Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are You Out There?

Hi, there!

So, you know how I've been knee-deep in thesis for weeks? Today I was working, and Chris decides to put on Radio Margaritaville, and suddenly my thesis is competing with "A Pirate Looks at 40," one of my favorites;

Mother, Mother Ocean
I have heard you call
wanted to sail upon you water
since I was three feet tall
you seen it all
you seen it all.

And it's not like I've had an easy time concentrating. It's been one of those days where I just stare at the document, and I can see what's wrong with it but I have no idea how to fix it. So I reread Treasure Island in between sessions of staring. Occasionally I added a few words.

But oh, what a fabulous book! I've heard it maybe a dozen times read to me by my parents, mostly before I was old enough to read. Going through it as an adult has been interesting--there's a lot that used to go right over my head, and of course the fundamental ugliness of the story was largely beyond me. It's a curious thing; the book is a childhood fantasy classic, and as such has fueled 200 years of daydreaming about how great it would be to go to sea and battle pirates--but if you actually read the book, the whole adventure is realistically miserable and frightening and ugly and tragic. There's alcoholism and greed and murder and waste, all accurately rendered (as far as I can tell), and none of it sounds like any fun at all. And yet, yes, the take-away mood is of light-hearted adventure.

And from that sense of adventure, I, too, wanted to go to sea, and to learn to use a sword, and to explore strange islands—all things I’ve done, to one degree or another, and wanted to do since I was three feet tall. At least half of the birds I saw in the swirls of wood in the ceiling in my room on the island in Maine were parrots, like the one who rode on Long John Silver’s shoulder. I loved to hear the surf on the island at night, and think of the surf on Treasure Island, which is never still, never silent, and can be heard across the whole island. My whole initial experience of Maine was wrapped up in that book.

And here I am, writing my thesis, or trying to; I stare at the page like I might stare at writer’s block itself, daring the dam to give way—and then it does.

There is no connective tissue that I can find, no intermediate step between not knowing what to write and knowing what to write. I make headway again.

This—science—is another thing I’ve wanted since I was three feet tall. Not to be a scientist, perhaps, but to engage with science wholly and directly, to understand and to explain. My first hero, remember, was Sir David Attenborough—not a researcher, though he has a degree in zoology, but a naturalist, a teacher, and, yes, a writer. I’ve never been sure whether I was always going to be a science geek, and loved Attenborough because he embodied the dream I didn't know I had, or if I became a science geek because this remarkable man looked straight at the camera—straight at me—and let me into his world. Either way, I’m a kid who grew up more or less absorbing nature documentaries. Climbing around on rocks on Mount Desert Island with my teacher, Tom, last spring was, for me, as good as snow on Christmas, a delicious little irruption of childhood. To be back on the coast of Maine exploring with a real expert, a documentary come to life, beside me! I’ve always been someone for whom the words “scientist” and “pirate” held equal—and oddly similar—glamor.

And now I’m looking at 40, I suppose. I mean, I’m only 34, but it’s like that line from Harry Met Sally;

“I’m going to be 40!”



I’m looking at being 40 someday. And listening to actual scientists, and now, doing my best to talk to them, in their own language. My adviser wants to get this thing published in Conservation Biology. Is that not totally cool?

There’s another song I’m thinking of, this one by Dar Williams, about two deejays she listened to on alternative radio when she was younger. I’ve always liked that song, too, but the other year as I was biking home from campus late at night, singing to myself, it struck me that if these two men are real people, not composites, as deejays they might well have heard the song. Maybe, when she sang "calling Olson, calling Memphis," she really was calling them. Maybe, in deliberately entering their medium, she meant for them to hear.

Perhaps I am a mis-creation

No one knows the truth, there is no future here.

And you're the DJ speaks to my insomnia

And laughs at all I have to fear, laughs at all I have to fear

You always play the madmen poets

Vinyl vision grungy bands,

You never know who's still awake

You never know who understands and

Are you out there, can you hear this?

