Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Rewriting the Past

Unfortunately, it is decidedly human to have regrets in life—the things we’ve done and the things we didn’t do—as they are terrible reminders to the fact that sometimes the decisions we make in the various stages of growing up and getting older have a remarkable effect on who we’ve become, how we function and where the fates will inevitably send us. There are two kinds of regrets illustrated by these examples: 1) Waking up with a hangover, you regret those last half-dozen drinks; 2) Saying no to the proposal of a pimply-faced nerd who went on to become a billionaire GQ model.

Something you did and something you didn’t do: They both have equal consequences in that they end up both being poor decisions. I’m sure everyone reading this is like me in that I am not without regret. I regret no buying stock in Microsoft in 1986. I regret the fact that I was a shy teenager. I regret that I sold a huge box of Legos at a garage sale for three dollars. I regret that I quit piano lessons. But mostly, I regret that I didn’t become an architect when I had the chance.

I’ve lamented on this story endlessly but it is worth repeating. In 1990, I had great plans. I was going to be an architect, “you know, design buildings, plan modern cities” (kudos to whomever knows that allusion) and I was going to be successful at it. I always had an eye for space, a knack for geometry and a good balance of practicality and design, but all I needed to do was go to college and get my degree. At 17-years-old, I stood on the edge of the world high above my future, ready to jump, but the only problem is that I didn’t have a parachute. In 1990 (and probably every year since), the architecture program at Cal Poly was impacted, meaning they had way more applicants/students than could fit in the classrooms. That means classes would be impossible to get, textbooks would sell out in a snap, etc. As a result, the schools that I applied to were in the unique position to only accept the cream of the crop, the best and brightest students affirmative action would allow. This, did not include me. My second choice was English, and I settled for that because it got me into school, and once entrenched therein, I could easily switch majors to my chosen profession.

Funny thing is that I never did, and I’m not entirely sure why. I wasn’t that good of a student, for starters, but that wasn’t really it. My first quarter, I earned a 3.4 GPA. Then I joined a fraternity. I met a great girl. I got complacent. I settled for the here and now and paid little attention to tomorrow or next week. I had a lot of wonderful times and great memories, but filling out a simple one-page form to alter the course of my life somehow not longer seemed that important. After all, those guys up in Building Eight, what with their portfolios with velum spilling out, detailed models of balsa wood, blueprints in those fancy leather tubes slung across their backs and that air a achievement and worthiness that swirled around them when they walked by… why would I want all that extra work? And what was it for? A better future? At 18-years old, what does that mean? The future of an 18-year old is measured in eons not years; middle age is a lifetime away, literally. Plus, weren’t we all getting the same degree and now that I was an English major, I would pursue my second goal in life and that was to be a writer. So instead, I’ll gulp down Chaucer, discuss Milton and mourn for Yeats. I’ll write my papers dissecting the ad nauseam of Shakespeare and my pointless fiction and those silly little haikus Liberal Arts professors get such a kick out of assigning. I’ll sit in groups and question why Frost took the road less traveled without ever once asking that very question about myself. I’ll coast, after all, getting into college was the point of all that work in high school, right? All I need now is a degree to guarantee me a job in the “real world.”

So, that little voice in the back of my mind that kept screaming, “You want to be an architect! You want to be an architect!” slowly got hoarse over the years and quietly faded into the corners of my memories, shaking its head at the uselessness of trying to convince an impetuous youth that he may have created a regret. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I was an adult blazing the path toward my destiny. The architect books I read as a kid, the dozens of residential designs I meticulously drew out on graph paper, the drafting table I had in my bedroom and the equipment of the trade I amassed… that was all just kid’s stuff, right? Idle dreams of a naïve child who didn’t know how it works, how rejection doesn’t end the game, how hard effort eventually pays off in the end. But was it? Did I?

Sixteen years later, I can tell you now, that I knew nothing.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Those guys in Building Eight graduated and so did I. We got jobs, got married and had children, and each one of us should now judge our success against nothing else but our own happiness. You’re successful when you’re happy at what you do, and one of my goals in life was to be a magazine editor. I love to write. I love words. I love my current lifestyle (working for myself, taking care of the kids, making more money than I ever have in my life, etc., etc.). I did all of that. What next?

What next indeed.

All these years, the thought of being an architect crossed my mind often. But it was too late. I couldn’t afford to go back to school. I couldn’t live my current lifestyle and attend school at the same time. There’s only 24 hours in a day. I missed out on the opportunity 16 years ago. I didn’t fill out the appropriate form and force myself to take control of my own future. I took the easy road, instead and I’ll admit, it turned out a lot better than I expected (or could have hoped): I achieved my dreams of becoming a full-time writer. I’ve written a few books, no fiction yet, but there’s still time. But what about that little voice? Is he dead? I hadn’t heard from him in a while, even though every now and again, he’ll chirp up, though nothing comes of it.

It’s funny how you can spend the better part of a decade missing something while not even knowing that I could do anything about it until just yesterday. That little voice came back, revitalized and demanding that he be heard.

