Personal, Stories Told

Embracing my inner geek

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

I have never been cool.

High school

When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.

So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.

The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.


And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.

I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.

I had a ball being myself.

I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.

I did temporarily doubt myself, pretty heavily at times, as I pushed through my most difficult days. But I always rebounded.

20th H.S. reunion

Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.

A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”

It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.

Stories Told

The $60,000 baseball cap

When I was 17, I was very fortunate to be accepted into Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a school of science and engineering, one of the best in the nation. It was also one of the two most expensive schools in Indiana, competing each year for that title with the University of Notre Dame.

John Becker photo

Upon graduation, each man in my class was issued a baseball cap just like the one pictured here, as a gift. We all joked that it was our “$60,000 baseball cap,” for that was about the total cost of a Rose-Hulman education in the mid-to-late 1980s.

I’m sure that my dad swallowed very hard when I told him that I wanted to go to Rose. We were a working-class family. But the financial-aid office told us not to worry, that they would find us a way. And they did. I got a Pell grant from the government, and the Lilly Endowment gave me a healthy scholarship. I borrowed $12,000. My parents scraped together the rest, which was on the order of $20,000. I’ll never know how they managed it, especially starting my sophomore year when my younger brother entered Notre Dame.

Last October I was on campus recruiting soon-to-be graduates to write code for the software company where I work. One of my former professors stopped by our booth to say hello. He’s nearing the end of his career, and he reflected on how much things had changed in his 30-plus years on campus. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go here now?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. He quoted me a number well north of a quarter million dollars. “That’s for the whole four years, tuition, room, board, everything,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how any of these kids can afford to be here.”

That really hit home because I now have a 17-year-old son thinking about college. Thank heavens he doesn’t want to be a scientist or engineer. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifice, I make way more than a working-class wage. That means my son won’t qualify for the same level of aid I got. And while I do all right, I don’t do so well that I can scrape together the kind of money it would take to send my son to a school as expensive as Rose.

I guess I should be glad he’s not interested in science or engineering. Maybe he’ll want to go to a state school. I might be able to afford that.


Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

Paul McCartney saved my life while I was in college. Read that story.

Essay, Personal

Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. This will suck; avoid it at all costs.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation – I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play CDs of the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise – be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I wasn’t very good at being a programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks – and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway. You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you – they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due shortly after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!

Stories Told

Imaginary numbers with real consequences

My college degree is in mathematics. (Please withhold the math-major jokes in the comments; I’ve heard them all!)


During senior year, math majors had to take a class called Functions of an Imaginary Variable. Yes, imaginary! That’s what mathematicians call numbers that, when squared, are negative. If you remember anything about the fourth grade, you know that any time you square a number (multiply it by itself), the result is positive. The ancient Greeks discovered these seemingly impossible numbers; they backed into them, really. They couldn’t work certain equations without them, so they decided they must exist, reason be damned. Mathematicians kept studying them, and they were well understood and described by the 1500s. Imaginary numbers, and the complex equations that involve them, have concrete and essential uses today in disciplines such as electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, and quantum mechanics.

And so for ten weeks I studied i, which is the letter assigned to imaginary numbers. And it was utterly fascinating! Well, actually, the crusty old professor just rattled on about theorems and proofs, his chalk clacking hard against the board as he illustrated his points with equations. But it was poetry to me, and I sat through every class in awe and wonder.

But oh, did I struggle with the homework. I understood the concepts and could have held my own in any discussion with the professor. I just couldn’t work the problems. They were seriously hard.

So my test scores were in the toilet. “There will be four tests and a final exam,” the professor grunted on the class’s first day. I failed all four tests, and not by a little bit. My highest score was something like 42%. I scored 16% on one test! As we approached the final exam, I was failing with prejudice.

The course would not be offered again until the next school year. If I failed it, I’d have to come back the next year to take the class again. My buddies used to call that, “the extended dance remix of college.” I could hear my father’s voice in my mind. “Jimbo,” he said, “I can barely afford four years of this. So four years is all you get. If you need more time, you have to pay for it entirely yourself.” And here I was in danger of not graduating because of these fantasy numbers!

In high-school English class I learned about deus ex machina, a literary device in which an improbable, contrived intervention solves an intractable problem. It may be a weak way to end a story, but when it happened to me in this situation relief washed over me and I nearly cried and danced at the same time. A week before the final, the professor held up a sheet of paper dense with text. “This is a list of all the concepts we studied in these ten weeks,” he said. “I’m going to give you a choice of finals. One will be composed of problems like you’ve worked on all the tests so far. The other final will show ten concepts off this list. You will define and prove each one. Who is interested in this alternative final?”

My hand shot up; I was the only taker. The professor gave me his sheet of paper. At home, I wrote definitions and proofs for every concept and memorized them. On the day of the final, I regurgitated the ten requested answers. I got a 99% – which was enough to raise my grade to a D-.

