The Path at the End of the Road

I wanted to be an architect.

From the moment I first learned what architects do, when I was about ten years old, I knew that’s what I wanted to be: a person who designs buildings that make people comfortable and happy.  Right away, I started reading architecture books and magazines.  I was fascinated by floorplans (and other drawings too, but especially plans) and began drawing my own.

This clear career goal motivated many of my decisions in junior high and high school: I took two drafting courses and two art courses.  When my drafting teacher offered the option of learning computer-aided drafting, I leaped at the chance; after finishing all the required drawings months ahead of schedule, I spent all my class time drawing houses and asking him to critique them.  (He was the first to teach me about load-bearing walls.)  When the gifted program offered me a mentor in my choice of subject area, I began weekly sessions with a local architect, who presented me with a list of specs and talked me through the process of revising my design, making all the necessary drawings, and even printing real blueprints.  My number-one criterion in choosing a college was the quality of its architecture program.

My parents were a bit concerned about this narrow focus.  Architecture programs are strict and demanding, typically five years of required classes with little room for electives, earning a B.Arch. degree which qualifies a person to become an intern architect and then take the licensing exam . . . but that degree isn’t much good in any other line of work.  My parents said that, in college, I might discover other subjects that I hadn’t known about and decide that I really wanted to do something else, in which case having focused so hard on becoming an architect might mean that I’d have to backtrack to pick up the skills or coursework I’d need to take another path.  I shrugged that off, figuring I’d cross that bridge if I came to it, but meanwhile I had no time to lose in acquiring the skills and qualifications I needed to become an architect.  Anyway, I was well-rounded: editor of the high school radio show, reporter for the high school newspaper, Girl Scout, tap and jazz dancer, babysitter, pro-choice and environmental activist, voracious fiction reader–I had a lot going on!

Eighteen years ago now, I was eighteen years old.  On August 20, 1991, I boarded an airplane in Tulsa and set off for my new life in Pittsburgh, in the five-year architecture program at Carnegie Mellon University.  After years of training and impatiently waiting at the starting gate, I was finally on the road to my future as an architect!

College was wonderful on many levels.  Finally, I was in a school where smart, weird people weren’t a persecuted minority!  I met lots of fascinating people from all over the world and had hours of interesting conversations.  I joined a social organization that did lots of zany stuff.  Carnegie Mellon at that time was almost 70% male, so the dating scene was great!  I was living in a real city (something I’d always craved), a city in the forest in the mountains, with block after block of Craftsman and Queen Anne houses that made me practically drool with admiration, and then there was the campus itself, with its quirky brick buildings with their slanting hallways and oddly placed staircases, its College of Fine Arts with the incredibly intricate ceiling mural, and the overall sense that Andrew Carnegie had really cared about building a great place to learn, which had been lovingly maintained for ninety years and was now welcoming me to join in the great things that were happening there.

And I was learning more than I’d ever thought possible!  First-year architecture studio included two full afternoons per week of drawing with Doug Cooper, who showed me how to draw complex scenes both the way they really look and the way they seem, who forced me to do silly-sounding things like wrapping naked people in imaginary string in order to tap parts of my brain I hadn’t known were there and forever change the way I see things.  Each student got a card for unlimited visits to the Carnegie Museum, where I spent many hours drawing things like the spaces between dinosaur bones, as well as gazing at great art and studying the role of each line.  In the other part of the studio course, I learned to build models out of all kinds of materials and even to use power tools–I’d never taken wood shop and never suspected it would be part of my college curriculum!  In computer modeling class, I not only improved my CAD skills but also deeply pondered (thanks to two different, incompatible, both wildly flawed software packages) the differences between a solid object and a set of joined surfaces, in reality and in the mind of the computer, and became familiar with concepts like rendering polygons, floating-point co-processor, and 8-bit color.

I was learning so much, yet I was failing.

