Last week I learned Craig had taken his own life. Craig was a good friend of mine all through childhood in Colorado. We climbed mountains together, descended the Arkansas River in canoes and it pains me to think that the last time I spoke with him was twenty years ago. When I moved away to college I lost touch with Craig. I lost touch with most of my friends. I can count the ones I still have addresses for on one hand– and that includes my younger sister. For the past twenty years I have kept up with Craig’s life mostly through periodic updates from my mother. I know Craig spent time in Seattle, lived on a houseboat in the bay, and most recently had a home in Montana. He never married.
The news of Craig’s suicide has prompted me to think more directly about my life. The decisions I have made. The consequences of those decisions. I avoid thinking about these ideas in terms of remorse or nostalgia or melancholy. I think doing so lays an easy emotional trap. When I do that what I end up creating is a lonely retrospective of failure. If only I had done that instead, everything would be so much better. I see no value in that sort of self-evaluation. I’m no longer interested in answering the question: What went wrong? I am interested in an honest, authentic appraisal of how I got here and what that says about me.
I count two major points in my life when I underwent a radical shift. I described it to Whirl Friday as the critical transformations, the points in my life when I reinvented myself. I picked these points because they seemed to be watershed events where I jettisoned almost all of my previous relationships and started over. The first was shortly after I moved away to college. I stopped seeing, calling or corresponding with my high school friends. When I left the country to study overseas I felt like a unfettered vagabond. I went months without talking to my parents or my sister. I felt completely new. I loved it.
I repeated this when I left graduate school although with a different emotional tone. I had kept in contact with a number of college friends when I moved to Chicago. But when I stopped pursuing a career in academia that all changed. Those friends I had made in and around the University swiftly drifted out of my life. Or I pushed them. Angry and disappointed I stormed away from anyone and anything that reminded me of my time there.
My twentieth high school reunion was this past summer. I did not attend although I assisted with some of the coordination, disseminating information to people from my graduating class. Names appeared in my email that I had not thought about at all since that graduation day twenty years ago. I know lots of people remain close to the friends they make in childhood. Why didn’t I?
Not without a bit of irony I mention that Whirl and I met up with two of her friends from her time in graduate school for dim sum on Sunday. Mark and Jeff are both teaching college. Mark is working on his doctoral dissertation. We got to talking about what teaching was like, what sorts of challenges professors faced. And the question came up as to what we thought our careers might be if they were not what they are today.
As I said, I think it is easy to fall into turning the pedestrian complaints of any job into empty, maudlin wishes of regret. If only. If only. Financial volatility, insecurity, increasing obligations– a pager that won’t stop going off in the middle of the night. Confronted with these complaints I think it is easy to ask yourself: Why did I ever make that one decision? And in so asking the question we trap ourselves. Because the fact are that I did make that decision, or by avoiding a decision had one made for me. Either way, the results are the same. And it is the results I have to contend with.
Still, I enjoy the task of thinking about alternate timelines. What else might have happened. For me, the most interesting moment I tinker with seems to lie right between the two other transformational moments: my decision to become a professor. For me that decision led to the biggest academic failures of my life and long years of directionless solitude. Life’s practical needs urged me to find something else to do that was interesting and I turned a moment of opportunity into a career I could not have foreseen.
But what if? Just, what if? What if I had never made that decision to go to graduate school?
What would I be like?