Real Life
Her first job was supposed to teach her responsibility. She learned something else instead.

By Julia Glass
Sunday, July 20, 2008

MY MOTHER GREW UP ON A WISCONSIN DAIRY FARM, through the Depression and World War II. It was a place both picturesque and prosperous -- an idyll at the core of my own childhood, when we'd venture west from suburban Boston every summer -- but to my mother, it was also the place that taught her the meaning of hard work, sacrifice and moral discipline. She learned to drive a tractor the minute her feet could reach the pedals. Which meant, decades later, that whenever my younger sister or I would whine about doing homework or setting the table or needing a ride to the school dance, we would hear in no uncertain terms what a soft and privileged life we led. Would we like to hear (again) how cows cannot wait to be milked (and do not take weekends off); what it's like to walk a mile to a one-room schoolhouse where the teacher wields a mighty ruler; or how, on the Fourth of July, fireworks are a luxury for people who don't have hay to bring in?

The stories were riveting, but they also impressed upon me (daydreamy, creative, bookish little me) that I didn't know squat about Real Work or even Real Life ... whatever that might be in 1960s terms when you lived in a woodsy, liberal Massachusetts suburb; when your dad was a scholar of ancient history and your mom a fine cocktail party hostess and a master of foxhounds.

Yes: a master of foxhounds. Because once she had settled with my grad-student father far away, in every respect, from her diligent, agrarian youth (they began their life together in a tiny apartment near Harvard Square), my mother contracted a delayed-onset case of husbandry nostalgia. By the time I was in high school, we lived with four cats, two horses and assorted foxhounds (on hiatus from their working lives). My mother had recalibrated her farm-girl skills to become a confident horsewoman and a gifted dog trainer, one who could charm a throng of large hounds into doing her every bidding -- not the least of which was to chase a trail of artificial fox scent through the countryside, all for the entertainment of several dozen people gussied up like extras in the movie "Tom Jones."

Mom rose early every day, devoted herself to the many animals under her guiding hand, and lived life large. Our phone rang day and night with the questions and dilemmas of numerous people dependent on my mother for her know-how. Eagerly, my younger sister followed in her footsteps -- on horseback, that is -- while I continued to immerse myself in reading, drawing and writing fanciful stories. If I ventured into the woods, it was to deliver a solo performance of Ionesco or Shakespeare to the squirrels. I was a nerd, and I knew it. But I was in good company: Back then, my father worked at a desk in my parents' bedroom, combing through antique hieroglyphic codices. "You and your father are quite the pair," my mother would comment tersely as she went from one practical task to the next, always on her feet, rarely indoors, while we did not budge from our books.

From fifth grade on, I worked at our public library. The pay, a pittance, was almost superfluous. All through high school, I looked forward to summer as the time when I could work at the library four or five days a week. I was never a camp counselor, a lifeguard, a scooper of ice cream. I recognized such jobs as more "normal" than mine -- jobs where you worked up a sweat -- and I worried, just a little, about my future in a world of people who, like my mother, knew the meaning of Real Work.

IN 1974, I WENT AWAY TO COLLEGE -- TO YALE, a school proud of its "weenie" reputation. My brain was designed to thrive at a place like this. By Christmas, I realized that I could write an A term paper in just about any subject -- blindfolded, both hands tied behind my back, Mick Jagger yowling from my roommate's speakers. This did not make me feel smug or even secure, for here I was coming up on my third decade, and I had yet to encounter Real Life. The longer I managed to avoid it, surely the more traumatic it would be. Because Real Life, I figured, was something you couldn't put off forever without the proverbial trust fund. Even my dad hadn't escaped. To help pay my tuition, he'd taken a 9-to-5 job in Boston.

To my scant, antiquated record collection -- Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, madrigals and folk songs -- I added Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday. I went to campus rallies in support of various trendy causes, but I dressed like a monk (hopsack jeans, dark turtlenecks, and those Clark shoes that look like they're stitched by Bavarian gnomes). No wonder I had yet to be kissed. Then, as winter waned, two things happened ...

One night, I was eating dinner with a girlfriend when a guy we'd never seen before marched up with his tray and said, "The two of you remind me of Ursula and Gudrun in Women in Love. May I join you?" Wow. What could we say? (And he was cute!) At the end of the meal, he took my phone number. (My girlfriend was spoken for.) For our first date, I dug through my cassockwear and found a silk blouse my mother had bought for me and a pink scarf I'd never worn. When I met the cute guy, he said: "That scarf! It's the color Michelangelo painted God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel."