Schoolwork always had come relatively easily to me.  I’d earned A’s and B’s, with the occasional C for the hardest parts of math and science and gym, by diligently completing all my assignments with a reasonable amount of thought . . . but most of the work was pretty easy for me, and I had plenty of time for those extra-curriculars mentioned above.  Everyone warned me college would be harder, so I worked harder, I really did.  To my surprise and then indignation and then horror, it didn’t pay off.  It didn’t matter that I’d fulfilled every requirement of the assignment or that I’d stayed up all night breaking nerves in my fingers (I tend to grip an X-Acto knife too tightly) making every detail as perfect as I possibly could; if my underlying concept wasn’t what the professors were looking for, they’d give me a D.  The grading was highly subjective, and they’d never come out and say what they wanted; the students who intuitively chose the “right” ideas were the ones who got the better grades, even if they ended up ignoring some details of the written assignment!  Most of what I loved about architecture was “wrong,” and my preferences marked me as an ignorant sentimentalist.  Old-fashioned styles, human comfort, ornamentation, and practical details (the kinds of things I’d point out in critiques of other people’s projects, like, “There’s a direct line of sight from the lunch counter to the urinals.”) were for dweebs.  True greatness had begun with the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier and could continue only in the direction of ever-more-innovative use of ugly industrial materials, jarring jutting forms, and emptinesses so artful that the occupant could own only a red toothbrush, a blue cylindrical glass, and a single unripe pear or risk wrecking the whole look.  Buildings aren’t for living in, you philistine, they are Art!

Well, I could rant all day about that and the many specific examples I encountered, but let me move on to explaining two other problems I had.  One was my health.  I’d come down with mononeucleosis ten days after high school graduation, and although it was the quick-but-intense kind and I was out of bed after less than three weeks, I’d dropped to 105 pounds (I am 5’8″, so I was scrawny) and done permanent damage to my tonsils.  Having started college in weakened health, I caught every bug that came around and even some that nobody else seemed to have.  My body demanded extra sleep, but I didn’t have time for that!  I had work to do!  I had a tonsillectomy in the summer between my first and second years of college, and that improved my overall health, but now when I did get sick it went straight to my lungs and took weeks to eradicate.

The other problem was that I really wasn’t as artistic as most of my classmates.  My innate drawing ability is only a little above average; with diligent practice of the techniques taught by art teachers, I improved vastly, but I wasn’t keeping pace with the others, and I had to be taught those techniques–none of it came naturally to me.  I just don’t have the “eye” for color and placement and aesthetic pleasingness that some people do . . . and what instincts I do have involve fondness for variety, patterns, naturalness, and making use of what you’ve got, not the spare and selective look that was favored.  I’m also not very coordinated at cutting and gluing things.  While my drafting and computer-modeling abilities were better than most, my freehand drawings of my buildings’ exteriors and interiors never looked quite right, my models always had snaggly bits and glue smudges, my presentation boards always looked like somebody’s science fair project, and more than once I realized on the night before a deadline that I had no idea what color any part of my building was supposed to be!

I wrapped up my first semester with a D in studio, a D in calculus, a B in computer modeling, a B in world history, and a Pass in Computing Skills Workshop.  My parents were horrified and furious.  So was I, but I was also defensive: Nobody got an A in computer modeling, which wasn’t graded on a curve; I was one of the best students in the class!  I’d struggled so hard in calculus that I was proud to have passed!  The grading in studio wasn’t fair!  While my friends at liberal-arts colleges had taken only four courses at a time, I’d taken five, and studio was equivalent to at least two normal courses!  I had worked hard; I was not wasting the tuition money!  It was a very tense winter break.  That spring I did better–nothing below a C–but the next fall I wound up with a D in studio again.  During that winter break my parents made me call the University of Oklahoma to ask about transferring to their (much less expensive, fairly highly regarded) architecture program–and I learned that OU, which when I was a high school senior had offered to pay me to attend because I was a National Merit Finalist, now wouldn’t accept me because my college GPA was so low!  Again, the spring semester went better, but I was still on thin ice both with the architecture department and with my parents.

Fall semester, 1993.  I still wanted to be an architect with all my heart and soul.  Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program had a notoriously high attrition rate, and about half the students who’d started the first year with me were gone now, either of their own volition or because they’d been “cut” from the department.  But I would not let those high-concept post-modern artistes push me out!  I would become an architect despite them, and once I got that license, I would be a nice architect who made comfortable, cozy buildings for real people!  The world needed me, damn it!  My mother had given me her old T-shirt depicting Susan B. Anthony with the slogan FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE, and I wore it as my undershirt as often as possible; it was my secret weapon.

