Careers in Science: Pteridology

Ferns by Ben Stanfield

Ferns by Ben Stanfield

The pteridologist is standing on the threshhold, half in the kitchen, half in the entryway, telling his wife a story while the broken espresso machine gleams on the counter as if it were going to transform into a lethal, chittering chrome Transformer any minute now.

“When I was a kid Uncle Phil took me and my brother and sister and cousins and the neighbor kids backpacking in the Chain Lakes by Mt. St. Helens in the summers. We carried heavy packs up steep trails for miles in the August sun. When we finally got where we were going and set down our packs, it felt like you would float away, like you could jump into the treetops. As if gravity had been cancelled. It was the best feeling in the world. And that is what this feels like now.”

His wife smiles.

“You gradually got heavy again, until the next time you set down the pack,” he says. “Of course.”

He doesn’t want to get his family’s hopes up, but he decides to tell them anyway – his wife and his daughters and some friends – because even though he suspects this is not a one-time cure but rather an on-going process — or rather, because he suspects this is an on-going process — he wants to share his joy with them, at this transformation; he wants them to have this little respite from his depression, and he wants them to, maybe, remind him when he starts backsliding to get back to work on it.

At first he had hoped to wait a year before telling anyone, rather than a week, but he thinks he will need help someday. A reminder or a pat on the back or hug or words of encouragement.

But it is a feeling like no other – a complete and sudden absence of something that he had carried for decades, more on than off the whole time.

“I don’t know if it works for everyone or only some people, but all I can say is a little book fixed me.”

The next day, despite his fears, he is still fine. And the day after that. Waking with no negative thoughts, levitating an inch above the mattress.

It takes about four days for the negative feelings to start nesting in him again. It takes him about 15 minutes to banish them again.

After that, it’s a daily process.

Like doing pushups.

He wishes he had known of this 20 years ago.

Better late than never.



Careers in Science: Atmology

Walking around, the atmologist thought of a great beginning for a blog post, but forgot it again before he could sit down to type it in.

Was it the heat?

Was it the humidity?

No one ever knows.

That’s okay though. The atmologist has been looking into failure lately anyway. The first time the atmologist submitted a story to a magazine it was accepted.

He was paid in copies, but still.

Then, 20-year dry spell. Here’s the thing: the atmologist learned more about writing from the rejected stories than from the accepted one.

Like, if it works, why did it work?

No one ever knows.

But if it fails, you take it apart until you find the problem, then you are smarter than before.

Failure is a stroke of luck, in the long run. It’s what makes science work. If all our experiments worked the first time, we’d never learn anything.

Falsification, in other words.

Another word, whatever.

This way of thinking came in handy last weekend when the atmologist made his first wet plate photos all by himself. He learned a great deal, because everything went wrong.


So next time, things will be better. He will know to make a test plate to get exposure right. He will know to not even bother if the weather is way too hot. He will know lots of things.

But you have to be careful with failure. Sometimes what looks like failure is not failure, it’s frustrated expectations. Maybe it wasn’t a failure, maybe your expectations were mistaken. Or maybe it was a failure, but it is masking a greater gift.  Maybe it is a great stroke of luck.

For example, someone stands you up, leaves you waiting on the corner somewhere, you have a choice: get mad, or calm down and look around. Maybe you are on that corner for another reason. How does the air smell? What else can you see? Is there anything to be discovered?

The atmologist walks through the rubble after an air raid. It’s really hard on his shoes, and dusty; or it rains and makes everything muddy and ruins your clothes, especially if you climb into the rubble to find something.

The rubble is already being cleared away. Trucks and loaders drive here and there, guys stand around with clipboards.

Cool new buildings are going up here.

This is what it’s like when you say to depression, fuck you depression.

At least the atmologist hopes so. He’s been wrong before.

The atmologist passes a pharmacy and suddenly remembers why he is walking down this particular street. He needs to pick up a prescription.

Thanks, subconscious, he says.

Don’t mention it.

He steps over a piece of rubble and goes into the pharmacy to get his prescription, something for tinnitus.

Whenever the atmologist’s kids say anything about tinnitus, he says, What? and chuckles, because he is a dad. And his kids roll their eyes.

It is the way of the world.


No one ever knows.

