The covered balcony at our condo has a privacy wall and a menagerie of birds around it. Some neighbors have bird feeders and bird baths, so they twitter and tweet about all day long. I keep insisting we, too, should get a bird feeder so they’ll come visit us directly, but Dear Husband is fairly certain we’ll collect bird shit as a result. Give the birds a chance, I said. They haven’t shit all over everything *yet*, and if they do, what is the total amount you will have sunk into a bird feeder? Not much.
(I didn’t win this debate.)
What we have agreed upon, though, is that the balcony is a nice place to sit and eat breakfast or dinner. This past weekend, we sat at our patio table in pajamas and had bagels, fruit, coffee, orange juice; no pesky bugs around, birds were singing, one of them swooped down to gently offer a napkin to me…not really, but we’re living the life and I can sense your jealousy already.
As we sat and enjoyed the food, I looked at him and thought about other meals we’ve shared in far away places and it suddenly felt a bit strange.
“Now that you’ve known me here, do you find it surprising that I would move to Taiwan like I did? Do I seem like someone who would do that?” I asked.
He finished chewing his food and looked at me a bit and said “Yeah, kinda surprising.”
“Really? Why?” I laughed.
“I don’t know. I think maybe you were feeling very desperate or just wanted to get away.”
When I was little, I had a laundry list of dreams. I was going to see the world just like my grandfather and my aunt. I was going to work for National Geographic and someone would pay me to see the far reaches of the globe, take photos of it, and write to my heart’s content. I was going to study anthropology and the origins of modern man. I wanted to be a pilot, and I would work for NASA and participate in interstellar space travel right after I mastered quantum physics. Somewhere in between all of these lofty dreams, I would get married and have kids and build my dream house (the floor plans for which I could frequently be found drafting on graph paper when the mood struck) and read books.
Why didn’t I do all of those things? What derailed these precious gems of my childhood?
Nat Geo: I did look into National Geographic internships during my college years and found that not only were they (of course) terribly competitive, but they were all in Washington, D.C. Cost benefit analysis finding #1: Nat Geo would be amazing and I would be off to meet interesting people, but I was clearly going to starve to death in a cardboard box because I wouldn’t make enough to pay for my living expenses there.
Dr. Hadley, Anthropologist: I started off at Central Michigan University with the intent of being an anthropology major. I loaded up my first semester with history classes on the cradle of civilization, cultural anthropology, and an intro to biological anthropology. I was enjoying myself but constantly looking forward (as is my nature) and fretting over what job prospects lie ahead. Cost benefit analysis finding #2: Through my own research and conversation with my parents, I convinced myself if was a fool’s endeavor where again, I would find myself in a cardboard box due to lack of “real, gainful employment”. I wouldn’t be Indiana Jones, I’d be struggling in Indiana.
Pilot: Yeah, my vision is terrible and this dream was likely the result of being exposed to a higher proportion of war flicks than most little girls my age would ever see in their lifetime. (Thank you, Dad.) Fringe side effect: I’m able to hold a relatively compelling, knowledgeable conversation with a large subset of middle aged/senior citizen males, at least in part because since we’ve seen the same movies.
NASA: My math wasn’t good enough to be a scientist and the only other way I’d get to space (realistically) was to pilot the shuttle. Please see the aforementioned pilot fail. (For the record, still wanna go to space. Just not going to try.)
Now we’re down to the classic domestic scene of a happily settled life, one with a lovely house, 2.4 children, and a dog. As of today, I have none of these things. I do, however, have a husband. So….go me!
What ties this all together? Well, let’s state the obvious and acknowledge the tendency toward risk aversion. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a risk taker, nor would anyone who has ever known me. Non-conventional, in some respects, but conservative with regard to what I’m willing to lose. With that in mind, going to Taiwan might seem entirely out of character for me.
Except I had literally nothing when I made the decision to go. No relationship, no children, no mortgage, no full time job, just a college degree, youth, and a clock ticking on the loan deferment. When framed in this manner, going to Taiwan may have been non-conventional as a solution, and adventure, sure…but risky? Not really. If I hadn’t found work or was miserable when the first two months were up, I had a round trip plane ticket back home. It might have been a touch nerve-wracking to go, but it was one of the easiest cost benefit analyses I’ve ever conducted.
The rest of my life decisions are wracked with anxiety and fear over whether I’ve got a plan, whether it’s the right plan, and what the ramifications of said plan are. Simultaneously, I will acknowledge that life cannot be completely planned and we must adapt/overcome that which comes along, and then freak out about my lack of control and the artificial sense of permanence I assign to my choices.
What’s worse, these aren’t even truly serious choices or fears in the larger scheme of things; I’m not at risk of homelessness, I know where my food is coming from, I’m relatively healthy, I’m not facing war at my backdoor or persecution from a government. My life is not that difficult and yet I fill my heart with the angst of contradiction. When I’m living on less than 15,000 USD a year and happily exploring the world, I feel guilt at not having ‘real’ employment and a retirement fund, etc. How will I ever ‘settle down?’ Yet when I am ‘gainfully employed’ and have a 401k, an IRA, a car, PTO, etc., I feel like I’m missing out on what’s happening in other places. Why can’t I go there again? I have money for a ticket if I choose…but I have to work. (Strange how that works, eh? Got the money, but don’t got the time. Got all the time and have NO MONEY.)
Every. Single. Day. I weigh the pros and cons of my life in West Michigan versus a life gallivanting somewhere else. Some days, I choose to stay put and feel roots digging down into the ground; heavy and burdensome, but safe. Other days I plot an escape and try to decide what the best game plan would be for a return to Taiwan, perhaps. The back and forth and constant analysis makes it impossible to enjoy the present or feel any sort of sustained peace. I sometimes wish I had no desire to go anywhere, like some folks who seem content to do the same old thing their entire life and raise their kids in the same tired old town they grew up in.
Should I even agonize this much? Perhaps it’s inevitable; unlike last time, I have something I worked hard to build this time. If I left my job and went a different direction, there’s every possibility it could be an irreversible decision. There is no try it out and if you change your mind, come on back. What is more valuable to me, transience and adventure or the American Dream? I’m greedy and want both, hence my self-inflicted plight.
Cost benefit analysis ruins lives, sometimes. No one should be consumed by this, no one should allow too much of their finite time on the planet to be spent agonizing over such details. But I probably shouldn’t discount the very significant differences in cost this time around, either.
What do you ultimately value and does cost benefit analysis ever control you?