Sunday, January 29, 2012

You May Ask Yourself, "How Did I Get Here?"

Yesterday while I was walking my willful mutt of a dog down the gritty streets of the Ironbound with an alluring aroma of marinated meat wafting into my nostrils from the many Brazilian bbq joints, I suddenly realized quite clearly that my life had become something that I never would have anticipated even five years ago.  In grad school my ambitions had never been all that grandiose.  I hoped to find a job at a university in a homey college town in the Midwest much like the one where I was living at the time.  It didn't have to be a research school or a prestigious liberal arts college, just a comfortable place where I could teach my classes and write a couple of well-received books advancing the field of nineteenth-century German history.  At that point in my life I was single, and had developed the kind of habits one needs to be alone.  In fact, in January of 2007 while in my first year as a "visiting assistant professor" in west Michigan, I adopted a cat to be my domestic companion.  Back then I still hadn't totally overcome my childhood fear of dogs, and I would have been incredulous then to know that five years later I would have a dog of my own whose feces I would gladly pick up off of the streets of New Jersey, a place I'd been to over a decade before and hadn't liked one bit.

Today I am no longer in the Midwest, no longer in academia, and no longer single.  It all started in late January of 2007, just two weeks after my cat moved in.  I flew out to Newark to see someone I had met the summer before, and once the weekend was over, I left Newark exhilarated and intoxicated by love.  A year and a half later I did get the vaunted tenure track job, but it and the town it was located in turned out to be a nightmare.  I gave up the academic dream to take the same job my mother has had for three decades: a high school teacher.  In former times I would have felt embarassed and humiliated by failing to raise myself above the station I was born into, even after a decade of higher education.  Now I don't mind so much, since I live in a neighborhood I love, work for a great employer, and go to bed each night with the love of my life.

On the winding road of life, I must say that experience has taught me a thing or two.  Lots of things that we think are important really aren't worth all that much.  I've learned that it's much better to teach at a great high school than at a shitty university.  I've learned that I can't be happy living just anywhere, and that where one lives really makes a difference in the daily quality of life.  I've seen plenty of "successful" people who might be respected for their career accomplishments, but who are terrible parents or just downright unpleasant.  I have been reminded that we all have but one life to live, and that life can be snuffed out unexpectedly.  There's no point spending those precious days making oneself miserable chasing after things that glitter brightly but that aren't all that important.

Above all, I've learned that, as a friend of mine likes to say, "life is about choices and compromises."  Yes, I wanted to be able to have my current domestic bliss, live in a great place, and further my academic career.  I soon realized that in life, you can't have it all.  But if you can have a trusty dog, live in a colorful neighborhood with plenty of bakeries, go to work each day doing something that matters, and share your life with the one you love, you ought to consider yourself pretty damn lucky.  Eight months after leaving solitary life of the scholar behind for good, I can't say I have any regrets.