Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Missed Chances

My dissertation adviser is coming to the local college to give a talk in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again, but feel a little apprehensive, like you do anytime someone you admire comes around with that how-did-your-life-turn-out question trembling at the back of his mind.

To a career academic, my life may not look like a happily ever after story. I didn't end up with the big prize, a tenure-track teaching job. Now even one of my closest friends, an academic, has taken to lecturing me about various subjects, perhaps because I often venture opinions bluntly, rather than couching them carefully in academese. So what do I say, to anyone who has chosen what I think of as the sell-your-soul-to-your-job path in life? That there are other paths to intellectual fulfillment? Will whatever I say come out as defensive--or worse, patronizing?

I think it's easy to assume that the other guy has gone down the wrong road, if he's not on the road you're on. What we all want is to consign everyone who did not make the choices we made to the city of missed chances, like in the Stephen Dobyns poem "Missed Chances."

In the city of missed chances, the streetlights
always flicker, the second hand clothing shops
stay open all night and used furniture stores
employ famous greeters. This is where you
are sent after that moment of hesitation.
You were too slow to act, too afraid to jump,
too shy or uncertain to speak up. Do you recall
the moment? Your finger was raised, your mouth
open, and then, strangely, silence. Now you walk
past men and women wrapped in the memory
of the speeches they should have uttered--
Over my dead body. Sure, I'd be happy with
ten thousand. If you walk out, don't come back--
past dogs practicing faster bites, cowboys
with faster draws, where even the cockroach
knows that next time he'll jump to the left.
You were simply going to say, Don't go, or words
to that effect--Don't go, don't leave, don't walk
out of my life. Nothing fancy, nothing to stutter
about. Now you're shouting it every ten seconds.

In the city of missed chances, it is always just past
sunset and the freeways are jammed with people
driving to homes they regret ever choosing,
where wives or helpmates have burned the dinner,
where the TV's blown a fuse and even the dog,
tied to a post in the backyard, feels confused
uncertain, and makes tentative barks at the moon.
How easy to say it--Don't go, don't leave, don't
disappear. Now you've said it a million times.
You even stroll over to the Never-Too-Late
Tattoo Parlor and have it burned into the back
of your hand, right after the guy who had
Don't shoot, Madge, printed big on his forehead.
Then you go down to the park, where you discover
a crowd of losers, your partners in hesitation,
standing nose to nose with the bronze statues
repeating the phrases engraved on their hearts--
Let me kiss you. Don't hit me. I love you--
while the moon pretends to take it all in.
Let's get this straight once and for all:
is that a face up there or is it a rabbit, and if
it's a face, then why does it hold itself back,
why doesn't it take control and say, Who made
this mess, who's responsible? But this is no time
for rebellion, you must line up with the others,
then really start to holler, Don't go, don't go--
like a hammer sinking chains into concrete,
like doors slamming and locking one after another,
like a heart beats when it's scared half to death.

Maybe we can't get it all straight once and for all. Maybe all I can do is overcome my pride enough to say some of what I think, and a little of what I feel. Maybe this is one of the many tests of adulthood, and as Indiana Jones says in The Last Crusade, "only the penitent shall pass."


harriet M. Welsch said...

This poem and post so hit home this morning, as I sit trying to explain the huge gap in my career on yet another version of my c.v. and wonder if I've wasted my life. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

When we went to UMCP, all those professors made it sound like if we didn't sacrifice everything to get a tenure-track position at a research university, we were losers. I've made a good life for myself teaching at colleges the academics would turn their noses up at. And I don't miss for a minute slogging through literary criticism to try to write something I don't really care all that much about. And I don't miss having to send out proposals to any conference except those I want to (usually because they're located in a city I want to visit and my college pays for the lion's share of it). Phooey on 'em.

Was your director Caretta (I don't even remember any more).

Sarah said...

Hey, Jeanne, just commenting to let you know that I'm lurking on this blog even in Wisconsin.

Also, if the friend you are referring to is one of my parents (as I suspect), I apologize.

Jeanne said...

Hey, I'm heartened (and humbled) to have such readers! Sarah, I'm glad you revealed your lurking. Yes, gotu, my director was Carretta. And Harriet, when you say "wasted my life," try to hear it as the last line of the poem about lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm.

Jeanne said...

Oh, and Sarah, I also have professor parents who go into lecture mode sometimes. No need to feel apologetic.

Jeanne said...

The punch line:
Between 4-5 pm, I got this note from my dissertation director:
Hi again, Jeanne. For a variety of reasons, we have to re-schedule my talk for sometime next semester--Vin
So I guess I have more time to think about what to say!