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Change is human nature

By BILL MAXWELL
Published May 27, 2007


A few days ago, a 58-year-old reader of my column telephoned to talk about my return to the St. Petersburg Times after my two-year stint as a teacher at Stillman College in Alabama. She reminded me of a column I wrote in August 1994 about my move from the Gainesville area, where I was a tenured college teacher, to write for the Times.

In that column, headlined "Making the choice to change, " I discussed why I was leaving a cushy professor's lifestyle for the unknown. The woman read to me part of what I had written, a paraphrase of novelist Albert Camus: "To be human is to act, to boldly make choices. People who refuse to act, who refuse to choose are dead. We owe ourselves, no matter how old, at least one sincere effort to be what we want to be. I may fail in my new career. But I never would have known if I hadn't tried."

Frankly, I had forgotten the column until I heard my words. The woman had read the first two parts of my commentary about my experiences at Stillman describing how my plans had not worked out. She wanted to know if I now thought I had made the right decision to leave the Times for Stillman. To make a long story short, I told her that I had made the right decision.

Then, she got down to her real reason for calling: She wanted my advice. She has worked for the same hotel chain for the last 18 years. Her husband of 26 years died two years ago. Her one child has been a successful attorney for 12 years. She lives in the home she and her husband bought a year after they were married.

Bottom line: She wants to follow her lifelong dream of owning a bed and breakfast on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where she was born. She has found a large farm house to convert into eight guest rooms. She would live in a separate house on the property.

"I'm scared, " she said. "You've changed careers three times since 1994, and you've moved three times. Were you scared?"

I never have been afraid to pick up everything and move, I told her. And she should not be afraid if her dream of owning a B&B is heartfelt. Warning her that I am not a businessman, I said that if she has a good business plan, the money to buy the property and enough resources to hold on until the business begins to turn a profit, she should take the leap.

"Change is hard, especially when you're our ages, " I said.

Trying to avoid cliches and platitudes, I said that fear prevents most people from changing and fulfilling their dreams. I told her about the 47-year-old man I met in Tuscaloosa, Ala., who always wanted to be a U.S. Marine but was rejected because of his banged-up knees. When the Iraq war started, he joined the staff of a firm that provided security for diplomats in Baghdad. He sold his house, said goodbye to his family and left.

"Now, he gets to carry a gun and wear a uniform, just like a Marine, " I said, hoping the woman would get the humor I had intended.

It was an extreme example of change, but I used it because here was a man who did not let even the fear of dying keep him from a version of his dream. Although I opposed the invasion of Iraq and the prolonged war that has followed, I admire this man for his courage and determination, I told the woman.

Then, I turned to my story. Leaving the Times, in 2004, and taking a huge cut in pay to teach at a small black college was a tough decision. But I had to fulfill a promise - even though doing so was a shot in the dark. I believe that people truly are tested when they dare to risk losing what they love for a good cause or for a good idea, I said.

What I fear most, I said, is becoming addicted to the familiar and to the routine. I do not need adventure necessarily, but I do need change. To me, change is growth. Going to Stillman, even with the disappointments, was part of my maturation. I am a better man for having gone.

In the end, I told her that she should buy that Virginia farm house and renovate it. After a long pause, she said she was 99 percent sure that she would. If she did, I said, I would be one of her first guests.