Monday, May 29, 2006

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.

7 Comments:

At 10:58 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Tulip poplar from a....???

In the end, I think it's more important to have studied and nurtured a passion for something you love, don't you think? True, we all have to make a living, but I think very few people are really passionate about the work they do. Money is their passion.

I studied foreign languages in college - really only two career choices for someone like me (unless you're very bright or lucky) teaching or social work - so I do both. I'm not really *into* either, but it's a living. Now to have a job outside, growing things or teaching kids about the outdoors - that would be awesome, but I could never make a living at it. So I do that stuff I love and am passionate about as a volunteer.

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

I think very few people actually find work that they love to do, that sparks them, renews them, or keeps them connected to their passions. I think the trick is to find work that isn't soul-crushing or deadening.

I double majored in Physical Anthropology and Womens Studies with a minor in Literature. I loved reading and thinking about human evolution: how we arrived at what we are today; what is essential to being human. I was admitted to grad school to study literature, though. Dropped out after my first marriage ended. My favorite job: I wound up as the assistant director of student media at UC Santa Cruz, advising students who produced all the campus publications (newspapers and poetry journals). Unexpectedly delightful because it allowed me to use many parts of my brain.

When you work now, even though it isn't what you studied, does your job give back to you in any way?

 
At 5:36 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Many thanks to Laura and Robin Andrea.

A wise person recently said: We "struggle to persist authentically no matter what we do."
Sure, I try to find joy and creativity in the work I do. Since I'm self-employed, I have more freedom than many to do that. I care about things like integrity, quality, honesty, dignity and respect more than money. I like money, but probably not enough.

I'm basically a happy person, but my regrets about failing to find a niche in the forestry/environmental world gets me down, even after all this time. I'll get over it, but maybe I shouldn't.

By the way, that wise person was Robin Andrea.

Oh, sweetgum. Very common in New Jersey.

 
At 8:24 PM, Blogger Wildside Musing said...

Hi Mojoman, stopped by as I saw you had visited my blog...

Please no regrets, but I guess we all have some of one sort or another! Your story is a tad similar to mine -- I've got a forestry background too among other things -- recession going on during intense search after college meaning dream jobs offered up instead went to employees who got rifted.

But lucky me, I'm no idealist to start with... Have learned after much pain not to hit my head so hard against brick walls. Or one would hope. Potential solid surfaces keep offering themselves up for head butting and I do my best to try to dodge 'em to get around them beforehand.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

 
At 9:18 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have deleted a couple of 'comments' that appear to be blog spam. They make no reference to the content of my blog and seem to be placed only to direct traffic to a commercially-oriented blog or profile. Guilty until proven innocent.

 
At 6:19 AM, Blogger CabinWriter-- said...

I reflect on my life as a teacher, chosen because a license was two courses and one half summer from obtaining. Failure spurred me to semi-success as I finally learned how an adjective couldn't be an adverb when leading 7th graders into the world of sentence structure.

Then I retired and wondered why I had wasted such creative years of my life mentally battling with young people. Nowadays I try to enjoy every free moment in creative pursuits and forget the struggles as a high school teacher who went nowhere.

 
At 10:47 PM, Blogger Endment said...

I can't think of a single career choice that fit into my original plan or dream - many of the things I have done have brought challenges and satisfaction - somehow a lot of the tools I acquired along the way end up being the things that may not necessarily add to the pay check but they add to my personal satisfaction and joy in living.
Now that I am retired many of the things I love are again filling my life.
I hope you will begin again to find joy and an opportunity to do the things you love!

 

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