In Bill Murray’s classic flic Groundhog Day, he plays a weatherman who is doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he gets it right. Does that sound familiar to anyone? For me, even though this movie came out 20+ years ago, it is a pure case of art imitating life. Here’s why: I finished my undergrad in 2001 when I was 23 years old (for those of you doing the math it took me 5 years to finish college, not high school, jerks). I was ambitious as they come but more naïve than anything. I assumed that once you step out with that thick, embossed and valuable piece of paper the world is your oyster. Well, maybe for some, not so much for me. I bounced around from job to job, never really finding anything that appealed to me, stuck or had the makings of the early stages of a career. It might be an understatement to say I didn’t find much satisfaction in my “career” (if you could call it that) for several years. Alexander Pope’s “Hope Springs Eternal” was always in the back of my mind (subconsciously), as I thought the perfect job, and therefore the perfect life, was just around the corner. I guess instead of Pope I should have been subliminally citing Murphy’s Law instead: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” It just never seemed to stick. And before you get all Scott Walker on me, I knew/know I bared the onus for why that was. Perhaps motivation was just as much a key player. I’ve often joked that I have high low-motivation (I think Mitch Hedberg would have appreciated that line). But that’s not actually entirely true. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated when your best option is breaking down boxes at a liquor store (and getting fired on your day off – Ice Cube in Friday).
I guess it would be safe to say I was a wandering knucklehead with great aspirations but no plans on how to get there. I was an idealist without a cause. I was betting on luck when luck had never graced my path. I was gambling on house money; poor house money. So what does every sheltered, entitled white American child of good stock do when their milk keeps turning sour? They go to graduate school (Take One)! I thought perhaps a change of focus would help. What were my other interests and how could I parlay them into a career? Once that had been sorted out I moved East to give school another chance. Now, I was no prize fighter in the classroom as an undergrad. Far from it. I imagine before it was all said and done in my time as an undergrad that when most professors saw me walk into their classrooms, I was dismissed as value-subtracted. C’s get degrees, so they said. I proved that hypothesis to be true as the most average of undergrads. It got a little better towards the end of my run when I figured out that you had to do a little more than just show up, but there was no “with honors” on my diploma. If Summa Cum Laude means “with very great honor,” then mine should have read Infimis Laude – “with lowest honors.” That would be an insult to honors, though…
Somehow I learned the value of education as a master’s student. Not sure how that happened. Maybe it was because I was fast approaching 30 and I figured I needed to get my act together so I could at least feign that I was moving towards the righteous path. Maybe it’s because I simply awoke to how important it is to every aspect of life, whether it be in a formal classroom or simply out in the world. The problem was that the program I chose sort of lacked specific interest for me as my time wore on. I stuck through it, and did very well, but upon graduation I had decided against following its curriculum for my future. I in fact went right back to the wandering ways of my past. Groundhog Day. I jumped around for a few years (again) doing things that I didn’t find especially rewarding and certainly shy of feeling complete. It is funny how the measure of a man (or woman) in our society comes down to their job. It is often one of the first questions we ask someone when we meet them, but why? Why is what someone does for work so important to us understanding them? Couldn’t the most interesting person in the world be a dishwasher and the biggest jerk be a heart surgeon? I guess it is just a formality we’ve set as default that also allows us an easy topic to guide conversation. After all, we’re all lost beings trying to fit in. If you ask someone about what they do, maybe that is the easiest angle to making connections (that is a whole other rant).
Perhaps the most important thing I took away from my MS program was that love of education. Inquiry, investigation, thought and challenging ideas were laid out for me and I embraced them all. I had always viewed my master’s program as the means to the end. Well, the ends it served up (immediately following, anyways) were not very nourishing, but the means were appetizer aplenty. A little seed was planted in my brain that maybe this was my calling: education. Maybe I was meant to walk the halls of the ivory towers (or more likely the concrete pillars of some small state school) and profess; to speak about experiences and how they affect our personal trajectory, how they fit in our lives, and how we apply what we know to our futures. Maybe indeed. That path was not as direct, because as I mentioned, I floated around for a few more years, trying to let it gel, trying to make it work, trying to figure out where to go. But eventually I did. Figure it out. Go.
Round three of college (Graduate School, Take Two): the PhD program. Third time’s a charm? Let’s hope so. Aging and advanced education offer many of the same things, one of them is becoming a grounded individual. Those lofty ideals and expectations of 20 years old aren’t so shiny when you’re fast approaching 35. You’re more guarded of yourself, yet you couch yourself in the replication and classics of the field you pursue. You want to make a change, “add something to the literature” to speak in the terms of the academic. But you must be humble in your path to (trying to) do so. As I entered the next 4-year chapter of my life I nestled into the comfort of having a mission, a meager stipend and the million little steps that it would take to reach my goal. For the moment I was at least productive with an objective to be reached. A recognition that all of those wrong turns, stumbles and positions lacking fulfillment may have been necessary for me to get to where I was.
I wouldn’t say the 4 years flew by, but upon reflection it did seem to be over in a flash. Though I imagine many people would be quick to remind me that I spoke at times about the sluggish life of east-central Texas more than once. But as many times as I may have complained about it, overall I was at least content. I had a purpose, after all. And even though I just said that advanced education warrants a personal grounding, it also brings with it a certain pride and expectations for the newly minted potential. You set yourself up to try to make an impact. To fight the good fight. Well, as the best fighters know, oftentimes you get knocked down too. Now I just wonder how far into that standing eight-count I am.
What was supposed to happen was that I got an academic posting as an assistant professor. All the planning and expectations of my life went in to that supposed to; a little too much, in fact. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, so goes the saying. And now I know why. Fourteen years after finishing my undergrad I’m in the exact same position. Groundhog Day. I now search for something to fill my time and bank account. Hope does still spring eternal with me, and I have no idea why, so I look to the future and next year. But for the time-being, I try to find something to make this year look value-added, not just one that sees a boat unanchored and drifting away from port.
In the end Bill Murray got it right. But it took a change of attitude and acceptance of the situation. Also a healthy dose of eye-opening to the world around him. So as the long summer days fade into fall, the reminder of winter is just around the corner. When February rears its frosty head will that little “rat” see more winters of wandering for me, or will there be spring for a new life?
Lost in Translation