Life’s Churlish Disappointments

It seems to me that when one sets off on an adventure, life ought to accommodate that quest joyfully and should suit itself to one’s sense of excitement.  It should bask in that frisson of anticipation that good things are to come.  But sometimes life doesn’t.  Sometimes it steadfastly refuses to become adventurous, and instead wallows in the mundane slog of life.  Otherwise stated, sometimes life is riddled with churlish disappointments.

One of my LinkedIn pals wrote a comment awhile back, observing that my life has certainly been an adventure.  When I read her post, I felt like I was harboring a dirty little secret.  Because the truth is that, in fact, my life, much like yours no doubt, has actually been long slogs of unremarkable life, punctuated by the occasional — and thus all the more memorable — fun adventure.

I’m luckier than many in the adventures I have had.  They have been numerous and they were terrific fun.  But adventures are often little more than an upbeat attitude cloaked around a life passage, rendering it remarkable, uplifting, inspirational, or just downright fun!

So perhaps what is striking me now as a Churlish Disappointment is little more than February doldrums dressed up as seasonal affective disorder.  Unfortunately, however, this Churlish Disappointment has an air of finality, not seasonality, to it.

We are all, of course, accustomed to Life’s Little Disappointments.  They pepper our days, and we shake them off like a dog scatters raindrops off its back after a recent inclement sortie.  Then we move on purposefully about our business.  Life’s Little Disappointments are eminently forgettable.

dog shaking off water
Shaking off life’s little disappointments.

On the other end of the spectrum are Life Regrets.  They are the big ticket items — the things we thought we would never experience or would never miss experiencing, but somehow we did and suddenly it’s too late reasonably to believe that the missed opportunity will present itself again.  Or it will forever be impossible to undo the magnitude of the experience one regrets having had.  Life Regrets are things like never getting that hoped-for college degree, never having children, losing a child, getting a divorce, or perhaps not getting a divorce.

Churlish Disappointments are midway along the ‘life sometimes stinks’ spectrum, although perhaps leaning closer in towards the Life Regrets end.  Webster’s dictionary says that churlish suggests “surliness, unresponsiveness, and ungraciousness,” as in churlish remarks.  And that’s the way I feel about the Churlish Disappointment of which I write.

Life Sometimes Stinks
The Life Sometimes Stinks Spectrum

Life turned downright surly, unresponsive, and ungracious on me as I moved forward on my adventure to transition from a career as an erstwhile civil rights and employment lawyer/HR consultant to the life of a wildlife/ecosystem conservation professional.  My hopes were high, my network has been both informative and facilitative, and my enthusiasm burned hot.  So what happened?  Or rather, perhaps, what did not?

Regular readers will recall that this adventure was the driving force behind this blog, which was to chronicle the unlikely but enthusiastically undertaken career transformation.  It’s fair to say that over this four month quest, what happened is simple.  Life happened.  The slog of life.  The reality of life.  The adventure led to certain inescapable conclusions which follow and which qualify regrettably more as ‘slog of life’ reasons than as ‘snippets of glorious adventure’ reasons.  (Like I said earlier, my life, no doubt like yours, is often an unremarkable long and lonely slog.)

uphill slog
Life is sometimes an uphill slog.

The realities are that it’s hard to change careers when one can offer only transferable skills, rather than a skill set in the chosen career path.  Other realities abound.  Opportunities are few and far between in the conservation/ecosystem space, and the competition is fierce, especially among those with the proper skill set.  Folks like myself are viewed as well meaning, but better suited to board posts or volunteer activities.

The gig is not completely up.  I have a few remaining irons in the fire, and a dynamite new network of incredibly talented wildlife, animal care and protection, and ecosystem professionals whose work literally may mean the difference between the continued existence of some species we hold dear (elephants and lions, to name but two) and others you may never have heard of, such as the little known pangolin, About the Pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked creature.  Yet, the dye is likely cast.  This particular adventure may be morphing into a more modest undertaking of volunteer proportions.

I prefer to look at this endeavor as one that is not over, rather as one that requires a lot longer time horizon than I anticipated or could sustain for near-term employability purposes.  I will continue my volunteer efforts and hope that this will provide a path to more sustained involvement in wildlife conservation efforts.  In other words, the slog of life continues without the romance of adventure for the moment.

