Theory is not my God

“What are they keeping in there…”
Definitions should, by definition, describe what something is as opposed to what something isn’t. But whereas some ideas become beautiful creatures; others morph into monsters. A little perspective on just how “big” an idea is might help tame the beast.

Note: This is gonna be one of those posts that likely pisses off some of my fellow academics. C’est la vie.

I was facilitating a workshop when the title of this post fell out of my mouth, a half-thought joke made in response to a question about the compatibility of various psychological theories with religious or spiritual beliefs. I stumbled out a phrase that captured more than I realized. Like most simple things, it summarized a complex debate by putting forth a basic premise that shot straight to the heart of the problem.

Here’s the thing: on two fronts I had confronted the “theory debate.” To be field-specific for a moment: the world of psychology, counseling, and mental health likes to argue endlessly about which theory is the best. To add another layer, each theory camp likes to argue about the best way to practice said theory. While there are some valid points regarding the areas in which any particular theory is adept or blind, the fight for alpha-dog in the theory world is largely academic, and often profit-driven. In other words, I want my theory to be king, because then I’ll get all the goodies that go with being king. 

It’s a cynical view, but not inaccurate. If you’re thinking that my faith in academia is lacking, you’re spot on.

Don’t get me wrong – I revel in the world of ideas. It was one of the reasons I became a professor; I get to think about stuff and get paid to do it. It’s the ultimate geek-out: playing with ideas, stretching them, seeing how far they can go until they break. And they will break, they always do, and then you get to pick up what is left and see what else can be made. Or toss out the whole lot, start over with what you’ve learned and develop something more efficient, elegant, unexpected. It is a creative process that pushes the creator as much as the creation, and it’s crack for someone like me.

So arguing about theories is not in and of itself a pointless endeavor. Argument can reveal the limitations, address problems, expand the undeveloped territories. Challenges to theory also remind us that no theory is ever truly “complete;” the quest for the theory of everything is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit. But it’s also like charting the universe; if we ever manage to map the entire thing, will we just run out of space?

The other part of the theory equation that can’t be overlooked though, is the the human element. People are very good at coming up with good ideas; we are also very good at having not so good motivations. I won’t lay claim as to whether or not “evil” exists, or to the innate “goodness” of people. But is it fair to say we are flawed, limited, often short-sighted beings who will act in our own self-interest? Yup. Even the best of us will slip, fall down the slope and gobble up the fat-ridden, gut busting, heart stopping yet utterly scrumptious forbidden jelly donut.

How does one then remove ego from the creation of ideas? Not easily. Thus we do get into some remarkably tedious arguments about which theoretical approach is supreme, or rather debates that veil the real purpose which is to determine who is supreme. Who gets to rule the profession, who gets to own all the business, who gets to make all the decisions. Somewhere along the way, the idea got tangled in with the value of the person making it. I become only as good as my theory will last, and if it doesn’t last then I no longer exist.

Following theory becomes a religious expression in such circumstances. We begin to worship our theorist’s icons and practice based on blind faith. We admonish those who don’t “do what we do.” We cast out those who don’t fit the increasingly narrow-definition of who belongs. The tithes demanded grow larger, eventually taking more than what we have, and in the end we are left waiting at the steps, begging for our bishops to deem us worthy of their scraps.

That presents a pretty bleak view of religion, I realize. But it is not a criticism of what religion could be any more than it is a criticism of what theory could be. Rather it is a charge against what we are turning theory (and perhaps religion?) into – an oppressive mechanism that serves and elevates a few while forgetting its ultimate obligation and purpose to the many. A theoretician who always has the correct answer, who holds a student as simply a replicator of what has been done, has fallen into the trap of self-perpetuation. And like all mechanisms that become too specialized, it will die out. Differentiation is necessary to evolution.

While I don’t think I’m qualified to assert what or who God is, I can make a statement about the nature of theory. Theory is an idea. Theory is a concept. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it no longer stands the test of time and context, it is time to write a new one. Everyone contributes to theory; those who made significant developments to formation of theory did remarkable things. But they did not do it alone, and they are not saints. 

Theory is not my God.

