All my major mistakes in life have actually lead to great things eventually, so there isn’t any outright error I would want to correct. The things I want a do-over on have more to do with people who have come and gone over the years. I’ve been bad about keeping in touch with people. Especially so before the advent of social media.
A lot of friendships are specific to time and place, and they naturally fade as you get farther from that time and that place. Tony Hoagland described it in a poem as a rubber band getting stretched thinner and thinner until you reach a point where there’s just a gentle snap, and the bond is gone.
In a few cases though, it’s just been my own laziness about getting organized to see people or my over-reliance on email and text over actually picking up the phone and calling someone. A couple years after I moved to DC, I found out that my childhood piano teacher had moved to the suburbs of Northern Virginia. We connected over Facebook, and she invited me to come out to her large house, meet her son who was now a teenager, and catch up.
She was my teacher from the time I was eight until I turned 18 and went to college. Weekly hour-long lessons meant that she had really seen me grow up, and I had spent more time with her than with most of my teachers. A lot of my other hobbies as a child came and went (still do), but piano was definitely the through line in my life (still is).
She was living in Great Falls though, which isn’t easy to get to without a car. We also hadn’t seen each other in a decade, and I wasn’t sure if there would be a thread there at all at this point. I left DC a couple years later, never having found the time to visit her. About three or four years later, I found out that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and had gone quickly.
Even if it did require renting a car and getting over my natural introversion, I should have gone out to see her. If I could do that over, I would. As my grandmother always would say, “let life be a lesson to you.” I’ve tried to be more proactive about reaching out to people I’ve lost touch with. I’ve tried to avoid the “we should do that sometime,” and actually pitch dates to people when they suggest getting together.
When I was visiting DC about a year ago, I reached out to someone who I had never met but had corresponded with quite a bit over the years. When I first moved to Washington almost a decade ago, I had a part-time internship, but was mostly unemployed. Yahoo Answers was a new website at the time, and I had a lot of time on my hands. It has now since become a joke, with most people knowing about it from reading face-palm-inducing questions that have become memes, but in the first couple years, it was a small online community of people generally looking for knowledge and people with knowledge to share.
I wanted to brush up on my ancient languages as it had been a few years since grad school, so I started answering questions on Yahoo Answers under the Latin Language section. It was mostly high school kids in A.P. Latin who would get lost in passages of the “Aeneid,” and need help.
One of the questions I answered though was from an older woman who was working on a needlepoint project of a Latin phrase, and was looking for a translation. We exchanged email addresses, so she could send me some photos of the project she was working on and a few others she was considering.
Oddly enough, she lived in a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about 40 minutes north of Washington. We became friendly over email. She is a retired psychologist who worked in the Carter Administration on some early mental health studies done by the National Institutes of Health.
Though she and her husband were in a retirement community, she really led a more active life than I did. She hosted a guest lecture series at the community she lived in, she was an active volunteer, and she still had a wide network of friends who were mostly Washington retirees. All this plus some extensive needlepoint.
When I went back to visit DC about a year ago, I let her know that I was going to be in the area, and I asked if her offer for me to visit still stood. She let me know that her husband had passed away a few months before, and that her life was slowing down, but she would still love to see me. I made the trek out to Gaithersburg, and we spent a couple hours together. I was interested in hearing more about her life, but she was more keen on hearing about mine.
So, in conclusion, if I had a do-over, it would be going out to Great Falls to see my piano teacher, but I’m trying to do my best to learn from that mistake as much as I can.
There Is No Do-Over for a Fused Vertebrae
My father practiced neurosurgery for nearly 60 years and over the course of his career there were a few things that really perturbed him. He was always alert for “quackery,” which for him was usually chiropractic and acupuncture. “They can’t explain the science behind it,” he would say, “because there is no science to support what they are doing to people.” He thought the reason people felt better after these treatments was due to the so-called “placebo effect.” He knew the brain to be a powerful instrument and if the brain believes something is healing, it would help the body get better. But he also believed that most things just get better in any event.
Another thing he could not stomach was unnecessary surgery. As his practice was winding down, he started seeing so many patients with pain and disability after having back surgery that he coined a term for it, “failed back surgery syndrome,” and wrote an academic paper about it. Then he started seeing even more patients with the syndrome. And he was frequently a witness, for both patients and doctors, in malpractice litigation involving back surgery. He called that “my law practice.” He like doing that so much he wrote a book about it called “Stop Talking to the Jury.”
