Tuesday, April 18, 2006


In a recent message, Mike Taylor wrote, "I know from many, many years' experience (in programming as well as palaeo) that my phases of enthusiasm drift in and out of being in a totally random way, so I need to sieze each one as it comes past and squeeze it till it bleeds productivity."

I was comforted to hear this, because it's the first time I've heard anyone discuss one of the ruling phenomena of my life: manias.

They seem to work on 4-6 week cycles. When I am in the grip of one, it is what is on my mind most of the time. I can't predict when the next one is coming or what it will be. And most of them come around more than once.

Earlier this year it was bonsai. Then model rockets. For the past several weeks it has been natural history in general. I have been ODing on David Attenborough videos checked out four at a time from the local library. (I watch one a day while rocking London, usually half for the afternoon nap and half for bedtime.) The natural history one is odd, because I don't think it is going away. It shows signs of escaping the narrow bounds of a mania and becoming a predominant obsession.

I'm reading E.O. Wilson's biography, Naturalist. It's phenomenal. I am usually scrupulous to a fault when it comes to the condition of my books, and some that I've read two or three times still look brand new (unless I've had the questionable judgment to loan them out). But I've dog-eared half a dozen pages in Naturalist so I can go back and write down some quotations. Here's one of my favorites: "Hands-on experience at a critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist."

That made me think about turtles. My childhood was ruled by dinosaurs, but turtles were in a close second, with whales, mammoths, airplanes, and rockets forming a tight pack right behind. This was when I was in single digits, before I saw Star Wars and my brain shipped off for a long tour of duty in a galaxy far, far away. I found an abridged, illustrated copy of Moby Dick in the school library when I was in second grade, with a lurid cover showing old Ahab duking it out with the titular monster. Whales became a frequent recurring mania. I would fold up the bottom third of an 8xll" sheet of paper, tape down the sides, cut scallops on the top margin of the folded third and draw clouds on the exposed third. This was my ocean. From another sheet of paper I cut a three-masted whaler, several whaling boats, and several whales (usually sperm, blue, and right, if you're curious). Then I would spend an afternoon reenacting fierce battles and bloody slaughter on the high seas.

So, to illustrate, my manias go way back. All the way back, as far as I can remember. But I was talking about turtles.

My maternal Grandpa taught me to fish and play cards and gave me my first pocketknife when I was nine. He had promised it to me when I was seven, but Mom and Grandma made me wait two agonizing years to get it (by the time my youngest brother, Ryan, came around a few years later, the legal limit was down to seven). Grandpa was the consumate outdoorsman. He was a hunter of winged and legged creatures, kept a garden and an orchard, canned his own fruits and vegetables, caught fish with rods or shot them with a bow and arrow, and raised minnows for bait. In short, any living thing in his demesne, be it flower, pea, or tree, fish, bird, or mammal, was something he could grow, catch, and/or cook. He also--crucially--practiced taxidermy. The entryway to my grandparent's spacious house was a veritable museum. On long summer visits I would retire to entryway with my sketchbook and spend hours drawing animals from his menagerie. I think he must have had one of every common waterfowl and shorebird in Nebraska, most of the smaller mammals, and a few of the larger ones. My favorites were the skunk, badger, porcupine, and coyote, although the antlered buck and the pronghorn antelope were also very impressive. Oh, and a couple of prairie rattlers. All things he had hunted, cleaned, and mounted himself.

If the slaughter of so many beautiful creatures seems offensive to modern tastes, keep in mind that Grandpa was born in 1911 and made his collection when doing so was not thought ill of, and when animal populations were in better shape than they are today. But I was talking about turtles.

When I was five Grandpa brought me and my brother Todd (Ryan's conception was still two years off) some box turtles, Terrapene ornata. I became an instant turtle nut. Dad built a chicken-wire turtle run in the back yard, and the turtles promptly climbed out. Version 2.0 was the last version we would ever need: a turtle tire. A turtle tire is a worn-out tractor tire six or so feet in diameter. Lay it on its side on a flat patch of ground. Place bricks underneath the bottom lip on the inside. Fill it with sand and soil until the bricks and the interior of the tire are filled up to the bottom lip. Dig out a one- or two-foot section of the inside--this will be the pond. Put in your turtles. Feed them every day, with unusable bits of vegetables and fruits from the kitchen, plus whatever worms and insects two energetic preadolescent boys can catch in an afternoon. Melon guts and crippled grasshoppers are special favorites. Keep the pond filled with water. The turtles now have all they need: land and water, sun and shade at all hours of the day, dirt to dig in (but bricks to force them down instead of out, and thus keep them from escaping), the companionship of other turtles, a steady stream of nutritious food, and the constant attention of two boys. The boys also have all they need: a domain of their own, a little world to manage, animals to care for, responsibilities, and a constant source of entertainment and education. "Hands-on experience at a critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist."

If they have the hands-on experience, they will acquire the systematic knowledge when they need it, or for sheer pleasure. Mom and Dad got me the Golden Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians, by Herbert Zim. That led to other Golden Guides. I enjoyed leafing through Rocks & Minerals, Insects, Spiders & Their Kin, Fishes, and Mammals (somehow I missed birds), but I devoured Reptiles and Amphibians. I read it more times than I can count. I memorized it. "Digging long tunnels is characteristic," it said of the Gopher Tortoise. I was six, and I didn't know what 'characteristic' meant. I thought it was some kind of special dirt for digging long tunnels in.