Talking in the Classroom…

Hey! Occasionally my stuff gets published by people other than myself. Here’s a bit I wrote regarding talking about sexual assault in the classroom. Thanks to the folks at Inside Higher Ed, and in particular Eric Grollman’s blog Conditionally Accepted, for considering and printing this piece:

https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/04/07/how-talk-students-about-sexual-assault-essay

 

ihe_logo_with_urlInside Higher Ed is the free daily news website for people who work in higher education. Breaking news, lively commentary and thousands of job postings bring more than 1.2 million people to the site each month.

Flashback 2007…

I haven’t written much here lately because the words just can’t come fast enough to keep up with every executive order rewriting our lives. So here’s something I stumbled across, a little thing I wrote several years ago when tenure felt like the biggest mountain in my path. My how things have changed. Anyway…enjoy the diversion.

Tick tock.  Tick tock.

I glance around, hunting for the source of the noise.  There in the darkness is the outline of the clock on the wall.  Squinting, my eyes focus on the hands.  The little one appears to be resting on the 4; the big one is resting on something I don’t care to make out.  Looking down into my arms I see the face of my new infant who is looking back at me with very large, very awake eyes.

She doesn’t seem to get the idea that it’s 4 in the morning – not 4 in the afternoon, a respectable time when playing and giggling is welcome, but 4 in the morning, a time when my brain doesn’t want to think about much of anything.  In fact, my brain would rather be engaged in wonderful lazy dreams requiring no effort at all.  However, my daughter has other ideas.  She finds this to be the best time in the world to eat, pee, and most of all, be wide-spanking awake.  While she smiles in infant glee at being alive, I perform a Homer Simpson drooling impersonation as my head rolls onto the back of my chair.

The oddity that crosses my mind is that during this Kodak mother-child bonding moment, I find myself thinking about my job.  Now a proud parent of two children, I wonder if my ability to attend to my work will get easier or harder.  At 4 in the morning, I wonder not about diapers, toys, or Baby Einstein, but about Tenure.  That 6-year hurdle has been looming in the distance now suddenly seems larger, taller, and more like a rocky, jagged mountain than a simple wooden trellis.

Parenthood and tenure – are the two compatible or do they mix like oil and water?  This is the question I’ve wrestled with since landing my tenure-track position two years ago.  The dream of every doctoral candidate finally realized, I settled into my new job with visions of scholarly productivity dancing in my head.

Ok, not really, but it did not seem to be an incalculable equation of research, teaching, and service that I was expected to figure.  Learning how to balance output is a task of all green professors, a chore we take on like awkward fraternity pledges seeking handouts of approval from our tenured brothers and sisters.  What appeared simple on paper became much more complex when put into practice – and when my children came into the picture.

Even putting the gender and higher education success debate aside, the balance between work and family life seems to be increasingly elusive.  Each area demands the same things; time, energy, and attention.  Both also appear to be predictable in their expectations, yet reality steps in and cracks all attempts at creating structure.  For example, my 2-year old getting chicken pox results in a 10-day eruption of chaos.  Forget writing time, forget meeting time, forget prep time – I am at home trying to explain what “quarantine” means to my cabin-fevered toddler.  I relate to his exasperated running in circles around the coffee table as I feel like that is all I’m capable of doing myself.  All I can see is valuable writing time drizzling away with every lap.

It seems so much the case that one area must overcome the other.  When consulting colleagues, the good-natured response tends to be, “find time away to write.”  When consulting with friends and family, the well-intentioned suggestions are, “stay at home, work less.”  Must it be that family and tenure are mutually exclusive conditions?  I look around me to find others who have had to learn the same lessons.  Unfortunately, I find very few who seemed to keep both family and tenure in sight as I have either colleagues without kids, or friends with families who dropped out of academics.

Trying to have both, I find myself rocking my daughter to sleep while ruminating over my research agenda.  It seems this self-generated schizophrenia is to be the norm if I am to achieve a successful career while having a family life.  And yet it seems the very attempt to make both occur simultaneously is also what prevents each from coming to fruition.  Having both means I also have neither as my attention is always divided.