Jimmy Olson, Johnny Memphis

I was out here listening all the time.

And though the static walls surround me

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

Corporate parents, corporate towns

I know every TV set that has them lit

They preach that I should save the world

They pray that I won't do a better job of it

So tonight I turned your station on

Just so I'd be understood

Instead another voice said I was just too late

And just no good....

Calling Olson, calling Memphis

I am calling, can you hear this?

I was out here listening all the time

And I will write this down

And then I will not be alone again

I was out here listening

Oh yeah I was out here listening

Oh yeah I am out here listening all the time.

Calling Attenborough, calling Wessels; I am out here listening all the time.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What's Love Got to Do With It?

Valentine’s Day has just passed. Chris took me out for vegetarian sushi, and I forgot to do anything for him because my brain has been eaten by my thesis. Poor Chris. I’m going to do something for him this week.

At dinner, we were talking, and he mentioned how being without a partner on Valentine’s Day can be a sad, painful thing. Well, yes, obviously is can be, but for me it never was. I think maybe because I never treated being a girlfriend or a wife as part of my idealized identity. I’ve felt down when I wasn’t where I thought I should be professionally, but with romance there has been no should. I didn’t grow up daydreaming of my wedding day. I never aspired to be a wife for the sake of being a wife, even though I did want to get married eventually.

Wife. To be honest, that word still doesn’t quite sound like me, but when Chris says it about me I giggle.

I shall not ask you what you and your mate did on Valentine’s Day. I hope you were together, though, and that it was lovely.

But perhaps you hold with those who consider Valentine’s Day nothing more than a plot to sell greeting cards and chocolates? I don’t deny that such a plot exists, but I think the holiday is more than that as long as the people who celebrate it think there is. Sure, it’s an arbitrary day to celebrate love, but what’s wrong with that?

I think a lot about love, in a broad sense. That is, I’ve come to believe that underneath fundamental differences between different kinds of relationships—friendship, partnership, parental love, etc.—love is one particular thing. I don’t think it is a feeling; I suspect that what neglectful, or even abusive people feel towards their victims can sometimes be exactly the same as what people who love feel, but I can’t see my way to saying abusers love their victims. Conversely, I’ve known people to treat others so well that I would call it love, even if no particular emotion is present. I think love is an action, that it is difficult, and that it must be learned.

I think about things in this way. I am, as you know, a conceptual learner primarily. I have a hard time doing something if I don’t have an abstract understanding of what I’m doing and why. And it is important to me to learn to love well. You’ve described me as a good person and a good friend; that’s not accidental, or even necessarily natural on my part. It’s one of the things I have worked very hard to become, and I am not where I want to be yet.

My mini-lecture here might seem strange to you, for I know you are more procedure-oriented. Where I start with principles and derive procedures, you tend to start with the details of “how?” and let the mysteries of principle bubble up from between. You may think I’m overthinking all of this.

Chris is, like you, more detail-oriented. He has little use for love in theory, and little need for it. He simply gets up in the middle of the night to help the sick or dying, then gets up on time to make his appointments after only four hours of sleep—and still makes me soup for breakfast. He has comforted refugee children, taken in rescued cats and dogs, and cracked jokes when I’m feeling really bad. He gives the dogs baths as needed, with cheerful disregard of the fact that they hate it, because what they need is not always what they want. He brings me water and reminds me to go to sleep.

And he puts up with me when my thesis eats my brain.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Almost Finished

A few years ago, Chris and I hiked from the northern bridge onto Assateague Island to the parking lot near the southern bridge. I should explain, since I’m not sure you’re familiar enough with the island to be able to picture what we did. I know you’ve never been there.