Sometimes he saw patients who had undergone several back operations, all of them, in his opinion, were unnecessary. “Greed is the only thing that explains so much unneeded back surgery,” he would say. There were also a lot of neurosurgeons, many more than when he began in the early 1950’s, a time when even other docs thought operating on the brain was impossible.
He had a bad back himself and he believed back problems were evolutionary. “We haven’t walked upright long enough,” he would say. For him, it was always clear when surgery was needed and when it wasn’t. And he tried to avoid it for his patients whenever possible. He explained his approach in detail in his textbook, the “Atlas of Spinal Surgery.”
He was aghast that neurosurgeons, attempting to relieve back pain, would put rods, pins, screws and other hardware into people’s backs, and use them to fuse two vertebrae into one. “Once that happens, there is no do-over, and these poor people are just going to have to learn to live with it.”
There are many things I would go back and do again if I had the chance. Hindsight allows me to see where I could have perhaps been kinder, or more engaged, or more open to experiences. It also forces me to see those things I wish I had done differently or had held steadfastly to instead of letting them pass by.
One of the first things that come to mind is a small moment. Aren't most things really just small moments, perhaps build on top of each other, but all just building blocks of time. This one was during my wedding. I wish I could go back and have my dad lift my veil before I took Steve's hand at the altar. My dad and I were incredibly close and to this day I consider myself a daddy's girl even though he died twelve years ago. The wedding itself was a beautiful ceremony and the location was perfect. I loved my dress, I still am very close with all my bridesmaids, so the choices for the whole affair were completely stellar and on point. I would not change any of that.
But my father hesitated when he walked me down the aisle. We stopped at the first pew, and somehow the moment became rushed and he never lifted my veil and kissed me on the cheek. It's such a small thing but at the same time a profound moment for a father and a daughter. I know my dad loved my husband, and he was proud to be "giving me away", and the rest of the day was truly magical and lovely. But to have that one tiny moment back, where I could say my own small goodbye to my daddy, to give him that hug and get that moment back would mean the world.
A slightly bigger regret I have dates back to college. I came from a very small high school, and I knew everyone whether I wanted to or not. My teachers and all the girls in the dorms, and my coaches and the dorm parents. We lived on top of each other in very tight quarters with strict rules and when I got to college I revelled a little bit in the vastness of it and the freedom that comes with that much space. My classes were large. Some were huge. Some were big enough that my professor was a small dot at the bottom of the auditorium and the notes needed to be projected onto a screen.
Yet I always had at my disposal the ability to go find those professors and get to know them, to ask them for help and guidance. These were arguably some of the finest professionals in their fields, and I did not take advantage of that. Some of my classmates did, and to this day remember the person they had for this class or that one. I remember three. Approximately 32 classes with 32 professors and I remember three of them. I could have had these people write my recommendations for graduate school (Ok, I must have done that but I do not remember who I even asked; I will blame age for that one.) I might have been able to find work in my field with their help. Or I may have simply gotten to know some pretty incredible people with an array of knowledge that was right up my alley. To this day I have no idea what stopped me from getting to know them. Perhaps it was shyness, or maybe it was a lack of understanding of why this was important.
I wonder how things might have been different had I done certain things differently. What if I hadn't dated that guy or what if I had tried harder to make that relationship work. What if I had not taken that job or if I had stayed instead of moved. Most things are unanswerable, and the truth is you cannot go back and right a wrong or fix a mistake once the years have gone by. I can't get my dad back and recreate that moment in time. Many of those professors have likely died by now and what would come from me being able to go back and get to know them.
Lessons come in all shapes and colors and I think looking at those things we regret can prove to be an incredibly valuable lesson. If I were stronger and more assured, I might just have stopped the proceedings at the wedding to be sure I got that moment with my dad that I held so dear. I know I would do that if it were to happen today, but I am a very different person now than I was 20 years ago. I also recognize the importance of connections, and never was that lesson clearer to me than when I applied for the position I have today. I had grown up with two members of the board of directors. I am confident I got the job on my own merit, but I believe without a doubt that I got the interview based on who I knew. But that's not such a bad thing after all; connections can be a tremendous resource when used the correct way.
