Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Academy

While sitting here waiting for my shift at medical transcription to end - it's been a slow night, I think some of my doctors are on vacation - I was reflecting on my childhood as a “military brat” and my missed opportunity to attend the Air Force Academy. The subject came up in a conversation with my father at Christmas. I had complained how difficult it was to make a living these days, despite my Master's degree, and how there seemed to be so many glass ceilings, dead-end jobs and closed doors due to licensing restrictions. My dad replied that it was too bad I had ruined my life by turning down the opportunity to attend the Air Force Academy; I was talented and had such potential, I could have accomplished so much. I could have had it made, and I blew it. Which I suppose is true. I replied that I guess I just wasn’t motivated enough. But there’s more to it.

In 1976, when I was 13 years old, West Point and the other military academies opened their doors to women cadets, and the older sister of one of my friends at the riding stable was among them. Ah yes, the riding stable on the beach, at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, a young girl’s paradise, an example of the unreality of life on a military Base, compared to "the real world" which I only realized much later. The reality is, military people do not make much money for risking their lives in service, and (thanks to Congress) their retirement benefits are relatively poor. And fathers are away from their families, often on dangerous missions overseas, like mine was at times, in Thailand during the Vietnam war. But, servicemen and their families are rewarded with many fine things while active in the service, for example, lovely houses near the beach, sometimes maid service (while living overseas – you get to travel the world), olympic-size swimming pools, private beaches and lush camping facilities, yacht clubs with boats easily available, hangars for private airplanes, gymnastics and ballet lessons for their daughters, sports teams and hunting for their sons, riding stables, nice restaurants, discount stores on Base for liquor, food and clothing and stuff, kind of like Ross only more comprehensive; some of the items were "seconds" or "slightly imperfect" but still a fabulous deal; and the best healthcare facilities, like the Naval Hospital in Annapolis where the Presidents and their families go, where I was born, probably the only reason Mom and I survived my emergency C-section birth at 7 months, she with severe type 1 diabetes. So it's like growing up "rich" except you're really not "rich" at all; it's just a temporary, illusory arrangement while your dad is on active military duty. I never thought of us as "rich," I just assumed that's how life was in America. Living on base we were kind of isolated from reality. So, I spent my youth living in beautiful houses, doing ballet and gymnastics, swimming in the pools and oceans and most of all, riding horses.

Lynn and her older sister, Susan, had a mare stabled in the stall next to my gelding. Susan was a very good rider, beautiful, smart, and quite athletic, and we all looked up to her. Needless to say, we were quite impressed that she was one of the first women to attend West Point, and some of us wanted to follow in her footsteps. Also, being a Trekkie I wanted to become an astronaut, and at that time the only way was to join the Air Force. Children of active duty officers had a good chance of being admitted to the Air Force Academy, so Dad began the process for me, and I was quite excited. When Susan came home to visit for the first time after being at West Point for around 9 months, she was like a zombie or an android (a female Data). Her face showed no expression. Our families were at the riding stable and my father, who was not in uniform at that moment, said to her, "Welcome home, Susan!" She saluted him and said stiffly, "Sir, thank you, sir!" He chuckled and said, "At ease, soldier!" but Susan remained expressionless and was never "at ease" after that. It was kind of creepy and did give me second thoughts about joining, but I still had the ambition to do so.

After we were transferred to Hawaii in 1977, I made friends with lots of new people including children of "flower children." As I reflected on life, the universe and everything, I decided that war was wrong, and I became involved in the peace movement. The government was at that time trying to get the draft reinstated and I participated in protests and even gave speeches, one of which was on the evening news while my mother and father were at the home of a high-ranking officer and this caused considerable embarrassment and perhaps even security problems for my father. One time I invited some friends over to our house at Hickam Air Force Base (by Pearl Harbor), where we had a house right on Pearl Channel not far from the Memorial, and you could watch the ships going by. My friends, who were members of Greenpeace, got their cameras out and began taking photos of the vessels in the Channel, including nuclear submarines, which I had not realized was a serious security violation. I was sternly reprimanded for this and did not invite those friends over anymore.