Assateague is a 37 mile-long sand bar with trees and such growing on top. It’s mostly half a mile to two miles wide. My inclination is to tell you exactly which trees and such grow there, but that might make you yawn…ok, how’s this; the northern end is very low and sandy, and sixty or seventy pairs of piping plovers nest there every year. The rangers put little cages over the nests, with mesh big enough that the plovers can walk in and out at will, but foxes and falcons can’t get in. That these cages are called “plover exclosures” absolutely delighted my brother-in-law, his love of language and logic and whimsy all tickled by the vaguely jargonesque rhyme. Farther south, there are large trees in which bald eagles sometimes nest. In those woods in the fall is a banding station for migrating saw whet owls. While banding saw whets there years ago, I heard great horned owl couples calling to each other sometimes.

Does that help?

Anyway, the state line between Maryland and Virginia runs through the island, and is marked by a large horse-proof fence made of what look like old telephone poles, because the horses on either side are managed differently. There is a bridge near the north end, and another near the south end, but since neither bridge is actually at the tip of the island, a true end-to-end hike would involve hiking over tend miles twice. The hike we actually made still took us two days—there are several back-country tent sites on the island, and we stayed at one near the state line. You can’t build trails as such in sand, so hikers walk on the beach.

Got it?

So walking on the beach in this way is very hard. The sand eats up your momentum and chews on your skin, you have to carry all your own water, there is no shade, no change of scenery, and if you stop for more than a few minutes out of the wind you get eaten alive by mosquitoes and flies. Hiking is one of those activities that requires a certain jolly masochism to enjoy.

We tried to ease our feet a bit by walking below the high tide line where the sand was more compacted, but as the day wore on the tide came in until we could either wade through the surf or founder in the soft sand. There was no help for the monotony at all; always the sea on one side, the dunes on the other, the hot sun above, mile after mile, like we were making no progress, just getting progressively more worn out on some giant, albeit beautiful, treadmill. The campsite we were going for was just within sight of the state line fence, so we kept looking for the fence and thinking we saw it, only to realize we were looking at another row of sea gulls. Gulls by the sea, excuse me.

Being a veteran hiker, I was familiar with how the mind starts to warp gently on this sort of vacation (hallucinating the campsite is pretty much par for the course), and at one point I told Chris that I was starting to think we’d never get there, even though I knew that was silly. Of course we’d get there. But as I told Chris, I knew that before we got to the tent site I would reach a point where I actually believed we’d never get there. At yes, it came to pass that I no longer seriously believed we’d ever make camp; it felt like we’d been walking forever, and would continue walking forever, just stumbling mindlessly forward out of some dumb momentum. A few minutes later, we found and made camp.

Last night I reached that point in writing my thesis, and found myself staring at a blank screen unable to put any more words on it because I no longer believed I would ever finish. I know that despair is not necessarily a bad sign; it often happens before success, as it did that day on the beach. But while it’s possible to stumble down a trail or along a beach in emotional aimlessness, it’s not possible to write a thesis that way. On a trail, a beach, or whatever other linear landmark, the direction of forward progress is predetermined. You don’t have to think, you just have to go forward. When writing, “forward” is invented as you go. You stare at the blank page and push out the path before you, feeling your way one word at a time. If you don’t care where you’re going, there is no way to know where to go. The path is inside you, or there is no path, no way forward, at all.

I emailed my thesis adviser. I did not ask for comfort. I did not ask for encouragement. I wanted to seem adult and professional. I asked only for help finding my direction again, which he provided in a dry, professional email only a few words in length. It was comforting. It was encouraging. It worked.

Nearly everyone I know who has worked with an adviser has such a story of crisis. One woman I particularly remember used the phrase “talking me down from the edge.” How do you know how to handle the emergencies and break-downs of grad students? Do they take you aside sometime, put you through some secret seminary? When someone all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed who you hardly even know asks you to walk with them into academic purgatory and out the other side, without knowing that’s what they’re asking, how do you say yes?

So I’m through this particular crisis. I’ve got my feet back on the ground again, and I can feel the direction I’m supposed to be moving in. Good. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’ve got to get my thesis finished before I am.