Life will teach those lessons whether we want to learn them or not. I know for sure if I do not learn from a mistake it will both eat at me and reoccur again in a slighly different form. Lessons don't really go away until they teach us what we need to know.
It's a Wonderful Life. Once.
I never thought about it before, but I’m doing a do-over of my life right now!
About twenty years ago, when I reached middle-aged, people around me became increasingly retrospective and those “If you had it all to do over again, would you change anything?” questions started becoming more common. Being me, I quickly came up with a pat answer to avoid any thought on the matter and would habitually respond “If I had it all to do over again ... [dramatic pause] ... I’d do it all over again.”
There were a couple of reasons for that answer. One, I believe it to be true, not because I’ve lived any sort of blameless life free of regrets, but because I think what I did was responsible for me being me. If I changed some critical part of my past, I’d be changing who I am now and I must admit that overall, I’m pretty happy with how I turned out.
So, rather than mess around my current reality, I think it’s best to leave well enough alone.
Another reason why I use that answer is because while there are certainly moments I’d love to live over, to pay more attention to, I have a hunch that if I were to take advantage of the opportunity to go back and relive some part of my past that I’d then have to go through all the ensuing days again to get back to where I am now. Frankly, I don’t have time to spend forty more years doing all that shit all over again.
Well, maybe I would, but it was tedious enough the first time, when I didn’t know how things would turn out.
As much as I might want to go back and say good-bye to my parents or enjoy some of those kisses again, I don’t think I had any huge errors that I could correct. Lots of little things, sure, but not enough to go to the trouble of fixing them and then re-living the days or years or decades since I made those mistakes. I might be a bit too fatalistic for that, what’s done is done, and if I’ve played a hand poorly, then that’s how it is.
Also, of course, there’s the overriding problem of how my changing my past might affect others. I have to assume that there’s no one out there whose life revolves around any lack of me and how that’s ruined everything. On the other hand, if I were to change something, maybe someone who’s happy and content with how things are now would find themselves knee deep or worse with my new enhanced presence.
Slowly, but surely, I might end up playing a larger role in their presumably satisfactory life, and that could easily lead to more regrets, which might mean my going back again to fix those new regrets and problems.
Like I said, it’s all too much trouble.
I can see me going back and breaking up some perfectly good relationship someone else has now, and that awesome power is something I don’t want to have. Sure, maybe *my* life might turn out “better,” but I wouldn’t want that to happen at the cost of theirs.
I may not know what this whole life business is about, but I’m convinced that it’s not about me.
I've ended up leaving life in the city and my friends and acquaintances and all the familiarity of everything I'd known to come live in the desert by myself in a tiny cabin near enough to the middle of nowhere that's its an easy drive away. After moving here, I had to start my life all over again, and it's been my experience that I can't really change my life very much at all. What I do and see and have? Sure. But none of the things that matter.
If Wishes were Horses...
I've been in a bit of a reflective mode recently. Job searching will do that to you, I suppose. The extra space created in your head when there is no job anxiety is a very strange thing to have. I also think that this is the longest I have gone without a job since I moved up to Pasadena from Orange County to go to graduate school seven years ago.
I had been enrolled already for a year, but the commute and the class load, on top of being employed 25 hours a week, were slowly killing me. So, after two and a half years in a job and field I now very much regret leaving, I packed all my things into a U-haul and drove north, along with a very long-suffering male friend who helped me unpack everything in my new apartment. He also may have had a crush on me, come to think of it. I wish he had said something.
I don't regret my decision to move to Pasadena for one moment--I do, however, wish I could have a do-over on my decision to go to grad school in the first place. Frankly, looking back on it, the whole enterprise embarrasses me now, even though some of the things that happened as a result of it aren't so bad.
My decision to go to graduate school was about as impulsive as you can get for such a big life and financial decision. Only, if you had told me that at the time, I would have looked at you like you had sprouted a second head. At the time, I was living a life (had been born into it, really), that left me enculturated and primed for divine confirmations and signs from God. It was April, the evening of Easter, and when I got home, riding such a high from such a day as I'd had, an acquaintance once or twice removed posted on Facebook about the very program I ended up leaving my life to pursue, though I had never heard about it until that moment.
