Friday, March 18, 2011

When I grow up, I want to be...

I have always envied the people who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. At the same time, I have never understood how anyone could pick just one thing. How can you be sure you have chosen the right career until you try it? How do you even narrow the field to just one thing at a time? What happens if you sign your life away and realize, ten years later, that you were dead wrong?

When I was little, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I took ballet and tap classes until about the second grade, which was not very long, really. The story of why I stopped varies depending on whether you ask me or my parents. They claim it was my idea. I remember being sad about giving it up. I danced with various clubs in JR high and high school and took a couple of dance classes in college, as much for the exercise as anything. But by then I had long talked myself out of dance as any sort of career path. These days, I wait eagerly for the Zumba classes at the Y or the occasional wedding where the happy couple actually provides a DJ and a dance floor.

One day back in elementary school I found The Joy of Painting on PBS and suddenly I wanted to be an artist. I remember trying, very hard, to paint my happy little trees using a box of Crayola watercolors on sheets of spiral notebook paper. In the few years before I had my children, I took oil painting classes at St. Louis Community College and completed two canvases of which I am very proud (and that hang in my house). But when I was a kid and first learned the concept of "career" and "living wage", I gave up on my idea of being an artist because I had no idea how I could ever get a job. No one ever explained the idea of illustrator or designer or graphic artist to me at the time. I thought the phrase was "starving artist" :)
By middle school, I was an A student and started hearing phrases like "You can be anything you want." But I had no idea what I wanted.

My dad was (is) an electrical engineer with a huge fascination with computers. I had learned to program in BASIC (these days no one capitalizes it anymore) around second grade on our old TI computer. I would make pretty graphics and type in thousands of lines of printed game code from spiral-bound books that Dad brought home. And yet, computers were kind of a geeky-boy thing. In high school I had not yet embraced my inner geekdom, so I didn't think about computers as a career path. My mom was (is) a nurse and I was always a little bit interested in medicine and biology, so I set my sights on being a doctor. A pediatrician. That lasted until the end of my freshman year at Wash U.

I loved Wash U, but as a premed, I did not find the supportive, encouraging environment that I needed. I found competition. Lots and lots of competition. I had graduated 3rd in my class in high school (I was thrilled not to be 1st or 2nd--they were required to give a speech). At Wash U, that put me smack dab in the middle of average. I do not thrive in competitive environments. I do not thrive where my advisors tell me I am not good enough instead of encouraging me to do better (Shame on me, I got a B on a midterm once).
Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I transferred to the School of Engineering to study Computer Science. My then-boyfriend (now husband) was a CS major and I'd watched, envyingly, as he worked on cool-looking homework assignments while I tried in vain to memorize 500 pages of biology textbook at a time. It was a drastic move, but I succeeded in computer science. Yes, it was still a sort of geeky-boy thing, but there was a certain appeal to being one of very few women among the group of geeky-boys :)

When I started interviewing for programming/IT/software jobs at graduation, I started hearing my least favorite question. "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?". Um, I had no clue. I could BS an answer that I thought the interviewer would like to hear, but my gut responses were things like "Getting married", "Trying out some new career", "Having a baby", "Going back to school to study something else", or "I'll just see how it goes". Amazingly, I still got hired.

After my youngest was born, I desperately needed a creative outlet that would not keep the children up at night or leave sharp pointy things around the house. Since oil painting was too messy for carpeted rooms and classes are never held between 9:30 and 10:30pm on a weekday, I had to find something new. Cooking is another of my (numerous) passions, but there's a limit to what my family and I can (and should) eat of my efforts. I enjoy sewing--clothes, crafts, the occasional quilt, drapes and home d├ęcor--but couldn't make it work either. Sewing in our office (the 4th bedroom) was out because it shared a wall with my daughter's room and the machine noise would keep her up. Sewing anywhere else in the house was a logistical nightmare because it would take me longer to set up and take down all the supplies (and pointy things) than I actually got to spend creating.

I tried my hand at something I've always kind of wanted to do but never felt brave enough for: writing. Not just blogging (was already doing that), but writing fiction. Romance. Book-length. I had always been afraid to try because I never knew where to start or whether I could do it. I was afraid to fail. But in 2007, I found NaNoWriMo and decided that I had nothing to lose but time. It is amazing how turning 30 and having a rather traumatic year with the health of my youngest child changed my perspective on "failing".

Wow is writing fun. Writing fiction is a big game of makebelieve that you act out with a keyboard. Yes, there is a lot more to it than that (like editing). I did have a background in literature (a whole college degree, just not in English, that was my "for-fun" degree while I learned my trade) and a massive love of books. I think I've read thousands of them by now, not including the kids' titles (of which we averaged 3 per child at bedtime until my daughter started in on chapter books). These days I've finished 3 different book-length manuscripts, am actively working on 2 more (I can never stick with one thing at a time, you know), and am working on improving my writing and trying to sell my work to a publisher. (No, you won't find my stuff in a bookstore. Hopefully some day).

Today, at the ripe old age of {mumblejumble}, I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I am a software engineer, for now. I am a mother and a wife. I am a writer (though I don't feel comfortable calling that a career until, like, I earn a few $). I sew, I paint. I stare longingly out my kitchen window at the brilliantly glowing sign that reads Culinary Institute (No kidding..local tech college opened the building about a year ago and it has been taunting me ever since. I could walk to class...if I had time to enroll). Guess I'll add it to my list of things I want to be when I grow up.

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