Why I left engineering to write full-time


By The Artists at It’s A Grind

     An out-of-towner once told me that Californians were the only drivers who preceded freeway numbers with the article ‘the,’ elevating them to places rather than routes.  I don’t know if that’s true, but as a Californian it feels true.

      I’ve spent much of my life on freeways: nearly born in our ancient 1953 Oldsmobile when my dad shot onto the 405 at rush hour when everyone knows to take an alternate route after 3:00 PM; lost a large percentage of my adolescent holidays as we crawled the 250 miles from Los Angeles to my grandparents’ house in Pacific Grove while staring at the near featureless landscape on the 5 in the back of our 1962 Chevy station wagon; for one fraught year as an undergraduate, I attended three colleges simultaneously and held two part-time jobs as I careened down the 91, 110, and 405 freeways in my end-of-life 1966 Dodge Dart.

     In 32 years of working as an engineer (burning through six cars), I had a commute less than five miles for only three non-contiguous years.  Even when I re-located to a new job, it never failed that they’d close the plant and move the employees to a far distant site.   (According to most theories of stochastic processes, I should have experienced at least one transfer where the distance was less, but that never happened.)  For eight years, I drove 100 miles per day and no amount of therapy will entirely erase the resultant PTSD.

     One of those bait ‘n’ switch jobs moved me from a relatively benign commute of 8.4 miles to one involving 53.9 mind-numbing miles down the turgid 57 and the constantly-undergoing-construction 22.  No amount of scintillating conversation with carpoolers, not one of a series of engrossing audio courses in neuroscience, no side entertainments of freeway shootings and spectacular car wrecks or unexpected re-routings due to bomb threats, grass-fires or toxic spills could alleviate the tedium.

     Yet somehow I endured those years and would have withstood the ten more till retirement if it had not also included the 22E/57N interchange.

     As an engineer, I can appreciate the many reasons one settles on a less than perfect design.  As a driver, I only know that trying to merge three of the busiest Orange County freeways into what has been sardonically called the Orange Crush was the act of the criminally insane.  I’m a Quaker and ardent opponent of the death penalty, but when frozen in those interchange cattle chutes leading to a ramp banked so steeply atheists have turned to God, I’ve seriously considered making an exception for that nameless, dregs-of-the-cesspool, freeway architect.

     On Memorial Day 2011, the Army terminated the program I’d been working.  Battle-worn engineers grieved in their cubicles, but not me.  I thought about the 22E/57N interchange and did a little jig as I turned in my badge. 

About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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4 Responses to Why I left engineering to write full-time

  1. Lori Jean Sherlock says:

    Great start. I look forwared to reading more.

  2. dayya says:

    Loved it! And I so sympathize as a battle-scarred survivor of the freeways, especially the 405 North and South! d:)

  3. Rebecca Lang says:

    Very witty and nice to read.

  4. Rebecca Ifland says:

    You may be right about Freeway nomenclature. I have never used a definite article for any Freeway in Washington, but DO know Freeways in California that way. EVEN the SAME freeways. We take I5 here, but in California I took THE 5 to get to UCSC. I take 405 to my sister’s, but THE 405 to go to my Aunts.
    One exception. We have a road here called THE Bond Road. When outsiders just call it Bond Rd, it sounds so strange. But that is because they don’t know the history. The Road was built when people passed a bond to fund its construction. And it never got a real name- it was named from the act which created it.
    Fun writing, Michelle, and happy writing.

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