At times like this the Buddhist ideas of bending like the reed in the wind come to mind.  From that philosophy, my misguided desire to be attached to “success” fuels my suffering.  I want to be like the reed, letting myself go with the flow.

But will that get me tenure?

Tick tock.  The hand hits the 5.  A light snoring comes from my arms as my little girl has wandered off to sleep.  A peaceful grin crosses her face.  It occurs to me that trying to force balance and predictability may be exacerbating the problem.  Rather than divide myself, I could approach each situation whole.  I watch my daughter snoozing, and take the moment to absorb how quiet and settling it is.

I don’t know if my present course will end in tenure.  Perhaps it won’t.  Maybe it will.  I hope to absorb as many quiet moments as I can along the way, even if those moments mean sitting sleeplessly in the half-dark.

 

Another brick…

My head is pounding. Probably because the emotional brick wall I keep encountering just won’t yield no matter how many times I hit it. Stop hitting it, you say? If it were that easy…

I’m inspired by a recent Facebook distraction where a friend of mine tossed a Batman quote in my direction, and it may have been slightly misconstrued by those reading who may not have had the requisite Christopher Nolan watch history to bring understanding. (So props to P, good quote. No worries, mate.) Applying the quote to teaching, he made a joke about me being the teacher my students need, but not the one they deserve. Ok, so maybe that sounds a little weird taken out of context, but I’ve been spending some time thinking about why I continue to be a teacher, especially when I encounter so many of these amazingly stupid, redundant, madness-inducing larger-than-life Joker-inspired walls.

I became a teacher by accident. I don’t know if that is a common story for teachers but that is what happened in my case. I spent all of my schooling never thinking I would become a person standing in front of a room while people wrote down what I said.

Here’s the thing: I’d been spending all my graduate work focused on becoming a better therapist. I left my master’s program thinking my egg hadn’t hatched yet, so I wanted to incubate a little longer. That was a good decision. A lot of important things came together for me and at the conclusion of my program, I was definitely a much more skilled and capable counselor. But being the philosopher I can’t avoid, I also noticed the irony of counseling work that I still haven’t escaped to this day.

If you ever apply to a counseling program, at some point you’ll be asked, “why do you want to do this.” And what admissions committees don’t tell anyone is that we are looking out for the “because I want to help people” answer. We look out for it because this is what most people will write; it is also nearly meaningless. What does it mean to “help” people? What is helping? Before any of us set foot in a classroom, we all held rather naive ideas about helping and our ability to do it. Most of our ideas are illusions, props we tell ourselves to believe we are more powerful, effective, and important than we really are. Somewhere in there exists altruism, but this is in reality a very small piece. We are usually interested in helping ourselves, and even there we don’t really know what that looks like either.

So after a few years of deconstructing all this, we find that we can’t really “help” anyone, and we adopt a new language of “facilitating change.” This is step one towards accepting we can’t actually make people do things, no matter how much we try. But counselors come to realize they don’t want to make people do things, because we appreciate and value this thing called agency – someone’s ability to be active in their own life and work from their own will. However, the flipside is we can make things happen, and often when we don’t intend to. Unfortunately our history is filled with such examples where our good-intentioned selves managed to hurt large groups of mostly disenfranchised people by subjecting them to lousy research or prejudiced, discriminatory practices. Thus we do know we can make a difference, but more often we see the results from when our differences create more harm than good.

I found myself caught in the sideliner’s observation that while I am witness to the experience of pain, I am rarely present to the experience of change. We have all kinds of phrases about “the process” and when it works, it means we are working ourselves out of a job. This means “change” doesn’t usually manifest in front of my eyes; rather it is inferred from the stories a client shares with me, and I usually fan the flames of hope that it moves in preferred directions. For a person to become responsible for all they have done, they aren’t changing because I’ve said a magic phrase, but because they have made change a part of their life. Thus when I do a “good job,” I’ve also erased myself from the picture. It means at any particular moment when I’m counseling, I am simultaneously influential and non-influential, powerful and impotent.

Damn you existentialists.

purple_manThis is a frustrating state of being. But it is also core to how I work, because I am always balancing this dilemma, this ability to do and not do. You could say this is why we have to pay attention to ethics, because it becomes very easy to transform into the Purple Man.