Careers in Science: Hymnology

What was I talking about just now? asks the hymnologist.

Ffff, dunno, says his daughter.

Neither one of us is listening to me, he says.

I’m really tired, says his daughter.

Oh, right, slugs, he says.

Right, she says.

I feel better about killing them with beer traps than catching them and salting them on the sidewalk. Because one is murder, and the other one is their choice — hey look, beer! you know?

Right, she says. OTOH they end up dead either way. Although drowning in beer is maybe nicer?

But we’ll never know. Maybe they are paralysed and drown slowly and in great terror, he says.

It is a beautiful morning, with a variegated sky. They discuss meteorology. From there (spurred in part by their previous discussion of the ethics of killing slugs) they discuss human values, the nature of existence, the existence (or non-existence) of god, the relation between atheism and faith and agnosticism, astrophysics and the Big Bang, and economics.

At one point, the hymnologist avers that it makes no difference whether god exists or not because he does not intervene (since what would be the sense in that? If there is a god who creates the universe, it would only make sense if he did not intervene), and his daughter tells him he is an Epicurean.

We should like go to Colorado or Washington State and get high and talk about this stuff, says the hymnologist to his daughter. Once you’re over 21, of course.

They discuss the value of philosophy, and how impoverished a life without art and philosophy and other goofing around is.

Some days they sit in the car and don’t say a word to each other, but some days are like this.


Careers in Science: Micropalaeontology

The micropalaeontologist wakes up and thinks, damn. He thinks, what the hell was I dreaming?

Sometimes dreams vanish without a trace.

Rain strikes the window robustly. A cat purrs. The micropalaeontologist thinks, sometimes you have to turn on the special effects machine and freeze all the elements of your life, stop time and stroll among them, open-mouthed and wide-eyed and observe everything closely from every angle until you find a perspective that is not humiliating.

Sometimes you have to look hard until you find a method of seeing that does not make everything look like failure.

Some mornings are just like that, nights too.

You have to look and look.

Take all the time you need.

Careers in Science: Oneirology

Honey, if you want to be dreamy, you gotta get up early.

The oneirologist has this epiphany climbing the subway stairs, way over on one side by the handrail because a train has just disgorged a load of passengers who are all coming down the stairs like the oneirologist is a salmon.

And as he climbs he watches them and some look relaxed and some, one mother in particular, are hurrying. The woman is hurrying and dragging a little kid by the hand, as if they have two minutes to reach a connecting ride. And the oneirologist thinks, you can be efficient or you can be dreamy. Then he thinks of his daughter, who is both efficient and dreamy. So he sort of revises his thought to be less absolutist. If you want a fast commute in the morning, you have to be organized. If you want to be poky and dreamy, though, you have to get up early and allow yourself a lot of time.

The oneirologist couldn’t live any other way. This is why he goes to bed so early at night, so he can get up early and dink around.

The oneirologist likes to watch what happens to the light outside as he drinks his coffee.

The oneirologist likes to listen to the evolution of the sounds in the house as people and animals and garbage trucks start their days.

The oneirologist likes to do some stretches and pushups.

The oneirologist likes to scramble eggs.

He likes to write a little in a journal.

Last night, on his way home from meeting a friend at an advent market and drinking hot winter punch and catching up on things, the oneriologist was accosted by a lot of beggars. The first one got all his change, the ones after that were out of luck.

In one instance, as he waited for a street car, being accosted by one beggar prevented him from being accosted by another beggar. He watched a woman, who was giving off strong vibes of psychological trouble, preparing herself to accost him, when a man swooped in from out of nowhere and began telling him a story. This is known as the narrative method of panhandling.

Unfortunately, the oneirologist is hard of hearing, and it was noisy, and the man was speaking fast, and in dialect, so the oneirologist resorted to empty phrases to keep the conversation rolling:

Is that right?

Oh, that really sucks!

Man, no fooling?

He wanted to give the man money, but was out of change and said so. He apologized a second time as the man left. The man had his pride and said, no problem!

There but for two months salary and a suit go I, thought the oneirologist.

Two months salary, a suit and manners. He thought. And a bath, or a makeover.

But, otherwise.

The oneirologist recalled a recent visit to a jewelry store to buy a Christmas present for someone who had, fortunately, specified exactly (exactly!) what she wanted.

