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.




…are a bitch.

There, I said it. I know, counselor-types aren’t supposed to say things like that. We’re supposed to be all, “it’ll be a difficult time but you’ll get through” and “it’s a normal phase of life” and “you have the resources” and blah blah blah blah. Bullshit. Transitions are rough, unpleasant, unpredictable, and overpowering. Transitions demonstrate how very little control you really have in your life and how most of the control you think you have left is really  just an illusion you’ve created to console yourself. Transitions are Nietzsche’s wonderland, pools of existential angst bubbling like primeval mud ready to suck the reason right off your puny little soul.

So it’s safe to say this hasn’t been the easiest of changes…although as I’ve said before, this is a problem I am happy to have. I am glad to be in a process of transitioning because it does mean things are changing; in fact they are transforming right before my eyes and the real problem is my brain simply can’t keep up. The landscape is moving too quickly so I have no idea where I am at any given moment.

It is interesting how easily though my mind is removing itself from what I’ve known for the last 10 years and relocating itself into my new west-coast world. It is very easy to let go of the problems that I no longer have any involvement in and say, “well, you get to deal with it now” and go dancing away like a pixie. I recently found myself driving through southern California repeating to myself, “I am actually going to live here” and found it remarkably simple to forget that I had ever lived in Texas.

Yet it is still an angst-ridden experience; I’ve realized I’m not really moving me, I’m moving a family, and the home I’m trying to create isn’t about me but about the life the little people I care for will be able to have. Now that is brand new, and fills me with hoards of nightmares regularly. The logistics of finding schools, homes, neighborhoods, where the nearest grocery will be, is there a park, will there be a place to play soccer or swim, what will the high school that they’ll attend in 5 years be like, where is the pediatrician, who will be the band leader, and on and on, fills up my head before we’ve even figured out who the internet provider is going to be. I’ve no idea what my new email address will be, how could I possibly be expected to know whether or not my children will be secure in their attempts to get into graduate school?

So it’s a little upside down. I have been touched by the outpouring of grace and generosity exhibited by those who seem truly sad to see me go. As much as I shun ego, I do like hearing that something I did or said made a difference. The goodbyes have been more difficult than I’ve experienced in the past. This time I’m going, what will happen to these relationships, will they continue, will I make new ones where I’m going, will I be able to make a difference there too? Or was the last 10 years just a collection of luck and happenstance?

In spite of being someone who teaches about the power of influence, I still have tremendous incapacity for connecting my own efficacy to the influences occurring in other people’s lives. I would prefer to simply not know if I’ve done anything. It is therefore gratifying to hear that I’ve done something that was effective, meaningful, even just entertaining. And yet I do quietly fear that I won’t be much of anything as I start this new phase of my life.

I suppose the reality is I won’t be much of anything. No one will know me, I’ll have nothing to show for myself, it will need to be built. What is different now though is that I’ve got some experience having built things, and more importantly I actually know who the builder is. 10 years ago I was still figuring myself out, still deciding what “team” to play on or if I would play at all. I’ve come to some very difficult understandings about myself and had to make hard decisions, and I think what I’ve figured out is the stuff that actually matters to me. It is so much less about accolades, recognitions, fame, even principles, and so much more about people. Who is important in my life and how do I make it clear to them that I value them too. No work should get in the way of such things, and if it does then that tells me it is time to do something different.

So to those who have taken this transition as a time to take last minute pot-shots at me, fuck off. To those who have gone out of their way to let me know that our time together mattered, thank you. You have affected my life in ways you likely have no idea about as well; I have had a chance to meet some really amazing and interesting people and that has taught me more than much of my years in school. I hope whatever I do next will continue to make you proud.

