A few years after I finished college, after having held down a very conventional, suit and tie job for over three years, I decided to get a Master’s degree in my field, Computer Science. I pursued this with a mixed agenda, something that has been a problem for me all of my life. On one hand, I wanted to give up corporate life, and pursue teaching at the community college level, and I figured I just needed a master’s to do this. On the other hand, I figured the degree would refresh my knowledge, and help me get the specific job I wanted back in the corporate world in case the teaching thing was not what I hoped it would be. If I had a third hand (well, really, wouldn’t that be awkward, and lead to some very unfunny jokes) it would have held the secret idea that I wanted to be a writer, and I was going to spend my time at graduate school writing something wonderful that would save me from having to deal with either of my first two hands. I was completely, totally wrong about all of my agenda items.
That third hand held my life dream firmly. I have always loved reading, especially fiction, and at some point in high school, while working on stories for our required journal writing in a very bad English class, it clicked in my head that writing stories for people to enjoy the way that I enjoyed what others had written must be the greatest thing in the world to do, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to write.
I kept that dream a not-so-secret secret even as I got an Engineering degree and started my corporate job. I read as much as possible during that time, figuring I could learn how it’s done just by reading. I accumulated dozens of books. Hundreds in fact. I bought most of them used, in the Dawn Treader book shop in Ann Arbor, but plenty of them new, and I kept them in the best possible shape that I could. I spent evenings studying a very thick dictionary to improve my vocabulary. I read books on the art and craft of writing. I was more boring than death.
The ultimate downside of caring about the books that you read is that you are loathe to leave them behind when you move from one place to another. When I decided to go to graduate school, I moved back into my parents’ house near Cleveland, and my parents helped with the move. Thank God I had made a couple of friends while working, as they helped me move out of my Michigan apartment. (Actually, I should just thank Brian.) My father complained the entire time because of the amount of stuff, but it all fit into a smallish trailer we pulled behind his van.
The stuff all went into my father’s garage, and I slept in the bed I had grown up in, and I had effectively reversed and returned eight years of adulthood. I am a child at heart, but nothing underscores it quite like moving back home.
I was in good company as my older brother was back at the house for somewhat similar reasons. Luckily, he had had enough, and bought a house shortly after graduate school began, and he invited me to live with him. I accepted, but our moving company, Dad With a Van, would have nothing to do with it. If we wanted to move, we had his blessing, but not his strong back.
We enlisted a number of friends from childhood for the move. It was a relatively easy move, but the numerous boxes with my name scribbled on the side in black marker stood out. They were small but heavy, surprisingly heavy, in fact, and made little noise when shaken. If they were dropped, I didn’t complain. Finally, Jay, caring his twelfth small, heavy box into the attic where I would sleep, broke down
in the middle of the stairs.
“What the hell is inside these boxes,” he asked. “Bricks?”
“Books,” I said.
“Books? What kind of books? Books about bricks?”
I had encoded the boxes on the outside so as to know their contents and make unpacking a little simpler, so I studied the box for a moment to find the answer. “Those are telephone books,” I said.
Jay was understandably confused, and so I took a moment to explain. It all got back to my secret desire to be a writer. At some point, as I was studying words in a very thick dictionary, it occurred to me to also study the names in the phone book to get a feel for the type of names one finds in an area. This got a little out of hand because of my corporate job, which caused me to travel to a different place every week for nearly a year. I took the phone book out of every hotel where I stayed, and quickly amassed a huge collection of phone books from across this great country of ours. I had eight boxes packed with phone books.
I truly believe Jay would have been happier if I had told him those boxes were filled with bricks. But, then, if I had had a large amount of bricks to move, we would have used a hod rather than cardboard boxes.
I still haven’t figured out how to be a writer, and so I’ve chickened out and stuck with the corporate jobs all these 22 years. I don’t study the dictionary anymore, and I’ve never had reason to look at the phone books for a name to use in a story. Jay is no longer with us, having passed away at a very early age from cancer. So when I look at those phone books on the bottom shelf in my basement, surrounded by my scores of books, I can’t help but picture the look on his face as he glared up at me from the middle of the staircase, the small, dense, cardboard box at his feet, as I told him it was filled with telephone books.
“You prick,” Jay said. “You have got to be shitting me.” But, as is so often the case in life, I was not shitting him.