The Discovery Channel & a Raft Trip

My friends from high school who wanted to be doctors received their white jackets a few days ago. My aspiring-dentist housemates from college are fixing real teeth … and those of us who didn’t want to be doctors and lawyers and such? Since we’re not busy celebrating our budding professional careers, what are we up to, here and now, in our mid-20s?

Well, personally, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Wondering why I’ve turned out this way, wondering if there’s still enough time to fix it and get a real career. I’ve also been looking back on high school thinking about what started the path to here. And how much a few things mattered. Things I never would have thought about then. Things like The Discovery Channel and raft trips.

I blame my current life situation (25, single, not on any definite career path, pretty much treading water, “A ragged urchin, aimless and alone” as W.H. Auden put it) on my parents not having cable, specifically The Discovery Channel, and on a whitewater-rafting trip the summer before my senior year.

The Discovery Channel: Apparently science is interesting. I learned this watching MythBusters the other day. The physics and chemistry of random combinations of fire, Mentos, pipes and ejector seats creates some unbelievable pyrotechnic fiascos. Science is fascinating. How did I miss this?

I didn’t learn it in high school. Chemistry consisted of charts and tables (periodic and otherwise), and once you understood that you were free to play calculator games. Not once did a teacher of mine explain the chemistry of fireworks colors or the numerous ways to make chlorine explode. This was happening on cable TV, and I didn’t have it. No. I read books instead. Take that to its logical conclusion: I am now a college graduate with a degree in English literature. Definitely not a doctor. There are two options for this kind of person: teaching or more school. I’ve tried both. Neither option seems to be financially lucrative yet (or anytime soon).

A Raft Trip: The summer before my senior year of high school I got to be part of a team (ironically, a team chosen for our leadership abilities and future potential) that went to Colorado for a week. Being from the Midwest, and having never seen real mountains before, I was blown away. The highlight for me was a whitewater-rafting trip down the Arkansas River. One two-hour trip later, I was in love.

Every summer since that trip been dedicated to the pursuit of more: more challenging, more advanced, more terrifying whitewater. To the chagrin of my mother and the devastating effect on my education and future (I would have double majored, but rafting got in the way of a necessary internship, so I dropped my political science major), I can’t get enough.

If only someone would have warned me about this potential addiction to whitewater rafting. One Nepalese rafting company does warn its guides in their training manual: “We accept no responsibilities for diminished career opportunities, and the inevitable chronic relationship problems which accompany the slow but undeviating downward spiral into the dark underworld of professional whitewater trash—you wouldn’t be the first to have whatever contribution you could have made to society stymied by whitewater addiction.” That’s all true. But no one told me until it was too late. They didn’t have “The More You Know” commercials on NBC about not becoming a raft guide.

The ostensibly nice thing about whitewater rafting is that you can do what you love and make some money while doing it. “Some” is a euphemism. I’ve been trying to make money as a raft guide for awhile now, and the thing is, you only make just enough to support your habit. This must be somewhat similar to being a mediocre drug dealer. You can’t raise a family on a raft guide’s wages. What you can afford are Ramen noodles, which aren’t actually too bad if you put only half the packet of flavoring in (more than half is too salty, trust me).

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So, after a close examination of my own life and the factors that have gotten me here, it is decided: my kids will watch a lot of The Discovery Channel, read few books and never, ever do anything fun. They’ll love science and never go on a raft trip. They’ll never see an ocean or a surfboard. They will never skateboard or ski. And because of this foresight, they will be doctors and lawyers.

I’m joking of course. They’ll read books. They’ll do fun things. Because, and here is what seems to have become the point of this, you can’t know what the things will be that really matter. You don’t know what seeds will flower. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about in the seed parable: scatter seeds, but most of it is not up to you.

Honestly, that wasn’t going to be my point when I started writing this. I thought that my point would be about how big jobs aren’t as important as small acts of love, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in Stranger than Fiction discovered when she quit Harvard to become a baker. And while that’s a good idea, it seems more important to me now to make sure that you know that it’s OK if your life hasn’t followed society’s blueprints for success. If different seeds have bloomed. That it’s OK if parts of your journey are a mystery to you. The whims and the plans that have moved me through my life, I can’t understand them completely, as hard as I try. And even if it never makes sense why it happened the way it did, if it never totally comes together like a good story, I’m becoming OK with that too.

And yet I’m always suspicious that the flowering of certain seeds and not others will make sense some day. Lately I have seen some of it come together. Small ways mainly, but it happens. A few loose ends—a random guy I met hiking in Colorado and another chance encounter a few states away—suddenly connected and became encouragement and friendship. Stuff like that happens, and I start to become suspicious that someday it will all come together. And it’s all I can do, every time I catch a glimpse of it, to fall to the floor in wonder and humility and repeat over and over: Thy will be done. Thy will be done. Thy will be done.

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