Saturday, May 28, 2016

High School Graduation and Introspection. A Colonel Nickerson moment.

 Me, at the fish hatchery, when I was probably about three or four, placing this photograph in 1966 or 1967.  My father to my right.  He'd live to see me graduate from law school and start practice, but not much longer htan that.
I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I've been in the service. 28 years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than 10 months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy, but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight... tonight!
Colonel Nickerson, musing to Colonel Saito, on the bridge, in the film Bridge On The River Kwai.

I've  been having a lot of moments like Colonel Nickerson recently, although thankfully I'm not a Prisoner of War in Burma during World War Two (I doubt I'd be afflicted with introspection in that situation).  No, it's not my services as an officer in the British Army in the waning days of the British Empire that's causing me introspection, but rather high school graduation.

Not mine.  Well, maybe mine. But more than anything, brought to mind by the graduation of my son.

I graduated from the same high school in 1981.  For that matter, my father graduated from the same high school in 1947.  He didn't seem similarly afflicted, but  then he kept a lot of his feelings to things to himself.  I'm not sure I do as well with that, and I do think, to some extent, that can be a virtue.  Anyhow, if he harbored introspective thoughts dating back to that time, when I graduated 34 years after he did, he didn't show it.  I'm not sure that I am as my son graduates 35 years after I did.  Hard to believe that much time has passed.  But it has.

And its the passing of that time and the opening of options that causes me to ponder.  Like Colonel Nickerson, the options aren't opening up for me, but for a younger generation.  I worry about them.

I worry in part because the country seems to be on such a set of railroad tracks as to its general direction that it concerns me.  While it makes me sound like somebody "feeling the Bern" I feel the country has gone badly economically off track.  And while it makes me also sound like somebody listening to Trump, or maybe the more radical elements of the Green Party, I also worry about a nation that that seems to have concluded that its ability to exploit the resources of the country is unlimited, and its ability to absorb a human population has no limits. When I read, as I recently did, that Denver plans on building 10,000 homes this year, I wonder why they aren't crying in agony on the process of making the hideous blight of prairie a titanic hideous blight of the prairie.  I guess I'm some sort of aboriginal at heart and I don't see things going in a direction that has very many, or maybe any, positives right now.

But I worry about that, or rather I've been pondering that, in the context of what's noted above.

I graduated from the University of Wyoming's College of Law in 1990.  I've worked as a lawyer ever since that, never having had a break of employment, and all for an employer I started working for in 1989, only eight years after I graduated from high school.  That's not an uncommon lawyer's story, and that's one of the things that perhaps was the most attractive of about a career in the law.  There was always work (much less true for new lawyers now) and a person could find a good job and keep it for their entire careers.  I've been doing this now for twenty six years, almost the same as Nickerson's twenty eight in the film.  I'm not complaining about that.  But in noting what seems to have been a well planned path of early hard work and industry paying off in the form of work (indeed hard work) and stability would be painting a false picture.

And it is odd to think of.

Particularly in a year like this, which has not been a good one for me on a personal level, which has nothing to do with a professional level, unless you stop to think that a person's life is their life, and there really is no such thing as a personal level or a professional level.

My father in the early 1950s, while in the Air Force. This photo was taken in Casper, so it may have been right at the end, or right at the beginning of his service.

 My mother, second from right in light colored dress, with her sisters, in St. Lambert Quebec.  This photo would date from the 1940s.

My father, to whom I was very close, died in 1993.  I don't know that a person ever really gets over the death of a parent they were close to.  He was only 62 years old at the time. For years I'd mentally mark things I meant to tell him next time I saw him, but then of course rapidly recall that he was not here to talk to. My  mother died several weeks ago, but she'd been dying all year long.  Being very busy professionally and with two kids in high school, 2016 has been a blur.  That's probably why there are so many blog posts this year.  When I'm stressed, I tend to write.  My mother and I were not as close as my father and I were for complicated reason that had a lot to do with her long term health.  The past seven years she was not able to live at home and its been a huge burden in all sorts of ways, including psychologically, quite frankly.  Now that she's gone, in some odd way, the healthy active mother I recall from my youth, really all the way back prior to my being in high school, has sort of returned.  I'm glad of that.  By the same token, her memory now visits me more it seems than it did when she was in the final long years of her decline.  Present stress, as it were, has yielded to past recollections.

But, in the context of this year, past recollections also turn to present introspection.

I can't, in the present context, help but looking back to 1980-81 when I was a senior in high school getting ready to graduate.

