Wednesday, December 06, 2006

 

In Which It Is the Season...

You know how most people measure the year in the four seasons?

Well, for some reason, I have five: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Fucking Big Changes.

I'm not sure why, but FBC has always come between fall and winter for me, and like all seasons, it has its mild years and its severe ones. The jury's still out on what kind of season this one will turn out to be.

But I'm pretty sure it's the cause of the doldrums I'm finding myself in lately. I was thinking it was merely job stress or holiday angst or a general malaise from not feeling so hot. Then it dawned on me that I'm probably in another season of Fucking Big Changes.

Most people fall into one of two camps: they either really like change or really hate it. I'm on the fence. In principle, I like change. I bore so easily, I sort of have to like change. Where I have a problem during the season of Fucking Big Changes is when I start to get overwhelmed by the changes I can't control. There have been a lot of changes at work, for example, and I predict there will be an exodus of staff in the next few months, not so much from layoffs or firings as from people just deciding they're not happy with the change in management and figuring it's time to leave. I have no plans to be one of these people, you understand, but the changes at work have been profound and ongoing and when they happen all around you, affecting you without being controlled by you, well, it's stressful.

But I have to be careful when I cope with change I can't control, because my typical reaction is to do something stupid, under the guise of making a conscious choice of my own. It's a juvenile form of acting out, and I wish I wasn't wired this way, but some times I just can't help myself.

For instance, some years back, just after I graduated from college, I spent months fruitlessly trying to find a job in magazines. Wasn't to be had. At the time, I blamed myself, told myself I must not have wanted it badly enough. But with some perspective now, I can safely let my 21-year-old self off the hook: You did your best, kid. But that was just one change you couldn't control. The economy was bad, the industry was suffering and there was nothing you could do about it.

Well, except to react by doing something stupid.

For starters, I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, Gretchen. I had no real reason to break up with her, to be perfectly honest. She was a sweet, loving, wonderfully attentive woman who for some inexplicable reason was under the impression that I was the cat's pajamas. But she also wanted us to find a place together and begin a journey that would ultimately lead to marriage. That was one journey I wasn't even packed for, let along ready to take, so it was enough of a pretext to break up.

And while that most definitely was a change I could control, it wasn't so much one change as a whole fricking domino-field of change. Breaking up with her meant I could no longer live in her parents' house (where I was staying because they lived in Connecticut, close to New York City, and therefore the ideal place from which to launch my fruitless job search. Having one's girlfriend under the same roof didn't hurt--kind of like utilities included, you might say. But if you break up, of course, that all goes to hell in a handbasket). Breaking up with her meant I was going to have to give up my job at the local temp agency, where I was making the princely sum of 15 bucks an hour. Breaking up with her meant I was about to embark on a two-year long stint of involuntary celibacy.

But even worse than that, breaking up with her meant I was going to have to move back to New Hampshire.

So within 24 hours I was packed up in my old Chevy and driving north through a steady freezing drizzle. With each passing mile, the enormity of what I had just done was beginning to dawn on me. Yes, I had made a conscious choice for change and, I tried to tell myself that on the whole, it was a good one. Gretchen and I had not just graduated from college but from each other, we just couldn't quite bring ourselves to admit it at the time. That wasn't the issue. The issue--the enormous thing that was sinking in--was this: I was doing something I had sworn I would never do once I got out of college. I was moving back in with my parents. Worse, I was moving back in with my brother.

At the time, my parents were renting a tiny two-bedroom house that looked like nothing so much as an A-frame cut in half—and someone had stolen the other half. The downstairs was one great room dominated by a kitchen area and a woodstove that my dad kept stoked round the clock, which may have saved us a bundle on heating bills, but which also turned the house into a sweat lodge.

And nowhere was this effect more profound than upstairs, where there was an open loft, half of which had been walled off to make the second bedroom, a tiny little cell under the eaves that just fit a desk and the two twin beds my brother and I had slept in during childhood. I remember well my first miserable night in that stifling space, sweat streaming off me even though it was freezing outside. My brother was five feet from me, snoring with a ferocity that made me wonder if he was in some somnambulant competition to be the Sleep Apnea Poster Boy.

That was one of the first times I seriously thought about the nature of change and whether or not I was the kind of person who enjoyed it. I'd sure made quite a bunch just lately, but somehow they didn't seem to be very good ones, or I wouldn't have ended up here, of all places.

And, as I would soon find out, the changes were only beginning.

When I got up the next morning, I could hear Mayflower, our old but spry terrier, barking outside. My mom usually let them out as she left for work and one of the dogs would always bark to be let back in, but this bark was different. It sounded urgent. Something was wrong.

When I got outside, I saw why May was barking. For one thing, it was pretty cold. Up north, the drizzle had turned to full-blown snow and the dogs were out in about four inches of it. May was hopping around in the snow and wagged her tail to see me, but she was still agitated. And the reason was Pilgrim.

