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…