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.