Back in the Saddle

Hey there every peoples.

It’s been practically a year since I last wrote. It has been rough. Very rough. In fact this has been, hands down, the worst year of my life. My daily challenge is finding reasons to keep living. But that is neither here nor now. After mulling over the events that lead to my departure, combined with some encouraging words from others, I am going to try to get back in the game. Plus there are some things I have been wanting to write about. But I need to get this off my chest first.

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Here We Go Again…

Hey there every peoples!

You know, I keep getting followers. Once in a while I get a message saying that someone is now following my little blog here. And I don’t get why. My posts are sporadic and often overlong. And lately they have consisted of little more than whiney screeds. No wonder I hardly get any comments. But what can I do? I am what I am. And what I am is an aspiring fossil hunter with depression.

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Chasing Ghosts?

Hey there every peoples…

Been a long time since i posted anything. The main reason was i was in Utah for 2 weeks after which i took a week to get back to normal life and at the end of that week i started school. I had a post in mind, but i have been really down in the dumps lately. I am still able to go about my daily routines, but my heart just ain’t in it. A cornerstone of my current slump rests in, what else, paleontology. More specifically, though, is a sense of hopelessness regarding that foolhardy goal of mine.

I’m going on ad nauseum, it seems, about this ridiculous vision of mine where i start a paleontology on the Central Coast. Is it viable? Can it be done? I have a feeling that it cannot. That sounds defeatist for sure, but allow me to explain. For starters, it would require a lot of resources, specifically money. Museums right now seem to be having trouble staying afloat. I mean, i still get donation requests from the American Museum of Natural History. The American Museum, one of the largest and most prestigious institutions in the world, is asking some unemployed hack like me for donations? Maybe that’s not the best example so here’s a better one. The San Bernardino County Museum had planned to open their Hall of Geological Wonders back in spring 2009. Last i checked, nothing has changed and the last time i visited the museum and looked inside, i saw nothing but a bunch of folding chairs. Further still, the Raymond Alf Museum’s Hall of Life renovation was delayed a couple years by funding troubles (it is slated to be finished in October, thankfully). The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History had plans to build a new facility; now you can’t even find a link to the new building project’s web page in the main menus. I’m from a middle-class family whose mother was just laid-off after 30 years of teaching and i haven’t been able to land (or at times even find) a job since 2007. It should be obvious by now that i don’t have the dough to get things going.

That is one hurdle. The other significant hurdle is getting people interested in joining such a project. So far not one nibble on my rally call (though i didn’t expect that to go anywhere). I go to museums a lot. People love to see fossils and skeletons, but from my observations, it’s from a more “ooh, look at that” mindset. Fossils, and pretty much any natural heritage, don’t seem to mean to other people what they mean to me. And most people don’t seem to care about where they live. John Fuhring, who volunteers at the Santa Maria Natural History Museum, laid it out (He is talking about Santa Maria, while i submited my letter to the city of San Luis Obispo, who never responded):

You know Doug, this IS Santa Maria and we are not now nor have we ever been a town where its people are proud of the community they live in and feel any kind of community spirit. All the wealthy people, who have and continue to make millions of dollars out of the ground and soil around here, go off to live somewhere else with never a thought to beautify or culturally enrich the region they have exploited. The rest of the people here scratch a meager living and have little left for over for cultural things after they have paid their cable TV subscription and payments for the large screen TV. They certainly don’t want to pay any taxes that might go for something like cultural enrichment or beautification of their mini-LA bedroom community.

I’ve lived here (off and on) for over 50 years (since 1958) and it’s actually worse today than when the town only had 10,000 people. What I’m saying is that it is highly unlikely that a paleontology museum will ever be built here given our lack of community and cultural taste. Take for example our town’s Natural History museum. It is housed in a tiny, tiny three room shack, the main room of which was built in the 1870s as a bachelor apartment by Mr. Heart.

The Natural History Museum of Santa Maria, in its tiny 3 room shack, is the best this town is capable of and we just have to face the fact that this isn’t a community that supports anything cultural. Consider too the fact that our symphony has to use Baptist and other Fundamentalist Churches to play in since building any kind of municipal auditorium is out of the question in this town.