Eventually the Golden Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians was replaced by the Audubon guide to same, with glossy full-color photos of every species and detailed information on their ranges and habitats. Even that would be replaced by the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Reptiles and Amphibians when I took herpetology with Laurie Vitt at OU (the paintings in Peterson's show the field markings better than the photos in Audubon's, doncha know). Dr. Vitt--I am too much a student to call him Laurie, then or now--also served on my master's thesis committee, which brings us full circle: back to dinosaurs.

Sometimes a predominant obsession becomes the fodder for a mania. Paleontology is elevated from something I do to something I do all the time. I stop reading. I stop watching television. I stay up until 3:00 in the morning poring over monographs, building tables of data, calculating percentages, having insights, digging around the margins of the Big Picture to see how much is left to discover. Writing, for ten or twelve or eighteen hours a day. I don't know if this happens to everyone else, or anyone else. I suspect it must. I hope so, because it's what I live for. I hardly ever talk about it except to Vicki, and when I do I call it being On.

I've never been able to pin down the schedule or the necessary preconditions for being On. It has always just seemed to come over me. Alexander the Great talked about being possessed by the gods. Ridden by them, like a man rides a horse. That's what being On has always felt like.

A ready supply of new data is probably a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient. Last June I went to Chicago to meet Mike and spend two and a half days rocking out at the Field Museum. The data came in buckets, in torrents. In one day we took over 500 digital photographs. The evenings we spent banging through calculations and outlining papers. It was exhilarating, but when I went home I went back to business as usual. I was not On.

A month later I went to BYU and almost immediately did turn On. Maybe it was the long drive across Nevada, where the Earth shows its anatomy so plainly that you can count the ribs. For whatever reason, when I got to Provo I fell into a typical On schedule. Every morning I would rise, shower, and grab a pastry and some caffeine on my way to the museum. Then work tirelessly until noon. Nip out for a quick lunch, and work until just before lockup time in the evening. Grab a slightly more leisurely dinner, and then back to the motel room to download the day's photos, crank data, process images, and make figures until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

Who knows, maybe some people work that hard all the time. I certainly do not. On a typical day I would put in eight or nine hours at the museum and another seven or eight in my room. On second thought, I really doubt that many people do. That's basically a full work day of physical labor, climbing ladders, pushing carts, and lugging around sauropod bones, and another full work day of computer time. By nature and inclination I am not used to working sixteen hour days, and on the rare occasions when I have to, I am usually a zombie after a day or two of it. But when I'm On... Well, for one thing, it's not work. It's not even play. It's a drug, and I'm a junkie.

So. Why can't the junkie turn on his fix whenever he wants? Why do the bouts of being On come on suddenly and unpredictably and wane just as mysteriously? When I started writing this post, I had no idea, but now I have a hypothesis and I telegraphed it above. I think being On is like a spring tide, the convergence of two powerful forces--my Predominant Obsession and my manias--that reinforce each other and boost the signal of the former to an undeniable level.

Which leaves the mystery of where the manias come from. I have a hypothesis about that, too. I think my attention must run in 4-6 week cycles. At times I find myself bored and restless. I cast about. I scan my bookshelves and take long walks, looking for inspiration. Then I fix on something. A bonsai tree in a shop window. An online story about a commercial space launch. Or, just maybe, figuring out the mass of a Brachiosaurus neck.

If I could harness the manias, I would. I've tried. When I feel that familiar restlessness coming on, I sometimes try to seed the ground with something broad and provocative. Usually a book, like D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, or Stephen J. Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Or something less lofty, like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or the Guinness Book of World Records or the Estes Model Rockets 2006 Catalog.

It has never, ever worked. The problem is that when I am bored and restless I am bored by everything I can think of. So I have to search for things that I have not thought of, or at least not thought of for a while (e.g., model rockets). By their very nature, manias are unpredictable and undirectable.

I'm not complaining, mind you. Life is almost unendurably interesting. Since my last post I have not drawn every day, but I have drawn frequently. I have learned how to juggle, thought I'm still not very good at it. I've marveled at frogs brooding tadpoles in their throat sacks and birds nesting behind waterfalls, while London snores in my lap and David Attenborough patiently and cogently explains the natural world. I've compiled data and run statistical analyses and learned surprising things about the world, things that I didn't suspect and in fact predicted against.

I walked the beach this morning and found the tooth of a terrible monster. Honest.

I will blog about all of this in due time. Honest.

I hope your life is constantly, variously, unendurably interesting as well.


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

It's strange, but oh so true. I've gradually come to realise that I have no control at all over my enthusiasms: like you, I've tried to prime the pumps without success. The big difference between your state and mine is that I am always enthusiastic about something, even if that something is just, for example, Lego, edging the lawn, re-reading my absurdly complete collection of Dave Barry books, or (as at present) the Beatles.

But the good stuff is when then thing I am enthusiastic about is something I can actually be productive doing. Thankfully, I am in the grip of a BMNH R2095 obsession at the moment, which is just what I need :-)

Speaking of which, get your fine BMNH R2095 T-shirt from http://www.cafepress.com/bmnh_r2095

4:48 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

I should clarify.

Usually when people tell me they're bored, I want to slap them. Because usually that's code for, "I'm too lazy to find anything interesting." Such is my distaste that I hesitate to admit that I am ever bored. A better way to say it would be that my manias are so controlling that in the 1 or 2 day hiatus between one and the next I am comparatively bored. And by now I recognize that "boredom" as the precursor to being pathologically interested in something unexpected, so I can ride it out.

8:01 AM  

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