If Sheepskin, So Can You

(Some Friendly Remarks to Graduates)


THIS IS THE time of year when something clicks in the minds of college seniors. They begin to think in terms of the real world.

Fortunately, most of you young people have had the foresight to equip yourselves with Greek. The real world is basics. In the real world the key thing is to get off a Greek allusion at the right moment.

Your department head buzzes you:

“Why the bejabbers haven’t you pulled together that report on the substantiational aspects of that widget?”

You know what widget he means. The widget that your firm’s new slickware floppy, the QUASI-2000, enables customers to visualize, in high-definitional threedimensionality, on their cozily greenish screen.

“On the one hand . . . ,” you reply, as you used to reply in seminars on Roots of the Renaissance to buy time. But time does not come so cheap in the real world. The intercom crackles. “I want to see both your hands on deck in about half a New York minute‚” snaps your crusty superior.

On your way to his module you pass the break area for employees who did not attend college. They are eating crude pastries from a machine and saying, “When you think of how bowling’s changed in the last . . . it’ll scare you.” It is the job of a friend of yours in Human Resources to interface with these employees. “Don’t ask‚” he has said.

With a smile virtually indistinguishable from the smile on your ID badge, you pass security and enter the highest corridor you are cleared for. There are no windows here, and the ducts are veiled by heavy mesh, but the air is ionized, so as to make you feel coiled as you never felt in halls of ivy. You enter the boss’s module through his portico—an effect created by photographic enhancement, as he is only upper-middle management, but imposing just the same. His administrative assistant, Lavonna or Jeff, moves noiselessly, sinuously, into an alcove, where she or he takes care of certain nuts and bolts.

“For corn sakes-a-jumpin’-mighty!” expostulates the Old Man, who is staring moodily at his screen, presumably at the widget in question. (He always keeps his office console situated so that only he can see the screen.) “We know it’s highly defined. We know it’s three-dimensional. We know we can cathodically cause it to rotate through 360 degrees on any of its five construable axes, or to go inside-out and back again and inside-out and back again and inside-out and back again, foop f’lup, foop f’lup, foop f’lup. But what is it? It looks like a, oh, what am I thinking of? A . . .” For the first time he cuts his eyes at you.

“Self-slicing zucchini?” you hazard.

“No! That’s not what I was thinking of at all!” the boss exclaims. He dashes a mugful of Hearty Fella Mock Cheese Soup across your shirtfront and ID badge. This is one way in which the real world differs from academe. Professors did not throw soup on you for wrong answers. Because your salary did not come through them. The situation was almost vice versa, in fact. Sure, your professors had their own research deal with the American Better Lipids Council. (“There Are Lipids, and Then There Are Lipids.”) But if your parents had not been ponying up $14,000 a year for your education, then your professors would have had to be directly employed by the ABLC, on a salaried rather than a funded basis, and would have lost their independence. ABLC department heads would have been throwing soup—and fatty soup, frankly—on them. So your professors took a professorial, which is to say a crypto-truckling, tone with you.

Not so in the real world. Here it is all what-are-you-packing and hey-nonnynonny. Your boss can roll you up in a strip of carpet and whale the living daylights out of you with a length of technological cable if he so elects. He is interested in one thing—performance and performance only.

Because, remember: his department has to perform if he is to get the bonus that will enable him to pony up $14,000 a year for each of his offspring to attend college for five, six, seven years. (Today’s offspring take longer and longer to emerge into the real world.) If in order to get performance out of you he has to be a hard guy occasionally, then so be it. Furthermore, in the real world bosses must finally come to terms with the fact that they enjoy whaling the daylights out of people less highly placed than themselves.

BUT GREEK RESOUNDS across the ages. Presumably you have been an officer in your sorority or fraternity, and therefore are privy to classical rites. And you have read the rushing narratives of Xenophon in the original—probably staying up all night the night before the exam, pizza and No-Doz and the ancient texts, you can’t tell me anything, I’ve been there.

Okay. You’ve got your good grounding in Greek. Use it.

It is a mistake to venture a guess about what the boss has in mind as to what the widget actually is. If the boss actually has anything in mind, it is beside the point. Process is the point. Go with your Greek.

“T tjp/iTopcig vbt KCI|JIVTI pe ra x^PLa aou [What can you do with your hands]?” you say.

Your boss concedes you a small smile.

“ ‘H|iTropu) va epyoptopoa pe ta X^PLOt pou [I can work with my hands],'' he says.

“TLfipTTopetq vac Kapt^q pe ra TTO&LO: om[What can you do with your feet]?" you go on.

His smile grows somewhat larger. “ HpTtopu) va TrepiTrofTcI) pe ra iroSia pou [I can walk with my feet],”he replies. “Now one for you: TL Kapveis pe tt|v puTT)v aou [What do you do with your nose]?”

You are ready. “Maputo pe TT|V puTrp pou [1 smell with my nose]” is your response.

'HpTropetq vat I8f|s pe TT|V JJLUTTJV aou [Can you see with your nose]?”

“ ”Oxu Aev T]pTropu) va iStl) pe TT|V puTT|v pou. BKeTtco pe TO pdTia pou. ‘AKOUTO pe ra auTiot pou. Maomo pe ra BovTia pou [No. I cannot see with my nose. I see with my eyes. I hear with my ears. I chew with my teeth].”

And then the boss joins you in unison: “IlTiyaLvtu ebw KCXI e«et pe TO TT68U* pou [I go here and there with my feet].”

But the boss has not lost sight of the bottom line. “How about the widget?” he says.

“Syzygy,” you say then. A term derived from Greek. You don’t know what it means. Remember: you can never appear to be cleverer than you are if you never fake anything.

“Eh?” says the boss. “Hmm . . . Syz . . . Hm.” He doesn’t know what it means either.

But he has not gotten where he is without acquiring certain resources. He flutters his keyboard, as if manipulating the widget. What he is actually doing is punching up his vocabulary—100,000 words phonetically arranged.

Now his look is sly. “I kinda have a notion,” he says, “that you don’t have in mind sysygy in the astronomical sense: the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies in a gravitational system.” He winks. “No sir, I kinda think you have in mind the prosodical sense: a group of two coupled feet.”

You don’t say anything.

Now he presumably does have the widget on his screen. Foop f’lup, foop f’lup. “Group of two coupled feet, huh? It might be. By granny"—he slaps his desk resoundingly, manually—“it looks like feet. Lavonna [or Jeff]! More soup!

The boss regards you with a new mellowness. Leans back in his chair and cups his belly. “Hm! You know what the fella says: ‘I used to look like a Greek god. Now I look like a g.d. Greek!' “ Your boss laughs and laughs, till he is fit to be tied.

So you tie him, with a length of technological cable, and stash him in the utility cubicle. By the time Lavonna or Jeff returns (in college you will not have known anyone like Lavonna or Jeff, who is not into mind trips, who is into taking care of certain nuts and bolts, who asks nothing more in return than to marry You resentfully and give you offspring, rarer than days in June, whom you will be putting through college for the rest of your life), you are ready for the soup. ◻