He does have a point, even if he was talking about a different town. Who out there on the Central Coast, from Paso Robles to Moorpark, care if the fossils documenting the rich prehistory of their home are locked up out of sight in far flung institutions? How of them care about a piece of that heritage (see below) is rotting away, never to be seen again? I could probably count them on two hands. Science has to beg for crumbs when it comes to funding and volunteers and paleontology seems to get stiffed even then. Because people are more concerned with enriching themselves with money and because the right wing and christian fundies have waged all out war on science, can there be any hope getting people to contribute to this ridiculous vision of mine? I don’t think so…

No about that piece of the Central Coast’s fossil heritage rotting away. I am of course referring to my sea cow. I have tried everything to get it dug out: no scientists i referred to it want anything to to with it; i would try to dig it out myself bu i need permission to do that and the fucking Harbor District will not return my letters or emails. I mean, the answer doesn’t even need to be yes, i just want a response. Ok, a yes would be preferred, but not absolutely needed; an approval would be appreciated, a rejection would be manageable, but no response at all is unacceptable. And i wish for permission to collect not just for the sea cow but for other stuff i might find, like this bone:

I'm not sure what bone this is or what it belongs to, but we may never know...

It broke off, most likely due to all the rain we have had this year. I can’t probe around in the dirt to see where it might have been buried by runoff but i can’t without a permission (or for that matter, if i had permission before had i could have salvaged it before it broke off). Bobby said he was working on a permit for a long time, but he’s just so busy with other sites, school, and apparently being a publishing machine. Plus i have seen him taking about going to college in New Zealand, so obviously he and his permit won’t be around forever. Plus he said that he had to go through hell to get the application. If mighty Bobby Boessenecker had trouble going through the right channels to get an application, i certainly would have stood no chance. Don’t worry Bobby, i ain’t blaming you for anything.

My therapist told me to forget about the sea cow, to not go there anymore, but i just can’t. I have know the site since high school and obviously the chance to do paleontology would be a morale booster. If i could dig it out, prep it, and give it to the Santa Barbara Museum (where is the best pace to send it, thy are a regional museum on the Central Coast), that would be a huge boost to my nonexistent self-esteem. Or just a chance to get out into the field. Spending an afternoon at Carrizo Plain hunting for invertebrates was a nice start, but it’s like crack; you can’t have just a sample, you crave more almost insatiably (at least for me that’s how it is). I have gone o a couple commercial ventures, out to Lake Manix an to Red Rock Canyon. I have signed up again for Red Rock Canyon, but even though nothing has happened yet, it’s got me a little down. I didn’t find anything last time (just like at Lake Manix) while other people did (including people who have been doing this quite a while). People keep telling me I’m smart, but i don’t see it. Where i go, I’m not some known or appreciated member of the body academic; I’m just another dumb tourist with a camera. I mean, i have to pay to go prospecting and so far i have yet to produce anything with the exception of Carrizo Plain (that’s 2 to 1 for those keeping track). We will have to see how this year’s goes.

That last paragraph aside, the rest of this post lays out how i often think about giving up on the Grand Vision. The odds just feel like they are stacked against it. I mean, i bought a little book of inspirational quotes about accomplishing your goals at the Forestiere Underground Gardens and have been reading it almost every day but it’s just not cutting it. Truth be told i don’t know why i hang on to such a foolish notion as being able to open my own museum here on the Central Coast. I could be very happy not opening it if i could just be a paleontologist here on the Central Coast. But where would i work? I don’t think i’d be able to due to lack of job opportunities. I would love to help the Santa Barbara Museum build their fossil collection, but i don’t know if they would go for it. I have have toyed with the idea that instead of building a museum up here, maybe try working with the Santa Barbara Museum to create a little satellite down there, like  the Tye Warner Sea Center, devoted to paleontology. But again, i don’t know if they’d go for it. Right now I’m trying to get a permit to go fossil hunting in Barstow to find them stuff (Barstow has many of the same animals found in the Caliente formation) but only time will tell how far i can get. I feel like getting out into the field is the only thing that can get me out of this slump. But i ain’t holding my breath.

Till next time…

The Grand Vision vs The Noonday Demon

Hey there every peoples!

