This post continues my memoir project, which began in an earlier essay with entries added sequentially since. If you feel inclined to judge the work, please keep in mind you’re reading an early draft.
If abandoning my love of ecology to enter medicine set me on the road to midlife ruin, then my downfall began the summer after my sophomore year at UC Berkeley. I didn’t recognize the transition at the time. On the contrary, my plans to become a naturalist felt confirmed when I spent the vacation studying aquatic invertebrates at a Northern California marine laboratory.
The field program required a research project, and I chose to study a small, shrimp-like animal that lives under the kelp debris that piles up on sandy shores. The literature told me ‘beach hoppers’ migrate toward higher ground to feed at night and then return downslope before dawn to regain protective cover. Previous investigators had surmised they orient their movements by gravity, but this hypothesis had never been proven. So I built an apparatus that confined the animals to a yard-wide circle I could slope in different directions. For several weeks I stayed awake nights plotting their movements.
It is hours past midnight, and I am perched on a low bluff overlooking the beach, drinking Earl Gray tea to keep sleep at bay. The experiment’s platform is angled at my feet, and a clipboard balances on my lap. The dozen beach hoppers I collected in the afternoon are now still, after a lively spell following sunset. The majority rest near the uphill wall of their enclosure, a behavior that pleases me because it supports the working hypothesis. A slight ocean breeze prompts me tighten my collar around my neck as I watch a thin, salty mist swirl above the moonlit surf. The sounds and odors of the beach intoxicate me, making me think of times before civilization, when this sandy cove set into an otherwise rugged coast would have looked much the same. There would have been no research station and no electric bulbs lighting up the scrubby hills, but waves and mist would have tumbled and danced just like now. As I imagine a less troubled past, without worries about grade-point average, nuclear war, shyness, or imperialism, nature’s measured but muscular vibrations resonate on all sides. The planet seems at ease with the surge and stress of civilization. “This too shall pass,” the trilling insects and rumbling surf seem to intone, and I feel reassured. If the earth doesn’t fret about human problems, why should I? The wild terrain feels like refuge. Sleep deprived and in love with my surroundings, I vow to build a career as a naturalist. I commit to a life spent far from urban chaos, nurturing and nurtured by Earth’s creative energies.
But a month later, while presenting my results to the class, I emphasize the vector analysis used to probe noisy data for confirmation of beach hopper orientation by slope. The professor seems impressed by my mathematical model, as simple as it looks to me. I like the way my math and physics classes have helped me stand out in a crowd of biology majors, where most pursue only the minimum such coursework needed for their degree. Without my noticing the shift, striving begins to eclipse the heartfelt longing for a future spent in nature. Driving my pick-up truck through rolling coastal hills after the course ends, I scheme about ways to leverage analytical skills as I make my mark as an ecologist. I’m still focused on naturalism, but the spiritual call of my nights with the beach hoppers now eludes me.
When I fly to Los Angeles after the field class, my father picks me up in his convertible Mustang, and we speed up the coast discussing my plans. As marine air tangles my shoulder-length hair, I enthuse about my time outdoors and the pleasure of studying animals in their natural environments. My physicist dad zeros in on how my math skills impressed the professor. When he says, “well, biology is never considered one of the hard sciences,” I feel a jolt in my psyche. His observation (historically true though becoming less accurate) takes me back to junior high and my first grapplings with algebra. After a half-hour spent tutoring me back then, my father angrily declared me devoid of math ability. For years afterward I lacked the confidence to succeed at mathematics. But recently I’ve been getting top scores on physics and calculus exams, a biologist outstripping hundreds of science and engineering majors. Angry and hurt, I try to rebut my father’s dismissive take on my favored field, but in subsequent months his words propel me toward the more technical aspects of life science.
When I return to college in the fall, my altered outlook begins to manifest. I ramp up the math and physics classes while reducing my emphasis on naturalism. Before long I’m preparing for a graduate program in neuroscience, a field favored by those with analytical aptitude. The shift isn’t entirely my dad’s fault, of course. My study of beach hopper behavior piqued my interest in invertebrate nervous systems, and my girlfriend’s mother is both a neurophysiologist and the only working biologist I know personally. The psychiatric illnesses suffered by my mother and sister also play a role, since they incline me toward interest in mental processes. Still, I feel gratified when my father adds his blessing by sending me a list of brain researchers compiled by a colleague at UCLA.
My professors seem impressed with my wide-ranging academic skills, my father approves, and a future in neuroscience sounds exciting. With newfound grandiosity, I dream of the Nobel Prize. I’m excited, but a long-buried fury gets reignited. Although my new path interests me, it lacks heart. Growing up, the innocent joys of my childhood had been repeatedly crushed by my stepmother. For example, on Christmas when I was about eleven, my aunt and uncle sent me a small metal box that locked with a tiny key. I used it to store letters from relatives that arrived during the long winter months I spent in my dad’s household. One day when I was at school, Della used a screw driver to pry up the lid. She left the ruined present on my bed and the loose pages of my grandmothers’ letters crumpled on the floor. After a number of episodes like that, I learned to ignore feelings of loss and anger. If I complained to anyone, severe (even life-threatening) punishment always followed, but burying so much rage made it hard to feel joy. Something similar is happening now. My new direction has cut something vital out of my life, but the impact doesn’t register consciously. Instead, I begin to feel irritable and unhappy.Share on Facebook