What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: September 19, 2020

When I was 7, I wanted to grow up to be a veterinarian. It was the first occupation I fantasized about.

Animals sparked wonderment in my tiny, developing brain—I wanted to know everything. If penguins are birds, how come they don’t fly? If you teach a dog to sit in English and French, does that make her bilingual? If a chameleon crawls onto your bathroom mirror while you’re brushing your teeth, will his scales turn the same color as your toothbrush? Do chameleons even have scales? 

If I were going to spend my days working in order to make enough money to afford the home with louvered window shutters that I was conditioned to strive for, then I might as well spend them doing something I like. And I liked being around, and learning about, animals. So, that was that. At the unripe age of seven, I had my career path figured out. I knew what I wanted, and nothing was going to come between me and my dream job. Nothing.

What my tiny, determined, developing brain didn’t realize at the time was that in order to become a veterinarian, you must go to school for an additional seven to nine years. It also didn’t grasp that saving animals entails blood, and sometimes guts. I do not enjoy blood and I especially do not care for guts, so this would present an issue. I also didn’t fully comprehend the fact that sometimes the animals who are being treated don’t get better. And that regardless of their angelic presence, and divinely fluffy exteriors, animals are living creatures. And all lives, including theirs, eventually come to an end.

As I grew to understand these factors, and as my interests morphed and expanded, other dream jobs presented themselves: an architect, a reality TV producer, a Radio City Rockette. But none of them stuck.

Now, for the sake of efficiency, let’s skip ahead a ways.

It was an eventful ten or so years after graduating from college, filled with personal growth, learning opportunities, failures, achievements, crippling self-doubt, mortifying moments that occasionally re-surface and make me want to explode into a trillion particles and dissolve into the atmosphere. And most importantly, discovering what I am—and am not—competent at.

I cannot flawlessly fold a T-shirt. But I can dress a mannequin. I cannot pour a rosetta at the top of your latte. But I can froth micro foam so soft that you’ll be convinced you’re sipping the coat of a chinchilla. I cannot successfully send a fax. But I can answer and direct all of the front-desk calls that ring into a newspaper. Do you know how many weirdos call newspapers? A lot. A lot of weirdos. I guess this also means that I can make small talk with weirdos. On a good day, I can string words together to form coherent sentences. On a not-so-good day, words are replaced by defeated groans. I can photograph food and babies and buildings. I cannot Photoshop giant babies eating food on top of buildings. I can work well with people who are honest and kind. I can also work well with people who are more skilled than me. These people are exciting to be around, they teach you things. I cannot, however, work well with people who are honestly kind of skilled at the art of B.S.

As I plowed through the years and took on various roles, the unmapped terrain I’d been roving began to morph into something clear-cut. And then one day I found it. Or maybe it found me. Who’s to say how these things work. As if flashing, in neon-magenta letters, across an LED marquee sign, there it was: my dream job.

Cue the gospel choir. Pop the champagne. Bring out the dancing Shih Tzu’s in peach tutus. At last, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And nothing, I mean nothing was going to stand in my way this time.

I was going to be…

A Magazine Editor.

Yeah, OK, the golden age of magazines was decades ago. And you’re not going to get rich doing this. And there’s that constant nag poking the logical part of your brain and reminding you that you’ve chosen a profession where you could be laid off, at any time, regardless of your performance. Print is dying… It drones. But you recite some line you read one time in a Medium story about how print is alive until it takes a hike. Magazines are important. Good ones tell stories, which enlighten and entertain. Good ones also include visuals that make you laugh and think. Great ones make you hungry. And you’re reading this article, which is proof that magazines are still valued. And even if this particular story isn’t broiling your burger, skip ahead a few pages and you’ll likely discover something to better suit your taste.

Having unearthed my dream job, I took the next logical step: I went for it. The position was with a popular in-flight magazine. After a series of interviews, an editing test, more interviews, and days spent in between feeling like I was going to ralph from anticipation, I landed the job. Now, if anybody out there has ever landed a dream job, you know how this feels. It feels good. There are few things in life more satisfying, and this probably isn’t the appropriate platform in which to discuss such matters.

At last, I had discovered what I wanted to do. And I was actually doing it. It was an excellent six months. And then the economy crashed.

