Dreams and Regrets
Warning! This post contains obscene amounts of whining and self-indulgent navel-gazing.
We just spent the weekend retrieving our son from college in Rochester, New York. One thing that makes the 800-mile round trip from Boston a bit more enjoyable is stopping over in Syracuse. Now, as far as I know, Syracuse, being something of a northern rust belt city, isn't in the book A Thousand Places to See Before You Die. But, it's where I went to college, met my wife-to-be, bought my first house and had some of the best times of my life. My college campus has changed remarkably little in the three decades since I graduated. Visiting there brings back many fond memories, but can also be the source of deep melancholy. As I think about my short visit to my alma mater this weekend, I realize this month marks 30 years since I graduated and 20 years since the dream died.
To paraphrase a quote I heard on the radio last week: You know you're getting older when your dreams are replaced by regrets. Another favorite quote of mine is from Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone: "Be true to the dreams of your youth." I was always a daydreamer. In grade school, my teachers would always scold me for daydreaming in class. Even today, I can find myself lost in extended and detailed reveries.
I coasted through high school, showing the occasional spark of potential, but never excelling overall and really struggling in some subjects like math. In junior year, while most of my boomer friends were taking advanced placement tests and SAT achievement exams in preparation for application to multiple colleges and universities, I had no real goal. I knew I was supposed to go to college, but had no clue as to where I wanted to go. My passions were backpacking, fishing and just being outside, but what good was that when one had to get an education and make a living?
I can still remember the moment in 1971 when I was sitting in my English classroom and my buddy showed me a catalog from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (A school name my father could never mange to even say.) in Syracuse, New York. It was more popularly know as "the forestry school' or "ESF." It was one of those rare moments in life, not unlike love at first sight, when destiny flashes before the eyes. As I recall, it was the only school where I filed a complete application. I had no need or desire to go anywhere else. My ultimate dream was becoming clear. I would get a good education at a great school and find a good job where I could do good things for the Earth. Luckily, I was accepted.
To say I was an enthusiastic student would be an understatement. I studied hard, participated in numerous campus organizations and activities, and even dressed the part. I always wore blue jeans, flannel shirts and hiking boots hoping I would be readily identified as a "stumpy." I was in a pretty serious program with challenging subjects like calculus, organic chemistry and genetics, but I lived for and aced the forestry subjects like botany, dendrology and silviculture. I could identify and recite the scientific names of scores of trees. I graduated magna cum laude and because I couldn't find a job in the field, I stayed on for a Masters in forest soil science. As I finished my MS, jobs were still elusive, so I stayed in Syracuse working on a couple of temporary research projects. After about nine years studying and working at ESF, I finally landed something close to a real job with a well-respected forestry research program at the University of Florida. The position I held had a reputation for being a stepping-stone to good jobs in the forest products corporate sector. Well, (By now you can see where this is going.) after over five years of doing a respectable job managing numerous university/industry cooperative forest fertilization experiments, it became clear that I was at a dead end and that my industry career was not going to happen.
I've heard that if you destroy a spider's web, she will rebuild it. Destroy it again and it will be rebuilt, but not quite to its original grandeur. Continue this a few more times, and eventually the spider will sit in a corner with a pathetic little tangle of web, its will to try again crushed.
I can still recall the moment in 1986 when, after I made the official notification that I would be leaving my job, I went back to my office and was overcome by emotion. Tears ran down my face as I was hit by the full weight of the fact that all my enthusiasm, work, struggle and love that had been focused on nurturing the 15-year dream of a life working in forestry were not enough. I couldn't make it happen. I was defeated.
Twenty years later this still makes me sad. Destroy an idealist and you're left with a cynic. I try not to dwell on the past, but things like news from a successful friend from the old days or a visit to my old campus can trigger unhappy reflection and regret. I prefer to think my failure was caused by bad timing or bad luck. I came up in a time when state and federal jobs - long the source of employment for many in land management fields - were drying up. I had some key professors die suddenly or leave and there always seemed to be a recession going on just as I was job-hunting. Maybe if I had just had a mentor that would have taught me how to make the transition from good student to productive professional. Perhaps, even though I was paranoid, they were out to get me.
At some level, I know it was my own fault. There had to be something about my intelligence, imagination, personality or attitude that held me back. Clearly, I wasn't smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall sooner and re-direct my efforts into a career with more potential and possibilities before it was too late. Too long I held stubbornly onto the belief that if I worked hard and did well in school, anything was possible. I did learn that having limited options sucks. In things like careers and relationships, when we never seem to have more than one option, it's hard to make the right choices. Failure to find meaningful work in a chosen field might be like watching a soulmate slip away.
All of this whining can seem silly and selfish now when I consider that I am pretty healthy, am married to a truly wonderful woman, have two fantastic kids, own a home in a great community and have a few good friends. I have had other disappointments and setbacks along the way but I know that, in life, those things happen. While it's not much fun admitting that I seem to be unemployable, I can enjoy the freedom that self-employment affords. And, when I take a walk in the woods, I can tell a Liriodendron tulipifera from a Liquidambar styraciflua.