(With apologies to Andrew Bird. You can listen along.)
I give you a holy word:
(Great, now I have to apologize to Kurt Vonnegut, too.)
A few weeks ago I did something accidentally that I regret, but I think it’s just as well that it happened.
That’s the remainder of my time at Orbital Sciences, and the short first phase of my career. Ten years ago today was my last day there. I remember the last day, walking around, collecting signatures for a revision of the Orion Launch Abort System Jettison Motor spec. Then handing in my badge and driving off down VA-28. I quit that job to move to Texas for a girl. I love telling that story. I’ve got the whole routine down, all the way down to the mirthless laughter and asking the audience to be sure that write it down: don’t do that.
Coincidentally, two days ago I bought a new car. I’ve had the other once since—drumroll—26 October 2006, four days before I started that job at Orbital. That’s a less painful story. Why did I buy that car? Because the one the preceded it broke down in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, and I got towed to a Pontiac dealer in Cumberland and traded it in.
What else is left? Maybe it’s time to turn in this 703 area code on my mobile phone. What else is left? The bike that I wrecked when riding back from the office in 2007 got stolen in Burbank in 2014. I don’t mind. It still had scars on the frame and seat. What else is left? Until recently I had a travel mug that I bought on my first work trip to Arizona even though it hadn’t kept a proper seal in ages. What else is left? Somewhere I’ve filed my first paystub and my first performance review and raise (I think the percentage on that first raise is roughly the same as the sum of all subsequent raises).
What’s the one thing I wish I had kept? I had an email from Dave Thompson, the CEO of Orbital, thanking me for an article I had written in the American Astronautical Society’s magazine. Didn’t think about taking that at the time.
I don’t know if it’s an American thing, or a male thing, or a youthful thing, or whatever it is, but I understand that the “correct” answer when talking about your life is: no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing. &c. Buddy, I’d change a lot of things. Leaving would be #1.
Honestly, after ten years, I thought that I’d have an Objective answer to the question of whether I should or shouldn’t have. It would make this note a lot simpler to write, that’s for sure, but it would also make the thoughts I have about it quiet down and disappear. It’s not even an interesting thing to get stuck on. I mean, I know several people my own age who have died or almost died from breast cancer, killed themselves, died or almost died from plane crashes, etc. Those are problems.
(“Dare the plane to crash / Redeem the miles for cash / And we’ll dance like cancer survivors / When the prognosis was that you should have died”)
Professionally, it’s been a toss downhill since then. The job in Texas was bunk, even though I got to sit on a MER console for two Space Shuttle launches and landings. I stayed there for a year and three days (the moving bonus vested after one year on a Tuesday).
Moved to Lowell, Mass. Spent short of two years on that job after the company laid a bunch of us off. The job itself was so-so, but living in the Boston area covered for that, especially volunteering for 826 Boston. After the layoff, and the extended limbo after it, that was the thing that kept me alive, having some kind of external purpose.
And that interstitial period was strange. I can’t fully account for it. I’ve thought before about examining it, considering it from different angles to see if there’s any sense to be made, giving it the written treatment. It’s like a pond that reflects the sky, giving no intimation of the world beneath until I dive into it. But I’d rather not. Swimming in fresh water gives me the creeps anyway. So I’ll just toss it out here and leave it.
I spent 10 weeks in India. I climbed Elephant Tusk while backpacking around in Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. I fixed the plumbing at the Panamint Hilton after heading up to Half Dome. I ran 100 miles (yeah, that first one, ran more like 70 miles) and qualified for Western States. Anyway, those were trivial, listable things. There was time together, but a lot of time alone.
There’s no sense to be made from it all. No narrative. (Here’s an interesting article: Galen Strawson, “Let’s ditch the dangerous idea that life is a story“, Aeon Magazine.) But all of that time, sixteen months of it, does reside somewhere inside of me like a patch of cool shade. It’s not a malevolent feeling, it’s just like that small hitch before you breathe in and sigh.
Move to Wisconsin because that’s where I got hired. Platteville. Maybe 11,000 people including the university. Two months in, before even my things were delivered from Mass to Wisconsin, get transferred out to our sister company in Sylmar, California—which is in the Valley, but a weird corner of the Valley where the vaqueros ride their horses unironically down the road—for two weeks. Then two weeks back in Wisconsin. Repeat. For two years. Go on a weird distance running binge. Meet Chen. Effectively move to St. Louis while commuting to California. Get married. Move out there to Burbank. Basketball on Wednesdays. Tianjin food on Saturdays. Go to China. Move back to St. Louis when she went to business school.
That last part seems chaotic but it’s the stable part.
When I started this I didn’t want to make a big list of things. I wanted to make sense of them. Because ten years ago I felt like the trajectory was pointed upward, like a rocket. I had a network. I was working on a human spaceflight project. Failure wasn’t an option because I wasn’t going to lose but because I just didn’t realize it was an option. I miss that feeling—although I wouldn’t have felt it at the time, so I guess it’s more proper to say that I miss the position I was in. And I want it back and I don’t want it back. I have that feeling more than you would believe. Things are good, but the magic of possibility isn’t there. Maybe it would have been like that anyway. Maybe it’s like the endurance running was—the magic of discovery in the first few races, discovering new places on the map of yourself, but most of the time and effort was in the training in between the races where there was usually the same old ground.
I thought I would come up with a clever ending to this while writing it, something Hollywood to say as I flung it away, but it never came. Fine, fine. It fits. I’ll keep it.