The other night I worked with a new guy named Sheldon. We were quick to discover that we had graduated from the same high school a few years apart. Then we played the "do you know..." game and we found a friend-in-common. Almost as soon as we figured out that we both knew a certain girl we also figured out that one of my best friends (Geppetto) had stolen and married the girlfriend of one of his best friends.
Upon this revelation, Sheldon stared at me as if I had personally hit his friend with the claw end of a hammer. I said, "Does this mean that you and me should fight now?" He said, "I think it does. It took that guy a long time to get over her and he's still lonely and single."
I said, "She ended up with a nice guy. He should be happy for her. But I can see how that would suck." And then Sheldon became nice again because he decided he would like to see her the next time she comes to visit us and he was hoping I would invite him to do so. I'll think about it.
Then Sheldon brought me down because he started talking about school. He graduated in Biology a couple of years ago and he's just been accepted to Optometry school in Oregon (so he'll be quitting work at the end of the summer). It's not a downer of envy. Sheldon seems a little down about it too. He said he worked his butt off to get his undergrad done, he's sick of school but he's only halfway done. He had to test and retest to get scores good enough for entry into optometry school and he had to pay for his own plane rides and hotels to interview at any school he thought he had a shot at. And even though he graduated two years ago, he's had to stay enrolled in classes the entire time because he says schools don't like you if you stop taking classes. "They think you've given up on doing anything to improve yourself."
The idea that taking college classes (ANY college classes) is the only way a person can possibly better themselves is wrong in so many ways that I won't bother to make a detailed critique. But leave it to a self-serving faculty to suggest that taking the courses they teach is the only way to improve yourself as a person. If you ask me, making someone take a course simply to impress you and for NO OTHER REASON is degrading rather than a path to self-improvement. "Do whatever it takes to impress your overlords" isn't the greatest lesson either.
My sister-in-law explained to me that she was required to learn different periods and styles of Interior Design in her academic endeavors. She said, "See? There's hard stuff in Design too."
I said, "That's just history. It's actually more boring than it is difficult. I think pretty much every college teacher tries to make their subject matter seem more complicated than it is just so it seems like their job exists for a legitimate reason." And then I told her that her boyfriend reminds me of Tony Robbins. Get the edge! Check out those mits, Banana-hands! Because these are the subtle ways that I tell her I love her.
Back to Sheldon now: He is also concerned that the average graduate of the school he will be attending finishes with roughly $160,000 in loans. To be fair, they also throw in a pat on the back and a "Go get'em Tiger!"
A neighbor also told me that a friend of his was lucky to graduate medical school with only $50,000 in loans and added, "I don't know how he did it but I do know they were poor as church mice." The family got their Christmases from Sub-For-Santa every year.
So the smart way to get through life is to stay in school until you hit middle age and hope you end up with a career that can counter the insane debt you've racked up? All the while eating ramen noodles and playing patsy to someone who does nothing but try to over-inflate his own importance?
I am all for education but is this really the best means of giving it to the masses? Is this really the best method of establishing a career you can be proud of? Really? Sucks, man. Why am I the only one who seems to think so?
Sheldon tells me the rest of his family makes their money by owning and maintaining tens of vending machines. He says he owns a few too and they make decent money. He told me if he wasn't going to be an optometrist he would just own vending machines and make his money that way.
I shouldn't have laughed when he said that but I did, because it seemed like the equivalent of saying, "I'm going to do everything in my power to become an astronaut and travel to the moon... but if that doesn't work out I'll just be one of those guys who puts fliers under your windshield wiper in the parking lot." It's not really the same but that's how it struck me.
There is also an old man at work named Mel. He looked like he was going to die for the first couple of weeks moving furniture but he does pretty well now. When you see an old man moving furniture alongside 18 year olds you figure the guy must not have the capacity to make a good decision. He must be irresponsible or indifferent. But Mel is cool and intelligent and a lot of other stuff. He has a degree in Political Science from U.C. Santa Barbara.
