Lately, there has been so much going on, and so much on my mind, that whenever I set out to write a blog post, my thoughts just get muddled. But since I need to keep my other blog updated regularly for work reasons (as opposed to here, where I have the luxury of being among friends and being able to post when it feels right), that simply won't do. So, I went through the old Open Salon posts I have saved, in the hopes that I could use one or re-work one, and post it.
I remember last year when we got the notice that Open was shutting down for good, I spent so many long nights frantically copy/pasting my stories - and, equally importantly, all of the comments (including avatars) that went with them. In the months since, I can't say how many times I'll scroll down and happen upon a comment that uplifts me, makes me think, or simply makes me smile and feel all warm and fuzzy.
One benefit I hadn't really considered is that keeping the comments means you get to keep something of your friends when they're gone. As I wrote shortly after his passing, while James and I exchanged many messages over the years, I didn't get to save any of the countless ones that were in my Open Salon inbox, since they shut us out of those when the site was officially determined to be on its way out. And then tonight, as I searched for a post, I saw James's face and realized - oh my gosh - there's some of him here! We all know that he could leave some doozies of comments, ranging from beautiful, to hilarious - often both at the same time.
Well, there was one post I figured I might be able to re-work (because the original one was quite rambling) and post, and there were James's comments that made me crack up.
So here is the reworked (and mercifully abridged) version of the post, followed by dear James's fantastic comments. I hope you enjoy the post - and I'm almost certain you'll love what James had to say about it:
That time I decided not to become a marine biologist
Author’s rendering of a bowhead whale. Although this was drawn a few years ago, when she was in her late 20’s, it’s an accurate representation of the doodles she’d make in her notebooks in fourth and fifth grade, as her drawing skills have not evolved since that time.
When I was in fourth and fifth grade, you could say I was many things — including the dumbest kid in the Talented and Gifted Students program.
Despite my horrific performances in just about anything involving math, every Tuesday I’d go with the other kids in the program out to a special trailer in the school’s courtyard, where we’d do things like learn about Greek mythology, or build bridges out of toothpicks. I was excellent with remembering the intricacies of the Greek myths, but not so great at constructing a toothpick bridge. Luckily that was a team project, so I just stuck the toothpicks where the other kids told me to.
As the bridge project shows, usually my math issues flew under the radar. But then, one day, we had to sound the depths of the sea.
At some point around that age, I’d absolutely fallen in love with whales. I’ve always felt something strange and emotional when watching documentaries about them. I think it’s the surreal way they float through the ocean like dirigibles in the sky. Something about that sight fills me with awe more than almost any other image I can think of. I had dreams of swimming underwater below a whale, just watching it move past me. On library days, I’d check out any book I could find about cetaceans. Soon, I could rattle off facts like length, weight, blubber thickness, and so on, the way other kids did baseball stats. Besides my Barbies, I had a selection of hard rubber whale figurines that I cherished. I decided that, in addition to being a famous writer, I also wanted to be a marine biologist.
When the gifted program teacher announced we’d be doing a unit on oceanography, I took it as great news.
The following Tuesday, we arrived in the trailer to find shoeboxes on our desks. They had their lids on, a small slit cut into the top. Our teacher handed out popsicle sticks and told us to put the stick in the slit and, without looking, graph the changes we felt in the elevation of the hardened cement that had been poured into our box — this was a simulation of what a ship’s sonar did when it scanned the ocean floor.
The other kids got right to it. I did, too…and soon realized I had no idea whatsoever of how to translate the feeling of bumps and rises in a shoebox onto some really scientific-looking graph paper with numbers and units of depth.
I don’t remember what happened in the end, but I have fragmented visions of my clumsy handwriting on a printed green grid, and hot, frustrated tears brimming up in my eyes. To this day, whenever I think of uneven cement in a shoebox (which, admittedly, isn’t often), I shudder.
The next week, our teacher announced that we were going to watch a series of short films featuring real-life oceanographers and marine biologists.
