Sunday, February 28, 2010

Growing Up

While Miguel and I were watching the Olympics last night, I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I don’t know what prompted me to ask, but maybe I was curious because I am reading a book about parenting (Becoming a Jewish Parent by Daniel Gordis). Of course, for some strange reason, I picked the most inopportune moment to query him: we were watching the four-man bobsled competition, in which the US earned its first gold medal in 62 years.

“An athlete,” he answered. “Baseball or basketball.”

I couldn’t help being a parent at that moment. “Do you have a fallback position in case you get injured?”

“A doctor,” he said.

“What kind?” I asked.

“One who works with kids.”

Yes, I beamed inside. My son the doctor, crowed the Jewish parent that I am. But I was a little sad, too. I wondered if Verna would live long enough to see Miguel realize his dreams and become a professional athlete or pediatrician (or any other choices he makes). Time will tell, I know.

When Miguel was six he announced that he and his schoolmate, Oscar, wanted to room together and become janitors at the zoo when they were older.

“We’re not going to get married,” he stated firmly.

“That’s OK,” I said, trying to be the supportive parent.

Later he said he and Oscar could always adopt children. I quickly went to Verna and said, “Miguel’s gay. And a chorus from Seinfeld erupted, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

And there isn’t. But I am a product of the larger society and radical-liberal-vegetarian-commie-pinko-Jewboy that I am, I am also imprisoned within very traditional notions of how life ought to be. So while I intellectually support equal rights for everyone, on a visceral level I was disappointed that Miguel wasn’t opting for the wife, two kids, dog, and picket fence scenario that has clogged my mind for so many years.

Verna probably said something about me overreacting, which was true, but, hey, I’ve refined anxiety and neuroses to award winning dimensions. And the reality is I will love and support whatever decisions Miguel makes, whether he is gay, straight, Democrat, or…oh, never mind, or becomes a Trappist monk.

I phoned Oscar’s mom, a friend of ours, and she just laughed. She hadn’t heard about his career goals, but she found it touching that Oscar and Miguel were close enough to ponder a future together.

Miguel’s revelation yesterday got me thinking about my dreams so very long ago. The first career I envisioned for myself was as a mechanical engineer. I have absolutely no reason why I chose mechanical engineering, because as an eight or nine year-old I had nary a clue what a mechanical engineer was or did. In fact, today I still couldn’t satisfactorily explain the details of a mechanical engineer’s job description.

The first vocation I recall choosing was that of consumer advocate. I wanted to be a lawyer just like Ralph Nader, one of my earliest public heroes. I loved that he fought against corporations that betrayed the public’s trust and cared more about profits than people. I even spoke about the legal profession to a friend of my parents who was a Legal Aid attorney.

The next time I confronted grown-up career goals was in high school. We had to take one of those seemingly useless personality achievement tests that determined, based on the answers we gave, what profession best suited us. My results came back as teacher-social worker-guidance counselor.

At the time, having just turned 18, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. I was fairly smart, but lazy and had elevated procrastination to an art form of the highest capacity.

However, that prognostication was pretty close to where my heart truly lies. I taught school for 12 years, have continued to tutor for another 11, and spent a year as a funeral counselor. Now I work with elders in an independent living retirement facility.

I guess I am really impressed that Miguel knows what he wants to do. Or at least he has an idea that may change, evolve, mutate, or dissolve several times over before he reaches adulthood.

We will nurture his dreams even if I was taken aback by his declaration. Medical school is so hard and the profession so demanding, that I wonder how he will deal with the challenge. Not that I doubt Miguel’s resolve, but so far he is happiest with a baseball, basketball or football in his hands or watching any televised sporting event. I can’t yet picture him hunched in a college library study carrel, sucking down massive quantities of caffeine and pulling another all-nighter as he struggles through biochemistry.

Last night, though, I was reminded that the present often bears little relation to the future. I ran into an old friend, whose son I taught 15 years ago. The son was a spirited kid, rock solid build, who, despite being super bright, couldn’t hold his behavior or focus together in class. After running a successful landscaping operation in the Caribbean for a few years, this “kid”, now in his mid-twenties, his proud father informed me, is currently getting his master’s degree at Berkeley in project management. The student I knew so long ago probably couldn’t have spelled the words project management (OK, I am exaggerating).

So, to borrow an Olympic motif, Miguel should reach for the gold (or silver or bronze or forego medals) and settle into a career and life path that satisfies his deep desires as a human being.

Yes, I am being corny yet again. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

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