Fortunately, as one door closes another opens, and my search for a position in the Human Resources compliance arena (which is congruent with my past work experience) has gained early and strong traction.

The blog too will continue as that is the essence of life.  Whether it relates to a blog or a journey, one continues on even as the adventure fades, and the purposeful stride settles into a less ambitious slog.  Either way, you’re covering the territory in front of you and sometimes, on a bitter cold, sunlight-slighted February day, that’s all you can hope for as you move forward, putting yet another Churlish Disappointment resolutely behind you.

hiking a snowy mountain as sun sets
Putting one foot in front of the other on a sunlight-slighted day.
open door
As one door closes, another opens.  Onward and upward!

A Travel Love Affair, Born on the Paoli Local

After my last post on traveling, I got to thinking about various forms of travel.  There’s really no easy answer to the question, “What is my favorite form of transportation?”  Each one has much to recommend itself.

I think my all around favorite form of travel is on my own two feet.  I love the nearness of nature when I’m walking about with birdsong in my ears, and the crunch of dirt beneath my feet.  The sky’s magnificent sunset settles on your shoulders when you’re walking, fog makes for an impromptu moisturizing facial as you stride along, and your heart and lungs settle into a rhythmic beat that’s at once calming and energizing.

But what of going greater distances in less time?  Is a car your best bet, a bus perhaps, filled with its wonderful motley crew of humanity, a train maybe, or a jet plane for covering the greatest distances in the least possible time?  Which is best, I wonder.  Which do you prefer?

After reflection, I have to say for me it is train travel, hands down.  There is nothing like boarding a train and surrendering to the rhythmic clickety clack of iron wheels churning out the miles on  lengths of perfectly spaced, symmetrical track.

Railroad tracks

My favorite trains are European ones.  I love the cozy compartments where one sits facing  fellow travelers, permitting discreet observations of one’s traveling companions.  Closer to home, however, I have to say the good old ‘Paoli local’ is a childhood sweetheart to whom my heart still holds true.

European train compartment

The Paoli local is a creature of the Philadelphia region’s SEPTA rail system.  I’m not sure anyone even uses the term ‘Paoli local’ anymore.  Nowadays it is called the R5, a truly sanitized and unglamorous term if ever there were one.  The route used to extend from Center City Philadelphia to Paoli (and later Malvern), the western-most terminus of the fabled and moneyed Main Line.  Nowadays, it extends beyond the Main Line as construction crawl and suburban spread has morphed westward to towns like Exton, Downingtown, and Thorndale.

SEPTA train

These later stops used to be country outposts, unencumbered with train stations, and harboring few signs of habitation other than large farms.  Exton, for instance, was a place simply to stop for ice cream at the old Guernsey Cow.  One motored through by car, on business route 30, passing the white stucco buildings of the Church Farm School where fatherless boys boarded and learned to farm.  It was a town to travel through, before the 30 Bypass and 202 South sliced south and west and laid the groundwork for new developments, shopping malls, schools, and houses of worship that crowd out the old corn fields and stands of sycamores now.

cows_on_the_loose-500the guernsey cow, exton pa

Beginning at age 7 or 8, I was deposited by our mother, with the rest of her passel of uniformed kids, at the Wayne train station where we would board the Paoli local inbound, heading for the stops along the way that would disgorge us near our schools.

Wayne train station
Wayne train station

Wayne train station sign

Serious business men (in those days it was only business men) sat in their spit and polished shoes and sensible overcoats, engrossed in The Wall Street Journal or The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Conversation was held to a minimum.  The dominant sound was the singsong strain of the wheels going clickety clack while the cars rocked gently back and forth, swaying languorously across the tracks below.

We knew the conductors on sight.  We didn’t know their names, but we knew their distinctive ticket punches.  Each punch was as unique as a fingerprint.  Every conductor (and in those days it was only male conductors) had his own ticket punch, and each punch left a tiny cut out on your ticket of a distinctive size and shape, personal to that particular conductor.  We knew that ticket punch as well as we knew the hair color and build of the conductor to whom it belonged.  Tiny colored chads littered the floors of the trains like small bits of confetti, and the distinctive chads marked the locale of that particular conductor’s hole punching territory.

