Tag Archives: career

Overcoming Doubt and Listening to Abbey (Not the Road)

It’s hard to imagine having a mid/early/late life crisis here. In a place where on any given morning the ocean turns sapphire, the forest yields every shade of green imaginable, and Orca’s call in the dead of night. But it happens. We’re reminded that our unconventional life is a societal outlier. 27-year old’s are supposed to have reliable mailing addresses. Maybe a mortgage and a baby room. Quaint, bustling, hard working, picturesque. It’s the American dream, the American way. At least it was until it wasn’t.

But this doesn’t stop us from considering that maybe we are doing this all wrong.  Seeds of doubt can germinate and grow quickly if we allow them to. Swimming upstream can be tiring. A writer? Who reads anymore? What makes you think that what flows from your mind and through your fingers will capture a world that would rather scroll Facebook than turn pages? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t you shelve the dream, move on, get a real job.

As an uninspiring “mentor” from my church going high school days told me, “you can’t ride the skateboard forever.” He admonished when I told him what I was doing with my life. “Have you ever seen a 60-year old on a skateboard? You’d think something was wrong with him.” Every now and than his voice gets in my head. My fingers tremble, my words seem trite, uninspiring. I pour another cup of coffee, sit with the Harlequins in the cove, take a deep breath, refocus.

Our fear and self doubt manifests itself in different ways. I bang my head against the writer’s block, Brittney scrolls through house plans. She looks at property, checks the bank account, shakes her head, and refreshes the Real Estate page. We have a target now, a landing strip. Gustavus, Alaska. 400 people, 400 moose, one life changing national park. Now if we could stop flying long enough to land. A body in motion stays in motion, one at rest stays at rest. After five years together, we’re still in motion. New Zealand, Juneau, Gustavus, Seattle, British Columbia. I love it. I’ve pushed past my fear, my self doubt, at least for now. Be a writer or starve to death trying. Brittney says she’s ready for the house. My little tumbleweed wants roots. I can’t blame her. Gustavus fits us as good as we do each other. A warm sweater on a crisp fall day.  I love sweaters, I’m wearing one right now. But at some point in the next hour I’ll want to take it off. I’m not ready to wear it forever.

I could have it all right now. The house, the mortgage, the lawn in need of trimming. But I wandered off that road a long time ago.

“Petroleum is Alaska’s present and future.” I was reminded throughout high school. The gateway to, if not fame, certainly fortune. On the backs of industrial giants, we will ride Alaska into an age of wealth and opportunity that we can only imagine. We’ll dig the spurs in deep, push her into a gallop. For nothing should stand in the way of growth, monetary opportunity. All this, I was told, could be mine.

“If you want to make money, live a comfortable existence, petroleum engineering is your best choice.” Grab a straw, stick it in the ground, suck that sweet nectar until it’s empty. Life, liberty, oil subsidies, and the pursuit of happiness.

 What if I don’t want a comfortable existence?

No one talked about what those that wanted to sit on the rocks and count Orca’s should do. Or if you loved the philosophy of fitting everything into one rusting Pathfinder that you prayed would start.  If it doesn’t fit? Give it away. You don’t need it. There was one definition of success, and it could be found in your bank statement.

Now? Oil is going for under $2 a gallon. The state is bankrupt, people panicking. The kids that grabbed their straws are realizing the glass is emptying fast. If the money disappears will they still enjoy what they do? I sincerely hope so. Will the industry rebound? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Ask British Petroleum, Shell, or a state senator and they’ll say it has to. Alaska needs it, can’t live without it. The voice of the addict. Without oil, Alaska will be like Maine. A nice place to live but not a great place to make money.

As my friend (and writer) Kim Heacox says, “what’s wrong with that?”

I hold Brittney’s hand, squeeze it softly, pull the computer away from her. I know that look, know that fear, understand that desire to have a place to call home. She wants to build an apothecary, bring natural healing to Gustavus. She wants open mic nights, a vegetable garden, the slow bike race on the fourth of July. But she also wants Hanson Island, the open road, the freedom that we enjoy that we’re debt free. She admits she’s not ready to give that up yet. Maybe in a year or two, or three, or thirty. I want all those things too. But we can’t have both. Maybe if we invest those Permanent Fund checks our bankrupted state keeps giving us we can…

Not everyone is meant to live like this. That’s fine. That’s a relief. There aren’t enough Hanson Islands  or Gustavuses to go around. I ferried and drove to Orca Lab on the miracle of petroleum pulled from the ground and refined in a factory that pushes more carbon into the air than the globe has seen in millennia. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Edward Abbey said the job of the freelance writer was to criticize and inspect the country in which he lived. Consider me his disciple, just trying to do what he expected. Good old Abbey. Doing what he loved until the very end. His buddies snuck him out of his death bed in the hospital he hated more than roads through national parks and let him say goodbye in the desert.