Another night, my mother called. "I have some great news. I have a summer job for you," she said. One of those "Tom Jones" extras at the foxhunt -- a guy named Bevin -- owned a small high-tech company and was happy to offer me full-time work "helping out with publications." I could use my writing skills, and I'd make a lot more money than I did at the town library. "It's a real job," said Mom.

That spring, I went around in a daze. I had my first Real Boyfriend and was about to tackle my first Real Job. The boyfriend had a few eccentricities. He liked to dress in Gatsby-esque outfits he dug up at thrift shops, and he espoused macrobiotic eating habits. He informed me that my occasional hysterics -- generally when he stood me up -- were caused by an excess of yin foods. But how could I resist a guy who gave me my first honest kiss -- dramatically, under scalding glares -- in a Gothic reading room decked out with gargoyles? He spoke fluent French, played on the tennis team, went to church, had a brown belt in judo and had grown up in Manhattan. So I pretended it didn't matter that he made me cry a little too often. I'd be happier, I knew, if only I could learn to eat more brown rice.

IT TOOK ME 15 MINUTES, cautiously driving my parent's VW Bug, to get from our house to work. Bevin's company occupied a squat glass rectangle on the crest of a hill beside Route 128 (nicknamed, back then, America's Technology Highway).

Once I'd parked in the company lot, I was greeted by Bevin. As a sometime spectator at the foxhunt, I had seen him from a distance, astride his huge gray horse, and was startled to discover that on foot he looked just as tall. He was a middle-aged guy built like a Hobart refrigerator. His VP and sidekick, Ernie, had the relative stature and style of a Milanese toaster. After shaking hands with Ernie, I was handed over to their secretary. Mary was a skinny, big-haired woman old enough to be their mother, a doppelganger for Lily Tomlin in any number of spinsterly roles.

Mary showed me the ladies' room and the coffee machine, then took me into a large open space where a dozen salespeople conducted aggressive phone calls all day, elbow to elbow, at a tight cluster of desks under harsh fluorescent lighting. Along the two exterior walls ran a line of square cubicles partitioned in glass. They were by far the nicest spaces, the ones with windows. The blinds were all lowered close to the sill -- presumably to block the morning sun -- but behind them would be a magnificent view, across the hurtling traffic of Route 128, to a massive, thickly wooded lake.

After Mary introduced me to the sales team, she ushered me into one of the cubicles. There was a desk, a chair, a phone, a door and a huge window.

All I knew about the company -- and I knew this because it said so right on the wall in the lobby -- was that it manufactured "microwave components and coaxial connectors." I had no idea what such things were, but they obviously filled a vital function out there in the world. On my desk lay a slim folder. Inside it, I found the proofs for two brochures comprising table after table of electronic specifications, in extremely tiny print and in numbers extending well into decimal regions. What I did not find was any significant amount of prose, the stuff I knew and loved. Occasionally, a terse sentence or two broke the martial onslaught of all those numerals; call it the opposite of Shakespeare. The products themselves -- utterly mysterious, none too photogenic, identified primarily by serial numbers -- were pictured in black and white on the covers of the brochures. They were precisely the sort of objects that the word gizmo was invented to describe.

My job, said Mary, was to proofread these brochures against the original text. When I finished, I was to return them to Mary; she would give me others. She wished me luck and disappeared down the hallway.

I sat at my desk and opened the top drawer: pencils, paper, paper clips. I laid the proofs and the originals before me and began my task. Every time I glanced up from my desk, I was staring into the sales pit. Now and then, I'd catch one of the guys (or the lone woman) looking at me with a bemused expression. To my collegiate eye, most of them appeared shapeless and over the hill, though in retrospect I'm sure they were all under 30. One of them I happened to know. Like me, John had a maternal connection to the foxhunt: His mother rode to the hounds. She was an elegant old-timer who had long ago earned her "colors," an honor bestowed by the master when a rider has shown a high degree of skill and dedication. Colors entitle the honoree to various arcane privileges; men earn the distinction of wearing those vivid scarlet jackets -- "hunting pinks" -- that you see in moldering prints on the walls of any decent old boys' club.

Whenever I caught John's eye, he would wink. Or smirk.

On Day One, determined to make a good impression, I allowed myself a scant 15 minutes to eat my homemade sandwich at my desk. By midafternoon, I'd finished my first brochures. Mary seemed more surprised than pleased. She rummaged about and handed me a few more. Back I went to my office. Realizing that the sun had now risen over the building, I pulled up my Venetian blind. The view was spectacular; my office glowed with natural light.