All of this exists in the world of teaching, too. My role as a teacher isn’t to make people learn, but to create an environment where learning becomes possible. That is similar to how we talk about counseling, but in the classroom, my chances of being present to learning are much higher. Conversely, if learning isn’t occurring, I will see it immediately, and not just in test scores. Any teacher who has ever seen 30 faces check out all at once knows exactly what I’m saying.

For me to be a teacher, I’ve had to do a lot of work that includes regularly challenging myself and stepping well outside my comfort zone. I find myself influencing the potential for learning every time I’m in the room and I am always shifting between stepping into the mix and stepping out. Every group is different, every class forming its own personality and way of interacting. I never give the same lecture twice, and I never know where the class will end up. This doesn’t mean I take an “anything goes” attitude; rather learning morphs towards the path of the learner instead of forcing students into one identical mold.

That may sound a little weird since in recent times many think of school in a very business-oriented student-learning-outcome way and have reduced education to just memorizing times tables and spelling words. But education doesn’t end with basic skills, it starts there; ultimately education is about exercising and shaping a mind, a spirit, a being who is capable of interacting intentionally in the world. We’re not telling our students what to think, but how to think; the tools they must learn are the tools that empower them towards active freedom, not towards quiet subservience.

So when I say I get more chances to be present to learning, it means I get to see what I just described on a regular basis. Or at least, I am more likely to see it if I’m doing my job ethically, effectively, and earnestly. And I get to watch these students become counselors, people who are able to see the worth inside each person they work with. People who can sit in that existential dilemma so much more comfortably than I can because if learning took place, it taught them the most important lesson: they too are valuable because they exist, because they mean something and have a right to be here.

But this isn’t easy, and it is often thankless, and the obstacles to doing this work come from places you’d never imagine. That means I spend a lot of time banging my head against walls, and I’ll likely keep banging my head against walls. You’d think I’d have a thicker skull by now. But eventually there may be enough of us who’ve rediscovered our value as people to break through the wall, or maybe we’ll just walk off together and the wall will fall into obsolescence (Roger Waters was on to something, I think). I don’t know really; after all it’s just a metaphor. Enough speculation though, I have a lesson to prepare…

 

 

 

 

Oh yeah, that job thing…

instagram-do-amor-snoopygrams_16Hey, so I managed to write something that got published on a different online platform*…Go check it out:

http://wp.me/p2BxKN-4sq

This is an edited version of a longer piece I wrote and I was going to put the longer piece here, but I decided not to because I’m lazy. In truth, I do have this job that pays the bills, and occasionally I have to, you know, do stuff. Some think I should blog more about the behind-the-scenes of that work environment, but that Shakespearean tragedy (comedy?) belongs in a different dimensional plane altogether. So enjoy this little diversion into an aspect of my professional self.

*Published at CT Online (http://ct.counseling.org), the companion website of Counseling Today

I’m Not Sayin’ I’m Batman But…

“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” – Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins)

batmanYeah, yeah, I just started with a Batman quote, and I tried to make it look all important and flashy-like. It isn’t the first time I’ve stolen lines from Nolan’s film, and it won’t be the last (because…wait for it…).

This post is really meant to be about social justice (again). Batman and social justice sort of go together, or rather, in my comic-book influenced pop culture brain, I can make them go together because it’s my blog and I get to do things like that. The part of the quote I’m focusing on is the “what you do” phrase, as this is what I get asked most often: How do you DO social justice?

I also realize I’ve written on that theme in prior posts. So spoiler alert: this post concludes by stating in giant, bold letters that there is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. There is no step-by-step method, there is no correct action, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry peeps, that’s just how it goes sometimes. I realize writing the summertime blockbuster, 7 Steps for Dramatic Social Action, would probably be an easier and more lucrative way to make a living than what I do now, but it’s not going to happen.

There is, of course, a place and time for talking about specific action points – for example, when you have a Stalin-esque presidential candidate making a real bid for the White House, concrete plans need to be written. But this post is more about looking at the day-to-day work of social justice, the “behind the scenes” work if you will. The stuff some of us have figured out is essential to getting anything done, but also the stuff that many people overlook and even forget.