Things have been pretty silent around here. I’ll give 3 guesses as to why but you’ll only need one. But with finals over with and no school until the fall I can now get back to writing here and spreading the good word 9whatever it may be).

I am always talking about my foolhardy museum goal. I am also always going on about depression (I have come to refer to it often as “the Noonday Demon”, after the title of a book on depression). I guess it was inevitable that I would do a post on how depression affects my hopes of starting a museum here on the Central Coast. I guess the word that would come to most people’s minds is “detriment” and they would be about right. It is quite crippling, robbing me of vital confidence and creating hurdles where there probably shouldn’t be. Seeing as I am getting school under control (especially after the recent revelation that I have a learning disability) this is becoming one of the bigger parts of my depression.

For starters there is just the daunting nature of such an undertaking. Museums don’t get founded all the time by regular Joes like me. It takes years, often decades, to get these sorts of things established. They require funding which even the larger institutions can have trouble obtaining. And given how our culture is gaining a greater and greater disdain for science and education, I don’t see much hope in pursuing such a cause. At least from where I am standing now.

Then there is the little matter of qualification.  Do I really have the qualifications to get this project off the ground? I don’t feel like I do. People who have done what I have set out to do usually have lots of experience and/or knowledge as well as a fiery passion. I have the passion but that’s about it. I am not leadership material as I lack the confidence and the management skills required. I am constantly being told I am smart but again I don’t feel like it. I would say I am better at regurgitating information rather than the critical thinking skills required for science. My fossil prep experience is a drop in the bucket compared to what most lab volunteers have done. And I haven’t even published anything [as opposed to folks like Bobby, “the Master of Publishing” (let’s see how many people get the Resident Evil reference)]. At this point I am little more than a fossil fanboy: one who babbles on at length without doing anything relevant, acting as if he has something to say and gets in fights with trolls. I have depression and a learning disability. Does that sound the winning combination for founding a new museum?

One of the more outlandish mental blocks I have concerns finding fossils. When I read about fossils or see pictures of them, I can’t help but notice how the best specimens (or all for that matter) were collected decades and decades ago and reside at the big old institutions. Hell most specimens I have encountered from the Sespe formation reside at the LA Museum and were found by Chester Stock in the early 20th century. Same goes for fossils from the Caliente formation, except most are up at UCMP and a few in LA. Two new species and a new genus of camel were named from Caliente formation fossils but the paper never mentioned when they were found. Basically what I am trying to say is that I have this irrational but constantly nagging feeling that, at least in the places I want to look, have been found. I know it’s silly and stupid but that’s how I feel. It may be due to the lack of information, but the fact that everything I find was found so long ago doesn’t instill with much confidence (which as you know by now, I desperately need). Hopefully someone out there can prove me wrong…

Why do I write about this? Am I grubbing for pity? No, because I don’t expect any (probably because I don’t deserve any). I talk about because I need to vent. But more importantly (and likely more foolishly) I write about it to illuminate the tribulations of a depressed person trying to become a paleontologist. I try to make clear how depression affects ones thoughts and paralyzing it can be. It’s nowhere easy to get over. But I am trying. I do my best to soldier on

Since the city hasn’t written back about my proposal, rather than get moppey about it I have decided to fall back to my contingency plan. Basically I am going to have to try to organize interested members of the community. Not sure how yet. I have begun working on a pitch, with Alton and Andy giving me very useful advice. I think I have a venue that should work. Problem though is getting enough information. I need to convince people that this is doable but without knowing where to look, it’s going to be a tough sell. Plus it would help to be able to show them some of the fossils we could be finding, but pictures of fossils from the Central Coast have proven infuriatingly scarce. If anyone has any ideas, I’d appreciate them very much.

Till next time!

A Formal Retraction

Hey there every peoples.

I have had something gnawing at the back of my mind for the last couple days. you may recall from a couple posts ago i went on a pathetic diatribe against the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. Well luckily Boesse showed me the error of my ways:

I suspect the reason why UCMP doesn’t have a large exhibit hall is largely twofold:

1) The UC system is too busy paying out huge salaries and bonuses to already overpaid higher-up staff to afford giving exhibit space away.