I asked, "So why aren't you working in law?" He said, "When I was young and idealistic I thought I could change the world by getting into law, but then I realized our laws have absolutely nothing to do with 'good' and 'bad' or 'right' and 'wrong.' It's all about precedent." It's an "anything goes, don't get caught, you haven't told me I can't" society and everyone is out there looking for the loopholes. Mel said he always wanted to discuss this with his instructors but they never wanted to listen. There's no sense in trying to change the game; just listen to the rules. When Mel finished all of the courses he needed to graduate one of his professors told him, "you'll never go anywhere in law." Mel says it's all corrupt and law is the most crooked business he's ever seen.
I said, "A lot of places will let you be a supervisor or manager just by having a degree. Why not work there?" Mel said, "Have you SEEN those places? Would you want to work there?" I HAVE seen those places and I DON'T want to work there. Good point, Mel.
I asked Mel which of his jobs was his favorite. He said it was being the manager of a horse stable in southern California. He got paid to ride horses along the running water through desert canyons. I asked him what happened to that job. He said the mexican government opened a dam on their side of the border without telling the people downstream. The stables and the job were washed away in a torrent.
Mel also started a computer programming company with his brother. He said they make software that makes it easier to do business across the mexican and canadian borders. He says his brother still runs that company.
Mel said that in 2002 he was making a lot of money selling organic cleansers door-to-door. Then he wondered how the business would do in Tijuana. He started his own branch of the company in Tijuana, commuting from southern Cal everyday. He hired a bunch of guys to help him in the door-to-door routine and a manager to take care of all the mexican taxes and such.
This was right after 9/11 so security at the border was thorough and time consuming. Mel decided it was best to wait until later in the night to cross the border to avoid the crowds. He would often hang out at Dennie's or take a nap until he could get through and he became friends with the border guards.
One night it was about 10 pm and he figured the crowd would be gone so he got in his van and headed for the border with the $3000 (not all profit) he usually brought in from sales each day. He had barely left Dennie's when a black SUV blocked the road before him and four guys with M-16 machine guns got out, smashed the windows in his van and threw him in the back. They took his money and drove the van behind the SUV onto the highway and out towards the desert.
Mel was pretty certain they were driving him out to the desert to off him. He said it didn't feel real, like being in a dream and he didn't know what to do. But the funky dream was heading in a bad direction and rather than be shot in the head he decided he should offer the men more money. He called his manager on the phone and made arrangements to get them the money he kept in his safe in his Tijuana office. He was very relieved when the men turned the van around and headed back into town.
Then men told him he wasn't allowed to talk at all when they got the money. The manager gave them all the money he had in his safe and then he was allowed to talk to Mel. The manager told him, "Don't talk to me. Don't say anything. I've talked to them and they're going to let you go. But you have to go in the van with them again. You have to trust me. Go with them and it will be okay."
Mel said at that point he would do anything they said. They told him not to look at their faces and he buried his face in his hands. He said he couldn't stop thinking that he was going to disappear and no one in his family would ever know what happened to him. He said it was the most horrible thought. But soon they parked the van in some neighborhood. They told him not to get out for five minutes. Mel waited ten.
He lived through it. Mel says he thinks one of the border guards tipped off the robbers to his routine; how much money he would have and where to catch him. He says the manager he hired had connections with local crime syndicates and was familiar with the group that had kidnapped him. He thinks that is the only reason he is still alive.
Mel said that after it happened he kind of blocked it out and kept up business as usual for about a month. Then one day he was sitting in line at the gates to Mexico and it struck him like lightning: He didn't want to go to Tijuana. Not ever again. Not for Chicklets or even for cheap antibiotics.
But Mel married a girl from Tijuana. It turns out that she watched as her neighbor was robbed and stabbed to death. She didn't want to be in Tijuana anymore either. She has family in Utah, so here they are.
Mel says he'd like to become a grad student here and teach some small classes. A peaceful life hanging out on campus, talking about String Theory.