I graduated on time!

Do you have a close-scrape story to share? Tell it in the comments, or on your own blog (with a link back here)!

My alma mater’s campus is beautiful. Check this photo I took one spring morning.

Stories Told

The Blizzard Queen

The summer after I graduated high school, to save money for college in the fall I got a job at a Dairy Queen. A former teacher of mine had recommended me to Mr. Frick, who owned the store.

Marilyn was his store manager. She was short and slight with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and out-of-style drop-temple glasses. She drove to work every day in one of her two Corvettes. I never figured out how a Dairy Queen store manager who lived alone could afford even one car like that!

Marilyn did not like it one bit that Mr. Frick wanted me to work the counter, as every other counter worker was a girl and it had always been a girl’s job. She began my training reluctantly.

Changing landscape
The Dairy Queen was torn down years ago. This Chick-Fil-A is there now.

Marilyn first taught me to make Buster Bars, which are soft serve layered with peanuts and fudge and covered with chocolate. She supervised me closely, issuing staccato single-syllable orders. When I erred, she grunted. Soon she taught me to make cones. There’s a special way you have to move your hands to get the three distinct bulges of soft serve and that trademark curl on top. You just have to get the feel for it, and it took me a long time. I wasted a lot of soft serve before I started to get it right, which I knew was happening because Marilyn’s brow began to un-knit, her lips began to un-purse, and an occasional multi-syllable order passed her lips.

Next she taught me how to make banana splits, Peanut Buster Parfaits, and all the other special treats. Finally, she showed me how to make shakes and Blizzards.

The Blizzard was new that year and we were still working out the kinks. We had three special Blizzard-making machines of stainless steel with a heavy spiked spindle that spun fast enough to chew off your finger. None of us could figure out a way to get the Blizzard off the spindle without spraying soft serve all over the inside of the machine and onto us. Customers swarmed our store for Blizzards, and so I came home from work every night with a thick line of overspray across my chest.

This drove Marilyn bats, as she was staunch: her store would remain clean! As it was, we spent ninety minutes after closing every night making every surface shine. But those Blizzard machines kept us there an extra half hour because soft serve was sprayed everywhere inside, soaking deep into every nook and cranny. Eventually the home office issued us stainless-steel sleeves that nestled into the Blizzard cups and caught most of the spray. Marilyn was almost giddy the day they arrived.

Soon I settled into a nightly routine. As ours was the only Dairy Queen on the south side of town, almost everybody I knew came to my window at one time or another. It was fun to see them. Because a young man at the counter was novel I soon had some regular female customers, including a very cute television news reporter who stopped frequently as she drove home after the late newscast. During lulls, I would search through the change in my drawer looking for old coins to add to my coin collection, which I swapped with change from my pocket. Kids would raid their parents’ drawers looking for change to take to the Dairy Queen, and sometimes they’d end up spending old coins their parents were saving. I got several silver dimes, wheat-ear pennies, buffalo nickels – and, once, an 1898 Indian-head penny.

Things usually slowed down in the last half hour before we closed, and I would lean on the counter and watch the cars go by on US 31. One day a truck drove by towing a flatbed trailer, on which sat a stock-style race car plastered with sponsor logos. Several minutes later the race car passed by again in the other direction – slowly rolling backwards on its own wheels. Its trailer and truck were nowhere in sight! The racer ran out of momentum just past our store.

Looking southbound down US 31 from about where the race car came to rest.

At that time of night there was little traffic; one or two cars took it wide around the forgotten racer. I expected the trailer driver to come back for his car, but many minutes passed and the car just sat there. Soon we closed and began to clean. I told Marilyn I thought we should call the police. She drew back and grew wide-eyed, and insisted I not call. “I don’t want to be involved!” I let that deter me for several more minutes, but finally I declared that somebody would surely hit this car and it needed to be dealt with. With Marilyn muttering protests in the background, I called the police.

A squad car arrived in a few minutes and I went out to meet it. The officer got out and barked at me, “Is this your car?” “No!” I barked back. “Like I said when I called, it rolled backwards down the highway and came to rest here! It’s been there for 20 minutes now! It’s a hazard!”

The officer got back in his car and talked to his dispatcher. Nothing happened for several more minutes. Then a truck with an empty flatbed trailer, coming from the same direction the race car had, drove by slowly. I wondered if he saw the police car there and was considering driving right on by. He pulled in reluctantly as the officer walked over to meet him. I went back inside to finish cleaning.

When I arrived the next day, Marilyn came up to me and peered squinty-eyed at me over the top rim of her glasses for a moment, as if she wanted to give me a piece of her mind. Finally, she grunted and sent me into the back to make Buster Bars. It was clear: the race-car incident would never be spoken of again. But ever after, Marilyn spoke to me in complete sentences, just as she did to the rest of the counter crew.