2) The Valley Life Sciences building does house UCMP, and a lot of offices, but a lot of other departments have labs and lecture halls there (in addition to the life sciences library, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology). UCMP has not occupied its current facility forever, and in all likelihood was not granted sufficient space for exhibits by the UC administration in the first place.

In other words – don’t blame UCMP or its personnel. It certainly won’t help the situation, anyway. I have a great amount of respect for the folks at UCMP, and have had the benefit of visiting collections there quite a few times. Unfortunately, many of their marine mammal specimens have been out on loan to LACM for several decades.

Those are two very valid and likely reasons. We all know how universities have screwed up priorities when it comes to money distribution. Remember how the University of Wyoming almost lost it’s geology museum because of a lack of funding while the football stadium was getting a several million dollar update? Yeah, i can understand if UCMP is having a similar problem. And that should not be held against them.

UCMP is a very important institution and i should not have gone off on them like i did. So if any Berkeley staff come across my piddly little cyber rag, i hereby issue a formal apology for my petulant ranting against your fine establishment. It was asinine and ill informed.

I’m depressed, what more can be said? See, the movie”Inception” is right when they say an idea is the most resilient form of parasite. “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” Combine this fact with depression and you have the mental equivalent of cancer. Any negative thought, no matter how small or trivial, can quickly take hold and spread. Depression is just this malignant, infectious thought process… you dwell on something and it effects everything else.

I have depression and the reason i took issue with UCMP hit particularly close to home. NHMLAC has also received a great amount of such undue angst. Knowing the fossils of my home region are locked up in far flung places is constantly plaguing my mind. But what can be done about it? They got to the fossils first, en of story. Which then metastasizes into another depressive thought: I know it may sound stupid, but i feel like there are no more fossils left to be found in these small coastal localities. Even if i find something, the greatest specimens have already been found and are out of reach. But what can be done about it? Nothing i can think of.

Till next time…

More on Paleontology and Depression

Hey there every peoples!

A recent event has spurred me to talk more about being an aspiring paleontologist with depression.

For many people like me depression is a chronic mental illness that one needs to figure out how to live with. Pills aren’t always the answer. Instead what needs to be done is find the things that make you happy and try to apply that. Also having too much down time is another problem. It gives one time to think and dwell on the negative. This is a little difficult to achieve when even the slightest things can trigger an episode.

Enter me. While I love it here on the Central Coast it is not the best place to nurture a burning passion for paleontology. But that’s just the beginning. As I alluded to above the slightest thing can send me into the bottomless pit. This can be because of my inferiority complex, lack of confidence, and all around depressive thoughts. One such occurrence may be the age old seemingly trivial matter of getting things wrong. Now everyone gets stuff wrong from time to time and admitting their error is regarded as one of the most intellectually honest things to do. So what happens when you never get anything right? I refer you to the aforementioned lack of confidence. I never seem to get anything right, always being corrected on just about everything. Just when I think I know something I learn that I had it wrong for some time. When you can’t get even small details right it begins to erode your confidence bit by bit. Right now I’m at the point where I point out I never get anything right when I engage in any speculation or dialogue. Getting things wrong despite your best efforts to learn makes one feel rather stupid. This is made all the worse when the words “myth” or other such heated language is used. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use such words when appropriate. But when you have depression and are told that you believed in a myth based on what little info you can get, you really feel like the village idiot. [(You’ll see this more in the next post)(this is why I like Brian Switek’s writing style. He always makes it sound like part of the learning process and not about getting right. It does lessen the blow…)]

Depression has a way of perpetuating itself. You make an error and your mind will find ways to make that seem like the mistake of the decade. This mistake in my case is a seeming lack of ability to think critically and apply science. I read various blogs and the comments therein and am just amazed at what people can write based on their own observations and research. They see things I would never have noticed. They always seem to be ahead of me in their sources and knowledge. I have all too often just believed what the news says (like the “dragon of Lisowice”) only to find out I had it wrong. All this sounds trivial. But thrown in the factor of a depressed mind and it all falls apart. It weakens your resolve about going into a field where you have to think critically and be able to debate using evidence. This brings me to my next point.

