50 Years of Chess: Reinvention

by admin on March 5, 2021

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

That’s a line from John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy,” released in 1980 on the Double Fantasy album, and it’s always been one of my favorite song lyrics. In the song, Lennon was recalling the sweet moments that he had with his 5-year-old son, and thinking how they are never planned and how we should appreciate these unscheduled moments while we have the chance. The line took on extra significance when Lennon was killed later that year, and maybe that is why I have always remembered it, even though I have probably not heard the song since 1982 or so.

I love the quote also because it means to me that you should not complain too much when things do not go according to plan. In fact, you should welcome those moments. A life that always went according to plan would be much poorer, because you wouldn’t be challenged, you wouldn’t grow, and you would miss all sorts of possibilities you didn’t know were out there.

In my previous posts I wrote about being denied tenure at Kenyon College in 1994, filing a grievance and winning, then being denied tenure again the following year. These were huge unplanned events and very traumatic at the time, but in the broader picture I am grateful that they happened when they did. They forced me to leave a career in which I was not extremely successful and re-examine what I really wanted to do in life. Of course, this re-examination did take place under a certain time pressure, because as of July 1, 1996, I would no longer have a job. But I can’t even complain about that. In many lines of work, if you get fired you might have one day to clean out your office and figure out what happens next. In academia, you get a whole year. Usually you move from one academic job to the next, but in this case I knew I would have to re-invent myself more completely.

I couldn’t continue to be a college professor, because at this point I was damaged goods. It had been 13 years since I got my Ph.D., and I would be competing against people who were fresh out of graduate school. Worse, I had a denial of tenure on my record, so any school I applied to would think, “If he wasn’t good enough for Kenyon, how could he be good enough for us?”

Also, the job market was at its all-time worst point for mathematicians in the mid-1990s. The former Soviet Union had opened up and flooded the American job market with incredibly well-qualified mathematicians. As a result, the unemployment rate for new Ph.D.’s in mathematics was over 10 percent — higher than the unemployment rate for new high-school graduates! And for old Ph.D.’s who were damaged goods, the prospects were even worse.

Although my timing was awful in that way, it was incredibly good in another way. I was looking for a new job at the very same time that the World Wide Web was emerging. It was a unique moment in history. If I had been in the same situation even one year earlier, the Web would not have been such a major presence and my entire life might have ended up differently. I know that may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true.

In fact, at first the Web almost made it too easy. In the fall of 1995 I put my resume on some job-search sites (which didn’t exist a year before that), and within a month I got a nibble. An educational consulting company in Massachusetts was looking for an “academic coordinator” for a newly funded project. I went up to Concord for an interview in October, and everything was fine. Then I went for a planning meeting in February and all of a sudden the director of the company decided I wasn’t right for the job. He was almost surely right; I had no real qualifications for the kind of work I would be doing. I think that he, too, might have been a little bit bedazzled by this shiny new thing called the World Wide Web and perhaps didn’t look at my resume with as critical an eye as he should have.

So there I was in February of 1996, back at the starting line. But this is completely normal in a job search. At least the almost-but-not-quite job offer had broadened my horizons. Educational consulting companies? Wow. I hadn’t even known that they existed. I started sending out more applications to companies of that description.

But in a job search, you can’t just have a Plan A, you need a Plan B, C, D, and E. For me, plan B was graduate school in computer science. It was clear that 90 percent of the jobs on the Internet were for people with a degree in computer science. Although I could not see myself falling in love with computer science the way I had with mathematics, at least computer science had in some sense grown up in the fertile soil of mathematics.

I applied to three graduate schools in computer science, and that part of my search went very well. All three of them (Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina) accepted me. Here’s another great lesson from my job search: re-train! It’s a whole lot easier to get accepted by a school than to get hired for a job. In school, you can learn a new skill; on the job, they may ask you to do something you’re not qualified to do, and you will have to learn on the fly (or crash and burn).

The graduate school acceptance letters didn’t start coming in until April, so in the meantime I was still going online all the time, working on Plans C, D, E , and F. It’s pretty amazing to read my diary from this time, to see how from one day to the next I would get enthusiastic about this company or that nonprofit organization. With hindsight, I know that none of them would turn into anything. But I didn’t know that then.

On March 5, I wrote prophetically: “[I’m convinced] that it’s wrong to think about looking for a job in terms of finding a convenient socket to plug oneself into. Instead you should just do something you want to, something you believe in, and find a way to make it work. If I really believe in the idea of explaining math to kids or to the world outside academia, I should just do it. Regardless of whether it’s my job or whether I get paid for it. In spite of this flash of clarity, on Monday and Tuesday I went about the job search the same old way: looking for sockets to plug myself into.”

Two weeks later, on March 20: “Yesterday I made an exciting discovery: the University of California at Santa Cruz has a graduate program in science writing! Of course I have longed to be a writer about mathematics for several years, but never had the time or the commitment to get started. I never dreamed that you could actually study to be a science journalist!” That day, I was so excited that I went home and asked Kay: “How would you like to move to California?” Her answer was, “Don’t even joke about that!”