I’m talking about relationships here, the art of making connections, especially with people you might not like or agree with.

Recently I found myself speaking to a group of people in a workshop setting. I have been doing things of this nature for many years, which means I am no stranger to our version of professional heckling: the wide range of odd, unusual, and sometimes blatantly arrogant questions that can come our way. While all seasoned teachers learn various useful and not so useful ways to respond, most of the time what you don’t want to do is get into an argument. And I can say that as someone who got sucked into at least one argument in my greener years, and regretted it fully (another spoiler: the teacher always looks like an idiot when arguing with a student, even if the student said something remarkably stupid. Because you’re the teacher, and you will look like a raving adult lunatic who decided to yell at, say, a puppy).

The hard part is some people do seem to have it be their goal to generate the most irrational and controversial commentary to plop on your lecture doorstep, particularly during the last 5 minutes of your presentation because they know full well there will be no time for you to offer even a bemused grunt much less a thoughtful acknowledgement. Yet when the topic is related to social justice, it is also often the case that this curiously timed remark carries suffocating undercurrents of privilege which will also undermine and dismiss just about every other person in the room who isn’t, for example, a rich white heterosexual male. And let’s just say that in a room of thirty mental health professionals, there aren’t too many rich white heterosexual males running around,wile_3366650b which means your educational train has just crashed Wile E. Coyote-style into a ravine.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But this is also supposed to happen, because if I’ve created a room where people can freely speak their mind, it means people will be able to disagree with me. So to shut down such comments contradicts my purpose, which is to open space for dialogue. However, I am also in a dilemma of how to permit comments that also have the potential to get a lot of people very, very angry in a very, very short amount of time. This is the balancing act that has no formula; it is felt and experienced and sometimes you tip the scale in the wrong direction. But balance is essential to creating any hope of the “successful resolution” we all crave at that moment.

So while my ego would prefer I say something along the lines of, “shut your face,” I know that would add a lot of hydrogen to this bomb. Instead I acknowledge this will take a few minutes, but would the speaker permit me a few questions in the hopes of understanding better the purpose of their message?

In other words,  you took the floor, so let’s take a moment to find out what you are really trying to put out there. Are you feeling ignored? Are you trying to “level the playing field?” Are you responding to a history of being accused? Do you fear your voice will be diminished? Is this simply not for you? The point is, I have no idea what drives someone to do this, but I must attempt to find out – which means setting aside all the irritation, frustration, and even justified anger I may have at what they did. Because the only hope at that moment in returning the room to a place of understanding is to do just that – create a connection with the person who feels out of place.

Will this solve all the social justice problems out there? No. But does it work? Yes – well presuming I am trying to understand and not simply appease. But that’s the very thing we’re trying to get across in building community – I am baffled and curious at what is being thrown at me, and I am more interested in the person behind it than the weirdness of the words. I don’t want to reject the person, I want to connect with them, because perhaps in our connection there is more potential to recognize the many lies our walls have been built on; to see how our barriers were not erected by us, but rather by those who profit when walls are maintained.

That’s the moment in the room though. What happens next? That’s the work most people never see. The part where the person and I meet, have a conversation, get to know each other. The part where we share a joke. The part where we share about our lives. The part where we walk away knowing behind those initial comments rests a person, someone with fears and hopes, someone who is reconsidering their “certainties” now that there is a face to replace something that once existed only as a stereotyped caricature. The part where we ask each other for help. The part where we start working together because we want others to realize that it is through exploring our differences that we develop a true appreciation and interest for each other.

It’s social justice work, conversation by conversation. Yup, it’s slow. There is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. Go figure it out, one person at a time.

Next stop…

Let’s begin at the end. I’m somewhere over an ocean, flying home after 3 weeks abroad. For some reason, I don’t sleep on planes. Perhaps that’s because planes are ridiculously uncomfortable to sleep on. It is basically sharing a bed with about 200 people, but the bed fits really only about 3. And the other 2 you’re stuck with are people you’d rather not be in bed with.
So I don’t sleep on planes.