And on a complete side note, I’ve found that my questions about my career have either been so shelved that I’m not thinking about it, or I’ve managed to find some answers. The most interesting answer I’ve found recently is I’m tired of asking the “what if” questions. So rather than ask what if, I’ve just been doing whatever it is that I’ve wondered about. I think what has changed is I’m willing to find out if it’s no good or if I can’t do it. I think I’ve finally learned that I’d rather make the attempt and learn that I suck rather than spend years asking if I could’ve done something to begin with. Oh, and I’ve found out that some things I thought I was good at aren’t that good after all. Or more fairly, sometimes I produce things that are good and other times I produce things that are crap. That’s a pretty typical thing though, isn’t it? We in the USA do this absurd thing to ourselves, buying into some ridiculous notion that everything we do is supposed to be superb, producing peak experiences ad infinitum. But getting knocked off your feet isn’t so disastrous as we let ourselves think. It hurts the pride, and it does create self-doubt. It is not fun to hear that what you made is ugly. But that doesn’t mean that everything you make is ugly, or that the ugly thing is without merit. That’s the newest lesson, that there are still many things to learn and that doesn’t mean you didn’t know something to begin with. Which means during my transition, I find myself yet again, confronted with the phrase I’ve shared with students:

“Why do we fall…”

“So we can learn to pick ourselves up…”

Damn you, Batman


Best Fan Ever

If you’ve managed to read this blog post-to-post (which I’m sure you haven’t), or if you know me really well (which you might) then it’s no surprise to hear I’m a bit of the fan-girl. It’s a somewhat embarrassing thing to admit since it always conjures up the image of a pre-teen wearing ridiculous clothes sporting bizarre hair while possessing way too much knowledge of things like Doctor Who and The Breakfast Club (yes, dating myself there, and the answer is Tom Baker, Original Series, and David Tennant, New Series. Whovians know what the question is).

Engaging in fan activities is called “fangirling,” or “fanboy-ing” although in thinking about that verb I realized it needs a gender neutral derivative. What would you call that, “fanning?” Unfortunately that word conjures up images of Scarlet O’Hara lounging on a porch sipping bitter lemonade, fanning herself lazily as the plantation burns while slaves run in the background. So that doesn’t really work. But it’s all I’ve got at the moment, so in an effort to support free gender expression, I’ll use “fan-ing” to represent engagement in all things Fan.

Why am I bothering to write about this in my film blog? Because as the film is moving on and we have to occupy ourselves with things like marketing (the bane of my existence), I’m realizing my blog needs to evolve. And as this film has already shown me, my life connected to social justice involves much more than just putting images on celluloid. Or digital, in our case.

I’ve found myself throughout this whole film process, two years in total so far, asking myself some fairly serious questions. I’ve written before that I had no idea what I was getting into. That hasn’t really changed, as every step is a new part of the adventure and I still have way too much to learn. What I’ve had the greatest trouble trying to reconcile though were two opposing experiences: 1) the growing doubts and disillusionment regarding my initial career choice and 2) the growing fascination and exhilaration revealed in making a film.

I’m a professor by employment and a counselor by trade. Academia has shown me that it isn’t nearly as “academic” as I would’ve hoped. And my travels with social justice have revealed the extent to which our palaces of higher learning still have a long way to go in terms of embracing and enacting equality, multiculturalism, and true justice. Old-boy networks are very real, glass ceilings are ever-present, and a good amount of teaching seems to be largely for the professor’s benefit instead of the student’s. I admit to being naively idealistic when I stepped into teaching, but seriously, the state of higher-ed in the USA has become decidedly un-educational. Emphasis on nonsense like “learning outcomes”, attempts to quantify the learning process has created a machine that focuses on producing widgets instead of promoting the kind of environment where learners truly make discoveries. Institutions quickly become measures of social control and conformity, the very antithesis of creativity and independent thought.

(Of course this kind of critique is expected to fly from me since I’ve just spent a week at a Narrative Therapy conference in Adelaide, Australia – narrative Mecca if you will. Foucault is alive and well and I become decidedly anti-establishment in such an environment. Thrilling.)

