Friday, May 1, 2015

Grown-up Angst

I made my Mom laugh really hard once. Didn't intend to, but that is what happens sometimes when you're convinced you know everything, and you haven't yet been shown the error of your ways.

Immersed in some version of teen angst, and seeing no quick and easy way through, I was thinking out loud. Mother had been a teen once, which didn't make her an expert on solving teen angst, but then Mom took after me; she didn't need to be an expert in order to voice her opinion. I can laugh at this bit now, but at the time I was dead serious.

Me, “I can't wait to grow up.”

Mom, “Why's that?”

Me, “Well, this being a teenager is just so full of problems, but when I am an adult, I won't have near so much difficulty.”

I'll give Mom credit, because she tried out of politeness to remain cool in the face of my folly. But, as Rocky the flying squirrel once noted, that trick never works. Mom finally wailed with laughter as she staggered out of the room. At the time, I had no idea why she did that. I have since learned what she knew I would.

Some decades ago I took a walk in the mountains. The John Muir Trail through the best of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is some 220 miles long, and I didn't rush through it, taking some 18 days to finish. Didn't cross a road for the entire length. Nothing but wilderness, altitude, scenery, and wonder filled my days and nights on the trail. It was difficult and thrilling. I remember most all of this. But the part I distinctly recall was that last day as I walked down the mountain toward the dusty truck we left parked on the road, that time of triumph and accomplishment, and also the utter disappointment of knowing that this unparalleled experience must end. Such joy. Such sadness. Such life.

In June of 1972 I walked into the building. It was brand new, having opened for business on the first of the month. I was brand new also, having finished up at the School of Veterinary Medicine just a few weeks earlier. On July 1st I officially began working there, and I've been showing up to work in that building most every day since. Forty-three years.

And now I'm walking down the mountain again, approaching the end of another journey. I am filled with the triumph and accomplishment, and also the utter disappointment of knowing that this unparalleled experience must end. I'm putting my practice on the market so that I can retire. It's time to go elsewhere in life.

Mom was correct of course. That bit about being a grown-up, about not having any more problems....well that never quite happened. Practice was not a party. It had its moments of unforgettable joy, and success, and also those of gut wrenching disappointment and pain. Sitting at this end of my career, I now have the luxury of looking back at the good and bad that happened over four decades, of trying to make sense of it all, and of trying to measure the success or failure of my life, at least that large part spent in that building.

In other words, I now am enjoying yet another dose of what I can only call grown up angst.

The voice on the radio yesterday was talking about the riots, looting, and arson devastating an Eastern city, and since his job is to incite outrage, he decided to excuse the lawbreakers by stating that they only torched a few storefronts. No big deal, right? I listened with interest.

Show of hands.....who knows that there were two veterinary hospitals in the path of the rioters, looters, and arsonists that destroyed much of Fergusen, MO? Those two buildings did not make the news because they didn't burn to the ground. They didn't burn to the ground because terrified men stood outside them with shotguns, facing down the mob.

Have you ever wondered if you would do such a thing? When the last bunch of riots were only miles away from my practice, I wondered. Would you stand in the way of a mob, the wall of a building at your back, the shotgun in hand, just so angry people wouldn't burn the place down?

Would your decision be influenced by the fact that you have worked your entire adult life inside that building, doing important service for the animals and their people, and also supporting your family through thick and thin? Would a building that represents so much of your personal identity really be missed if it became a pile of ashes? Would your decision be influenced by the sad reality that the building represents a significant part of your retirement savings, an investment you worked decades to create, the difference between not getting by or having some comfort? Take on such a discussion in your head in the dark of night sometime. You won't enjoy it either.

When you put a veterinary practice up for sale, you open your business to evaluation. Some things don't come into play. You are trying to sell a business, so things like saving a kitten at no cost to a little girl can go into the memory bank, but since that other bank doesn't enter into the equation, this doesn't count. Not one thing you did just because you felt it was the right thing to do counts now. That number in the computer, all those times you trusted someone who promised to pay, and did not...that number works against you now, too.

Every time you cut a corner because someone begged you to do less than a good job, now counts against you. Every time you didn't raise your fees to keep up with inflation, because so many of your clients were out of work, counts against you. Even the fact that you worked all those extra hours, just so you could help more animals and their people.....even this now works against you.

The numbers are all in the computer. You cannot hide from them. You cannot hide them. And the person who may look to buy your practice will wonder why those numbers make this business look so feeble. What you did all your life to help, means nothing.

Bad business doesn't sell. And if you cannot sell it, those four decades of work trying to help, trying to be the good guy....well that just makes a veterinary practice's contribution to retirement less and less. A lifetime of trying to build that investment squandered. It's only money, you might say, and that would be true. You still have the sense of satisfaction of knowing you wanted to help. 

But when the young doctors ask you why they shouldn't let a client promise to pay a bill, you had best tell them the truth. When they someday are old, and struggling to pay the rent because they sacrificed as they bent backwards to help, they will remember the advice you tried to give, and they tried so hard to ignore.

When I retire I will have enough, but yeah....something more than just enough would be nice. I'd like to do more with my retirement, but I know I cannot. I will have memories and satisfaction. And that will have to do.

I'm almost at the end of my trail, often looking back now. With mixed emotions, regrets and smiles. Not a victim, but a product of all those decades. I get to live with all those decisions.

Such joy. Such sadness. Such life.


  1. I would still take grown up angst over teen angst any day but I wish you all the best on your next adventure. Sounds like you've earned a happy retirement!

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