Monday, February 25, 2013

Autobiography of a Worker

Over the next ten years, I programmed computers, sold cookbooks, worked for an employment agency, wrote user manuals, and taught technical writing at Lansing Community College.  Like everyplace else, Lansing had several computer newspapers or newsletters and I wrote for as many as I could.  ...   I taught a summer term of algebra for skilled trades.  ...  And then I decided to try a class in “Japanese for Business.” 

Growing up, I did not acquire a good work ethic.  What I did well at I did more of, but I never learned to work through a problem to gain a skill.  I quit practicing the piano as soon as my younger brother eclipsed me.  We competed by being successful at different activities in school.  I did not work for money until I was legally of age.  At my first summer job (in a hospital laboratory), I was more of a pain than a help.  I liked sterilizing labware – which is to say that my best skill was washing dishes.  Then, I read Atlas Shrugged.  Twice.

From about 1950, a diesel locomotive railroad train with Terminal Tower in far background
Terminal Tower and locomotive
(www.urbanohio.com)
Atlas Shrugged is too easily mischaracterized as a glorification of the rich.  It is truly an anthem to all workers.  Growing up in Cleveland, I knew the Rearden Steel mills (Republic and Jones & Laughlin), the Taggart Terminal (the Terminal Tower), and Patrick Henry University (Western Reserve University).

After two years at the College of Charleston (1967-1969), I came home to work at the Are-Jay Game Company making wooden games and puzzles.  I ran drill presses and sanders.  Mostly, I sprayed lacquer. I also learned to box shipments and fill out a UPS book and bills of lading. Between stints at Are-Jay, I worked for an employment agency.  There, I attended a sales training series and practiced Approach-Benefit-Close making 60 phone calls a day. 
5-inch by 7-inch maple game board with holes for pegs used to tally scores.
Large Maple Cribbage Board
of the Are-Jay Game Co.
(Ausable River Trader on Etsy)

After we got married, Coletta and I moved to Lansing.  I worked a lot of spot labor jobs, mostly through Manpower.  (Fifteen years later, I interviewed the franchise owner for a four-part series on “Quality” published by the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.)  Finally, after about a year of that, Coletta said, “Mick, you need a real job.”  So, I got on the phone, and a few pitches later I had an interview at Montgomery Ward.  I worked there for two years as a stock boy, unloading trucks and distributing goods to the floor. 

About a year into that, passing through Lansing Community College to see else I could learn, I picked up a brochure for a certificate in transportation and traffic management.  It was a two-year course in government regulations of common carriers.  It was painful.  But I finished.  And I went to work as a dispatcher for a regional truck line.  That was 1976.

Hewlett Packard 9830
(hpmuseum,org) 
Toward the end of the course sequence, one of my classmates from General Motors said, “You know, Mike, these computers are going to be everywhere some day and you should find out how they work so the people from data processing can’t hand you a bunch of baloney.”  So, I did.  I had a semester of Business Programming in Fortran IV and got a C+, having no idea what I was supposed to have learned for the grade.  But it was compelling.  While working for the trucking company during the day, at night I learned to hack free time at the LCC and MSU computer labs.  I took Fortran again (for an A); and then learned Basic in the LCC arts and science division.  The class was experimental and resisted by the data processing curriculum of the business division.  I met my present wife because we had the same instructor for physics and Basic, Claude Watson. (Tribute to Claude on Necessary Facts, here.) 

I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, with the girl I married.  I worked as mover’s helper for Bekins Van Lines until I got hired by the NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory and was assigned to White Sands Missile Range as a computer programmer in Basic on Hewlett Packard desktop micros.  Eighteen months later, we moved back to Lansing.  Our daughter was born (1979).  


I set up the shipping department and programmed TRS-80 computers to track inventory and sales for Loompanics Unlimited: Sellers of Unusual Books.  I wrote two books and about 30 book reviews. I placed Letters to the Editor with Industrial Research and with Omni.  The computer revolution was blossoming.  My wife and I wrote programs for independent insurance agents.  I still worked spot labor for Manpower.  I also drove for Yellow Cab in Lansing.  (I had driven for Varsity Cab twice before that and was a dispatcher for a year.)  On a database project at General Motors (1983), no one else wanted to write the documentation, so I did. 

Over the next ten years, I programmed computers, sold cookbooks, worked for an employment agency, wrote user manuals, and taught technical writing at Lansing Community College.  Like everyplace else, Lansing had several computer newspapers or newsletters and I wrote for as many as I could.  It let me interview business owners and do them the favor of publicizing them.  Christopher Holman needed a writer for The Greater Lansing Business Monthly and he took me to lunch.  LCC knew me as a student – I had electronics and physics classes in the technology division – and they needed a part-time instructor for technical writing.  I taught a summer term of algebra for skilled trades.  At LCC, I also took directed study classes in computer programming, working with the department chair, Claude Watson.  And then I decided to try a class in “Japanese for Business.” 
About the size of a refrigerator with racks of electronic logic boards inside.
Top half of a E-series Controller
(www.kawasakirobotics.com)

From 1991 to 1993, I taught robot operations and programming for Kawasaki Robotics USA.  I spent 13 weeks in St. Paul (not all at once) for Ford Motor’s Twin Cities Assembly, and did a dozen performances at Wixom Assembly where Ford made Lincolns and Mercury Grand Marquis.  Mostly, I taught at KRI.  It took two years, but I learned to disassemble and re-assemble a six-axis robot; and I wrote the manual.  But lifetime employment with a zaibatsu was not for me, though it did fuel the cyberpunk fantasies I acquired when a comrade from Berkeley handed me Neuromancer.  (We worked together at a regional planning commission where I programmed in dBase and Lotus.) 

