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Down the Road

Choices send us down the road
By Milton M. Gross
Nov 25, 2012 - 12:20:44 AM

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On my Island Explorer bus one summer, I met a young man who told me he was a sternman on a lobster boat.

If you don't know, a sternman works on the boat, usually at the stern (rear) end, doing chores such as cleaning, hauling lobster traps, straightening up line that if not straightened can send you to a watery grave should you trip on it.

This young man told me he had nearly drowned. He had been hauling a lobster trap and leaned too far over, when a wave knocked him off balance. His boss saw what had happened and grabbed the young man's belt, saving his life.

Instead of "oohing" and "ahing," I asked him if he wanted to spend the rest of his life not quite drowning while working on a lobster boat.

The question apparently caught him off guard, because he kind of stumbled around for words and eventually got around to saying that he hadn't thought about it. (For many young people on the coast of Maine -- the rocky dangerous one, lobstering has been a family trade for several generations, and, by golly, they're going to be a lobsterman too. Even if we're running out of lobsters.)

I suggested to this young man that he visit a friend of mine, who operates a couple of tourist boat rides, lasting from an hour and a half to several hours.

"He can train you to be a boat pilot," I suggested, "so you can work on the ocean without falling into it."

He said he'd go see Steve, my friend.

He told me he liked to ski, so I suggested he seek winter employment at Sunday River or Saddleback or Sugarloaf. He kind of brightened to that idea.

Too many people have never thought even that far ahead, next winter.

I don't know if he followed through or not. Or if he's still trying not to fall out of a lobster boat.

One I know left Maine right after high school, banged around in the great West for several years doing things like helping with surveys in the mountains, and eventually returned to Maine -- to drive a school bus.

Middle aged now, that person has no place to go -- except wherever some opportunity opens itself.

A school superintendent where I once taught told the kids there was nothing wrong with a job, such as running a chain saw for a logging company. But he stressed that smart people would plan for other jobs should the favored one fail. I think that one cutting trees with a chain saw has failed by now.

My father worked most of his life as a railroad official. My older brother spent his lifetime switching tracks in a tower so the trains wouldn't get lost. One life, one job or career. When they were done, they both retired well off.

Those single-job careers are basically done. Rarely can someone spend a whole lifetime at one job.

Maybe a plan would help.

My plan was, well, a bit vague, although I had one. It's just that it changed over the years as circumstances changed and my views and values changed.

It began when I studied for the ministry, a good plan, maybe.

Except that I was too cynical. At my first and second church, I would think about how the non-church-members in town would view my position. What does that minister do all week, when he's not preaching on Sunday? What were his duties, according to the New Testament?

So I went to the New Testament -- and the Old -- for an answer. Not only did I not learn what a minister was supposed to do Monday through Saturday. I couldn't even find a professional clergyman in the Good Book that is supposed to guide that professional clergyman.

Um, let's see, my biblical position wasn't in the Bible.

I made a plan. I left the ministry.

And became a school teacher. While this wasn't in the New Testament, it didn't need to be. It was a secular position in our modern U.S. culture. But I learned after bit that in the American school, teaching itself wasn't the really big deal. It was being a good bureaucrat.

I was not only not a good bureaucrat, but I hated bureaucracy.

I quit teaching.

And happily found myself writing for a newspaper, then a second, and finally a third. I had always had fun writing, as a kid doing it in secret since my family was not supportive. Then in college and in those other two careers, I found myself writing. One professor told me he liked what I wrote as a term paper in his class. Another suggested I work for a publisher.

Writing felt good. Writing made me feel satisfied. It felt really fulfilling when someone would contact me and say nice things about what I wrote. When people said things that weren't nice, it didn't bother me.

Because I had found it. What I was pretty sure I was designed, engineered, and supposed to do. It had always been there, deep down inside and waiting for me to catch on that this was my life.

It was not much of a plan, and it happened step by step, as I was ready to accept the next part of the plan.

I could have stayed in teaching and made more money. But writing was much more fun and fulfilling. I never regretted leaving the ministry or teaching. I wrote and loved it. Of course, now we're trying to figure out how I can retire and have enough money, since writing didn't -- and doesn't -- pay all that well. (Maybe the retirement money part should have been part of the plan.)

I've always loved the outdoors, so my non-paying side of life led me to become a volunteer in the Maine Appalachian Trail Club plus maintaining a couple of local trail systems for a town or two. The woods always feels good. When I need to think things through or am discouraged, I head for yonder trees.

Want a plan? Think of what you'd do if you weren't getting paid to do it. What turns you on? What feels so good, you just know you need to aim that direction.

That plan.

Dolores and I kind of see our plan in an imaginary canoe trip. We're gliding down a fairly wide stream, and we come to islands from time to time that require decisions -- which way around it do we go. So we try one way. Oops, not a good route. We try another.

Which has been fulfilling, as I wrote before, and fun, as I also wrote before. It also helps us keep looking for the better way.

I wonder what that guy with the chain saw is doing, or the one who came back from the West to drive a school bus, or the kid who was sternman in the lobster boat.

Our plan wasn't perfect.

But we're happy.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

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