I was laid off over video chat. It was swift and mostly painless. This was nearly a month into the COVID-19 pandemic and I’d been working from home for a couple of weeks at this point. People weren’t flying, there was no need for an in-flight magazine at that time, c’est la vie. I couldn’t text my closest friends and ask them to meet me at a bar to smother me with hugs and pour tequila down my throat. Everybody was sheltering in place. So, I did the next best thing: I drank a bunch of wine, binge watched Netflix’s Tiger King, and passed out. I woke up the next morning and ate chips and queso for breakfast. Rules no longer apply, baby! I whispered to my dogs who were circling my ankles like famished sharks, waiting for a gob of melted cheese to drip from my fingers. We’re off the grid. We were not, in fact, off the grid. We were in Dallas. I drowned my sorrows in tortilla chips and lukewarm microwaved cheese for a couple of days and then snapped out of it.

Losing the one thing I’d strived to attain for as long as I can remember didn’t hurt as much as I’d imagined. The whole entire world was in the midst of a global pandemic. People were losing their businesses, their loved ones, their lives. Concepting pages about pop culture icons and the future of sandwiches took a backseat to the chaos at hand. I had my health, I had a place to live, and I had successfully filed for unemployment benefits. I’d be fine.

Week after week friends texted and called about furloughs and pay cuts and jobs losses. Available media positions in town were nonexistent. I’d always thought that if I failed at being an editor, I’d like to try bartending. Bartenders are some of the most fascinating people out there. Many are brilliant conversationalists and would make excellent colleagues. I felt at least somewhat ahead of the learning curve having written about cocktails professionally for the better of half of a decade. And as previously mentioned, I’d mastered the art of making small talk with weirdos years ago. Sure, my multitasking skills needed work. And my coordination could use a polish with some fresh saliva and a hankie. But maybe if I started small, with bottled beer and vodka sodas, I could work my way up to the big leagues. But all of the bars were closed. And all of the bartenders I knew were out of work, too.

Instagram posts and tweets about homemade baked goods served as a reminder that the tiny backhouse I was living in did not come with an oven. It seemed the entire country was making banana bread. I couldn’t take up baking as a way to relieve stress. So, I started running instead. I ran long distances through wooded neighborhoods. Sometimes for hours, simply for something to do. It was during one of these runs, somewhere between a nervous breakdown and an endorphin high, that my mom called with an offer: would I like to come and stay with her and my dad at their home in La Quinta, California for a while. I breathlessly responded without hesitation: Yes.

I packed my belongings in boxes then packed the boxes in one of those U-HAUL storage containers that get dropped off in your driveway and then picked up by a truck a few days later. That way there were no interactions with movers. We were still in the middle of a pandemic, after all. I then packed my dogs in their dog carriers, which they surprisingly didn’t urinate all over in protest, and headed out west.

La Quinta is a city in Riverside County. It is located in the Coachella Valley and is home to the Santa Rosa Mountains. It is 25 miles from Palm Springs, 130 miles from Los Angeles, 254 miles from Las Vegas, and 1,318 miles from Dallas. There are a lot of golf courses here. Also, a surprising number of hummingbirds. In 1937, Frank Capra wrote the screenplay for Lost Horizon sitting poolside at the La Quinta Resort & Club. I learned this from Wikipedia. And some of the Kardashians own homes here. I learned this from my mom.

I did not grow up in the house my parents are living in. I wasn’t returning to some familiar childhood haven where I’d be greeted by a bedroom filled with stuffed animals and photos of boy bands taped to the walls. My room—a guest room—is airy and beige and has one of the most comfortable mattresses I’ve had the pleasure of lounging on. In fact, it’s where I’ve written the majority of this story.

Moving in with your parents as an adult has its challenges. It’s like a bunch of grown roommates trying to go about their daily routines without irritating each other. You start to appreciate the small freedoms you had while living alone. Simple things, like making scrambled eggs in your bath towel. Honestly, I would prefer not to know if my being here has prevented my roommates from skinny dipping in their hot tub or whatever they were doing before I arrived. But I’m sure if you asked them, they’d have similar points to make.

And then there’s the merging of the dogs. My roommates’ seven-pound Chihuahua is very sweet and old and gentle. My two mutts are far more rambunctious and have taken a liking to chewing her toys, eating her food, and overstepping their boundaries. There must be a guard on duty, standing over her bowl, each time she eats. And speaking of eating, turns out my roommates and I have different cooking habits.

