The first of the dwarf red Japanese maples in the garden started turning color last week. From year to year, I am never sure exactly when to expect it. By the time I’ve noticed the first one, the brilliant red summer color of the leaves has already turned wrinkled shades of brown and orange. And every year it seems to happen earlier than I expect. Now, I am noticing other trees turning color, in the parks, along the streets. The first leaves are on the ground.
The days are bright and there is still warmth in the sun but a barely discernable chill has returned to the morning and evening air. One recent morning, leaving for work, a thin marine fog was visible as it moved between the two large conifers behind the house, backlit by the rising sun. Beautiful, yet a harbinger.
This morning’s fog was just lifting from our vast inland sea when I reached the crest of the rise, fifty yards or so from where I parked the car. The sound of lug-soled shoes on the gravel trail accompanied me to this overlook, where the land rolls down toward the water, the last several hundred feet falling precipitously over a steep bluff to the sandy shoreline below. At this point, this park is more-or-less a prairie, an expanse of low vegetation descending to the west. Out in the shipping lanes, a container ship is moving north with a load of cargo, heading up-Sound, the first leg of a voyage that will take it though the Straits, out to the Pacific Ocean.
This is now a city park but I will always think of it by the name I knew growing up; Fort Lawton. This triangular point of land is bound on one side by the city and on the other two by salt water. Like most land around the Sound, it was covered with conifers for centuries; cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock. In the late 1800’s, it was secured by the US Army. This was one of the last of the fortifications built on the prominent points of land on the Sound. Any 19th century threat to this northwest corner of the United States would have been expected to arrive in the form of warships. These military installations built on high ground overlooking the navigation routes were the first line of defense. This was the Army of horse solders. Much of the grass that replaced the trees would have been kept low by tent encampments, marching boots and horse hooves.
My grandfather, a sergeant in the Army, was quartered here and my Dad grew up here. The land to the south and east of the Fort was a dairy in those days, known as Pleasant Valley, before it gave way to the streets and neighborhoods of the city.
During the thirties the Army made it known that the land was available to the city for a park. Pearl Harbor changed many things and so it changed the Army’s plans for Fort Lawton. It became a point of embarkation for thousands of solders being shipped out to the Pacific and, later, to the United Nations police action in Korea. The transfer of the land to the city did not occur for another twenty years.
There are still remnants of the horse soldiers Army. The most prominent are the officer’s quarters on the top of the ridge where I stand. These grand three-story wood-framed residences were positioned to overlook the parade grounds and the commanding vistas of the salt water and the mountains beyond. There are a few other buildings left; the horse stables, the band quarters and the post gymnasium have survived. They were all originally barn-red. Today the original clapboard buildings that remain are sunflower yellow. There is just enough of the old Fort left that, from a distance, if one squints, it can be seen in the imagination, with soldiers marching, band playing, horses strutting and officers wives in long dresses walking the sidewalks to the post exchange.
But it’s been a long time since the Fort was used for its intended purpose. The signs of disuse, disrepair and decay are everywhere. Roads and sidewalks are overgrown. Concrete stairways with rusting iron railings lead only to thickets. Peering through the windows of the old buildings reveals peeling paint and plaster. The grass that was kept low by constant activity has gone wild, shades of gold and amber at this time of year, seedheads two and three feet tall.
This is now the province of people looking for a place to run, to walk the dog, to take the kids, to find a bit of open space in the city. Relatively little was done when it transitioned from a Fort to a park. It is a place caught between the works of man and the reclamation of nature.
It is an awkward stage.
It is tempting to think that the creatures that have benefited most are the birds. On this early September morning, I have never seen so many hummingbirds. They fly close enough that I can clearly see their ruby throats. Then, in twos and threes they fly so fast as to resemble miniature fighter jets, darting and diving with each other. I usually see them only in our garden, at the flowers they seek out, low to the ground and close to cover. Here, they are not shy about gaining altitude to perform these aerobatics, thirty feet and more above me. I hear but do not see a Stellar’s Jay. A Northern Flicker perches on a branch six feet from me; he takes wing only when he realizes I have seen him. Goldfinches fill an eight-foot tall clump of blackberry vines. Swallows, house finches, pigeons and crows are everywhere.
The change from forest to Army post and now from Army post to park has not been graceful. The efforts to retain the history of Fort Lawton are half-hearted. The effect is one of limited funding and attention. Over time, the only part of the land that reflects its original state, covered in cedars, firs, sword ferns, salal and Oregon grape, are the parts the Army left undisturbed. The rest will probably never return to the landscape known to the coastal native peoples. Whatever it will become will doubtless be a slow and disorganized process.
Which is also true of my own experience with change.
I was probably thirteen before I recognized that clothing had social implications. It usually took me a full fashion cycle before I got the flavor of the style that had already past. I would say that change is something I’ve had to learn how to do, but past would be the wrong tense. The lessons continue. Only recently I set aside my twin-blade razor and went in search of one with three blades; Gillette’s current product has five.
I have spent much of my life avoiding change. I still don’t do it well. I suppose maybe it’s because during my first ten years I never wanted anything to change. I loved my childhood, my home, my family. I was familiar with the concept that kids grew up but I was content with the way things were. I remember listening to the words from the song “Toyland”, about how once children pass its borders they can never return again. I decided I just wouldn’t leave.