Distinctive ticket punch

We shared a bond with the conductors, knowing them well as they worked the trains we  took to and from school.  It was an interesting relationship.  The conductors neither considered themselves nor acted as babysitters to their young charges.  Oh, they might grab you by the scruff of the neck if you were about to leave behind a lunch box or a scarf for sure.  But that was done dismissively, as if you had violated (as indeed you had) the basic premise of train travel — taking responsibility for your own surroundings and belongings, including that valuable weekly or monthly ticket that would get you to school the next day and the day after that.

The conductors affected a firm, slightly distant manner although a few favorites were more friendly. They had a job to do — collecting and punching tickets, and they did not fancy themselves hall monitors of the various uniformed masses that squirmed in and out of the banquette seats,  shoving over-packed book bags underneath the Naugahyde seats.  (Backpacks had not yet been popularized, and we used canvas book bags with heavily reinforced handles that yielded not a centimeter under the welterweight of notebooks, textbooks, pens, pencils, protractors, and slide rules that jammed the book bags to near bursting.)

older conductor


Come summer, we bid goodbye to the avuncular ones, steady in the knowledge that they would greet us on the platforms as we boarded when September rolled around again.  We said a more measured, formal farewell to the other conductors who might be a tad less friendly but were nevertheless co-inhabitants of our traveling, train universe.

two old fashioned looking conductors

Our early years as travelers on the Paoli local prepped us artfully for later years of more adventuresome travel.  We learned, for instance, that conductors were trustworthy fonts of information about connecting trains, express trains, and how long until the next train would come along if you missed your stop and had to go back a station or two.

We likewise learned that no matter how similar their duties appeared from man to man, each conductor was an individual as distinct as his hallmarked ticket punch.  And each unique ticket punch belonged to a distinctive, deep voice that declared, “Express to Center City; next stop 30th Street!” or “Watch your step!  Watch your step!”

Whether due to the unique ticket punch, a booming baritone, or the no-nonsense approach to train travel, the conductors ensured that our slice of youthful train travel was safe and routine.  Yet it held the whisper of adventure, a soupçon of the delectably ‘inconnu.”  It was, after all, the essence of train travel writ small — with the promise of delightful discoveries yet to come.

So it was on the modest Paoli local that my love of train travel was born.  There too the seed of wanderlust — that hunger for travel — was sown.  It was a seed that would germinate into a lifelong love of travel, whether on foot, by bus or plane, or via the soothing lullaby of train travel’s clickety-clack and the swaying cradle of train cars eating up the miles beneath the rails.

sample ticket punchers
Conductors’ ticket punchers

Harebrained schemes I have had … and thrived!

This is … there is no doubt about it … one of my more harebrained schemes.  Lunching on the back deck after searching LinkedIn Groups for wildlife conservation groups, and finding but a few, kind of brought it home to me.   Leaving a career predicated on the lawyerly skills I earned over the years, and deciding instead to land a job in wildlife conservation — preferably involving elephants — is a downright wacky idea.  After all, there are no elephants in my little corner of Pennsylvania.

Then, however, I recalled other harebrained schemes I have hatched, pursued, and oddly enough, survived.  Even succeeded at.  I credit Colgate University and the old Jan Plan program for this propensity to succeed at harebrained schemes.

Back in the day, as all my old fart classmates will recall, you could come up with an independent study project, find a professor as wacky as you were to sponsor it, and then spend the month of January accomplishing the project for course credit before resuming the more traditional spring semester of coursework come frigid-in-Hamilton, NY- February.

One of my Jan Plans, for instance, involved writing a paper in French about how the Paris subway system was constructed, with a special focus on the tunnels underneath the Seine as this was, if my memory serves, a construction first for a subway system — underwater tunneling.  Granted, this Jan Plan gave me an excuse to return to Paris for the month of January where my Lebanese boyfriend awaited, but I did read lots and lots about la construction du metro Parisien while haunting the Hotel de Sens in the fourth arrondisement, and got credit for the paper I wrote on the topic.

