Working a full season on the river, I field a lot of questions. Some are funny. Some are pertinent. Some even provoke deep thought. Having done this for a few years, I now have a solid list of the most common questions asked on the rivers. Despite what my ego may assume, guests do not so commonly want to know about me as they do my parents. That's right. The most common question I find myself answering in my raft is "what do your parents think about what you do?" This year, instead of making jokes about college degrees, delayed adulthood, or what they think of my brother, I decided to actually pick up the phone and call my mother to ask her this very question.
Before delving into what my mom thinks about my life choices, I think it's instructive to examine exactly why this is such a burning question for guests on the river. The question, of course, isn't particular to just me, and I feel its frequency has to do with the relative (keyword there) competency and acumen of us in the guiding profession.
Society seems to have decided that seasonal work is not for adults; if you can (more or less) correctly conjugate and structure your sentences, you would be better suited for work indoors. I'm not arguing that we guides seem much too smart for our jobs, but rather that there exists the underlying matter of if our parents can respect our occupational choices and see what we do as somehow worthwhile. I get the sense that most guides feel the same; we care about our work and we didn't wind up here by sad twists of fate, but rather as the result of highly purposive choices and actions.
Back to my mother.
During my phone call, it became obvious my mom understands that guiding whitewater is a decision and something that I and my coworkers put a significant amount of work into. She repeats several times over the course of our conversation (which lasts a whopping eight minutes) that she's happy for me and there is something to doing this sort of thing while you're young and still can make it happen.
She says, "Well, it's not like you have a house and a job and kids." I decide, diplomatically, not to point out that I do, in fact, have a job. I think to myself that by job, she probably means a job which relates to the college degree I obtained before really going off the deep end with this river thing. When I press her further, she sticks to her guns - "You did what I asked; you went to college first and then went off and did this."
I did attend and finish college. Due to unforeseen circumstances (read "break-up") I found myself with a bit of time to burn and no immediate plans during the spring and summer after my junior year. That time was eventually filled learning to raft and taking guests down a couple of rivers within a days drive of the University of Washington.
Despite my recent admittance into the clan of the vagabond, I managed to graduate with honors with a Bachelors in Geography and a minor in music. My trajectory was, at that time, pretty much headed straight for a career in academia. This is, I think, why my mom decides to build on her position by comparing me to one of my high school peers whose journey toward advanced degrees was not derailed by an over the top summer job. "I just look at Jefferson, and his life is nothing but stress - he's always sick, always running from one things to the other, always behind. He's living in this cold, nasty place trying to get his PhD. He should have taken a break. You're not really chasing a goal. Are you typing while I'm talking?"
I do, believe it or not, have some goals. I want to become a better boater, to continue to develop skills on the water. I also care deeply about the work I do. There is a profound and inherent value to exposing people to natural places. The title of guide connotes a role of leadership, of someone whose work it is to help others on a journey. As a river guide, I like to think that we are doing more than assisting people on a fun vacation, but rather, at the very least, we are bringing people to a place which matters to us and which we hope will matter to them.
My mom knows this - we've talked about it before. The trouble is in how these things are generally discussed. The language simply doesn't match up. Indeed, the way words like "goals," "ambition," and "success," are used don't quite apply to someone who willingly chooses to live in a tent or out of a Subaru. Even though I know that I have my parents support, I have to stop and think about the nature of goals, and what it means that, by someone else's standards, I don't have any.
In the end, I push the issue a bit too far with my mom. "What did you think we thought? I thought you knew what we thought?" Well mom, I think I did know what you thought, but I'm glad we had this talk.
Part of me wonders if I should have apologized for all the stress, for being so far away and beyond cell service all the time. It can't be easy having a son who shows up late at night on long road trips, with probably a bit too much strapped to the roof of his car, who misses holidays and threatens regularly to move back in, but still finds the money for new kayaks and river sandals. I can't say that I haven't called to see if I could borrow money, or to check on just how far AAA would be able to tow a Volvo station wagon.
In the future, when people ask me what my parents think, I may just stick with something funny. "My parents think I'm a seasonal lawyer." Yes, that should do it.
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