Processing disappointment

Valley of Fire State Park slot canyon“Regroup, recalculate…rethink, recalibrate…” –Iron Chic

Sometimes I think about the last two years of my life and I feel bewildered and disheartened about the events that have unfolded. This is unsettling to me because I can’t reconcile these feelings with the anticipation that I experienced during my drive from the farmland of northern Illinois to the low desert of western Arizona. My interest in relocating there originated with my first visit to the state in 1997. So, when a job opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t wait to set off on what I hoped would be the adventure that I needed in my life – an adventure that would allow me to begin anew in a city where I didn’t know anyone. A lot of people consider moving away from what they’re familiar with, but I didn’t just want to consider the possibility. I wanted to live it firsthand.

Shortly after I arrived at work, I decided that I wouldn’t stay at the college long because it had enrollment and organizational issues that undercut my potential to grow as a professional. The most important responsibility of an educator is to focus on teaching methods and curriculum development to improve the quality of one’s instruction, but the focus is lost when you’re mired in countless other menial tasks that distract you from your efforts in the classroom. In addition, imagine your supervisor telling you during your performance evaluation that he didn’t support creating your position in the first place.  He and my department chair didn’t get along.  At times, I felt caught in the middle.  That makes you question why you’re even there. I quickly learned who didn’t like or respect whom as I navigated the institutional milieu. Moving 1800 miles for a really disappointing work situation that you can’t simply extricate yourself from is unnerving. This realization weighed heavily upon me as my frustration level rose. There are many lessons in this experience that I have spent a lot of time reflecting upon. Here I must say that the friendships I cultivated with some great colleagues who expressed similar concerns helped mitigate the stress.

Two months into my adventure, I encountered a woman whom I fell in love with the moment I met her on a warm Friday evening in late September. Part of what made our relationship so special, and the most significant in my life to date, is that we spent numerous days exploring parts of Arizona, Nevada, and California together – many places that neither of us had ever seen before. We learned a lot about the region while learning more about each other. She intrigued me because she grew up in another country. More importantly, we shared some core values, including an ethical commitment to veganism and an appreciation of nature. We hiked through forests on mountainsides and wandered through desert floor slot canyons (see the thumbnail above) as we took countless pictures and shared anecdotes about our lives.

Ironically, Las Vegas became my home away from Lake Havasu City. This might sound really strange, but it feels more like home to me than the Chicago suburbs. Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not interested in casinos and bars. What draws me to Las Vegas is the incredible landscape away from the traffic, malls, and noise. When I drove into Valley of Fire State Park for the first time and saw the extraordinary rock formations and their vibrant colors – images forever burned into my mind – I thought I had ventured to a different planet because it felt a world away from Midwestern cornfields.

As the fall and winter months passed, my relationship became more serious despite the physical distance. My girlfriend had accepted a new job working for a company outside of San Francisco, so we talked about me relocating there. Initially, I thought that I’d be able to find a teaching position in that area, but I quickly learned that it’s an incredibly competitive market with plenty of highly qualified applicants. When I didn’t receive a call from anyone that spring except a college that’s an hour north of Sacramento, I began to worry about my options. After all, I had ignored other postings around the country because I thought I’d be moving to California. At that point, it looked like I’d be staying in the desert another year. While I considered the Southwest home, I really needed to make a professional move. I felt really conflicted. My partner grew increasingly uneasy with the situation. Eventually, the strain of the distance and some other personal issues (that I still don’t fully understand) led to the end of the relationship in June.

Crushed by the loss and stuck inside my apartment due to the intense summer heat, I decided to work on preparing for the fall semester in an attempt to keep myself distracted. So, I invested time in building my courses because I wanted to add new materials (e.g. primary and secondary sources) to my curriculum. As I kept searching for a new job, I started playing music with a local punk rock bassist who responded to an ad that I placed online. At first I didn’t see any colleges with openings that interested me, but I remained optimistic. During the first weeks of the school year, I immersed myself in teaching to cope with the stress that accompanied the uncertainty.  I applied for open positions when I found them.  Meanwhile, the bassist and I practiced in his garage several times. As musicians, we clicked, and we pieced together songs that I enjoyed playing even if I sounded a bit rusty.

Then, my phone started ringing. I had applied for seven teaching positions and received three calls for interviews. All of the jobs excited me and were in places that I would consider living: Texas (just outside of Houston), California (across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco), and Florida (near Orlando). Realistically speaking, I sensed that one of these opportunities would turn into an offer. You never know what people are looking for (or if there are internal candidates), so I prepared as much as possible.  Here I just hoped the members of the search committees were truly interested and respectful because that’s sometimes not the case. During that interview process, I spent hours in airport terminals and put hundreds of miles on my car (I returned to campus one morning to teach in the middle of all of this) over a frantic four day period. Much to my surprise, an offer came through from the college in Texas as I waited in line to board my flight.  My only concern at that moment: after landing in Las Vegas, could I keep my eyes open the entire 155 mile drive back to Lake Havasu City? Due to a problem with the plane, I wouldn’t pull into my driveway until about 3 am.  Honestly, I wanted to collapse.

After I returned home, I had to finish the semester, officially resign from the position I held, pack and ship my belongings, drive 1300 miles to Houston, and find a new apartment before my orientation just a few weeks away. At times, I felt overwhelmed by an acute sadness that I still can’t quite describe to anyone. Months later, I continue to struggle with it.  The word disappointment is an understatement. Waking up alone in a cold hotel room in El Paso on Christmas morning and then hearing a guy tell someone a profanity laden story about a grisly execution-style murder as I waited to check out felt surreal. It’s a long drive across the entire state of Texas. I kept thinking about how I didn’t have enough time to get acclimated to Arizona. I wondered if I would ever make it back to the Southwest someday. Losing the woman I loved like no one else I’ve ever dated and leaving somewhere I wanted to build a life for myself hurt so much. This is not what I hoped my life would be at forty years old. As I continued eastward on the interstate, the desert and mountains disappeared from the rearview mirror.  My body felt numb.

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