Monday, February 15, 2016

Roads not taken

Although I'm a hopeless looker-backward and easily prone to nostalgia, I'm not much one for regret. Sure, I might regret that I said X or Y and hurt someone's feeling--I do regret that kind of thing, rather often--but I've never regretted a life choice and rarely even dwell on the alternate paths that once seemed open.

Lately, there have been a few exceptions.


Earlier this winter I spent a weekend working with a colleague in a city and a state I'd never visited. At some point over the weekend I remembered--suddenly, and with force--that I'd applied to the law school at the neighboring university. In fact, I was accepted, and even offered a scholarship to do a combined J.D. and M.A. in English. Both the law school and the English department are terrific, and at some point the joint degree had seemed like an elegant solution: I could continue my literary studies while also doing something more practical.

But it also hadn't felt like a real place to me. I'd thought that I could see myself in law school--I had other friends at other programs--but I hadn't gotten into the three or four more prestigious and more proximate programs I'd applied to. An M.A. at my alma mater, though; that I could visualize. And I figured law school would still be waiting if I wanted it. (And as it turns out, I didn't.)

I've never forgotten that I applied to law school, but I tend to think of my applications as a bit of unserious casting about: the kind of thing you do when you're twenty-three and don't have any better ideas. Being in the actual city of that actual university reminded me that I really might have gone. I usually forget the phone conversations I had with current students tasked with recruiting me, or the time spent debating the pros and cons with friends and family. Had I made a different choice (I thought, as we drove around), I could have had a whole relationship with this city, and a whole set of memories and friendships connected to it and the surrounding landscape. I could, even now, be a lawyer.

Or an ex-lawyer.


A university where I was once a finalist for a job has been going through a convulsive and seemingly unending series of scandals. My on-campus interview had been a mixed experience: it was clear that the institution was unhealthy and that the faculty felt alternately besieged and depressed, but everyone in the English department was lovely and the location was deeply attractive. I was trepidatious, but I would have taken the job.

I didn't get it, though. In mid-March I got an unexpected call from RU, which had not interviewed me at MLA, inviting me to do a phone interview, which was followed by a fly-out. RU was such a great fit that for years I'd been grateful I didn't get that earlier job. . . but again, it's not something I've spent much time thinking about.

The recent scandal, though, has made me feel just how near a miss that was. The stories in the press have featured shots of the campus, which have conjured up vivid sensory memories of walking around on a blustery January day, eating in the student union, and being escorted back and forth to interviews. None of the faculty being quoted are people I met, but reading their words made the names of those I did meet pop back into my head. And I saw anew how hangdog or anhedonic they seemed when discussing the place.

At the time, I'd figured I could write my way out if I wasn't happy. But knowing what I know now about my professional savvy in my first few years on the tenure track (and what I know about the job market), I'm skeptical that I would have.

After all, the person they hired instead of me is still there.


Maybe thinking about alternate paths is something one does more as one gets older, but it's also striking that neither of these is a positive vision, or even a misty "oh, what might have been!" Each is, to a different degree, a "holy shit! thank God I didn't do THAT."

And in neither case is the near-miss something on which I can congratulate myself: I just couldn't see myself at that law school, so I went with what felt like the easier option; I had a bad feeling about that job, but the decision not to take it wasn't mine.

Maybe that, too, is a sign of middle age: the grateful but somewhat abashed realization that dumb luck accounts for as much of our lives as reasoned decisions.


undine said...

Flavia, I find myself thinking about this, though less than I used to, when I left one job for another--both were good, but different. It took me a good 2 years to get over being down about leaving even though the new job was/is really good and a good fit for me. It's different from your sense of "glad I didn't do that!" but thinking about different paths is a kind of reflection that's probably good for us.

What Now? said...

On the long, long road between Adventure City and the Land of My Youth, I drive past the highway signs that would lead me to the university where I turned down a tenure-track job offer the year before I got the St. Martyr's job. I declined that job without another job offer in sight, but only with my Grad School department head's assurance that I could stay for another year as a lecturer. It just seemed like such a deeply unhappy place where everyone was miserable, and I had such a strong vision of the life I would lead and the person I would become if I stayed there. And I just didn't want to become a depressed alcoholic! I've never regretted that decision, not even when my life afterward didn't go as planned.

Tiruncula said...

I think this is something we do much more often as we get older (along with rereading books, I find). I still think about the decision to leave a school at which I was happy but getting bored for one where I ended up so miserable I fled the profession altogether. And I still think I was getting so bored at the old job that I would have left academe one way or the other. But of course it's hard not to imagine the middle-aged me who might have been still an academic and aging in place in the comfortable old job. The great consolation, and the thing that reminds me again and again that even taking the job I ended up hating was not a complete loss, is the wonderful people I met along the way who are still friends. It becomes so much more about the people and less about the career goals as one gets older.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Once upon a time, I ran into an exboyfriend and he told me about his life, post-Fie. I thought, "BULLET DODGED." I might have married him if a couple of stars had aligned and woo boy am I glad I didn't!!

I also often think about our lives in the bay area, and I am happy that we left. I miss my friends and the weather, but not the oppressive financial situation. I think it would have driven hubby and I apart, and that would have been a real tragedy. Another dodged bullet.

Renaissance Girl said...

Just so you know: "hangdog or anhedonic" may be my favorite string of words this year so far. If I appropriate it, I'll shout you out.

Pantagruelle said...

I have so much to say about this post but not here. Grab me at SAA when we both have drinks in our hands and I promise to blow you away...

Anonymous said...

I had an AHA interview years ago, really thought I had nailed it. But I didn't get the job. Many years later we hired a math professor who had gotten their BA at that institution, which was described as "the meth capital of ____ state." And we would have moved there with a baby in tow, ready to raise our family there. Kind of glad that didn't work out LOL

Flavia said...


Re: the people: yes, that's exactly it. I think that's why I wound up thinking so concretely about the people I briefly met (potential colleagues, current law students) and imagining the others I would have known (whatever friends I would have made at either place). I don't remotely regret either decision, but it's funny that I was thinking partly in terms of the people I might have known and built relationships with, even as I was aware that those relationships would have supplanted many of the ones I now cherish.


De nada!


No SAA for me, alas--I'll miss you on the dance floor! But if you'll be at RSA we should make a plan.

Pantagruelle said...

Oh boo, no RSA for me, but I'll do my best to tear up the SAA dance floor with all the suave that you bring to it!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Interesting post. I also can't think of a road taken or not taken that I second guess or regret at all.