Some 20 minutes later, Mary appeared. She smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, but the blinds must remain at the same level."

I looked at her blankly. I didn't dare ask if we could simply raise all the others. I looked through the glass partitions to the other offices; I now realized that no one else worked in these spaces.

"Ernie likes everything to look symmetrical from outside the building," said Mary. "It looks more professional that way." She lowered my blind to its original position, inches above the sill. A few of the salespeople gave me that bemused look and went back to work.

ANY OTHER SANE COED IN MY SITUATION would have made hay (not the farming kind) every evening after such mind-numbing work. But my few hometown friends weren't around that summer. I looked forward more than anything to letters from my boyfriend. He wrote to me in fountain pen, indigo ink on elegant ivory paper in a curlicued script befitting Moliere or Trollope. I wrote back twice as often. We did not talk on the phone a great deal because the only phone in my parents' small house was in the kitchen, and in those days long-distance phone calls weren't cheap.

In late June, I took a Friday off and rode the train to New York. The boyfriend lived with his alluring mother in a rambling, crumbling, fabulously situated aerie on Central Park West. In the vast living room, pictures of the mother -- a former actress -- punctuated heirloom watercolors and antique rugs. The mother herself was effusively warm and stated -- to my shock -- that she hoped the two of us would share the boyfriend's room (right beside hers). I wasn't sure I was ready for this.

The boyfriend took me out to dinner at a cozy French restaurant where he bantered in French with the waiters and where we most certainly did not eat a macrobiotic meal. That night, I tasted my first coq au vin and rode in my first Checker cab. I was amorous but also shy. The next day, we went to museums and walked around the park. Yet he chose this weekend to broach the "let's see other people, too" conversation and to remind me, constantly, that after the following year at Yale (his last), his plan was to move to Europe. To him, my notions of monogamy were at best quaint, at worst insecure and needy.

On Monday morning, work seemed tawdrier than ever. I had begun to notice, in fact, that both Mary and the one female saleswoman -- or, more specifically, their bottoms -- were subject to adolescent oglings and bawdy remarks, even the occasional mock caress. This was 1975, so feminism was alive and well, but talk of sexual harassment in the workplace was still a thing of the future. The women reacted with genial outrage or cranky flirtation to the guys' "Hey, baby" goadings and buffoonish collisions by the coffee machine.

There seemed to be a common understanding that I was off-limits in this sort of repartee; I was relieved but also knew that it meant I was a second-class citizen. I had come to be addressed, if I was, "Hey, Yalie!"

A guy named Mike carried on a running narrative about his wife's pleadings to have a second child. "So I tell her, 'Only if it's a boy!'_" he said one day -- and then regaled us all in crass anatomical detail with precisely how he'd make sure it was a boy.

By now, John and I sometimes ate lunch together. This was industrial-park America, so there was nowhere to "go"; we carried our sandwiches to a grassy slope beside the parking lot (where we could enjoy the view obscured by the blinds). Once we'd left the office, he loved to ridicule the antics of his co-workers: losers all. To John, this job was a place to make a few bucks while he applied to graduate school.

"Do you know what we manufacture?" he asked me one day.

"Microwave components and coaxial connectors," I recited lyrically.

John laughed. "Yes, but do you know what they are?"

"Well, no," I confessed.

"They're bits of hardware that go into missiles."

I was speechless.

"In fact," he continued, "our main client is the Israeli department of defense. We're just another part of the world war machine. Mossad probably has a file on you."

In the parlance of the time, this blew my mind. I was a naive idealist, a knee-jerk peacenik. My male peers had been too young to fear the draft; the term military-industrial complex had yet to enter my lexicon. Why, having worked at Bevin's company for a month, had I never asked what those gizmos were? Was I more of a loser than the ass-pinching salesguys with the beer guts?

Letters from the boyfriend began to dwindle. Work from Mary dwindled. I didn't complain -- not just because the brochures were so torturously boring but because they were so strangely devoid of errors that they did not even afford me the proofreader's greatest pleasure: catching bloopers and typos that, but for my laser eye, would surely have led to the author's humiliation. I learned to position decoy papers on the surface of my desk and read my novels beneath it. When I went to my town library to check out these books, I gazed enviously at the underpaid workers who had taken my place.

One morning, my boss walked into my office. I hadn't laid eyes on Bevin in weeks. "Free for lunch?" he asked.

