Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fleeing Babylon (Parts I–V)

This is a personal essay I wrote about ten years ago, just after leaving Church magazines and starting my current job at BYU Studies. It details a bit of my rather unusual career, which has been shaped by an idea I’ve written about before, the “organizational imperative.” This is the first of four segments.

Grandpa is a CPA. Dad is a CPA. Uncle Reed is a former accounting professor and a big-shot CPA—a senior technical advisor for the Federal Accounting Standards Board (or FASB for all you professional bean counters out there). Before my mission, I swore I’d never be an accountant. But when I returned from Germany last summer, I had no clue what I wanted to be. My freshman year at Utah State I tried premed and then prelaw, but I hated biology, and in Germany I met too many lawyers. Now I’m at BYU, with no declared major. It’s April 1978, and after a year of taking this, that, and the other, I get the bright idea that maybe being an accountant wouldn’t be so bad.

Winter semester 1979. I’m lying on my bed, wondering why life is so lousy. The broken engagement was no fun, but I’m pretty well over it now. Teaching at the MTC is cool. What’s got me down is school. I hate accounting, and it hates me. I have four accounting classes this semester and one finance class. I feel like I’m being turned into a calculator.
My roommate, Don, has somehow finagled an internship for spring term with a mineral water company in Switzerland. He and I served together in Hamburg. He wants me to fly over and join him when he’s finished interning. I’d love to, but how can I justify such a frivolous expenditure? I know this is the accounting in my brain speaking. It tells me the whole idea is irresponsible, but the thought won’t leave me alone. Finally, I pray about it. I’m accustomed to having God tell me no, or tell me nothing. I’ve always just assumed that if I want something, it’s not good for me. But I ask anyway. The answer is yes.

It is 10 p.m., June 20, 1979. I have just finished my last accounting final. I feel light as a feather as I walk through campus. I fly to Germany in the morning, exactly four years from the day I entered the Mission Home in Salt Lake City. When I return, I will be a German major. The trip to Europe is more than just a vacation. It is symbolic in my mind—the closing of one door and the opening of another. I feel free, as if my spirit has been let out of a cage.
I meet Don in Berlin. It is morning, and I am jetlagged to the max. He picks me up at the airport, and we drive to the stake center. Two years ago, I was a missionary in Berlin. By coincidence, our mission president is holding his last zone conference here today. Don has asked if we can attend. We both teach at the MTC. Don was an assistant to President Roylance. Of course the answer is yes. The zone conference is splendid. It takes me back to better days. But by the time it is over, I am holding my eyelids open with my fingers.
Don and I travel for ten days. We see the picturesque southern regions of Germany. Our mission in the north was beautiful but flat. Someone once told me that in northern Germany you can stand on a tuna can and see the back of your head. Don and I wander the English Gardens in Munich, take a cruise on Königsee, climb the mountain behind Neuschwannstein, drive over an Alpine pass into Switzerland, and buy cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest. We spend a night in old Heidelberg, drive the Rhine Valley from Koblenz to Bingen, then head north to Hamburg. Don and I have been getting on each other’s nerves the past few days, and he’s antsy to go waterskiing. I’m antsy to have some time alone to think and wander and try to put my life back together. So Don flies home, and I go visit Schwester Mangels, an elderly woman I baptized and who believes I’m the grandson she never had.
For the next eleven days, I wander northern Germany, trying to find myself. I search in all five cities where I served. In my searching I do find every single person I visit, even though I mostly show up unannounced. I find the Roggows, who take me out for spaghetti ice cream. I find Frau Niemack, who was told in a dream that we were telling the truth, and her husband, the tobacco salesman who wanted nothing to do with Mormonism. Oddly, he is genuinely happy to see me. I find Kathrin, who was fourteen but looked twenty when we taught her. She is now seventeen and looks like a hippie. She never joined the Church, but I can tell she is still sweet on me. She leans across my borrowed bike and gives me a kiss as we part. I find Margret, my German mother, who lost her husband a half year after I was transferred from their city. And there in her house, listening to her story and holding her three-year-old daughter on my lap, a daughter who never knew her father and who has started calling me “Papa,” I find myself, the self that the sterile accounting curriculum has wiped away. I’m alive again. So I fly home.