I suck at debating. And in a field that is fueled by debate that can be a major handicap. After all, why be taken seriously when you can’t defend your position? This doubt then feeds back into the lack of confidence that is a big part of my depression because not only does it make me worry about the ability to stand on my feet in the scientific community, but also because discussions of paleontology often become debates. I mean just look here to see how much I suck. I’m using an argument I saw on tv and when I couldn’t handle the tension, just up and quit. Flight won out over fight. This inability to support an argument is probably a good enough reason to consider another profession

The biggest problem I would say though is in trying to hold on to hope for the future. In my first post of paleontology and depression I talked about how school can really play Marry Hob with your negative thoughts. I despaired about not being able to go to college because I was afraid I would never meet the high standards of California universities. But then I started to think and then I had a revelation: I was going by UC standards. What about colleges abroad? So far University of Nebraska Lincoln and Carthage College have written back (2 out of the 5 I sent letters to. Not bad I guess). But this isn’t enough to banish the “Noonday Demon”. Every little thing can get me down. But what causes the greatest pit of hopelessness is this insurmountable task I have afflicted myself with. I make no bones about my intentions of founding my own museum here in SLO county. However I still cannot get over this crushing feeling of hopelessness that I will fail in the long run. The reasons are many:

  • I have practically no idea what I’m doing.
  • I can’t look for fossils because while I know what formations I want to search, I don’t exactly know where. All efforts to fix that problem have failed (thus perpetuating the feeling that I can’t ever do anything right).
  • I read about fossils being dug up all the times, by professionals, volunteers, commercial hunters, and creationists. Depression creates the feeling that I would not be able to compete with the big league institutions or other parties. Not to mention the fact depression creates the feeling that there’s really nothing left to find. This is obviously not true but we’re talking about a mental illness here.
  • How is such a project to be supported? I’m working on a proposal to the city of San Luis Obispo to see if I could get support from them but it will likely go nowhere.

All that combined with the lack of confidence and my massive inferiority complex too often fills me with that nihilistic sinking feeling. Combined with the fact that the fossils of the Central Coast (the main reason driving my museum) are locked up aboard out of sight (with a few exceptions of course), and you have the recipe for a miserable mind.

The one time I didn’t have these feelings was in the summer of 2008. Through a chance encounter in late December of 2007 I got a foot in the door and became a volunteer at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. They had acquired a mammoth skeleton from the City of Moorpark and was able to have a public view prep lab open that summer. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually working with fossils! I was even quoted in the Ventura County Star as saying “You wait your whole life for an opportunity like this”. But it wasn’t meant to last. The museum only had enough funding to keep the lab open that summer. After that, she disappeared behind the scenes where someone came in once a week to work on her. I tried to continue my volunteer prep work but in the end I lost out. And I have been trying to get that sensation back ever since. I have attended a couple trips where you can look for fossils (with the San Bernardino County Museum and with the LA Museum), but they were short and I didn’t find anything. I tried to offer my services to paleontologists to try and get in on the action. Like when I told the curators at the San Bernardino Museum that if they needed a grunt to dig away overburden in their Las Vegas project, I was willing. Or when Butch was thinking of coming out to California to look around Barstow. Or when Bobby was thinking of plying the bluffs out at Avila Beach for marine fossils. But none of that ever came to pass. I have emailed paleontologists or met them in person trying to get on their good graces:


You can tell Xiaoming isn't entirely thrilled with my antics

Why? Because I am desperately searching for that small ray of hope. I am desperate to try and do the one thing that seemed to put my depression at ease. My depression drags me down and down but I keep the search going in the forlorn hope that maybe I might be able to exercise what I love and learn the skills I need to bring my ridiculous goal to fruition. But like all else, I have failed. I am still where I am when I last left the mammoth lab almost 3 years ago.

This is how I think depression can impact paleontology. It may be different with people interested in other sciences or other fields. But I hope to have shown that depression is a mental illness that can interfere drastically with the scientists of tomorrow. It is not easy to overcome. I don’t know how likely it would ever be, but if you are a paleontologist and someone shows more than a casual interest, try to support them. They may have depression. And helping to immerse them in the wonders of paleontology might be the thing that pulls them out of the Abyss.

