Sunday, May 15, 2011

Careers that Begin with "P"

Mike the Plumber helped me unclog my water heater last week. When Mike replaced our old water heater in 2001, he explained that routine maintenance would extend our water heater’s life up to ten years. This amounted to attaching a hose to the bottom of the water heater and letting the water drain down our driveway for 30 seconds a month. Neither my husband nor I routinely maintained the water heater, so when Mike had to poke a wire into the clog of sediment, and the wet sediment sprayed all over him, I felt a little guilty. I got him several towels to wipe off the gunk. I offered him a beer, but he settled for a Coke. I offered to wash his shirt, but he said it wasn’t necessary because he always brings an extra one. While Mike wiped his face and got the sediment out of his hair and ears, we talked about our children. Mike has been our plumber for years; our kids went to the same schools.

Mike told me the latest dilemma in his daughters’ lives has been about their majors. Mike said that his older daughter, who will be graduating in the spring, has decided she hates her major. He said she is very stressed about it and nothing he says to her seems to help. His younger daughter is equally stressed because she has to declare her major at the end of next semester and has not figured out what she wants to do.

I made Mike feel a little better when I told him that my sons were running pretty much parallel with his daughters. One son has told us he is not thrilled with his major with just another lap to go, and the other son is also undecided.

"What made you decide to be a plumber," I asked.

Mike told me when he went to college, he got a degree in anatomy because he wanted to be a doctor. By the time he got his undergraduate degree, he realized he did not want to spend any more time in a classroom, so he became a policeman. Then he got married and his daughters were born. After he was shot once in his shoulder -- he showed me the scar when he was changing his shirt -- his wife made it abundantly clear that, if he ever wanted to see his daughters again, he would find a career that did not require dodging bullets. Twenty years ago, a friend who owned a plumbing company offered Mike a job.

I asked Mike if he was happy doing what he does. He said he liked almost everything about it -- except when his clients do not maintain their water heaters.

Then, Mike asked, "Did you always want to be a writer?"

I shared my story: When I told my parents that I wanted to write for The Tonight Show, the response I got was, "Be a teacher. Teachers have jobs." Their logic was that it was more likely that I would get married and have babies than it would be to get a job writing for Johnny Carson. With teaching, they said, I would always have a career to fall back on. I did what my parents suggested, taught English for a bunch of years, had my children, and never ever ever wanted to fall back on education. I started writing while my kids were at school each day, and except for the obligatory rejection letters, it wasn't a half bad way to make a terrible living.

I told Mike that my husband had a different dream. Having grown up near the beach, he told his parents he wanted to go to the University of Hawaii to major in marine biology. His parents said, "Major in business. If you go to school anywhere near a beach, you will wind up surfing all day and never get a degree." There may have been some truth to that.

When I asked Mike what advice he has given his daughters, he laughed and said, "I don’t give them advice. They don't listen to me anyway." That sounded familiar. What Mike and I realized, however, was that we actually have given our children the same advice: "Do what you love, and if you can't do what you love, then love what you do." Unfortunately, this falls short of actually pointing someone in a direction, so it is probably no better than the advice we got from our parents.

After Mike left, I went on the internet and started investigating college majors and career choices. Many university websites have valuable information that is supposed to help a student pinpoint his or her direction. I decided that if I were making choices for myself, a website would not help me much.

Then I did a little more digging and found some information that I thought was pertinent to kids and adults who are confused about their futures. I learned that:

  • Country singer, Garth Brooks, has a degree in marketing.

  • Frank Capra, director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life, and It Happened One Night had a degree in chemical engineering.

  • Roger Corman, director of many films, including the original film version of The Little Shop of Horrors, received an industrial engineering degree from Stanford.

  • Howard Cosell was a labor lawyer before becoming a sportscaster.

  • Oscar Hammerstein II received a law degree from Columbia University Law School, but gave that up to write the lyrics for such musicals as The Sound of Music and Show Boat.
    TV host, Montel Williams, is a highly decorated former Naval engineer and Naval intelligence officer.

  • Ashton Kutcher of Hey, Dude! Where's My Car? and That 70s Show majored in biochemical engineering.

  • Weird Al Yankovitz got his degree in architecture.

Those are just a few of the examples I found. There were pages of them. I figured those few made my point.

Last night, my younger son, who is living in a dorm at his college, called me with a whole week’s worth of things to tell me:

First, his English professor liked his paper so much that she thinks it might be publishable. He said at first he thought that was a sign that maybe journalism might be a good major for him until he realized he really doesn't like to write.

Second, he thinks he is going to drop calculus because even though he did well in calculus in high school, he thinks he is already in over his head and maybe he should have listened to us when we suggested taking an easier math class his first semester.

Third, his roommate accidentally flushed the plastic thing that holds the toilet paper down the toilet. Realizing that when the plumber got there and found the plastic thing inside the toilet, that they might have to pay for the repair, they decided to fix it themselves. They went online and found a site about how to fix toilets. They shut off the water, unscrewed the toilet from the floor, and managed to pull out the toilet paper holder. While reaching up into the toilet, something rubber crumbled in my son's hand. He thought it might be a gasket or something, but he was not sure. They reattached the toilet anyway, and when they turned on the water, the gasketless toilet leaked. They called maintenance. When maintenance fixed the toilet, there was no charge since the repairman just assumed the leak came from wear and not from inexperienced, computer-educated plumbers.

I told my son about my experience with Mike the Plumber and about his daughters' dilemmas. My son said he still does not know what he wants to be when he grows up, but he thought it was cool that he could handle a plumbing emergency. Then he added, "I’m up to "P" this week. Hey, maybe, when I grow up, I'll be a paramedic, a plumber, or a pirate."

It made sense to me, but then again, I am his mother.

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©2002, Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved. This blog is copyright protected. No item on this blog, including this essay or any photographs, may be used without the author's express written permission.

(Originally published at the Irascible Professor - )