So far I’ve been writing about the job search as if it only involved me, but of course there was one other person very much involved. Before Kay met me, she had lived in southern California for ten years, chasing the dream of becoming an actress before she finally had to give up on it. At that point she moved back to her home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we had met. Although her first period in California had ended in disappointment, I knew that she still loved California and hated Ohio winters. As for me, I would never want to live in southern California (too many people, too many cars), but Santa Cruz seemed to be a safe distance away from all of that, a place where both of us could be happy.

For many, many reasons the UCSC program shot to the top of my wish list. But the main two reasons were the ones I’ve just said. Writing is something I had always wanted to do. Even as a 5-year-old and 6-year-old kid, I was writing “books” that my mother would type up and bind for me. In fourth grade, when the students were supposed to write two “reports” during the school year (on topics in history or science or what have you), I got addicted to the encyclopedia (which is what we had back then instead of the Internet) and wrote 101 reports. So yeah, I’ve always had the writing bug. Writing wasn’t just a socket for me to plug into. And the idea of moving to California made it even better. Kay had lived through seven Ohio winters with me. She had earned a reward.

But still, she was cautious because she had seen me get excited about so many different things. She especially wanted to know if this writing career actually paid any money. So a turning point came on April 6, when I had my first conversation with John Wilkes, the founder and director of the Science Communication Program. He talked with Kay first, and told her, “I want him.” When I got on the phone, he cut directly to the chase. I had been wondering how to ask him about financial prospects, and he said, “Let me start at the crassest level — how much money can you expect to make?” He said that those graduates who went into freelance writing (which was my inclination) made $25,000 to $60,000 a year.

[By the way, he was right. In 25 years as a freelancer, my earnings (after expenses) have been in that range every year but one. The one exception was 2002, when I was writing my first book and living on a too-small advance for the first half of the year. Another lesson: Writing books is a great way to starve. Also, for anyone contemplating a writing career, please be aware that fiction and non-fiction are vastly different worlds. With fiction, I think you either hit a home run or strike out, with a much higher probability of striking out. With non-fiction, you can have a steady stream of singles that keep you busy and keep money coming in.]

I was so glad that John talked about the “crassest” topic first, so we could spend the rest of the hour talking about everything else. I was sold. Kay was sold. She would have to be our main breadwinner for a year, but it was a small price to pay for happiness.

Later, in May 1996, we went on a house-hunting expedition to Santa Cruz, and I met one of my future professors, Peter Radetsky. I still remember sitting with him at the Aptos Coffee Roasting Company, on one of those beautiful cloudless California afternoons that you never, ever, see in central Ohio. He told me: “I think you’re going to have a great adventure.” He was right. My year in the Science Communication Program was a great adventure, and so was every year after that.

Because this has already been a long post, I think I’ll wrap it up here. I’ll just say that, whether it was through planning or good luck or just life happening in its inimitable way, I ended up in a really good place. The Science Communication Program at UCSC lived up to its promise. In my year studying there, I learned how to be a journalist, in a nice safe environment where the only people who could see the flops were my nine supportive classmates and my teachers. I got a chance to do three internships: at a local newspaper in the winter of 1996-7, NASA-Ames Research Center in the spring of 1997, and American Scientist in the summer of 1997. (The last internship brought me back to North Carolina, something I will write about in my next post.) Several editors came to give guest lectures and even give us assignments. In general, the program allowed us to study the craft of writing, to experiment and try our wings, and to make the contacts we would need to get our careers off to a flying start. All in one year! It’s easy to reinvent yourself when you have so much help.

I’ll also mention that Kay was very glad to be back in California. She shed tears of joy when we drove across the state line from Nevada on July 1. She found a good job in the business office of Cabrillo College, a local community college; it started out temporary but by year’s end it had become permanent, with health benefits. (This is one thing I always mentioned to people who asked me how to succeed as a freelance writer: “Have a spouse with health insurance.”) She found a quilting group, and I found a chess club, and life began to settle down. As I wrote in my diary: “I got the sudden feeling, ‘This could all work!'”

Next time: back to chess! Thanks for your indulgence in reading this non-chess-oriented post.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Smith March 6, 2021 at 1:55 pm

Thanks for this post!

The back story of the John Lennon quote is fairly interesting:


But I’m sure 95%+ of those people who are familiar with this quote/sentiment trace it back to the song, as you do.


Mike Splane March 17, 2021 at 9:35 pm

hi Dana

I never knew there were programs that taught how to do freelance science writing. Is that program still operating? If i could go back and relive my life over, I would have applied for it.

I subscribed to Science News for several years. Great little magazine. I really liked it that the articles, unlike Scientific American, were written at a level that made them accessible to the general public . I might have even read some of your articles, but I think my subscription lapsed before you published anything.

I also definitely recall reading, with great interest, your articles in Chess Life describing your adventures in the USSR. News about everyday life from behind the ”
“Iron Curtain” was very hard to get back then.


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