Sautéed onions have become a central topic of discussion. Whereas I think they smell like nirvana, my roommates are convinced that the scent will somehow seep into their furniture and walls and the entire house will permanently reek like a pubescent boy. We’ve come to an agreement: I will sauté onions less frequently, and when I do, I will crack a window and turn the stove range hood on turbo warp speed. I will then immediately wash and dispose of any onion paraphernalia.

Once I get out of here, I plan to sauté onions for a full 24-hours wearing nothing but my underwear. Just because I can. But in the meantime, I’m grateful that this living situation is even an option. I realize that I am fortunate to have it.

It’s really not so bad. I’ve spent mornings reclining on an enormous inflatable unicorn, slowly ricocheting off the pool walls like a swollen air hockey puck. And afternoons running through the desert, which admittedly sounds more romantic than it is. The terrain is stunning. But the sun is unforgiving. And sometimes sand blows into your mouth while you’re gasping for air. I’ve spent evenings riding in the rear seat of my parents’ golf cart, sipping a cocktail and politely waving at other people in golf carts as they pass. And then, all of the time in between, which might I add has been a lot of time, searching for a job.

The days here feel longer than those in Texas. One time at a party a guy told me that minutes pass by slower in California. I think he was high. But being here has me wondering if there isn’t a sliver of truth to this theory. Mornings are bright. Afternoons are lengthy and sun filled. Evenings drag on as the sky fades from blue to periwinkle and then erupts into hues of florescent pink before completely burning out. The stars here are dazzling. Showoffs, really. And their arrival signals that it’s time to surrender to my room. My parents go to bed early, which means that I, too, now go to bed early.

At times I’ve had to quell my inner 7-year-old for sulking at having to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Or for wanting to scream over the fact that she hasn’t seen her friends in months. Or for feeling like a gross loser for being unemployed and living at home with her parents in her mid-thirties. Seven-year-olds, though strongminded, don’t know it all. Even the ones who live inside your adult psyche. And sometimes they need to be told what’s what. So, I told her to put a sock in it.

Life isn’t fair. The pandemic isn’t fair. Innocent people getting sick isn’t fair. And sure, landing your dream job and losing it six months later isn’t fair. But having a dream job is a privilege. For many, a job is nothing more than a means to an end—a way to earn enough dough to survive until they meet the maker. Surely, some prefer it this way. But for others, it’s not a choice.

I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve had it all wrong. What if there isn’t one job out there that’s destined to fulfill you. I mean, even if you land a gig that’s everything you’ve ever wanted, there are additional factors at play: your boss, your colleagues, your parking situation. And you can’t control the economy. Or whether your employer turns out to be a huge bigot, leaving you morally obligated to quit. I think it’s wonderful to have goals. And even more wonderful to muster the confidence to pursue them. I also think that if you’ve found something you enjoy doing, then keep doing it. Do it for as long as you can. But don’t stick all of your self-worth eggs in one occupational basket.

And so, with this sentence, I declare the dream job dead. Farewell old notion. Consider it cremated and its ashes scattered somewhere across California’s Inland Empire.

Here I sit, with my laptop on this stack of pillows, which I’ve turned into a desk, on this bed, in the guest room, at my parents’ house in La Quinta—starting over.

Rather than dwelling on the loss of a job, I’m choosing to focus on the skills I’ve acquired up until this point. Just because I’m no longer a magazine editor doesn’t mean I’ve lost my ability to write. I just wrote this, didn’t I? There’s comfort in knowing that regardless of what happens, you can always gather your knowledge and talents and dogs and try again. Maybe there’s not a single, perfect job out there, but I’m willing to bet there are several that we’re all perfectly suited for. And I intend to find one.

I can’t claim that I have a plan. No great vision for what my life should be just yet. No green tape that I must sprint across within the next three, 10, 20 years. And for the first time since I can remember, I’m OK with that.

While the future is uncertain, one thing’s for sure: Whatever comes next, I will embrace it with the enthusiasm of a child who believes that one day she will grow up to be a veterinarian. 

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This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by @musiena/Twenty20.com

Catherine Downes is a freelance writer and photographer currently living in California's Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in Success Magazine, D Magazine, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Morning News, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, and more. While she'll eat just about anything, her favorite food is sandwiches.