But . . .

I was so cold.  In early September, when everyone else was still wearing shorts, I was wearing my power undershirt under long sleeves and still shivering.  I wasn’t sick, not with any contagious illness, and not with fever–my temperature was only 95-96 degrees.  And then the headaches began.

Pain like the slash of a knife slipping, pain that made me want to hop up and down shrieking, except that it didn’t stop within a few seconds; it went on for hours, sometimes for two or three days straight, my whole head from the roof of my mouth up.  No painkilling drug could dull it.  I saw a doctor who prescribed a barbiturate, and that reduced the pain . . . and made me confused, forgetful, and clumsy.  It also demanded sleep.  My drawing class was in the evening, and I began to fall off my stool as I drowsed off while drawing.  I also was taking Materials & Assembly, a class in which we looked at slides depicting building materials and methods while sitting in a dark room, and I repeatedly found that I was viewing strange images that didn’t relate to the lecture, then realized that my eyes were shut and I was dreaming the slides!  One night, on my way home from studio, I looked up at the College of Fine Arts building against a sky of scudding gray clouds, and it seemed to grow taller and taller like the Christmas tree in The Nutcracker, and then I saw that the garbage can next to me was bigger than I was, and then I awoke in bed in my dorm room two hours later, wearing my coat and shoes under the covers.

Meanwhile, my architecture classmates were beginning to seem actively hostile.  I’d never felt socially comfortable with them, but I was used to that, having been a misfit in school prior to college.  There had been sporadic unpleasantness in the first year when I said too much (and it wasn’t that much) about my sex life and they gossiped and teased me about it forever afterward, but I’ve never understood teasing and thought maybe that was supposed to be friendly even though it felt mean.  Anyway, in my third year, my studio supplies began to vanish when I wasn’t around.  Somebody spilled soy sauce across my drawing and didn’t even leave an apology note, and when I asked around, everyone gave me a snippy attitude like I shouldn’t dare ask because it was obviously an accident and any competent person would just get on with her work.  I asked people not to smoke in the studio (which was against the clearly posted university policy) and they started to make a point of blowing smoke toward me and sometimes left cigarette butts on my table.  By the final week of the semester, I was putting everything possible into my locker every time I left the room . . . and one night I came into studio and discovered that someone had used my drawing board as a backdrop for spraying spray adhesive; the clean, smooth surface on which I needed to place my paper so I could run my T-square smoothly over it was now coated with tiny dots of goo that could not be removed.  I don’t know why.  I’ll never know why.  They couldn’t possibly have felt threatened by me.

It was during that semester that I finally read The Fountainhead. This book by Ayn Rand had been recommended to me since seventh grade (it was one of the “classics” on the list from which we could choose for book reports) because it’s about an architect, so people assumed I would be interested.  Something about it always turned me off.  Then, in the summer of 1993, I made friends with a devout Objectivist, a follower of Rand’s principles.  (Others on campus called them Randroids.)  He gave me a copy of the book and told me how great it was, so I read it.  I’ve never felt like reading it again, and it’s been a while, so I’m sure I’ve forgotten some details, but here’s the important part, in summary: Howard Roark, the architect, is a self-centered asshole.  He thinks people ought to just shut up and live in the buildings he designs because he’s so fucking self-actualized that they ought to bow before his genius.  That’s what being an architect, nay, being a person, is all about. Oh, and women like to be raped; it fulfills them. Well, one good thing I can say about The Fountainhead is that it kept my brain active with arguments so that it didn’t slide completely into the barbiturate slush!  The other good thing is that it did, to some extent, explain what was with these architects around me, both the students and the professors–their attitudes toward art, self, career, and the meaning of life all made a little more sense after I read those 695 pages of ideological ranting in 9-point type.  (In retrospect, that may help to explain the searing headaches.)  I disagreed vehemently and felt all the more determined to be the one reasonable, pleasant, client-comforting architect in the world.