Three hours later, I sat in the passenger seat of his gleaming Mercedes. He drove in the left lane, one hand on the wheel and both feet on the floor. I was alarmed. "Cruise control," he said. "You've never seen cruise control?" He was enjoying this. We made small talk about the foxhunt: my mother's impressive authority, his horse, his love of the sport.

In downtown Boston, a parking valet took the Mercedes, and we entered a windowless building emblazoned with a large bow-tied rabbit. I might have dressed like a monk, but I knew the emblem for the Playboy Club. Bevin said we'd be entertaining a client.

The place was absurdly dark. After drinks (I probably had a wine spritzer), Bevin ordered London broil for all three of us from a waitress whose coltish legs, set high on their stiletto hooves, looked about seven feet long. They undulated up toward a white fluffy pompom attached to a satin bodice that held her large breasts aloft like ... missile components. The pompom was apparently there for mischievous tuggings and tweakings; Bevin and the client took full advantage whenever the waitress passed our table.

Why was I along on this lunch? Maybe because Bevin thought he'd give me a little adventure, and did he ever -- but also because he wanted to show me off to the client as an Ivy League employee. He encouraged me to talk about Yale, not my job. The client was intrigued; I felt exotic. It occurred to me at one point that the bunny and I represented two ends of the female entertainment spectrum: hot gal, smart gal.

I waited in vain for talk of weaponry and ordnance, even money. Except for my Ivy chitchat, it seemed these guys were primarily interested in trading risque jokes and taking turns fluffing the pompom. When we left, Bevin seemed happy. "Well," he said as we drove back to the office, "now you can tell your mother you've been to the Playboy Club." He found this quite amusing -- as did my mother.

"That Bevin," she said. "What a character."

IN AUGUST, I SPENT ANOTHER WEEKEND IN NEW YORK. The visit was a tearful disaster. I do not remember what museums or restaurants we went to; what I remember most clearly is sitting on a bench in a sweltering subway station feeling as miserable as could be. At work, the bosses vanished; John said they'd gone to Tel Aviv. Mike's wife was pregnant. (I'll never know if he had the son he wanted.) Work had fizzled to nada, so I was given the option of leaving a week early. Gratefully, I accepted.

I returned to Yale with more than $1,000 in my bank account but, even better, a sense of deliverance from pantyhose and relief at the prospect of books and exams (and libraries). I shared a crowded suite of rooms with three girlfriends. The boyfriend had broken up with me. I gave up monk's clothing, embracing a gauzier, more ethnic look: peasant blouses, espadrilles, jewelry of leather and wood. To my LP collection, I added Dave Brubeck and Earth, Wind & Fire.

The following summer, without a blink of hesitation, I went back to my library job.

THROUGHOUT COLLEGE, WHENEVER I WENT HOME FOR THANKSGIVING, I'd go to the foxhunt; this holiday gathering was the glorious finale to the season. I'd join a crowd of spectators beside some autumnally scenic pasture as the riders, horses and hounds convened to launch their pursuit of the make-believe fox. I can't quite recall if it was during the autumn of my sophomore or junior year when, on this grand occasion, I spotted Bevin on his large gray horse and saw that he now wore the gaudy scarlet jacket of a member who'd been honored with his colors.

It honestly did not occur to me for many years -- decades, really -- that the job I did for him that summer was, in all likelihood, a phantom job, no more real than the fox my mother's diligent hounds believed they were chasing through the woods. That company could easily have spared a couple thou to pay a nice, smart teenager to proofread numbers on spec sheets that had surely been scrutinized already by an engineering staff somewhere in the hinterlands of New Jersey or North Dakota -- especially if, as a dividend, the company president would earn his colors at the foxhunt.

Recently, I asked my mother -- who gave up her last horse just a few months ago -- whether Bevin created that job for me just so he could butter her up for his colors. She laughed and said evasively: "Oh, I don't know. Probably. Bevin would have done anything for me. He did want his colors, I know that."

I work now on the third floor of my house, reading and writing at a desk in much the same way I did as a child (the same way my father did for a while). As a writer of fiction, I spend my days inventing real lives for make-believe people; what I create can only seem real. Maybe that's why, at 52 years of age, despite having endured various ordeals (cancer, divorce, deaths of family members and friends), despite paying a mortgage and being a mother, I am still dogged by the suspicion that Real Life -- Real Work, Real Sacrifice, Real Responsibility -- has yet to catch up with me.

. . .

Julia Glass won the National Book Award for her novel Three Junes. Her third work of fiction, I See You Everywhere, is scheduled to be published by Pantheon in October. She can be reached at 20071@washpost.com. She will be online to discuss this story and her work Monday at noon ET.

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