As time went on, particularly in my junior year of high school when the official training began, I started to have very serious doubts about entering the Academy. First of all, I was quite convinced that war/killing people was wrong, and I sincerely believed that all conflicts could be resolved peacefully by talking things over and reaching an understanding with one’s enemy. Boy, was I naive! I had no idea at that time of the true nature of evil in the world. My dad tried to explain to me that some things are worth killing and dying for, like protecting our country or our allies from cruel tyrants who are not interested in "reaching an understanding” with anybody and who will happily make your life a living hell if they take over. Back then, I just didn’t “get” it. Now I do, especially after reading all those emails from Afghani women saying, "Please come rescue us from this dictator! Our life is a living hell," and their explicit descriptions of how our attackers on 09/11 treated their own people, e.g. forcing 12-year-old girls to marry against their will and then have at least a 60% chance of dying in childbirth within a year because under the Taliban, women were not allowed to be doctors or midwives (they weren't allowed to leave their houses, in fact) and male doctors were not allowed to treat women... Nowadays I would happily go over there and kill Osama bin Laden and his boys, given the chance; in fact, the older I get, the more I would relish doing so, although now I am too old and unfit for duty. But anyway, in my youth I was a pacifist, so obviously that would have made it very awkward for me to join the military.

In addition, the more I learned about space travel the more I realized it was quite icky, indeed, smelly, and not anything like the luxurious accommodations on Star Trek. You would be crammed into a tiny metal box with several other people for days on end without showers; using the bathroom in space was very messy, especially for women; and the food sucked and the air became stale. And the more I learned about the training at the Academy the less I liked the sound of it. They wanted me to begin training then, at 15, so as to be prepared. I was already a rider, surfer, dancer, yogi and hiker, but that wasn't enough. They wanted me to begin running and/or swimming laps every day, and to participate in competitive team sports, which I have never enjoyed, and which is a required part of the Academy program. I was also supposed to demonstrate some kind of "public service" and no, "Walk for the Whales," "Save the Seals" or peace protests did not count.

I further learned that at the Academy, when the lady officer in charge came around for inspection every morning at 6:00 a.m. (or was it 5:00 a.m.? I can’t remember, but either way, it’s inhuman), you had to make your bed so perfectly tight that she could bounce a quarter off your bedspread; then she would inspect your medicine cabinet to make sure all the items were lined up in perfect order according to the military protocol and that no contraband items were in there; like, the toner had to be on the far right, then the moisturizer to the left of that, then perhaps a neutral lipstick to its left, but no red lipstick, and certainly no blue eyeliner! etc. And speaking of cosmetics, your hair would be cut very short. As a teenager I found that unthinkable because I loved my long hair, and also because when I was 6 years old my mother had gotten my hair cut in a pixie, against my will, and afterwards when we were in a store someone had commented, "What a cute little boy!" and I think I was scarred for life by that comment.

Finally, I learned that I would have to spend the summer before admission - the summer after my graduation from high school at Punahou - attending "beast camp" and undergoing gruelling training to meet the challenges of the Academy athletic program. Cadets had to participate in school sports and military camp training during their subsequent summers as well. Even though I was pretty athletic, it sounded like more than I could handle, as well as being a huge loss of freedom. I decided that all things considered, the Academy wasn't for me. I also received an invitation to join the Women Marine Corps and I took the letter up to a spot in the mountains by a sacred pool and ceremonially burned it. To my dad’s disappointment, I started looking at civilian colleges. I don’t think Mom minded; her goal for me was simply to be happy which, as she defined it, was to marry a rich man. As she pointed out, “You can just as easily love a rich man as a poor man,” which perhaps is true, although for some unfortunate reason I never hit it off with any of the rich men I dated, perhaps because they seemed to view me as a sex object and/or were very controlling. Alas.

In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I would sometimes like to go back in time and kick myself in the ass. But that's the thing about hindsight; we have knowledge now that we did not have in the past. For one thing, I don't think anybody ever sat me down and told me straight-up: "This is how it is: If you want to succeed in life, maintain the standard of living that you have become accustomed to, and not have to struggle to pay your bills every month and worry about losing your home to the IRS, and be able to retire some day, you need to either become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect, physicist, computer programmer, or some other highly paid profession. Or else you could become a career military officer. The Academy is your only chance to attend an elite school. It is the opportunity of a lifetime and one which you will never have again." Maybe my parents did and I wasn't listening. But my teachers at Punahou never said such things; they talked about "realizing your potential as a human being" and "discovering and expressing your inner creativity" and "serving mankind by helping to raise the awareness of the planet" and so on. They assured us, "If you do well in school, you will do well in life." Bullshit! I was a straight A student. Of course, most of the kids there were from very wealthy families, so succeeding or surviving in the future was not an issue for them. One of my schoolmates, Barry Obama, was not from a wealthy family; like me, he was on scholarship. I did not know that at the time. He, of course, went on to become President.

