this background is why “home arts” were not her strong suit.  In one of her letters, she recounts her efforts to make new curtains for the common room of our small vacation home: “When I started to cut the thirty yards of patterned cloth, I discovered that the reason it was such a bargain was that the pattern hadn’t been printed straight. I finished a sample drape and it was beautiful except that the pattern was upside down. So I made the second one upside down also. If anybody notices, I will say that I thought they looked too suburban right side up. Then I did the kitchen side and they weren’t crooked, they were merely three inches too short. I solved this with a different kind of hanging unit.  After that I took the rest of the week off curtains.”

While she may not have been a domestic goddess, she was a dedicated horticulturalist. When I was in college, my parents moved to New Jersey to a newly-built home on a hilly overgrown wooded lot which provided challenges even to as talented a gardener as my mother. Many of her letters chronicle her efforts to tame this jungle while preserving its natural charm.  She referred to its different problem areas as the Slough of Despond, the Bosky Dell, and the Panama Canal.  My first marriage was, in fact, at a tree stump altar in those very woods.

I’ve written before that my sum total writing training is a life time of letter writing – which is really what my columns are: letters I’m writing to a wider audience. But also, from the time I was around eight years old, I started writing little stories and poems.  My mother always had nothing but praise for them no matter how awful they were (and believe me, they were), wanting me to experience the joy of writing for itself.  But if there was one she particularly liked, she’d ask if she could buy it from me for a nickel (the rate ultimately went up to a dime), obviously subtly encouraging my better work.  “Better” would be a relative term, as I found a whole folder of these after she died.  I’m truly impressed with her faith in me.

My older granddaughter is eight, and she and I were talking about this during a visit earlier this year.  I was telling her in earshot of her parents about writing stories that my mother then purchased if she particularly liked them.  Writing should be fun, I said.  You can make things happen any way you want them to. She wanted to know if she could write stories about how the mean girls get theirs.  I said “absolutely.” 

When we visited L.A. in May my son Henry showed me a story that my granddaughter wrote that he had purchased for $20.  (Definite inflation.)  It was utterly charming (and not about mean girls), and gorgeously illustrated in vibrant colors.  With a twinkle in his eye, Henry picked up the story off the counter where he’d placed it and said to her, “Now in Daddy’s job [private equity], I would let Mormor have this for $40."  Alas, the counter top was damp and all the colors had run on the illustrations.  My granddaughter turned to me and said, “Offer him ten, Mormor.  It got wet." 

Jury is still out on which direction this young lady is headed.  Or maybe not.