I love my German classes, especially Dr. Kelling’s nineteenth-century literature course. The sun shines the whole year. No dark clouds. But I don’t want to teach German. It doesn’t feel right. What else can I do with a degree in German? International business? It feels right, or at least as right as anything else. I take the GMAT and score well. BYU accepts me into its MBA program. The MBA program certainly can’t be as bad as accounting.

It is worse. Each semester in the first year is crammed with nineteen and a half hours of heavy business courses. I have all my classes with the same group of students, mostly male. There is so much work we have no chance of completing it all. We have to choose which class, or classes, we will let slide. “We,” meaning everyone except Dan Willis, who, I suspect, is an android. I choose to ignore finance. It is one Harvard case after another. I simply go to class unprepared. My whole grade, however, is dependent on a midterm exam and a final, both written case analyses. Fortunately, because I’m a decent writer, I bluff my way through the exams and get an above-average grade. But it is not the heavy workload I struggle with. It is something else.
Accounting was sterile and seemed to turn me into an unfeeling machine, but the MBA atmosphere is suffused with something I can’t quite put my pinky on. It’s in the curriculum, it’s in the way the professors teach, it’s in the way my classmates interact, and it’s trying to get into me. I feel an immense pressure to become something I’m not, something I don’t want to be. I can’t put a face on it or tell where it’s coming from, but I do know it has given me a marvelous distaste for anything corporate. My classmates interview for corporate internships. I can’t bring myself to do it. I hear a rumor that the operations management faculty needs someone to teach a couple of undergraduate summer-term courses. I inquire. They offer me the job.
During spring term, I land an “internship” taking care of the flower beds at the local doll museum. It’s not quite GE or GM or HP or IBM or some other corporate acronym, but it’s pleasant. Summer term rolls around, and I find that I enjoy teaching. Operations management was the one MBA class in which I didn’t feel the unnamed pressure. It is applied math. I can lose myself in the numbers and ignore what lies behind them. At least for now.
My classmates return triumphant from their summer internships, a corporate shine in their eyes and a corporate swagger in their step. If I didn’t fit in first year, I’m an even bigger misfit now. Thankfully, I am able to take a couple of “out of program” electives. I try to get permission to take Geography of the Soviet Union. From the MBA director’s reaction, I surmise that nobody has ever made this request before. “What does the geography of the Soviet Union have to do with anything?” he asks. I shrug. “Don’t you think a solid finance class would look better on your transcript?” “I’ve had enough finance classes,” I answer. He frowns. It appears he won’t budge, so I pull out my trump card. “But you offer the class in your international business emphasis. It’s here in the catalog.” His frown deepens, obviously regretting the window-dressing they put in the catalog to make the international emphasis look more international than it really is, but he signs the form. Geography of the Soviet Union turns out to be the best class in the MBA program. Thirty-five years later I can still tell you that Lake Baikal contains one-sixth of the fresh water on earth and that the low point and high point of the Great Russian Plain, a stretch of geography two-thirds the size of the continental United States, differ by only one hundred feet. I was also taught that Moscow happens to be closer to New York City than to Vladivostok. This happens to be untrue. Moscow to Vladivostok is 3,994 miles; Moscow to New York is 4,699. All this trivia, true or false, is irrelevant of course, but fascinating nonetheless.
In my business classes, however, the pressure is still there, subtle and slippery and insuperable. And by the time I finish the second year, I feel battered and bloodied. But I have survived. I didn’t give in. My classmates have lined up corporate jobs. I haven’t even looked. I feel that if I give in to the pressure in any way, I will lose myself. Shortly before graduation I hear another rumor that the operations faculty is looking for someone to teach full time next year. I check out the rumor and find it is true. This is 1982, and there are not enough LDS PhDs in operations management to fill six faculty slots. They hire me. I’m probably the only one who inquired, but that doesn’t bother me.

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