I, however, went on to attend Florida State University ("Go Noles!") where I considered majoring in International Relations, with a dual minor in Russian and German languages. Soon, however, I became disillusioned with politics and decided that peace on earth could only be achieved by raising consciousness. Ultimately each of us had to be responsible for changing the world one person at a time - namely, ourselves. So I changed my major to the completely useless and largely bogus discipline of Philosophy, although I kept my dual minor since I already had so many credits accumulated and I loved the languages. Nobody bothered to tell me that most Germans and Russians knew English better than we knew their languages, or perhaps even better than we knew it ourselves. None of my professors said, "Geez, kid, you are really stupid to be majoring in Philosophy! I hope you marry a rich man." Instead they said, "Gosh, you are so bright, you write such wonderful papers, you will surely go on to become a successful writer!" (If by "successful" they meant, "often published and complimented on your writing, but never once paid," they were correct.) I didn’t worry about the future, though, because at that time I foolishly believed that if you lived in accordance with your dharma as a sincerely spiritual being, the universe would make money fall into your lap and all your material needs would be taken care of. Ha! As if.

I also studied physics as one of my main electives, but not the type of physics that can get you a job, like Practical Nuclear Physics or Applied Thermodynamics or Properties of Materials. No, I preferred the esoteric classes like Quantum Physics for Liberal Arts Majors wherein we discussed other dimensions; what happens with the Lorentz transformation equations in special relativity if v exceeds c, were that possible, would time really go backwards?; and whether perhaps our universe was shaped like a Klein Bottle (a 3-dimensional Mobius strip whose inside is its outside), or whether consciousness in fact forms the structure of reality since the observer influences the experiment on the subatomic level, or whether Schroedinger's cat was dead or alive if nobody looked in the box. All of which, while extremely fascinating and lots of fun, is a total waste of time unless you become a Ph.D. physicist and get paid lots of money to do research, which I did not, or unless you attend parties with people who find this sort of thing interesting, which is pretty unlikely.

I continued to spend several hours a day doing yoga and meditation, and taught yoga to a few other people. I became a certified kriya yogi from Self-Realization Fellowship. I attended some workshops with Ram Dass. Upon graduation from FSU, I moved back to California, where I had lived as a child and always felt at home. I attended Ananda Yoga Fellowship and received advanced certification in kriya yoga. I went to a weekend seminar with the Dalai Lama and received the Initiation of Padmasambhava. I enrolled in Sierra University (formerly University Without Walls), a school which apparently no longer exists due to legal disputes among its founders, and got my M.A. in Psychology, and also became a licensed minister. In California this qualified me as a Licensed Ministerial Counselor, which meant that I could legally practice counseling, although I could not be paid by the client's health insurance unless they were directly referred to me by a medical doctor. I also could not afford to rent an office for my counseling practice, so my opportunities were limited and occasional, and I ended up taking relatively boring and not very high-paying secretarial or administrative jobs to pay the rent, and spent my lunch breaks doing meditation. Eventually I went back to school to become a Medical Transcriptionist, a respected occupation which supposedly guaranteed a fabulous and successful future, and at that time was quite high-paying.

