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The job of learning

By / June 28, 1983



Four years after my graduation from the University of California at Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in journalism, and three years after receiving a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, I found myself spending the summer of 1982 behind a paint brush.

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The paint brush, as well as a garden rake, a hedge trimmer, a bathroom sponge , a window washing rag and a stack of clothing inventory slips - not to mention the wheel of a shiny root-beer brown Chrysler LeBaron convertible - were tools used in the odd jobs I took on while looking for work in my chosen field. All are very useful. But not one had the slightest relation - or so I thought, back in the thick of what I initially dubbed my summer of unemployment - to the job I really wanted to be doing.

Now I wish to squelch immediately any suspicion that I am leading toward some lashing statement on how my education failed to prepare me for today's employment marketplace. It had been my choice to leave a job as a reporter in western Massachusetts in order to spend a year contemplating man's fate, in Paris. If I was out of a job, I had to figure fairly that this was at least partly my own doing.

Besides, what I realized one August day while scrubbing another bathroom sink was that my journalism education had in fact helped prepare me for the vagaries of the current job market. If neither Cal nor Boston U. had taught me to paint a porch, the possibility that I might some day want or indeed need to know such a talent had been implied.

''A journalist must be a renaissance man,'' a journalism professor once told me. Although I thought at the time he meant journalists should be well-rounded individuals, with a working knowledge of many fields, it struck me as I contemplated the dearth of help-wanted ads for reporters that perhaps what he really meant was that a wise journalism student is one who has lots of options. And options were something I had.

This was true in part because I had set up my job-hunting base in my parents' hometown, where family and friends were willing to consider me for the handyman's task. But I also had options because I'd learned in journalism school to be flexible, open-minded, and ready to take on most any assignment.

Undoubtedly, many people would have found those options a bit paltry. But because they invariably piqued a curiosity which wouldn't allow me to say no, I found myself almost continuously at work as I carried out the search for a permanent post.

The first job was to stain the deck of a typical California hillside homestead. Benefits included regularly delivered glasses of frothy lemonade, carried by a preening fifteen-year-old girl in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt (''LaCoste? Oh gross, that's out!'') and designer jeans; and a view of sprawling suburbia below.

After the next experience of looking after a 75,000-square-foot office building, with what seemed like acres of curly patterned carpeting to vacuum, I willingly returned to industrial painting. Within a month the inside of one house and the outside of another were transformed from drab to striking: at the former I learned that, claims of the paint manufacturer to the contrary, white paint does not cover shocking-pink or lime-green walls with one coat; at the latter, I discovered firsthand that an avid environmentalist can be more stinging than a swarm of wasps. For one harrowing afternoon I painted around the living quarters of the droning beasts, my every brushstroke closely monitored by their tiny eyes. But when I finally lost all composure and swatted wildly at one of the more aggressive of the winged creatures, the spying homeowner gave a scathing lecture on the importance of wasps to our ecosystem.

Subsequent tasks included a brutal but eventually victorious battle with man-eating pyracanthea in one overgrown garden; taking inventory of women's sportswear in thirteen department stores; and fetching a new convertible for the local Chrysler-Plymouth dealership.

This last assignment was the least mentally occupying, leaving me time to contemplate my lot in the world as I traversed, exposed to sun and wind, the green and gold landscape of California's Napa and Sonoma valleys. Climbing and descending the waves of hills, I felt as if I were a ribbon loosed from the heavens, falling gently to conform to the contours of the land.

The realization came suddenly. This was employment: learning things I hadn't known before, questioning givens I'd never wondered about, experiencing rather than just viewing. In what newsroom would I have learned that wasps do not survive winter's cold? Could a computer keyboard have taught me to paint a room without splattering paint on the rug?

It was on the day I was to begin whitewashing a four-slat ranch fence that I was offered a job on a newspaper. Now, I thought, I'd be doing what I really wanted. Yet I realized that the odd jobs I'd had were also a part of my ''field, '' since each one had expanded my understanding and helped me learn a little more. And with that, I was glad I hadn't hastily responded that I could start work at the newspaper right away. After all, I still had a fence to paint.