I’m going back to school to get my architecture degree, and I couldn’t have planned this better. I’ve got the time. I’ve got the money. And I’ve got the motivation.

And it all started with the kids’ Thomas the Tank Engine train table. You see, a couple of days after I spend great effort to lay out an intricate track/station system for the kids to enjoy, it gets destroyed. Either Matthew will play Godzilla and tear through the Island of Sodor until not a single track is connected, like Sherman’s march to the sea, or Natalie will disassemble the tracks and stretch them around the dining room table. Either way, I find myself building a new layout, and it is always different than the one before it (by no fault of my own). This particular one attracted the attention of Kara’s mom, who is staying with us for a few weeks. She remarked how nice it looked and said, “You should have been an architect,” which prompted a discussion about how it is too late, that I’ve made peace with the little voice and how it would be impractical to start down the road toward a new career this late in the game.

It didn’t take much, but after a while, I was convinced otherwise… I could go to school again. I could get another degree. But as quickly as my hopes and dreams were lifted high they were just as quickly dashed on the rocks again, when, get this, the major is yet again impacted at Cal Poly—too many students, not enough spaces. On top of which, they no longer accept applicants for second baccalaureates (a person who is looking to get another degree, namely me). Oh well, it was a nice dream, fleeting, but nice while it lasted. But wait! In one of those coincidences that defies mere chance, a couple of days prior, I remember getting a catalog from Riverside Community College (RCC), and for whatever reason it hadn’t yet been thrown away. In it, they offered architecture, drafting and engineering classes.

So, a plan formulated. Since Cal Poly classes are mostly day courses and the kids are not both in school, I would go to RCC and soak up every class I can get my mind around, wait out Cal Poly and chance that they will open up applications to Second Bacs (as they are called) and maybe architecture will lighting up a bit too. It was worth a shot, but I had many questions. Am I too old to be a freshman again? Would I have to take a bunch of GE classes to get an Associate’s Degree? I don’t think I could sit through English 101 again. And the biggest one: Would I be accepted?

As I found out, it’s community college and they accept pretty much any warm body with $20 to pay per unit. Plus, as luck or fate would have it, today was the first day for “new students” to apply, and the campus that handles the architecture program is merely five miles from my house, so I wouldn’t have to drive into the city. What luck! This morning, I filled out my application and I am now, once again, 10 years later, a college student. I went and visited a counselor who swept a red pen across all of the GE requirements, slashing them from my list of classes I’d have to take, which means only about 10 core classes stand between me and an Associate in Science degree in Architecture.


Elated at my new course in life (well, I guess it is just added to all the other things I have to do too—remember, I do have a full-time job and I am a 75-percent stay-at-home dad), I zipped up to Cal Poly to pick up a copy of my transcripts (in order to negate all of those wonderful GE classes at RCC), and since I hadn’t been on campus in more years than I have fingers, I went into the first office I saw in the CLA building (the big ugly pointy one) to ask directions to the Registrar’s Office to get the transcripts. It turns out that the office I ducked into was the Admissions Office, so I leveled a few questions at her about the Second Bac program and a possible backdoor around the new ruling…which just came down on Friday, naturally. She made a few calls to get some more information for me and then suggested I come in as a post-grad. That seemed absurd. How can an English Bachelor’s degree be considered prep work for an Architecture Master’s degree? It was something I had never even considered possible, so she called a Master’s degree advisor, who led me back to her office to discuss the possibilities at length.

As it turns out, my plan is perfect. Going to RCC will put some coursework and experience under my belt, allow me to raise my GPA, put together a portfolio (apparently, it is part of the application process) and not waste the time between now and when the kids go to school, freeing up my days for post-grad work. She said I couldn’t be in a better position to do what I want to do, but my only obstacle is the fact that they only accept about 20 people into the program (out of about 80 applicants)… but that’s not for a couple of years. First things first.

Assuming I can get into them, come February 20, I will be taking ENE-21 Drafting on Wednesdays 6-10pm, and ARE-36 History of Architecture through the 20th Century, which is an online course, however that works.

Just maybe, if all goes as planned (and hoped), in six or seven years, I’ll have my Master’s degree in Architecture, and that little voice can finally find something else to complain about. I can't assume it is going to be easy, but the difference this time around is that my desire to learn has become more developed the older I get...and I'm no longer a stupid kid wondering where the next toga party is going to be.

But what’s the point, you ask? Why go to all the trouble for something that isn't necessary and may never work out? What's the point of doing anything? Why apply for a new job? Why go to the gym? Why change anything about yourself? Why bother waking up in the morning? Haven’t you ever had something that you felt like you just had to do to feel complete, to satisfy an itch that until now you haven't been able to reach? Like I said, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing and living how I’m living, but I’ve always wanted to rewrite this regret, make right a mistake I made too many years ago and entertain a little what-if in my life.

Plus, I may not have the money or the time or the ambition in the future, so it's now or never.

Wish me luck.

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