Dad had retired as a Colonel after 20 years in the Air Force and went to work for General Dynamics and Lockheed in aircraft engineering, and finally retired in Florida near Tyndall AFB, where he had served when I was 13 and I had met Susan of West Point at the riding stables on the beach. When I moved back to Florida to be near family, I learned to my great surprise that my California Psychology M.A. and ministerial license legally qualified me as Jack Shit, since Florida did not recognize California Psychology degrees, did not accept transfer credits from California psychology programs, and in fact, forbade ministers from being counselors. I also discovered that medical transcriptionists in FL made a little more than 1/3 the pay that they did in CA. But at least I had a job, or 2 actually, since I could not make enough working one job. I eventually sought online transcription jobs in California, and found a great one, although the going rate was considerably lower than it had been when I lived there and I am now, like most transcriptionists, an independent contractor, which means I pay double taxes (the employer's as well as the employee's share). Meanwhile voice recognition software, which is currently lame and pathetic, will undoubtedly improve in the next few years to the point of becoming truly useful, at which time transcriptionists will be out of business. We had once believed that we would still have a job as editors, since doctors are notoriously bad with grammar and pesky little details such as the actual names and dosages of the drugs, which it has been our job to correct, but from what I hear, that will no longer be an issue because accuracy will be too expensive to pay someone to ensure.

Here in Florida where, unlike in California, I could actually (well, almost) afford to own land that had a mobile home on it, I had the opportunity to design my own more hurricane-proof house literally from the ground up; I drew the plans and acted as the General Contractor in getting it built, although the male subcontractors wouldn't really follow my orders since I am not a licensed contractor and more importantly, I don't have a penis. But it was a wonderful experience and I realized how much I enjoyed design, and I got so many compliments on my work, that I decided it would be great to become an Interior Designer! Until, that is, I learned that being a legal Interior Designer in Florida requires being licensed by the State Department of Architecture, a process which takes 8 years: 2 years of school and 6 years of full-time internship, something which at my age and situation I cannot afford. So much for that.

I again went online last year seeking a second job, and at the advice of the Wall Street Journal, went to some "freelance" sites, only to discover that thanks to globalization, the going rate for transcription was between $3 and $5 per hour. The article for some reason had failed to mention that most of the jobs on the freelance sites paid well below minimum wage.

I began to beat myself up, saying, "James, you spent most of your life doing yoga, dancing, or sitting on your ass meditating, trying to be one with the universe and achieve inner and outer peace, when you should've been studying hard to become an engineer or architect, or maybe gone to the Air Force Academy! And instead you're broke and probably, within the next few years, jobless."

Then, I heard from an old college acquaintance from FSU who had become a Certified Yoga Instructor after taking a 200-hour (10 weekends, i.e. about 3 months) course which required no prior experience or training (?!). I also read a book, How To Become a Yoga Instructor by a woman who began doing yoga in her 40s, just a few years younger than I am now, and soon thereafter began making a living as a Certified Yoga Instructor. It suddenly dawned on me: "Wait a minute - I have been doing yoga for 33 years! If these folks are teaching yoga, shouldn’t I?!" With the help of my father and my partner, Hawk, I transformed our old mobile home into a beautiful yoga/dance studio and guest house, "Yoga at Lothlorien," which opened in September of 2009. I hope to spend the rest of my life teaching students there, and plan to become involved with Yoga for Veterans in 2010.

Teaching yoga feels like the right thing for me to be doing and it is the only thing that would really make sense, given my education and background. So I am trusting that this is what I’m supposed to do. It really had better work out because, frankly, I’m not qualified to do anything else to make money in the state of Florida. I did consider stripping but I think I am probably a bit too old. I wouldn’t mind working as a life drawing model, as I did part-time in my youth, but the strippers have all those jobs now.

At times, though, I do look back and think, what if I had attended the Academy? What if I had become an Air Force Officer? Maybe I would have actually gone into space in a smelly little spaceship. And if I didn’t die in the space shuttle that exploded, certainly, I would have had the opportunity to serve my country by kicking some serious woman-hating, America-hating, freedom-hating ass in the Middle East. I would have earned respect and honor and made my parents proud. I surely would have a much higher material standard of living. But I wouldn’t have attended FSU and met my friends, including best friend Lori, the mother of my godchildren Dana and Ian. I probably would never have met Ram Dass or the Dalai Lama or various rock stars, or spent time studying yoga in the Sierra Mountains. And I am pretty sure I would not have my yoga studio. Here I am, and all my experiences, all my decisions, have brought me to this point. Everything we have experienced has made us who we are today. And somehow, we are exactly where we are supposed to be – at least in this particular universe. In some parallel universe, some other quantum reality where different decisions were made and different pathways formed, who knows? But here we are, and it is what it is. Wishing us all a very happy 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment