The Universal Notebook: The man with the dragonfly tattoo
Every once in awhile it occurs to me that I might like to do something entirely different with my life. I have wanted to be a writer since I was 13, but I had hoped to become a better writer than I am 50 years later. I somehow imagined I would be a major novelist by now, not just a local journalist.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that I get to make a living as a writer. I still enjoy staining the white radiance of a blank screen with my deathless prose, but sometimes I think I might like a do-over. Don’t you?
There are no doubt more courageous folks than I who have, in fact, changed course entirely at 63, perhaps even later in life, but I somehow think it’s too late for me to become a physician. Even if I had the will, I don’t have the energy or the science prerequisites.
Realistically, I could imagine studying for the ministry, turning a column a week into a sermon a week and my expressed concerned for the suffering of others into overt action, but I’m afraid I just don’t have a calling.
I might also reasonably consider teaching, museum work, or public relations, but I’d need credentials, accreditations and competencies I now lack and am too lazy to acquire. And when I think about going into communications work I realize that, not only would I last about a day and half in the corporate world, I have no interest whatsoever in new technology and social media. Tweet all you want; I’m just hoping I don’t outlive print media.
Fantastically, I can imagine becoming a shepherd in the Outer Hebrides, a Buddhist monk in the South of France, a wandering mendicant in the Himalayas or a beach bum in the Florida Keys, but I’m much more apt to wind up as a bag boy at Shaw’s. I’m way too practical (and married) to ever make a serious break from my established routine. I’m so domesticated that I feel out of place anywhere I don’t recognize the brand of milk.
When I get in the if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now frame of mind, I start wishing I had stayed in school and earned a doctorate in philosophy, as I had once intended. By now I might be the Edward Pols Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin, dispensing wit and wisdom as a venerable metaphysician. If I had it all to do over my kids tire of hearing, I would have pursued a life in academe. Hard to beat, ladies. Culture, sports, libraries, summers off. But so far I haven’t managed to persuade any of my daughters to go the academic route.
What started me thinking about doing something entirely different was watching Mitt Romney destroy Barack Obama in the first presidential debate and then going to bed reading Bernd Heinrich’s wonderful new book "Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death." I met Heinrich years ago, visiting him at his little cabin in the western Maine mountains. At the time he was teaching at the University of Vermont and studying ravens. I still admire him and his writings enormously.
I don’t have enough of a mathematical mind to have ever considered the hard sciences, but I think I might have been able to make it in the natural sciences if I had started back when my mind was still supple enough to embrace empirical data. I would very much like to have become a Bernd Heinrich or an Edmund O. Wilson, a scientist able to write and to extrapolate larger meanings from the lives of winged beings.
Yes, that’s it. What I’d really like to do is become is a leading authority on the order odonata, tracking elegant dragonflies and damselflies in the wild, studying their brief, brilliant, beautiful lives while our national leaders are busy stomping America into the ground. But, alas, there is no time for a degree in entomology. I’m thinking maybe I’ll just get a dragonfly tattoo instead.