I did however sleep more often than usual while abroad, given that when I typically work at the institute we direct each summer, I average about 4 hours of sleep a night. Whether it was because I had my children with me this time, or perhaps because staying up all night comes with much greater consequence than it did when I was 20, I slept. And I needed it since the last several months have been extremely, irrevocably, exhausting. Granted this trip was work-related, but it was also the vacation I’ve been waiting for. 3 weeks of letting the rest of my life disappear from my brain.

The sign of a good vacation is when the answer to the question of, “what day is it” is answered with, “I don’t know.” While I still had to check email from time to time, I declined responding. Admittedly, I could not totally divest myself of social media and managed to post a few pics of our journeys. But otherwise I was “off the grid,” and glad of it. What the rest of life back home thought was important I could ignore and instead focus on what was in front of me, which was typically either a vista I’d never seen before, or a pint. Win-win all around.

I hiked as far up a hill (created by a volcano) as I could, which means I almost got to Arthur’s Seat. I could see it, but my eyes started wobbling at the height and I had to stop. But I did look over the edge as far as I could, which is pretty good for someone who can’t look down the Sears Tower. I rediscovered the joy of walking along an unknown path, even if it sometimes resulted in running away from the velociraptor we imagined lunging at us in the tall grass. Paddle boats can be cool. Humidity is not. Late night conversations with friends is still the best way to end an evening. Your kids can ask some really good questions, even if you never have answers to them.

And then there are the random conversations, the ones had with strangers like taxi drivers, ticket collectors, waitresses, museum docents. People who are interested in talking especially when you’re interested in listening. While parts of me started to blend in, I realized my foreign oddities might be just as interesting to the locals the way their idiosyncrasies are interesting to me.

Edinburgh is a pretty cool place.

Tour groups drive me completely bonkers.

It’s a curiosity how we try to bring back pieces of our experience with us when we travel. I like to take photos, but the irony of photography is it can detach you from what is directly in front of you if you let it. We wander into endless shops to bring back the trinkets (even though I never got my highland “coo”) but really it’s just stuff, things that mimic the real. What you’re really hoping to bring back is the feeling, the parts that don’t have words and can’t be quantified or totalized, but simply must be lived. The experience goes away but hopefully the effect stays.

So what do I go home with? Ask me again in a couple weeks. I am ready to be in my own home but I miss where I was. “Missing” is the fuel that can keep a hope burning.

I’ll return sometime. Mind the gap.

Happenstance Happens…

I never knew how to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up.” We seem to ask this of young children even though the likelihood of getting a coherent answer is minimal (“garbage collector,” “spy,” or “space ninja” are common responses). And growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the available models were not very well-developed; I spent some time believing a girl could only be a nurse, a stewardess, or a Charlie’s Angel.

As a working adult and mother of two, I get a new version of this question which is, “how did you know you wanted to be a ____________.” I admit having the fortune of  a highly active and fulfilling career, and I love and appreciate being a parent. But my answer to the question is somewhat of a letdown: “I didn’t know.” I was never one of those kids who had such certainty about what they wanted to do when they got older. Plans were often foisted on me, but they never really worked.

There were all kinds of things I was supposed to be and certainly things I wasn’t supposed to be. Not all of these impositions came from my family, by the way – society had a few words to say about what young, dark-eyed, dark-haired, biracial females can and can’t do. And let’s not even get into the whole not-conforming-to-stereotype gender thing. All of that is likely a different post, but the fact that I am not the typical face displayed on the postcard of success is likely why I get this question fairly often, particularly from women and pretty much anyone else who still colors outside the lines. It’s a question that really asks, “if you were able to find a place in the world, will I?”

Krumboltz developed the career theory called, “Planned Happenstance,” where career paths are established through unexpected events and experiences as opposed to a carefully directed linear plan. When I was in school, this theory was presented to us as the theory that doesn’t really work. It was probably taught this way because the theory contradicts the good ol’ American Dream, whereby with fierce determination one can achieve all goals as long as you stick to the plan, never quit, and take the heart medication necessary to keep you alive while you pour 125% of your lifeblood into reaching these goals.