She turned on the TV and pressed “Play” on the VCR. Out blared the discordant music of a slightly warped cassette tape, and we plunged into the world of the scientists I hoped to one day consider my colleagues.
What struck me most was the bleakness of their ship’s interior. Exposed metal walls, Spartan sleeping areas. It also seemed that though there were a lot of oceanographers and marine biologists on the ship, there weren’t many toilets — and those toilets seemed pretty small and uncomfortable. This made me, a kid with nascent IBS, uncomfortable.
And I knew it wasn’t the most important thing about the film, but I was also concerned by how the scientists dressed. I asked the teacher why they always had on sloppy flannel shirts and stained, badly-fitting pants. She laughed and said, “What do you expect them to wear? They’re getting sprayed by the ocean, changing into dive suits, and dissecting fish all day.”
As I watched them continue to do their scientist things on screen, a small part of me died. With the overabundance of math and the lack of aesthetics and creature comforts, I had the sinking suspicion that marine biologist was not the career choice for me.
Still, I’ve never stopped feeling moved — even shaken — by the sight of cetaceans.
A few Christmases past, we were at my in-laws’ and I found myself alone for a while in front of the TV. Suddenly, a documentary came on. It was about bowhead (Greenland right) whales — my favorite whales of all. About a half hour later, my boyfriend and father-in-law found me staring at what seemed to them a rather ordinary nature documentary, with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Okay, so that's the updated/reworked version. In the original, the conclusion comes far later. First, I go on this very long, somewhat tied-in tangent about the book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and its sequel. That's why some of James's comments refer to the piece being difficult and long (and very rightly so - I knew it at the time, too, but sort of ploughed on. I guess I just was feeling "talkative" when I posted it). He also mentions "cool illustrations", which were two of my favorite images from Harris Burdick that were originally included in the post.
So, take it away, James:
first! me first! ha!
(shit. now i gotta read the whole damn thing. )
NOVEMBER 17, 2011 03:07 PM
ok, i am several paragraphs in,
and entirely delighted by the image of nerdy little alysa
arriving at the Gifted Trailer with all the other little geeks
dreams of whalesong and cetacean swimming in her little noggin,
to find that they were making her build a radio out of
aluminum foil & batteries & scrap yard metal.
poor lil A, with her Moby Dick lunch box fulla bread & cheese
and her brand new Flipper notebook
and her paperback copy of Melville's Greatest Hits.
on i go..............................................
NOVEMBER 17, 2011 03:17 PM
god, woman, if parts of you keep dying everytime u
meet up with the dismal state of everyone else's imagination
and the rough realities of science (it ain't for dainty ladies
who go to museums carrying...what..is that? a white umbrella???)
and especially, especially the mathematical nature of our cosmos
aint gonna be nothing left of u.
way way cool illustrations.
James M. Emmerling
NOVEMBER 17, 2011 03:26 PM
oh, dreams are pretty easy to crush, especially in an educational
not yours, though.
now that i am out of their clutches and am able to
pursue my auto didactic impulses in serene privacy,
like your..what are they?...bowland whales, the wallflowers
of the whale family. Couldn't go for sperm or killer whales, huh?
whales! mammals who got out of the primordial Sea,
walked around a bit, said f. it, and went BACK to the ocean.
i wonder what they say down there.
i am sure you saw star trek 4, where kirk & gang
bring humpback whales to the 22nd century
to save the earth, yes?
best star trek.
good luck getting alot of comments on this one, gal.
i better keep coming back & harassing you with my whimsy.
in the gifted trailer, i woulda been the chubby 4eyes
with a book on dinosaurs, and my manuscript of "King Kong":
i wanted to novelize the movie at age 9.
also for some reason i couldnt resist the impulse to draw
pictures of the human organs, with great focus on the intestines,
just draw maps of imaginary lands.
James M. Emmerling
NOVEMBER 17, 2011 03:36 PM