But then it was time for my mid-semester conference with my studio professor.

This conference was held just outside the studio, in the third-floor corridor of Margaret Morrison Hall, which has huge windows with deep sills.  We sat facing each other on one of these sills.  It was a warm, sunny, bright-blue October day, so the screenless window was open, letting in a pleasant breeze.  My professor said, in the gentlest and most diplomatic way possible, that she had enjoyed getting to know me these last few weeks and didn’t want me to think that what she was about to say was based only on her opinion or on my most recent work, but
—thud.  I felt a tremor inside me, as if a big rock had been dropped somewhere nearby.
but a number of professors in the department had conferred and discussed my work from the past two years, and
—thud.  This one was like a boulder dropping right in front of me, narrowly missing my toes.
and they all understood I had tried very hard and done my very best, but it just wasn’t going to work out.  If I would agree to leave the department, then
—thud thud thud.  The avalanche was closing in as I struggled to listen.
then there were many options for me: I could transfer to another department at Carnegie Mellon, transfer to another university, or just take some time off and rest.  They would make it easy for me; she would give me a C in studio for simply completing my projects, and the same could be arranged for my other architecture classes if I wouldn’t rather just drop them.  But if I would not agree to leave, well, they would be forced to give me failing grades in all my architecture classes, which would drop my GPA so low that I probably wouldn’t be accepted as a transfer to anywhere.
—thud.  That was the end.

I sat on that windowsill, with the road to my future walled off, no options, really, because there was no way I could become an architect now.  I turned and looked out the open window, down, down, down–because of a hill, the third floor is five stories above the ground on that side–and thought, I could just go limp and slip out this window and that would be all, the last thing I’d ever have to do.  I’m so tired.  I’ve failed.  There’s nowhere else to go.

But then,
a door opened in my consciousness, a narrow little door I never knew was there,
and something whispered, “Psst! Over here!”
and I couldn’t see what was in there or how it could possibly be okay or why I should trust it,
but I felt myself stumbling across the rubble anyway and sinking down on the bottom step, there, just barely inside the door.

I looked up and told my professor in a surprisingly clear and normal voice that yes, of course, I would investigate my transfer options and make the necessary arrangements.  I wasn’t even crying.  I gathered my stuff and walked out.

Of course, that cool collectedness didn’t last long.  I spent the evening alternately sobbing and raging to various people, who had various reactions.

The Objectivist and some of my other friends were infuriated that I’d been persecuted for my sacred individual views and that the choice the department was offering me was so incredibly rancidly unfair that I must fight it tooth and nail, loudly declaring my right to achieve my objective at any cost.  While I strongly agreed that the offer–giving me a C or an F for the same work depending on my actions outside of studio–was horribly wrong, it was almost a relief to have the curtain pulled aside and the architects’ skewed morality finally revealed.  I had thought I was going to continue down the road toward becoming an architect even if I had to fight my way along, battered and bloody . . . but suddenly, with the road closed, I was looking around and remembering that there might be more to life than driving.

Both my boyfriend at the time and my most recent past boyfriend were deeply empathetic and comforting.  They knew what this meant to me and how painful it was to lose it.  At the same time, each of them admitted he had seen this coming, had seen that I was not like the other architects in either my work or my personality and that it was (despite all the emphasis on individual ego) a profession in which there was one main way to be.  They’d supported me through my struggles but suspected that I would ultimately be defeated, and it was okay, because they believed I was a better person than the architects and ultimately would do more good in the world, even if I didn’t do it by designing buildings.

My boyfriend also made an analogy to the economics class in which we’d met: The time and effort I’d put toward becoming an architect were sunk costs, already “spent” and not to be regretted.  They might pay off down the line, somehow, but the important thing now was deciding how to use the “capital” I still had, which was considerable: I was good at a lot of things other than architecture!

I was terrified of my parents’ reaction to the news.  They’d been so angry about my grades, so worried that their money was being wasted, and now I was about to confirm their worst suspicions.  I feared punishment, revenge, being yanked back to Oklahoma to work off that $50,000 at minimum-wage jobs, hearing that they were Very Disappointed In Me.  It took me several hours to steel my nerves and pick up the phone.