At that time, I only had sort of dim general ideas about what I might "want to do" for a living. Since then, I've become so cynical about this topic that the "want to do" aspect of it strikes me as a bit of an illusion. I know some people doing what they want to do, but most careers are what people do because that's what they can do, their lives have evolved to do, they have been placed to do, or that they end up doing.  Do the many cubicle workers in big offices do that because they want to?  I doubt it.  Does that mean that people who have ended up where they are dislike it?  No, that certainly isn't necessarily the case either.  In looking at the lawyers I know, I know a few who always wanted to be lawyers and love it, but I also know some that have had long happy careers that ended up there the way I did, life took one turn, and then another, and then another.  I suspect that latter path is more common.  Or perhaps it was more common, with that being not so much the case now. In any event, those turns, the "and then another, and then another" are precarious.

But when you are a senior in high school you get a lot of questions, nearly endless questions, about what you want to do or are going to do.

Looking back, I recall some of the kids I knew then having pretty distinct ideas about what they wanted to do. To the extent that I know what they are doing now, only a couple of them really had those ideas pan out.  That's pretty common, and its part of the angst of being a parent and part of the angst of being that age.  One of my friends wanted to become a dentist, but became a very successful electrician. Another started off an engineer, changed several times, and then dropped out, but became a successful businessman.  One who always wanted to be a geologist ended up being a teacher.  Of my undergraduate geology colleagues only one, that I know of, ended up employed in the field as a career. Of the graduate students I knew, and kept up with, all ended up successful, but only one actually ended up in geology.  One went on to own a business that is closely related to geology, two ended up lawyers in addition to me.  This take odd turns, or sure can.

An added angst about being a parent is that as a parent you are well aware that doors really start slamming shut for people right about this age.  There's a really common set of slop dished out at that age that things will work out, that you have time, etc.  In truth, every decision you start making at that age starts to have real ramifications and long term impacts.  A decision not to go to the University of Wyoming in 1981 probably saved me from being a university drop out, in my view, about a year later.  Casper College, the local, and excellent, community college, was truly a better path for me.  That decision, however, lead to an immediate decision to enlist in the National Guard, as I'd planned on taking Army ROTC at UW, as I was still interested, although increasingly less so, in a possible military career.  By the time I got down to UW two years later that interest had passed, although not because I didn't like being in the Guard, I did.  I just realized that wasn't a path I wanted to take.  Having said that, having joined in the Guard was one of the very best moves post high school I ever made, and I made it weeks after my high school graduation.  A decision not to take any more math in high school than I had to (which wasn't much, at that time) ended up being a painful decision in me in college as I essentially had to take two full years of high school algebra and geometry in one semester, which I didn't enjoy.  Even though I took up through Calculus II in university, and a semester of physics, I've felt mathematically impaired ever since.

It was a bit of a suggestion from my mother that lead me to major in Geology.  I'd been interested in majoring in Wildlife Management, but a single comment from my father about the difficulty in finding a job in that field deterred me.  Geology, due to the time period I took it, was the same way by the time I graduated.  At that time, in 1986, I applied for and was admitted to Geology grad school and law school.  Law school was an idea that just vaguely occurred to me because of a suggestion by Jon Brady, a Casper College history teacher who had a law degree, that I had an analytical mind and should consider law school, maybe.  I'm sure he didn't know what my actual major was.  I've since learned that there's one other lawyer here in town that ended up a lawyer due to a suggestion from Mr. Brady.

I never considered any other four year school other than UW, even though my mother suggested it.  So here one thing happened after another, in a stumbling fashion, and I ended up where I ended up.  In 1981 when I graduated, I had no intention or concept of being a lawyer.  In my first two years of college I repeatedly flirted with dropping out, and probably only because I was living at home, and more particularly living at home with my father, kept me from doing that.  He never said I had to stay in school, but he did absorb my complaints and didn't feed into them, and so I kept on.  By the time I was in UW all thought of dropping out had passed and I made it through a very tough field of study, only to graduate to unemployment.  Law school was a breeze compared to my geology undergraduate (and I've never since understood why anyone thinks law school, any law school, is tough.  It isn't).  Coming back to Casper I re-met the girl who would become my spouse.  Fate, happenstance, synchronicity?  Who knows.

The same is true, I'd note, for my parents.  My father's father died when he was just out of high school.  It was my grandmother who caused my father to go on in school, not my father.  He was working at the Post Office at the time and would have stayed there.  My mother, who later graduated from Casper College, was pulled out of school, during the Great Depression, to work by her mother.  Reaching her 20s, she went to Western Canada against the wishes of her mother, which took iron grit on her part.  Who would see those twists and turns coming?

What I do know is that things are dicier than they seem.  And quicker.  A decision to "take a year off" often becomes a decision to settle for jobs that are low paying, forever.  Going to work in a high paying manual labor job at 18 often turns into unemployment and unemployable by 38.  A hitch in the Marine Corps at 18 tends to turn into a default decision never to go to school that's effectively made by 24.  Minor bad decisions, or even slight bad turns, turn out to be huge life altering mistakes in more than a few instances.  Keeping on keeping on becomes an imperative after high school, in those first few years, but the culture somewhat tends to camouflage that.

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