Being a kid in the fifties, it was easy to not think about change. My mom was always home. She was there when I walked the two blocks home from school for lunch and when I came home at three in the afternoon. I had my bike. There were kids my age all over the block. I had my little workbench Dad made for me behind the basement stairs, where I could build models or work on slot racing cars. I went to the same schools my sisters had gone to. The same teachers were still there. Every summer, Dad would hitch up the camp trailer he built and we’d go off for two whole weeks to see the wonders of the National Parks. Every Christmas there was a tree, decorated with the ornaments that had been on every Christmas tree I had ever known.
There was a sameness, a predictability, a security about those years.
It all changed on November 22, 1963. Our eighth grade teacher was called out of the classroom into the hall. In a few moments, she returned, stood in front of her desk, folded her hands in front of her, sighed and told us the President was dead, shot and killed in Dallas. From that moment, it seemed to me that things never stopped changing.
Much later, it occurred to me that, for a long time after that day, I had been living life trying to avoid, put off or hold off change. Normal adolescent rebellion, differentiation and separation were diluted by my preference for the status quo. Sure, I wanted to try my wings, to make my own rules, to live apart from my family, to go off on my own… but not so far that safety and security were ever too far away. I moved into an apartment with three other guys, albeit a mile away from home. I left high school with no thought of anything past graduation. I was holding on to what I knew, what I understood, what I could count on.
“Grasping at things can only yield one of two results:
Either the thing you are grasping at disappears, or you yourself disappear.
It is only a matter of which occurs first.”
That’s me, more often than not grasping the parts of my safe, secure, orderly, predictable, reliable, happy, content childhood, grasping to hold on to time, holding tight even though I and everything around me is changing, in ways I cannot possibly hope to effect or control.
Looking back over the years and the energy expended to minimize or avoid change, I am aware that part of my motivation was to always make sure I never made a mistake. Something in me was fairly sure that if I did, I would never be able to get back whatever would have been lost by making the wrong choice. That something was fear. Fear of loss.
The casualties of choosing safety were the rewards that come only from risk. I am left to speculate about the things I might have done or achieved if I had allowed myself to see a larger, less threatening world, to know that risk and experimentation could result in gains, at least as equally as losses. By the time I realized that I could have spent an adolescent summer working at one of my beloved National Parks, the time was long past. By the time I realized that school was more than a place to feel demoralized by students who were better at everything than me, realized that learning led to new worlds, that time too was past. By the time I had the only real thought of what I would truly like to be when I grew up, I was thirty. I did make a few changes then, leaving a career and a marriage, returning to school for a short time to prepare for a try at broadcasting but, when a new station manager came in and replaced several of us with new talent, I went back to what I knew, rather than try to move up to a station in a larger market.
Fast forward to the present; as it always has, everything changes.
The conservative, constant, stable company where I have worked for the last eight years is now engaged in nothing but change. From where I sit, most of it looks like change for its own sake. “Different” is now preferred to “same”. There was a period of about six months when the objective of one of those changes would have taken my job away with it.
All I have wanted from this job, at this time in life, is another five years. Just let me get to age 62. Making a change this close to the end is not what I wanted. Looking for a new position in another company in the last five years of my working life is not what I expected. My spiritual reading tells me I should be looking for the gift in this, to be, at the very least, aware of the work on myself that I am to do in this part of my life, to again learn how to do change in new and different circumstances. Instead, what has ruled the day is anxiety and anger.
For the moment, the job threat has passed. I don’t, however, believe that it is somehow all over. It is a certainty that it will never be the way it used to be. There will be more seismic change. The way the company does business has changed. The work I do has changed. It is less interesting. There is more of it. It’s like pushing meat through a sausage grinder. It leaves me little opportunity for achievement or fulfillment. It has left me doubting myself.
The question I am left with is one posed by a friend: “now what?”
So far, I have been willing to endure all of this not just because the thought of changing jobs is so disagreeable but, in more practical terms, because I have a personal financial stake in sitting tight. But at the end of 2007, when the financial objective has been achieved and the money is in the bank, what then? Can I put aside my hard-wired resistance to change and see some amount of future left in my career? Is there an employer with interest in a man of 57 for a position I would find interesting and, perhaps more important, that would provide me with an income sufficient to allow Jeni to stay out of the workforce, as she has done for the last several years?
As is typical with me, I am focusing not on possibilities or opportunities, but hanging on tightly to what I have, not taking a risk, not making a wrong choice. I am focused on security, safety, the well-being of my wife, our household and our personal economy. Security and an improved work situation seem like contradictory issues.
It is a classic circumstance, one which I’ve been faced with before. I tell myself that this time it’s different because of my age, my stage in life. The future has always looked unlimited, stretching out before me with no apparent end in sight. I’ve never seen an end to my career horizon before which, for the first time, seems close at hand. But with this perspective, I am limiting my options, limiting my future, even limiting my very perception of myself.
There is probably no way around; most likely, the only way is through. It probably starts with dismissing the things over which I have no control, what’s going on inside the minds of the people running this company, and the changes that will no doubt result. Giving my energy to the way it used to be or focusing in what’s wrong with the way it is now will not serve me.
Acceptance of the reality of it and looking at what I can do with it is probably a better bet. Changing my perspective, seeing things for what they are, looking at where I am, rather than where I’ve been, looking inside myself to get a clear perspective on what I can do, being open to whatever is next, being willing to see opportunity, approaching it with an attitude of the possible and looking outward into a less threatening world that still holds promise is what I need to be about.
Still, I don’t do change well. But I can do better, even though it will doubtless be a slow and disorganized process.