Till next time…

Paleontology and Depression

Hey there every peoples!

I wanted to post this sooner but I’ve been this week running the dog to the vet and getting a mole removed. Now that that’s out of the way, I have some free time.

Last weekend I had an exchange with a paleontologist in Santa Ana that had some unexpected ramifications. I was referred to said paleontologist by my geology teacher. So I emailed him to start chatting and he referred me to a paper on entelodonts. I had also hinted at maybe seeking his help and he said he didn’t know how he could help. I offered a couple of examples, namely that he could perhaps help me figure out where to look for fossils. He may have misunderstood what I said (likely due to the context of our conversation) and wrote back with what was simply advice. But my depression decided to read into something that wasn’t there. Luckily Alton helped sort things out.

He suggested doing background research into what I was interested in and that collecting should be secondary. See, he probably thought I was referring to entelodonts when I sent my email (let that be a lesson: don’t be ambiguous. Be clear!). But when he said that maybe I should study at a university or college with entelodonts in its collections, I think that when my depression kicked in.

What seems to have happened is my depression zeroed in on that one word: university. Why would an institution of higher education have such negative connotations for me? It has to do with the fact that I’m a terrible student. I have spent the last 4 years at a community college trying to get enough credits to transfer to an actual college (because with my high school record I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into a university). And I have to tell you it has been like wading through a quagmire. I am not very good at math or English which unfortunately our schools tend to focus on the most (actually I should say that I suck at fictional analysis. I’m apparently not half bad at writing essays). While I inched ever closer to getting my associates degree, the requirements to get into a paleontology program was a different matter.

Basically any school that would take my credits and had a geology program (geology… paleontology… they all had the same requirements) required a bunch of sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. Ok, I thought, I can tough it out a little longer while I tough those out. And then I found out that I would need to take calculus. Any hope I had sank like the Lusitania. I had just failed intermediate algebra and I was supposed to work my way up to calculus?

My depression hasn’t helped any of this. Among the many problems it has blessed me with are a lack of confidence and a massive inferiority complex. Combine that with a failing struggle with math and you have a recipe for disaster. Back in the spring semester, I was doing my math homework and it took me 45 minutes to do 10 problems. 10 problems! Needless to say it spawned my worst episode in months.

School caused me so much anguish and despair that I took this semester off to focus on finding a job (something else that was causing me anguish). We’ll have to see how that turns out. As you the reader knows I have very very ambitious plans for the future. But it has been beaten so much into my head that I need a big college degree to get anywhere, forcing me to keep going back to community college to just fail again which just fueled my depression more. And that made me feel utterly hopeless about the future, feeding the depression even more.

I tell you, there needs to be trade schools for science. You know, places for people like me who are very passionate about a certain science but have major trouble with the other academic stuff or even some of the harder to learn aspects of  the science they wish to study. But that’s wishful thinking at best. Given our country’s disdain for science and the growing disconnect from the natural world in the general populace, such an institution would go under in its first few years. And that leaves me with even less hope. Because I learn by doing. I learn by immersing myself in the real time activities of what I’m studying. I do better when I take in bits of information at a time and repeating them (as opposed to the schools I’ve been to, where they just try to cram in as much as possible). I feel like what I need is not so much a teacher but a mentor. Someone who I work under who can just randomly quiz me on stuff as he walks by (barely five minutes would do). One of the reasons I’m doing that trip to Red Rock Canyon with the LA Museum not just to go look for fossils. I am hoping (very foolishly) that I perhaps may get chummy with the scientists leading it, maybe even getting a foot in to perhaps one day get that mentorship. But I probably have a better chance of winning the lottery…

All I have ever wanted to do was look for and study fossils. In recent years that desired has been refined to looking for fossils to tell their story and use them to teach people. I still want to study them, but in the vein of studying what I find (plus some other ideas I’d wish to pursue). I have been trying desperately to find places to prospect for fossils (even asking Bobby where he looks for the marine fossils he blogs about. He hasn’t responded) so that I might be able to start such an endeavor but to no avail. And considering my inability to cope with even community college and the fact that everyone hammers into my mind the importance of having a master’s degree, perhaps fate has decided I’m not fit to be a paleontologist.

Till next time…