They inscribed on his tombstone: Edward Abbey. No comment. I like that.

Where do I want to say goodbye? Gustavus or Hanson Island? I can’t decide. Mercifully I don’t have to, and God willing, I won’t have to for a long time. We’ll see how far our skateboard carries us.

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The Life I Never Wanted

The email was terse, to the point, and completely unhelpful. NOAA, after offering me a job upon my graduation from college in three weeks, was withdrawing their offer, citing a lack of funding. Fear courses through my blood, my knees weak, I reread the email, sure that I’d missed something. I hadn’t. It has to be one of the worst responses ever to the question, “when’s my first day?” I grab the phone and call the ladies office that I was, in theory working for. As the phone rang and rang I mentally calculated the deposit on the apartment I’d just put down and my bank account with a number that Bob Cratchit would be embarrassed by. For the next two days I wrote emails and left messages at the office, trying to get someone, anyone to return one, to explain what had happened, to give me any direction. I’m still waiting.

Things were going so well too, I’d gone to college, met the girl I’d marry, and had the, “get a job” step all figured out. I was going to graduate and work for NOAA, at least to start, make some money and than go to grad school. Well on my way to a nice respectable, safe career. My job, measuring the bioenergetics of herring. I’d even talked myself into being excited about it. Studying whales, well, it’d been a nice dream, but it was time to be realistic I told myself. Time to grow up. There can only be so many Paul Spongs and Alex Mortons in the world.

After three days of blind panic my heart rate slowly returned to normal, I began to think rationally again and deleted all those terrible emails I’d written but thankfully never sent. Life was going to take a detour, just a small one I told myself. I needed work, and I told myself not to be picky, just find something to keep a roof over your head. And in that process I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, no job is beneath you, and just because you’ve never thought about doing it, or don’t think you can, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

I applied everywhere, restaurants, pizza delivery, tourism, I even swallowed what pride I had left and dropped an application off at Fred Meyer, the same place I’d worked after my freshman year of college. I felt like I was being pulled backwards. What happened next you could call God, or the universe, or karma, or just boring old luck. I landed the job I think I always wanted, was meant to have, I just couldn’t admit. I was going to be a whale watch guide.

Looking back it seems so obvious, such a natural route for life to take. But I was pulled into the American obsession of careers and security, my life filling up with, “had tos.” I had to have a year long job, I had to start saving money, I had to buy a house, I had to have a job with health insurance, all these things I had to have. And I’d bought it, swallowed the sales pitch, and had believed it my whole life. And I still did even after landing the job that paid me to watch orcas breach and humpbacks bubblenet. My destiny, I told myself still lay in herring bioenergetics. My clients encouraged such thoughts, a nice young man such as myself needed a real job eventually, needed to make something of himself. This whale watching thing is ok, just for right now.

So two months later, when three positions opened up at NOAA, I shined up my resume, and marched back into that building with the air of a conquering hero, ready to fulfill my destiny. A month later I’d heard nothing and finally picked up the phone, this time, someone returned my call. 18 people had applied for the three positions. Positions that required only an undergraduates degree in marine biology. Ten of the applicants had masters, four more had doctorates. I’d be shocked if my resume got a second look. I hung up the phone and headed for work, there were still whales to watch after all. What, I wondered, did the applicants look like for non entry level jobs? Did I really want to go to school for at least six more years so that I could find out the number of joules in a herring? To that moment I had never considered another possibility, never fathomed being anything besides a, “scientist.”

But by the time I’d pulled into the parking garage and dug out my rain jacket I’d decided; it wasn’t the life I wanted. I could do without the lab coats because I new, deep down, I couldn’t possibly be happy with one on. In five minutes there’d be twenty cruise ship passengers, looking up at me, expecting the answers to all of their Alaska questions, and I couldn’t even answer everyone’s first personal question, what’re going to do with your life?