Our old beagle was about 12 or 13 by then and in her doggy dotage, she had grown increasingly lame, the result of injuries sustained in her puppyhood, when she was grazed by a car. Even though she limped most days, she could still get around. But this morning, out there in the snow, she wasn't moving. She was just laying in the snow, looking up at me and trembling.

I got her inside and put her by the fire. But later, once she'd warmed up, it was clear that her walking days were done. Every time she tried to get up, her whole back end seemed to give out and she'd lay back down with a kind of resigned look.

Oh God, please don't tell me that on top of everything I'm going to have to put my old dog to sleep, I thought. It just didn't seem fair that one should fail so abysmally to get work in one's chosen field, have to move back in with one's folks and, on his very first morning at home be faced with the idea that he might have to kill his dog.

But of course, that's exactly what happened.

The vet had warned us that Pilgrim was getting older and that if her hips gave out (which it turned out they had) there wasn't a veterinary surgeon in the world who would try to fix them (nor could we have afforded it in any case, even with all the money Dad was saving by keeping the wood stove stoked). So I had to drive her over to the vet's and held her old grizzled body while they gave her The Shot. The moment was over in a blink, but its effects were long-lasting. I drove back home with her body in the trunk, tears streamed down my face, not just for my beloved dog, but for me too. There were just too many changes going on, and all of them--even the ones I had made--seemed to be pointing me towards some terminal end, some directions I didn't want to be heading.

So naturally, I decided to cope with it by making yet another change. That day I decided it was time to stop looking jobs that weren't to be had and start looking at going back to school.

I had tried to get into grad school before. In my senior year of college, I had sent out a battery of applications to assorted schools, hoping to pursue an advanced degree in English, thinking for some reason that I might be qualified to study or even teach English and literature and composition. Unfortunately, none of the schools I applied to agreed with me. Every single one of them declined to invite me to come study with them. I hadn't been so comprehensively rejected since high school, when I'd asked five different girls to the prom and they all turned me down.

This time, though, I decided I was going to target my efforts at one program, a school that offered a master's program focused very specifically on magazines. My boss at my summer internship had told me about it, but I had pushed it to the side of my mind. Among journalists at the time, advanced degrees were the object of scorn and derision--may still be, for all I know. Even my academic advisor had wondered why I wanted to waste my time and money on another year or more of school when I could be out earning practical experience, not to mention a steady paycheck. Problem was, I wasn't even earning that.

So the next day, I called up the school and requested all the application materials I needed. There was a long pause on the phone, then the person I was speaking to informed me that even though it was December, the application deadline for the next fall semester was fast approaching--less than two weeks away, in fact--and in those pre-Internet days, she frankly doubted whether I would have time to gather and send in all the materials I needed for my application, which included three letters of recommendation and a copy of my GRE scores. I thought I could get the letters quickly enough, but back then it took a couple of weeks for the Educational Testing Service to process a request for a copy of my GREs to be sent to the school of my choice.

Fortunately, the woman in the admissions office took pity on me and told me that I could include a photocopy of my GRE results, with a note that the official copy would be coming from ETS shortly. That way I could still technically meet the application deadline, even if my GRE scores were late. To expedite things, she also FEDEXed me the application. I never got her name, but I owe her a lot.

I spent the rest of the day calling up old professors and tracking down my manager at the internship, the one who first told me about the graduate program. Everyone agreed to write letters for me as soon as possible, and I would end up having the letters I needed within the week.

The only problem was those damn GRE scores. I couldn't find my copy of them anywhere. And I searched the house twice.

Eventually, it dawned on me that there was only one place the scores could be: In among my boxes of papers from school. Which were in storage. Up on the hill in an old shed my dad had built. Across the lake on the other side of town.

I suppose I could have--should have--waited. There wasn't any particular reason for me to get the scores right there, that afternoon. But I was pretty fired up by the idea of the change I was about to make and I felt an undeniable sense of urgency. So I grabbed my keys and my coat and trotted out the door.

Right into the teeth of a good old New England Nor'easter...

Comments:
Aahh...the college on the lake. I do miss the views those ivy-covered buildings provided.

Hope life slows down enough so you can enjoy all your little blessings this holiday!
 
Ah yes, the season of "Fucking Big Changes." Mine tends to manifest most strongly every 2 yrs 9 months... history tells me that's when I get restless and start doing things on whim. It's only a few months away- argh.

I hope your FBC goes well (smoothly?) this year. I know how stressful it can be when your work environment gets overhauled from the top.
 
I think this spring was my time of Really Big Changes. At least, I hope it was. Although I may move apartments when my lease is up here, at least it will be in the same town.

I remember my first Nor'easter very well! Even though I only lived in NH for a bit over a year, I lived through several of them. I spent that first one INSIDE as much as possible. Also, New Hampshire was the first place I ever encountered freezing rain, right after that first Nor'easter. Lovely stuff, that.
 
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