Only my father was home; my mother was traveling for work.  And my father reacted in the shocked yet soothing way he had when I was little and fell off my bicycle and hurt myself.  He understood how I must feel, and he empathized without rubbing it in.  He called again the next night to tell me he’d been up most of the night thinking about me, and instead of feeling guilt-tripped I heard that he meant, I’m with you; I care. He reminisced about how long I’d dreamed of becoming an architect, how I’d envisioned my future, and how much he’d admired my determination and hard work.  He knew I was hurting now and uncertain what to do next and afraid.  He didn’t yell at me at all, and neither did my mom.

I had been up most of the night, too, and I was up many nights, often already out of bed by the time I managed to awaken from the nightmares.  For the first time, my mind was facing the knowledge that as an architect I would have held lives in my hand: A stroke of my pen specifying the wrong construction detail could have brought roofs crashing down, walls collapsing, smashed people suffering horribly because of me, my fault, my tiny error magnified to full scale.  The dreadful responsibility never yet discussed in class was now paraded through my dreams: See what might have been! There were dreams, too, of being lost: in mountains, desert, caves, once an endless square-dance (!), but usually lost in a web of multilane highways with meaningless signs, swerving around hideous concrete skyscrapers.  The road led nowhere, but I didn’t know where else to go.

I applied to transfer to Carnegie Mellon’s College of Humanities & Social Sciences.  Like most students in the other, more career-driven colleges, I’d poked fun at H&SS for its theoretically easier program that allowed students to go two whole years without declaring a major, but now “H & Less Stress” sounded heavenly.  I dropped two of my architecture classes and began to sleep more, to eat better, to treat my studio project as just the main thing I was working on right now instead of the peg on which my entire future hung.  I used my free sessions at the Counseling Center to work through some of my feelings.  I started going to church every Sunday instead of thinking I didn’t have time.  And I spent hours walking around the East End, discovering streets and alleys and staircases and little dirt paths, new places to go.

For the next two years, I enjoyed all the wonderfulness of college life plus the joys of working hard at things I actually was able to do well!  I discovered psychology, chose that as my major, and found myself making the Dean’s List!  Suddenly I was a good student again, and while my days were often busy and stressful, I was much happier than I had been, happier than at any time I could remember.

That first spring, I picked up a booklet of Lenten meditations for college students that included one about “dire straits”, times of danger and difficulty.  It noted that Dire Straits is also the name of a band that sings a song about “The Walk of Life” and reminded me that I’m never alone in dire straits; Jesus is with me, and he understands what it is like to walk in this life, to seek out the song in all the trouble and strife so you can keep on seeking the right way, keep walking and see where it takes you.  (I’m not sure what the Dire Straits song really is about, but I’ve found that thinking of its peppy tune is one of my surest, quickest inspirations to keep on walking!)

My fortune from a recent fortune cookie says, “One must know that there is a path at the end of the road.” When my road to architect-dom was blocked, I thought that there was nowhere to go but down, that if the only thing I wanted to do with my life wasn’t an option, I might as well die . . . but, “Psst! Over here!” there was something else.  Just like the roads of Pittsburgh that sometimes dead-end against a cliff, my road had a little path leading off it, and although at first it was upstairs in the dark, difficult and mysterious and hard to see even one step ahead, in time it opened up to a new road, from which I can look back at the narrow valley in which I once traveled.

The more perspective I get on it, the more I see that I might have made a lousy architect, and being an architect would have been really hard on me.  I’m kind of shy and don’t like “selling myself”; winning commissions would have been very difficult.  Financial stability is important to me; getting paid by the project means uneven income.  Being a mother is one of my most cherished roles, and it’s hard enough with a 40-hours-a-week job that I leave at the office; being self-employed and having to meet clients in the evenings and go on site visits and put in crazy hours to meet deadlines would make it a lot more stressful.  Although the headaches went away after I changed majors, six years later I entered a new phase of chronic headaches which probably are tension-related; with an architect’s stress level, who knows what my body would have inflicted on itself?

