Keeping My Options Open
I remember being in junior high and taking one of those Scantron career placement tests that were so popular then. You answered a series of questions about your interests, and a computer program — novel for 1987 — would tell you what you should be when you grow up. A few days later, our homeroom teacher went around distributing the results in neat stacks of continuous feed, green lined paper. Being at the end of the alphabet for my entire life, I didn’t think anything of the fact that I was left last. But when my teacher approached me, she had nothing in her hands.
“Gabe, I got a note that says you need to see the guidance counselor for your results.”
After the class’s “ooooh” died down, and homeroom was over, I ambled down to the guidance office to find out what my future held. When I opened the door, I saw the big dot matrix printer running at full steam, a pile of green sheets of paper as high as an arm, gathering on the floor. The counselor, who always spoke like he was auditioning for the part, took one look at me and said, “those are your results; I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It turns out, if you’re interested in nearly everything, you can choose any profession!
But more to the point, I was a champion test taker. And even though this quiz had zero stakes, I was determined to “win”. I quickly figured out that the system was trying to get you to say NO so that it could limit the results. Of course, that immediately made me want to say YES so that I could see all the options.
So I did. And I won, I guess. Yay for me!
I could barely take the results home, the printout was so thick, and I pored over the list for weeks. Engineer, Lawyer, Architect, Landscape Architect, Prison Architect — they all sounded like amazing options that I could see myself embracing. Frankly, I was happy to daydream about doing anything other than going to school.
During this time I created a resume, and started sending it off to job listings I saw in the paper. I’d see a classified for an office job and thought — naturally — that they would want to hire a 13 year old. I was charming, smart, and a computer geek — so I figured I was a shoo in. It was naturally disappointing when I received no responses.
Heartbroken, I went to my mom and said that my dream of being a tween professional, complete with briefcase, tie and shiny black shoes, was crumbling. Her response was succinct: “Honey, you always have too many options — picking one thing just seems impossible for you. This is your problem.”
Ah, the options canard. I had heard this from most adults over and over in my life. What I thought of as a harmless quirk was presented by my parents with an arched eyebrow of concern. I never understood why they thought options were bad, especially since both sides of my family had fled communism (“one kind of toilet paper, comrade”) for the abundance of the west (“no more sandpaper on your butt”).
It was contradictory, but over time I began to believe this was authentically me. And as I grew up, this option-seeking behavior morphed and became about something bigger than just my career.
For example, whenever I enter a new room, my mind immediately goes to “how would I escape in a fire or earthquake.” As I lay down to sleep each night, I think about where my sandals are in case I need to run out of the building (hint: they are under my bed). Heck, when they tell you on an airplane to count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit, I often accidentally exclaim the number out loud, because I counted when I first sat down.
Now, these kinds of personal safety preparations are considered decent things to be mildly nervous about. I’m not losing sleep per se over them, and it doesn’t prevent me from going places and doing things I want to do. I thought I had it all under control until the latest curveball proved me wrong.
My partner and I just split after 3 years together. He’s an awesome guy but we were a little bit of oil and water, and a little bit of gasoline and cigarettes. I put lots of time and effort into trying to fix this relationship, and was willing to make major sacrifices to stay together. But it doesn’t escape me that throughout I’ve had one eye on the exit. Whenever things got crazy, I’d threaten to leave. I didn’t follow through on it until just now, but it gave me comfort to feel like I could walk away whenever.
In an even bigger sense, it’s affected my identity. I was born in Canada but emigrated to the United States for grad school at the age of 20. It took me 25 years to become a citizen, despite the fact that I was eligible over a decade ago. Why? I explained it as a choice to preserve my “Canadianness” — that I didn’t feel American. But a conversation with Samantha Bee on set for her TV show highlighted the lie I had been telling myself.
When I told her I was still not American, I was expecting a supportive ear from another Canadian. I had hoped she would say something like “Yeah, I dream of going back to Canada too…”
That was not what she said.
I think her exact words were something like “You’re being a f@#$! idiot.”
She continued, “You’ve lived here for a long time, you’re going to pay taxes anyway, might as well commit and use citizenship as a way to make things better.” She was right, and despite my instincts, I couldn’t argue with this logic.
So why did I choose to remain a permanent resident, when that conferred most of the responsibility of American citizenship without many of the benefits? The answer would come up, unprompted, anytime someone close to me would press me on the subject. My standard refrain was “I want to be able to flee when the United States collapses into anarchy.”
Prior to the election of Donald Trump, this may have seemed like a super unlikely situation. In the pre-DT era, whenever I’d say the anarchy line, people would laugh and call me crazy. Now, not so much. But for the first 23 years of living in the US, this was a relatively silly thing to be concerned about. The United States was stable, democratic, fucked up, but not authoritarian.
In my fleeing-from-the-country fantasy, I’d be running down the street with nothing but a duffel bag, and squeeze in between the gates of the Canadian embassy just as they closed them permanently behind me. Laughing at the zombies outside the high walls, I’d soon board a luxury Canadian helicopter (yes, Canada makes helicopters) and be whisked back to the true north. This otherness, this passport, felt like an option I wanted to preserve.