So for the last couple years I’ve been asking myself, “do I really want to be doing this?” And as my burnout has grown, I’ve had difficulty seeing the difference between job frustration and job fed-up-edness, do I want to ditch the whole thing and start over. This is in light of the fact that making a film turned out to be one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. Ironically the interest in trying a film came in light of these job frustrations. Making a film is outside the box of “scholarship” for my field as well as my job. So essentially, the film doesn’t “count” in the world of my work, yet I did it anyway, almost to say, “screw the system, I’ll produce the kind of scholarship that is meaningful to me.” So in my act of rebellion, I also discovered that making a film was hugely invigorating. Even all the problems experienced were enjoyable to figure out. I also went on a long personal journey in the process, rediscovering my love of writing, creative expression, and art. Areas that had been once relegated to “hobby only” status could now come out and be center stage. And this left me with the new question, “is this what I should’ve been doing all along?”

Scary to think about, now in my 40’s and considering a serious career shift. Did I really want to jump both feet into a whole new arena, or was this my frustration and angst speaking? I could remember all the times in my life prior when I wanted a career in the arts, and was steered away for many reasons I won’t go into here. So was this shift me finally coming home? Or was it a massive attempt to step away from my desperation?

And in all this I lost love for teaching, love for counseling (did I ever love that one to begin with?) and kept most of this largely to myself. I suppose some would call that an error, but I also intuitively knew this sort of thing wouldn’t get solved in a simple conversation or one-word answer. I would just have to let myself float along in this unknown place and see what came out of it.

I realize at this moment I’m writing decidedly past-tense. That suggests I now, at long last, have an answer. Alas, I don’t have a true answer. But I think at this point I have gravitated more towards something that makes some meaning out of this angst.

Flash back to “Fan-ing.” Aside from all the goofy fandom gossips, sightings, endless plot-discussions, and canon-arguing, fan-ing also provides this strange benefit to me: I find stories that resonate with my own. There’s the obvious example: shows with characters or plot lines that I connect with. But the unexpected is when I find other things related to those shows, like stories about actors, directors, or other parts of production, that also resonate with my own experiences. Ok, so I’m not just a fangirl, I’m also a cinophile, and a knowledge junkie, and I have a brain that was made to play trivial pursuit, because I read and watch way too many things and know way too many arguably useless pieces of information. Anyway…

Take for instance, a behind-the-scenes story related to a director who was also an actor who made a pretty controversial film (I’ll leave out names to save myself a little embarrassment, because fan-ing still makes me feel like I’m 12). The director’s back story included feeling doubtful about remaining an actor (thus trying a hand at directing), going way out on a limb when the chance presented itself (the film’s topic), and eventually through that process having moments that eventually lead the director to rediscover what had made acting a passion in the first place. The similar theme is probably obvious. I’ve thought about that story for a long time now, and I have been wishing for my own moments to appear to steer me somewhere…largely because swimming in a bog is still swimming in a bog, and that gets old and tiresome after a while. I’ve had a few glimpses of moments along the way (some of which I wrote about in past posts) but have been waiting for something with a little more permanence.

I’d decided what I needed to do was talk to people who’ve been doing this much longer than I have, to find out if I’m alone in the sort of fears and concerns I experience or is this “normal.” I’ve found it’s not a conversation people like to have. But forward to my recent Narrative conference experience, a place where there really isn’t much that is off-topic or out of bounds. So I talked. And continued to feel somewhat exasperated.

And eventually I started thinking, “well, that didn’t really work,” until one conversation, one where I wasn’t really trying to talk about this sort of thing, but somehow stumbled into this territory and my new Iranian-Australian friend presented me with a very innocent question. I don’t even think he realized the innocence of his question, and maybe that’s what made it stand out. It was a simple, “if your inspiration for the film comes from teaching, and you want to make more films, then…” and I don’t remember what followed because I was smiling at the question and at myself, because it was a very pleasant “DUH” moment. I hadn’t ever tied those ideas together before, at least not in that way, and suddenly I had myself a moment.

Like I said, it’s not an “answer”…but it is a moment. Three cheers for fan-ing and my career-counseling friend.