The sales clerks had ignored him for fifteen minutes. Normally, around Christmas time they are swarming you, right?

They would have ignored him for longer, until he left, but he grabbed one by the suspenders, or whatever, and dragged her to the brightly-lit glass display case and said, ‘that one there,’ and made his purchase.

It had been a Saturday, and on the weekends the oneirologist dresses in a more casual manner, and had looked rather bummy right then.

But still.

Even a five, if he’d had a five, he would have given it to the guy.

Careers in Science: Deontology

The deontologist looks at the cat that woke him up. How can such a young cat be so huge, he wonders. The other day the deontologist opened the back window so the cat could climb in and he (the cat) fell off the fence before he reached the window, he is so fat. Not fat, exactly, though, just… huge.

The deontologist feeds all three cats and enjoys the few minutes during which huge cat is distracted by food and not walking figure eights around the deontologist’s feet. The deontologist thinks about everything he wants to do that morning: practice cello for half an hour in the cellar, meditate, do yoga, water things in the garden, feed the tortoise, and a number of other things.

His wife and kid are sick, though, so he postpones his new regimen of morning cello practice until the weekend.

He does the other stuff, though. And push-ups. See, the deontologist saw a website where a young woman describes teaching herself to dance in a year, by means of obsessive practice. The deontologist is all fired up.

Outside it is cool and looks as if it might rain, or might not. He puts two sections of the wooden fence his daughter is painting onto sawhorses in the back yard, as they are too heavy/bulky for her to move around.

The plum tree is heavy with green plums. The pie cherry tree is full of ripe pie cherries and blackbirds. The apple tree is full of green apples. The row of strawberries is over, but there will be raspberries all summer, and the grape vine is heavy with green grapes.

The deontologist checks on the vegetable garden at the rear of his abundant back yard. There is a big green zucchini hidden among the weeds, and a couple yellow zucchini. There are two big cucumbers ready to go. His vegetable garden is, at this time of the summer, most abundant in zucchini, mosquitos and slugs. He considers whether zucchini are the slugs of the vegetable world.

The slug traps are full of dead slugs, dozens of them, all drowned humanely in beer.

He spies a few ripe cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes. The big beefsteak tomatoes are starting to change color. But tomato and cucumber season won’t really get going for another week or two.

At lunch, the deontologist walks to the noodle shop and buys a takeout thing of chicken and rice. He walks around and finds a bench under a tree where he had shared a sandwich with two crows earlier in the week.

Two minutes later, the crows are back. The same two crows – a large, grey-black one and a slightly smaller black one. The larger one seems more intelligent because it is more cautious. It won’t come any closer than two or three meters. The smaller one comes up within five feet of him. The deontologist throws them a couple pieces of chicken after making sure it is not too hot.

Crows are always so surprised when he is nice to them!

The crows move away when cars drive by, but come right back. They leave for longer when someone walks past with a dog.

The deontologist wonders if there are hygiene rules against sharing your lunch with crows inside the city limits.

He throws a little rice into the gutter for grey crow, but it lands too close. The deontologist moves a couple steps away so the crow can eat the rice.

There are laws against feeding pigeons, he knows. Pigeons are degenerate birds, rats with wings, but certain people get a kick out of them.

The deontologist prefers ravens and crows.

If there were coyotes in Vienna, he’d feed those too.

But there are no coyotes in Vienna.

Careers in Science: Batology

Comparatively few sciences start with the letter ‘B'; batology is one.

The batologist, he’s been sleeping half an hour longer lately than he used to, and would theoretically be feeling less addled and horrible except that he’s been staying up an hour longer at night for various reasons.

Eventually the pendulum will swing the other way.

The batologist is walking by the creek.

Everything is super green, except the water, which swirls muddy brown because it is flooding; and the ducks, which are all the colors of the duck rainbow.

Flooding, thinks the batologist. Humankind, when you gonna get your act together?

Just a little while ago, the batologist would have said, You can answer that question if you’re a pessimist.

Only a little while, but now he thinks, who knows? People, being an outcropping of the universe, have the same capacity to be surprising and wondrous as any other part of the universe.

The batologist could stand here all day, looking at all the green. But the waters are rising, so he heads home.