To be honest, I was already restless. I was supposed to have a Purpose, right? A Calling? That's what everyone told me; that's what I'd heard my entire life. From 5-18 that Purpose was going to school and getting good grades and pleasing my teachers, and in college it was more of the same, with the added layer of pursuing a music degree, and so there were now the abstract ideas of Beauty and Art to uphold.
(Career? Paycheck? What's that? Hell, even being encouraged to develop a personal and grounded unique artistic voice that could withstand the brutal realities of the marketplace would have been nice. But for whatever reason, at my university, the marketing and business classes for arts majors that had made their way to the Theater and Film departments had yet to make their way to the Music kids. As a result, the best idea most of us had was to work at Starbucks and maybe apply to graduate opera programs.)
After college I fell squarely into the "work at Starbucks" camp, and then somehow lucked into the job I had when I got the wild hair to apply to my (non-musical) graduate program. But where was the Purpose? The sense of God's fulfillment and guidance that was sold to me as my goddamn birthright? All I had was a steady full-time job with benefits in a field related to my major (what luxury! the present me sighs quietly) and what felt like a gap in my heart. And gaps must be filled! Time to move on.
I was halfway to applying to go through a teaching credential program at that point in April when my performer's high crossed paths with Facebook, and I was filled with such a feeling of confirmation and destiny as I had never felt before or since. Within an hour I had committed to applying, within a month or two I had gotten in and gotten aid (all loans), and then--I was enrolled.
I believe, in the lingo, this might be better known as a "manic event." Not big, not serious, not a sign of disorder, just a time of removal from reality.
But this decision spread forth through my life and has sent me to where I sit today. Of course, there is good that came from it--ironically enough, finally detaching myself from the wackier pitfalls of religion--but I have to think the pressure of need that had built up in my life at that point was so great, that it would have come out had I enrolled or not. Perhaps it would have burst in a worse way that being saddled with a degree that even then I knew I'd never use plus a lifetime of student debt, but I'll never know, will I?
I feel for her, that girl, eight years ago. All she really wanted was a place where she belonged and felt understood. She felt that on that evening in April, and thought that this program, these people, would let her bank that feeling and ride it for the rest of her life.
There was an infinence of things I could have chosen to do. I chose this. And now, I suppose, my choices have narrowed to one: to find and step through the next threshold this path has brought me to.
Studying v scattered
I know a little about a lot. I write that only because it's a saying: In fact, I feel as if I know only a little about only a few things. If I could do anything over it would be to focus on studying one issue, become steeped in a subject so that it became my own.
Twice in my life I have become extremely knowledgeable about topics, and could speak expertly. Once was when I started a volunteer corps. I learned the reasons people got involved, people's patterns of behavior when they volunteered and when they ran organizations that relied on volunteers. I learned about running an organization (I still call myself a recovering executive director). I met and maintained a network of friends and business associates, a net that spread far and wide over the county of 2 million (at that time) from whom I learned these matters and the needs when it came to the environment, housing, food, elderly, disabled, animal rights, literacy, and more. I combined all the many threads and became well-versed in the social science of volunteering, how healthy a community is or is not when people gave time to causes.
The other topic was abortion rights: I volunteered for a year on my college campus, and then in D.C., with groups fighting to keep abortion legal ("safe and legal," I should say, the cant coming back to me again). I would never discuss the issue publicly now -- I'm older, I realize that people's minds are not changed, one-on-one debates on the topic are worthless. But at the time I knew the arguments for and against very well, the illogic of some comparisons and the lack of science in various claims. I knew the laws in the state in which I lived and I knew the national laws and I knew the states that were having votes on the issue.
Apart from these two topics I threw myself into, from three decades of working in journalism I know how the news industry functions; and how journalists can be good at reporting, writing, editing, or managing, but usually not all three. I understood what Janet Malcolm meant in her opening line of "The Journalist and the Murderer" ("Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible").
Now I feel as if my knowledge is scattered.
What would I do if I could: At what point did someone decide to choose The Issue that would define his or her life? What drives someone to become a physicist? What directs people to spend years understanding then writing doctoral theses on matters that from the outside seem like analyzing how and why angels dance on the head of a pin? Did I miss that point? Can I choose it now?
It's a luxury most people on this planet do not have, but I wonder. Should I pick a subject to become expert in?
"Kaddish" by Leon Wieseltier posits that by focusing on one thing, one learns much about everything. How ironic that I did not finish the book. I was on to other things.