It’s no surprise The American Dream never really worked for me as my dreams usually included visions of lying on the couch and watching television. This might explain why I silently questioned the dismissal of Krumboltz’ idea. Also this was the first career theory I’d heard that made sense in relation to my life, especially while taking a course in a degree program I had no idea about whether or not I actually wanted to finish. I was in graduate school, true, but partly because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had to do something after finishing undergrad, and as I’d ended up in one of those fields that doesn’t get you very far with just a bachelor’s, graduate school was likely. I ended up in this particular degree program because 1) they accepted my application and 2) my then-fiance was also going to attend that university. But had I embraced the idea of becoming the Thing you were supposed to be after you completed the program? Not really. I wasn’t against it, I could explore it, and it definitely beat getting micromanaged at a desk job (I realize plenty of other people would’ve been fine with option #3, but I already had some glimpse that living as an office jockey would’ve resulted in me peeling my skin off flake by flake).

But as it happens, I got lucky – I found the subject intriguing and it led to a redefinition of purpose. I met some very good teachers who could show me why their career mattered to them. This particular program also challenged me in new ways, so I started learning very different kinds of skills. My interest in the arts found a way to mingle with my interest in science and there was a greater chance I could earn a living. There was still a great deal to learn but this little accident was working to my advantage.

Even though I graduated, the chicken was only half cooked so I decided to try for a doctoral degree program. At least this time I knew what to look for, but because I decided late about applying I had missed the deadlines for many programs. But luck struck again – one program still took applications, invited me for an interview, and accepted me. I guess they liked my responses to the question of where I saw myself in 5 years. I’m pretty sure I made up my answer, borrowing from something I read about a week prior to the interview about a particular specialty needing more people with doctorates to do such and such work. I wasn’t really interested in it, but “I’m just along for the ride” usually isn’t an acceptable reason to an admissions committee for getting into a program.

It is also possible the committee noticed that in spite of being a rudderless ship, I love learning. If I could’ve gotten paid for being a student, I’d have found the perfect job. So doctoral study suited me pretty well. However, doctoral work also cracked my naive veneer as I got my first taste of academia not being all that academically inclined. Feeling lonely and weird, I was the youngest in my class and many seemed to delight in reminding me of that fact. Freely generating my own ideas was exciting, but I still felt as though I was missing something. I promised myself if after a year I hadn’t found “it,” I would get out of the program and chase something else.

Something happened the semester before that year ended; it was as though a switch flipped and everything turned on. I found meaning in what I was doing and somewhere this thing called confidence crept in. A specialty revealed itself, connecting so many dots I wondered why I hadn’t seen it earlier. I liked what I was doing and I was certain I would continue in a clincially-focused career…until I took a class towards the end of my program that uprooted that illusory path.   I found a whole new interest that made everything point towards academia. Thus I birthed a dissertation and applied for professor jobs, again later than I should have, and yet managing to get an offer enabling me to literally defend my dissertation and move all in the same month.

That should be the end of the story, but really it was just Part 1 of the trilogy. The twists and turns that have taken me to today create a complicated and familiar tale. Volunteering for the unknown and stumbling into unexpected situations is the norm, not the exception. I suspect Part 2 is coming to a close, but Part 3 is still a mystery. I have no idea what the title, setting, or plot will be. Happenstance has become for me, a way of life.

I never knew what I could do when I was a kid because I never knew what I could do. That’s the unself-conscious world kids live in, though.  I was capable of everything and yet also capable of nothing. The people in my life said take it all and take nothing, shouting everything is right as long as you don’t do anything wrong. I had potential, and was reminded daily that squandering it would be a tragedy. But these expectations didn’t belong to me; they were prescribed by entities who insisted they knew better. Living someone else’s possibilities made others proud, but my identity scattered to the winds, floating away like burning leaves. But every time I stepped off the path, a new piece of me came into focus. When I tripped into the unknown, I discovered what was missing. A series of mishaps, stumbles, and wanderings created the rhizomatic stem that has become my “career.”

I’m an uncoordinated bumbler, adept at staggering into accidents. Pretty good way to make a living.