Another, perhaps more useful Jan Plan, involved getting approval to translate Albert Camus’  20th century masterpiece, L’Etranger, into English as the then-existing translation was piss poor, and mangled just about every bit of Camusian symbolism that the unsuspecting Albert had worked into the original.  It was a really bad translation.  The then head of the Romance Languages department, Elwyn Sterling, agreed with me on that and the need for a better one.

Interestingly, Prof. Sterling never raised an eyebrow, or indeed expressed le moindre scepticisme, about the fact that I intended to translate an entire novel in four short weeks.  By week 3, I was roughly at page 9 out of 85 fine-print pages in the Gallimard edition.  Trust me on this:  translating a major work of French literature is just not as simple as ordering a wedge of drooling Camembert from your local fromager!

I returned during week 3, hat in hand, to give him an update.  “Love the project,” I declared enthusiastically.  “I’m really learning so much.  And I really want to continue it,” I said.  But, I sheepishly informed him, I was not as far along as I had hoped, and would not be able to complete it during the Jan Plan month-long semester.

No worries, was his ready reply.  (And, again, he had the grace to act not the least surprised that the project was taking longer than my absurdly naïve initial estimate.)  “Take the spring semester as well, and knock it out by the time you graduate in May, and I’ll arrange for January and spring semester credits.”  And so it was done.  And by May, I was done.  I had translated L’Etranger into a more respectable English language version of The Stranger.  Someday, I should self-publish the darned thing because it was a heck of a lot of work!

Some other harebrained schemes that worked out well that I recalled over lunch include the following:

Pursuing a civil rights case that everyone declared a dead, bang loser, and creating the hostile work environment sexual harassment cause of action for my client Cathy Broderick and other women and men in the workforce.  (That baby got international press coverage — my 15 minutes of fame — which was tarnished only by the fact that I had to hide softshell crab schmutz beneath a borrowed jacket when interviewed by the Today Show because the crab gunk had squirted onto my chest over lunch.)

Deciding at age 17 to spend a year abroad before college.  It was the only thing my Mom ever forbade me to do.  She thought I was too young.  Colgate thought it was a grand idea and told me to take two years if I wanted to, my admissions place was secure.  After heavily lobbying all my Mom’s friends, who also thought it a grand idea since it did not involve their teenaged daughter, I spent the most fun year of my life in the City of Lights.  (That’s when I started to wonder, while of course riding the metro, how on earth does one put a subway tunnel under the Seine after all?!)

Swimming upstream in the Okavango Delta in Botswana after a long, hot day traveling in a dug out tree trunk — preferred travel mode in those parts.  Our very pissed off guide informed me that the place was teeming with crocodiles, and was not amused when I asked, why then had he said we could swim.  (He meant rinse off in the puddle close to shore.)   Even the local villagers tried to warn me, but the confusion on my part was understandable since I didn’t speak Tswana.  Thus, when villagers along the shore smiled broadly, waved, and shouted “kwena,” as I swam upstream, I smiled and waved back between breast strokes, calling out, “Yes, it’s a beautiful river.”  Kwena, as you have wisely deduced, is actually Tswana for croc not river!

Okay, granted that scheme was stupid, but I did survive to tell the tale.  Indeed, I thrived.

So, now you can understand how the most harebrained schemes are hatched, pursued, and how they succeed.  It’s a Colgate thing.  It came with our meal plan and Jan Plan, all neatly included in the fee for tuition.    No matter how harebrained your scheme, if you had the confidence to try it, the professors backed you up wholeheartedly as you inched your way towards a successful outcome.

And that, gentle reader, is how a former civil rights lawyer/investigator hatched her plan to pursue her heart rather than her head in seeking out a career path in animal conservation.  Yep, preferably involving elephants despite a marked shortage of that noble beast here in my backyard in PA.  And I’ve insured my ultimate success by reaching out to Colgate’s Career Center who is enthusiastically backing my plan.  So, I’m bound to succeed.  And thrive.  That’s the Colgate way.

Come along for the ride!   Hold my hand!  Send words of encouragement my way!  I’m going to need it for this may be my most harebrained scheme yet!  And doesn’t it sound like fun?  Go Gate!

Matriarch elephants with baby
Elephant with baby calf