My path to US citizenship also made me think about some of the bigger lessons of my childhood.
My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, each of whom was deported to a death or labor camp where most of their families were murdered. They would retell — in graphic detail — the stories of their deportations to me at the youngest possible age. They always described it as being something where they thought they were safe, until they weren’t; and where everything — friends, relationships, assets — were rendered moot by fast-moving external factors.
I remember asking them why they didn’t leave before the deportations began. I think all kids ask this question. The response was always the same: “we didn’t know bubbaleh. We never thought things could get that bad.”
Somehow, in my mind, their stories became a siren that would wail anytime anything got too permanent and settled. Deep down, I developed a belief that anything can be taken from you at a moment’s notice. Your life can change, and you need the ability to flee, to adapt, to reshape yourself and become something different if you want to survive.
This has led me to a laissez-faire approach around money, relationships, living situations — you name it. When I think about what I want to do next for work, the list is never shorter than 5 options. And there have been few times in recent memory where I haven’t agonized about even the simplest of decisions, afraid to close the door on any option.
Ask me where we should eat tonight and you’ll see this maddening behavior at work. Even if all you wanted was a simple salad, I’ll come back to you with 5 different choices, all selected with different criteria (New! Spicy! Poké!). And that’s already an achievement in restraint — the list of possibilities started with at least 12 options. And until we’re sitting down I’ll be gaming out alternatives, you know, just in case.
Or let’s take having kids, as another — more serious — example. Ever since I can remember, I have been ambivalent-positive on the idea of having kids. My interest has waxed and waned, depending on my age, my then-current partner and my lifestyle/work situation. And, like many people I know, I’ve been more positive when in a loving relationship and less positive when around other people’s kids (the ultimate birth control). But throughout the years, I’ve felt very strongly that I wanted to retain the option to have kids. I’ve even used this as a wedge to break up with at least 2 exes. Now I’m 45, and even though the sun is setting on being a parent who can still walk when they turn 30, I continue to cling to the option — rather than the reality — of having kids.
And so too some of my most childish career dreams. I know I’ll never be an astronaut, a Nobel Prize winning chemist (any kind of chemist, really) or even the President of the United States. Just the thought of setting those dreams aside fills me with dread. What if I need to change careers? Isn’t space tourism right around the corner? Couldn’t Article 2 be repealed?
I console myself with the thought that at least I’m not at the point of doomsday prepping — building bunkers for a zombie apocalypse that may never come. But am I really that different? I may not be investing in physical holes in the ground, but I’ve certainly learned to dig a deep well for my feelings. Maybe the bunker people are actually just hurt, scared and nervous like me — but with large midwestern homes and badly trimmed beards?
I think some people channel their sense of a foreshortened future into a kind of conservatism. They hoard money, careers, relationships, children and food as a bulwark against the bad times to come. My grandmother, after years of deprivation, used to do that. If you opened the coat closet in her neatly tended, blue velveteen apartment — being sure to stay on the runners, mind — you would see floor to ceiling staples. Flour, sugar, pasta, coffee, etc. Whenever something ran out, she’d grab a replacement from the closet and replenish it the next day. She would never again worry about being hungry.
Not so for me. My cupboard is barely stocked these days. I’m a minimalist — keeping only whatever I can handle around for the inevitable move, breakup, refresh and restart. There are lots of good people around me, and lots of love — but while I yearn for a life of deep attachment and profound stillness, I can’t help but keep a bag packed at all times. Just in case.
I now realize that the options I’ve insisted on are self-defense mechanisms. They are there to protect me from hurt, from failure and from damage. But at the same time, they are robbing me of the ability to be happy in the moment.
The lesson is that whenever I’m considering a change — especially a really weighty one — I need to listen to myself. If a particular option is in the decision set, I find it helpful to interrogate myself about why it’s on the list. If there’s no connection between the option and my core values, it needs to go. If the primary reason I’m even considering it is to preserve optionality, it definitely needs to go. And if there’s no clear cut way of being happy and content in a specific choice, it absolutely needs to go.
Unlearning default responses — especially those crafted over decades — is nearly impossible. But I know I need to make a choice here, and my choice is to give up some options so that I can focus on what really makes me happy. Like if someone asks me my Kinsey Scale score, I don’t need to hedge that I’ll fall in love with a woman — I can be a proud 6. I need to learn to trust myself — that if the plane goes down I’ll find the exit. If there’s an earthquake I know where the emergency kits are. And when the time is right, I’ll make a decision about kids.
No amount of disaster prep or agonizing is going to make me truly feel safe unless I learn to trust the permanence of things. If I could go back in time and say one thing to the younger me, it would be, “don’t worry, you won’t be doing any of the careers on your list. Nothing will precisely go to plan. You’re still here, the world still turns, and you have your life mostly together. You’re going to be fine.”