Perhaps the dumbest thing I ever said, and there have been many (even after discounting the plethora made with the intent of impressing females), slipped from my lips during the fall of 1990. It went something like this, “I don’t care what I do, just as long as I’m not stuck in front of a computer all day.”
I uttered those words in the early months of grade thirteen, back when Ontario had a fifth year of high school primarily for those with post-secondary aspirations or too stupid to get the hell out after grade twelve. University applications were due before year end and I was struggling to decide my future.
Not that I’d neglected to consider it entirely, I was just going about things backwards. With the persistent, unyielding guidance of my parents, I’d already decided I would be attending university. Similarly, with said guidance, I’d also decided I would attend one of three universities within daily commuting distance of my home; University of Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier University, or University of Guelph. All that was left for me to figure out was what I was actually going study and do for the rest of my life. No biggie.
I’ve long envied people with a passion for something. Even then I marveled at my classmates who found themselves on the verge of realizing the final stage in their master plan to achieve a dream they’d chased since single digits.
I had no such grand plan or aspirations. A pro hockey career, never a realistic option, had been conclusively ruled out many years earlier when on my first ever breakaway only I came to rest inside the net behind a bewildered goaltender. An unprecedented career as the first Canadian NASCAR champion was even less likely as the four friends trapped inside my Honda Prelude at a rural intersection while I tried to proceed in third gear thinking it was first gear for fifteen straight minutes can attest.
And continuing my high school job at the local Home Hardware store full-time, though theoretically an option, and thereby following in my father’s corporate footsteps, was not one I relished. It also didn’t require university education which, as we’ve established, was pre-ordained, so I resorted to spending countless hours poring over university course calendars trying to discover my adult life.
I wanted a lucrative future, so (cough) the arts were a non-starter. I enjoyed science, chemistry more so than physics (definitely not biology) and geography had always proven an interesting, and easy, subject. Something in the earth sciences seemed an ideal mix of the two. Hydrogeology, a rather obscure discipline, caught my interest immediately in part because the town where I attended high school was in the midst of a drinking water contamination crises after decades of groundwater pollution courtesy of the local Uniroyal Chemical plant.
Better yet, the hydrogeology program at the University of Waterloo was reportedly the best in the world. One of the professors was even deemed the godfather of groundwater though, unsurprisingly in retrospect, never taught an undergrad course. But more importantly, an earth sciences career, while not only ideologically rewarding (saving the world!), also entailed field work which, as I mentioned at the start of this thing, was far superior to being stuck in front of a computer all day.
This anti-sedentary conviction remains baffling. I was active, sure, but hardly obsessive about it. By eighteen, I was done playing youth sports of any kind, preferring instead to focus on my studies in preparation for university, work my part time job to save money for university, and party with my friends whom I’d no longer see once in university. I also ate a lot of Chef-Boyardee; hardly the hallmark of an avid outdoorsman.
More curious, though, was my genuine, if modest, fascination with computer programming. The late 80s look so bizarrely antiquated now, but the public internet was soon to be born and the nerds were flexing their coding muscle in the school computer lab.
One such budding genius (probably not alone, but I only remember him) created a text-based, fantasy computer game which students were welcome to play over the lunch hour rather than, you know, going outside with friends. I spent many a day avoiding my friends, seated in that computer lab directing my imaginary self through a maze of obstacles collecting needed amenities. It was by no means an arcade quality game, but the fact a kid only one year my senior had literally created it, fascinated me no end.
Even back in elementary school, when the introduction of a TRS-80 for the entire school to share was a newsworthy event, the simple coding we learned blew my mind. With a half dozen simple numerically ordered phrases, I could print my name in a cascading diagonal of green text across a black CRT screen. It was damn near magic!
In university, despite my earthen emphasis, programming found its way into the lives of me and my classmates. Like all faculty of science students, we were required to take a Fortran course, the culmination of which was a group project creating our own computer version of Reversi (Othello).
Most of my team had little interest in this project. I and another took up the challenge with verve, earning a forty ouncer of Crown Royal from the others for doing so. The finished product was worth of every ounce. Not only did it work, but the AI play mode we developed for bonus marks routinely beat me in games.
By graduation in 1996, computers were well-established in the workplace. Email was ubiquitous, the world wide web was a thing, and my first job involved many hours writing reports on my office computer. The job also had a large share of field work, like I’d wanted, but two months of twelve-hour night shifts picking through drill cuttings during a Saskatchewan winter can change a mind quick.
In the spring of 1998, I moved to Calgary and began my oil and gas geology career that, despite what its name suggests, is spent almost entirely in front of a computer screen. The most outdoorsy experience the typical petroleum geologist will encounter is walking to and from the C-train station to visit the core research centre where keen geologists trade-in their computer screens for core tables and binocular microscopes.
I’d spend ten years stuck behind various computers, mapping earth’s evolution via squiggles displayed on a monitor. Never once did I step foot in the field, near a rig, or in a doghouse.
That, in turn, was followed by another decade plus of full-time parenting. As I’ve documented previously, the latter killed any chance of returning to the former. And with life throwing curveballs our way once more in 2019, I’m now scrambling to find yet another, new future.
Once again, I’ve got criteria. I don’t care what I do, just as long as I’m stuck in front of a computer all day.
This reversal is borne more of capitulation than disillusioned belief. I look back fondly on the field work I did all those years ago. Not the overnight, winter drilling shifts so much, but the rest of it was fun. Purging and sampling monitoring wells at a hazardous waste dump out in the sticks can be quite relaxing. Reading a book beneath a star-filled sky waiting to take the next round of pump test measurements is remarkably therapeutic. And who doesn’t like a couple nights in a dumpy, small town motel eating bags of Oreos and Doritos after filling up at the local Chinese restaurant?
But health and age are fickle bastards. Not all bodies remain temples. Bad gene luck has made the freedom to work from home whilst collapsing on a couch whenever the need arises a top priority these days. Not to mention the allure of perhaps one day leaving urban living altogether.
I’ve had some luck with freelance writing, though nothing close to earning a living wage. A foray into technical writing has been helpful, and sometimes intriguing, but it too lacks the hours and wages to support a family. Nonetheless, the gig lifestyle has some appeal.
Exploring potential career paths with well-established freelance, remote work opportunities that are both more lucrative and in-demand inevitably lead me to … yup, coding. Full-stack web development, to be precise. That’s the creation of all things websitey, for the jargon-phobic, and a nice compliment to my blogging hobby.
In the handful of weeks since starting one of the best-reviewed, free, online coding courses, a single truth has become painfully obvious. I don’t learn quickly, or well, anymore. It’s scary, really. My brain just doesn’t work like it used to. I guess that’s what aging does, especially when you’ve taken a dozen years off. This ain’t riding no bike.
If I’d chosen differently in 1990, I wouldn’t be retraining right now, abandoning all I learned and all I know in a desperate hope of finding something else to amuse and feed me. I had the perfect opportunity to enjoy a career in an industry that was just taking flight and would literally transform humanity. With a damn sight more job security than sucking hydrocarbons from the ground ended up having. I’d even have been able to attend University at Waterloo since they had, and still have, one of the premier computer science programs on the planet.
Instead, I sit here day after day, disheartened, struggling to debug the non-functioning, barely understood code decorating my laptop screen. Doing so, I can’t stop thinking about what might have (should have?) been. My mind wanders and I wonder if accounting might be a better option. Then I get up and decide to go for a walk and get some fresh air to clear my head. After all, I’ve been stuck in front of a computer all day.