Thursday, May 15, 2014

Finding your passion

This is commencement week at Large Southern University. Young people around campus are busy gluing glitter to their mortarboards, figuring out how to conceal booze under their gowns, planning their graduation blowouts, and realizing that they should have been looking for a job already.

The last time I cared about who was speaking at commencement was my own graduation, but I am sure whoever it is this year will exhort the new graduates to "follow your passion."  I remember a news story published last year that centered around this universal commencement advice. One new graduate, concerned that he had not yet found his one true calling, sought advice from an economist about what to do. As our young protagonist pointed out, some people find their passion early in life, while others search for decades, or forever. (Spoiler alert: this is another area where economists were sure they could provide an answer, but in the end were as clueless as the rest of us.)

Follow your dreams, no matter what others tell you. Now put on this identical garb and line up to receive a certificate of your worth as a person. Image from here.

I could have been the poster boy for the (vocationally) passionless. After abandoning uninspired attempts to live up to the potential that people constantly told me I possessed, I drifted through several careers, pursuing goals of the moment, and prone to fits of depression. I realized later that my problem was not that I didn't have a passion. The problem was (to quote a friend) that I felt like a raging failure because I didn't have a passion, and everyone else had one. Didn't they? A lot of my friends had Volvos and college degrees, so I assumed they had driving ambitions.

The first days of Spring of the worst year of my life found me unemployed, almost unmarried, far from friends and family, and an unwelcome guest in my own house. I loathed myself, my life, and my prospects more than I have at any time before or since.* By the time my birthday rolled around I had divorce papers,** a crappy apartment, a crappy sales job, a few pieces of donated furniture, and an old station wagon with a slow leak in the right rear tire.

By the Fall I was back in school, and working odd jobs to pay the bills. My apartment was still crappy, but I had a new tire, and designs on the hot girl at the opposite end of my building. I had also stopped worrying about finding my passion. I was so busy trying to survive, and working to accomplish my next objective, that I really had no time for self-absorption.  I was content with the satisfaction that came with learning something new, acquiring a new skill, or making a new friend. I learned to enjoy my own company again, and to appreciate the days as they passed.

Along the way, I fell in love with computer science. I realized that my passion had always been learning new things, understanding how the world works, and thinking hard. CS is a perfect fit. It's not that I only care about computer science because I stopped worrying about my passion, but I do believe that focusing on what I have and enjoying who I am, rather than what I wish I had or who I would rather be, has made it easier to stay committed and enthused. Corny, I know, but no worse than "follow your passion."

* Much better now, thanks for asking.

** Served on my actual birthday. The ex claimed it was an accident, but my lawyer was certain it was intentional.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The mother of all days

When I called my mother yesterday and asked her how Mother's Day was treating her, she replied, "I'm having a wonderful day. I have all my children here with me, except one."

This is hardly a first for my mother. It is actually an improvement over all the years we drove hundreds of miles to be home for Christmas, only to hear, "It's just a shame Eldest Brother couldn't be here." A double-edged guilt sword that would make any mother proud, it admonished Eldest Brother for his absence, while letting the rest of us know that our presence wasn't quite enough to make this one count.

One of the blessings of growing older is that these too revealing pronouncements amuse us now. They are almost a family tradition. This sort of thing frustrated me greatly when I was younger. The worst years were those when I was old enough to see clearly what was being done to me, but powerless to stop it, despite the fact that it had been years since I had needed to borrow money from my parents.

Now I feel the years counting down, and I know that too soon I will have only memories. On the occasions that my siblings and I gather we will reminisce about our years as decorations in my mother's holiday tableaux. And we will miss her.

Be nice to your mama whenever you can manage it. She gave you everything you will ever have. If you don't believe me, just ask her.