Now I’ve been the data manager of a social science research study for ten years.  It’s not the most glamorous job, but I enjoy it, and I feel respected and secure.  But if anyone had said to me in 1991, “You’re not going to become an architect.  You’ll be the data manager of a social science research study,” I would have been flabbergasted!  I didn’t know this road existed.  I wouldn’t have thought it went where I wanted to go.  I wouldn’t have gotten here without walking that other road and finding the path.

That’s why my parents were right to let me go and keep going down that road that was so hard and fast and narrow: I had to give it my very best try in order to understand that it was not the right road for me.  Making me go a different way or dragging me off at an earlier exit would only have left me whining resentfully, “But I wanted to be an architect! And you stopped me!”  I had to go down that road as far as I could to get to where I was meant to be.

I’ve since had that same experience several times–not so much a road that closed off completely, but a side door that called me in just when I thought I knew where I was going.  I have learned not to hesitate but to turn in and run right up those steps (it’s never an easy way to go!) because that feeling of “Over here!” means this is the right way; this is where I am needed. Probably the clearest example is my big recycling project, in which I felt called repeatedly to do things that seemed above and beyond my personal responsibility, and sometimes I resisted, but whenever I went ahead and ran with it, that was the right thing to do and good stuff came my way.

So, after all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is:  If your project just won’t work, please don’t take the Leap!!  When you feel you’re stuck at the end of the road, look for the path.

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

2 Responses to The Path at the End of the Road

  1. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this. I feel like I was given a window into what would have happened if I hadn’t dropped my photo major two weeks into college. We are so similar, it seems. I was also single-minded about my career when I was in high school. There were no photo classes at my high school, I took a photo class through the park district, which was mind-numbingly basic, and then a darkroom class that I loved. When my parents had their basement finished my junior year, they built me a little darkroom. Everyone lamented that I was throwing away my intelligence to major in photo. I swore up and down that I wouldn’t switch my major like every other college student. I was committed to photography. I chose my college because I could start taking photo classes my first semester and not have to do two years of art classes first. But I still had to take art classes. And the first one killed me. It sounds like it’s similar to what you experienced with architecture, that there was a “right” way to do abstract art and I just didn’t get it. I had to make an abstract piece of art out of magazine clippings, then photocopy it, cut it into squares, and arrange the squares even more “abstractly.” I had to draw 50 different lines representing the word “refuse.” I cried over my inability to understand how to complete my assignments, and we usually got three assignments at a time. So after two weeks, I quit. And it was humiliating, after everything I’d said about how I would never, never quit photo. Especially because what broke me had nothing to do with photography. But even in my photo class, I sucked, because my photos were supposed to be “artistic” and not practical. I wanted to take pictures for newspapers, not for art, but that wasn’t the focus of the program. I kept being told to make my photos more “metaphorical.” It didn’t matter how technically good they were. So this resonated with me a lot. Thank you. I feel like I can put away that chapter of my life that I previously closed kicking and screaming. It’s still kind of painful when I see people I haven’t seen in years and the first thing they ask about is my photography. But now I’m a damn good data analyst. So that’s all that really matters 🙂

    • 'Becca says:

      Argh, I know what you mean about the wacky projects that are taken so seriously!!! The entire first semester of design studio for architects was like that–projects with no direct connection to buildings–as well as some of the projects later. For example, we had to “define a 6-inch square on a 12-inch white square using 3 black lines: 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, and 1 inch thick.” Now, obviously the only way you can form a square with 3 lines is to use the edge of the 12-inch square as one of the sides of the 6-inch and the other 3 lines as the other 3 sides. Well, it turned out the assignment was unclearly written; they meant, “Use as many lines as you like of those 3 thicknesses.” My expectation that professors would say what they mean and/or proofread was the first strike against me. But even when I used a bunch of lines to make a cool-looking op-art piece in which my 6-inch square actually had no delineated sides but relied on Gestalt perception, that was wrong too, even though similar things done by other people were raved about–I never understood that!

      I wonder if there are colleges where photography majors are part of the journalism department, rather than the art department. That might be more the sort of program you wanted.

      Anyway, I’m glad I was able to give you perspective on where, but for the grace of God, you could have gone!

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