Blue back ground with outline of space shuttles and large red numeral 7 and names of crew members around the circumference.
STS-95 Mission Patch
(www.nasa.gov)
More years rolled by.  I went from one project to the next writing user manuals for factory automation, financial management, telephone operations, and whatever else was offered.  I spent a year in General Motors engine plants for Carl Zeiss Industrial Metrology.  I lasted ten days as a NASA contractor – we have different philosophies -- but I did write some procedures for the Shuttle.  However, the better experiences were working for NASA Exchange, their retail sales division.  We took vans of toys and collectibles out to launch sites to sell. 

Atlas Shrugged taught me about money, but aside from knowing which media to use for stores of value, I never cared much for numismatics.  But I knew a little.  When I was at Kawasaki, I proposed that for an upcoming robotics trade show, we issue tokens, good for $1 toward a work station.  (Work cells started at about $100,000 and attendance at the show was 15,000 the last time. It seemed like a safe bet.)  I figured that the tokens would be great advertising. To gather facts for my proposal (which was rejected), I joined the Michigan Token and Medal Society, the Michigan State Numismatic Society, and the American Numismatic Association.  Ten years later, I had a few awards for writing; and worked for a year (1999-2000) as the international editor at Coin World in Sidney, Ohio.

 My project at Honda America in Marysville, Ohio, was winding down.  They had one technical writer too many and I was the most expensive.  The manager and I agreed that the next assignment was around the corner.  We were wrong.  9/11 was around the corner.

After six months of being very under-employed in Columbus, my wife and I decided that we could be under-employed anywhere in the world.  After looking at a few places, we moved to Albuquerque.  I mostly worked as an office temporary, but also sold toys at the Atomic Energy Museum, and taught middle school as a substitute.  Then, I saw an ad for security guards at rock concerts.  The company was just up the street.  So, I went in and got a job.  And a career of sorts.
Stylized line drawing of eagle with breast of shield with sword over motto "In God We Trust."
Akal Security
sikhchic.com

I did well at crowd control. I saw Puff Daddy, Ricky Martin, and Shaquira, and had a great time not being in a mosh pit.  I moved into the uniformed division, patrolled a lot of retail and some manufacturing, and became a dispatcher.  It seemed like an opportunity.  I also wrote for the Albuquerque Business Journal interviewing inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovators.

Then, my wife's parents took a turn for the worse and we moved to Traverse City.  I almost had a used car sales manager closed, but he recommended real estate for me.  So, I got a license. I liked the law and the finances, but I just did not care about houses.   Fortunately, the American Numismatic Association needed a columnist and the Michigan State Numismatic Society needed a webmaster.  But they were hobbies; and it was part-time work.

Through the Dot.Com Meltdown, 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real estate bubble, the biggest impediment to finding serious technical work was my lack of a degree.  I often went to school – the College of Charleston, Case-Western Reserve, Cleveland State, Lansing Community College, New Mexico State, and LCC (again) – but I was never concerned about the degree: I just wanted to learn, whether for liberal education or employment-related skills.  My wife and I moved to Ann Arbor, gathered all of our college credits and enrolled first at Washtenaw Community College and then at Eastern Michigan University.  She stayed with computers, going into forensics and network security.  I went into criminology.  I worked in campus safety at WCC, and then for Securitas and Allied Barton.  My wife was hired by the University of Michigan, but my best opportunity was to sell newspaper subscriptions while earning a master’s degree.
Man with costume of wolf head and wolf feet playing violin.
Violin Monster at 6th and Congress
for South by Southwest 2012
(Author's file)

I had a few interviews for security management, but no offers… and then no interviews…  Management in private security is dominated by retired police officers.  I am a libertarian.  I do not have to say a word.  As soon as we make eye contact, the interview is over.  Managers hire in their own image.  I bring a salesman's approach to business, seeking agreement by persuasion, rather than compliance by enforcement.   
So, after some Internet browsing of statistics, I picked Austin.  I came here in 2011 for two weeks, was sold on the town, and moved.  My wife joined me six months later.  I work part-time for Securitas and take contracts for technical writing when they come up.  I write for numismatic club magazines. I have two blogs and a website archive of college term papers.

Except for two  years each at Montgomery Ward,and Kawasaki Robotics,  and a year at Coin World, I am self-employed.  Some years, our accountant bet that we would turn in more 1099s than any other client.  

Moving as often as we have, I load and unload the trucks mostly by myself using applied physics.  I drive them hundreds or thousands of miles, with and without cats.  The word “career” referred originally to the path of a commercial carriage.  You never know where the road will take you, or what is around the next bend or over the next hill.  Through all of that, Atlas Shrugged has served me well.  Whether I earn $7.50 per hour or $50, all work is a act of philosophy.  



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