An old post about why I'm not a marine biologist - with an absolutely delightful comment thread from James

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. )

James M. Emmerling

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..............................................

James M. Emmerling

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 that? a white umbrella???)
and especially, especially the mathematical nature of our cosmos
well then 
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
so called
not yours, though.
nor mine.
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

Views: 140

Comment by koshersalaami on April 11, 2016 at 4:51pm
Thank you for that
Comment by Rosigami on April 11, 2016 at 4:58pm

Thank you for re-posting this, and including the comments from James. It IS a delightful piece and made me smile all the way through. 
And reminded me of why, even though I adore all things medical, I didn't go into medicine. Just loving the idea of something doesn't mean we would be capable of dealing with all the stuff that must accompany it. 
I found things to do that have been a far better fit for me.
As, I suspect, you have as well.

Comment by Jeanne Sathre on April 11, 2016 at 5:35pm

I agree with Rosi. This is delightful--both your piece and James comments. I was glad to see that your other dream was to be a writer. I think that one will work out well for you.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on April 11, 2016 at 6:31pm

Thanks for the re-post,  I swear I'll be recording my podcast about How do you mourn the loss of a good friend you never met?  It's been over three months and it's time to take off my torn garment and wash the ashes and dust from my hair and beard.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on April 11, 2016 at 6:34pm

I am still hurting

Even when I remember

how you made me laugh.

Comment by Alysa Salzberg on April 13, 2016 at 3:29am

Thank you all for your kind words.

And Jmac, I'm sorry you're still feeling such strong grief - but not surprised. James was such an amazing soul, and so much a part of the OS community, and a close friend to many of us, as well. So for him to be gone touches not one, but several parts of our lives. It can feel so fragmented and lonely. I know there's this empty bit for me when I think about James being gone.  At the same time, I try to take heart in the fact that I'm sure his spirit is off on adventures in thought and simple travel now that he has no earthly limits.

Of course, grieving is different for everyone, and I've found personally that different deaths affect me in different ways. The other day, I saw someone who looked just like my friend Ana, who passed away a little more than two years ago, and I burst into a sob, right there on the street.  Time will heal us, they say..... Hang in there - I know James would have wanted you - and all of us who miss him - to be happy.

Comment by Anna Herrington on April 14, 2016 at 8:23am

I'm so glad you re-posted this - and with James's comments! How wonderful and bittersweet. Did I read this before? I'm wondering now - I, too, wanted to be a marine biologist and never went for it, either...but completely different reasons. Not sure it's interesting enough to write about, especially compared to this, but.... funny to me we both had leanings in this direction at some point.

As for James ....James, James.... I know he felt close to you, and you to him. I'm sorry he's gone. I think of Margaret - and her kids! - every day, and don't know what to say. My impulse in these times is to hug and say nothing. 

Meanwhile, for me it's Kim. Even though I put up boundaries and wouldn't skype with him (would I want my hubs skyping with someone from online? no!), we emailed all the time, chatted here on thread after thread..... when a kindred spirit disappears it's just terrible for those left behind, isn't it?  I am teary eyed at some point, every day. Feel such sorrow for his loved ones, James's loved ones....

Big hug to you  : )


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