22 May, 2012

The Drought

(Everyone has complicated lives. It is just the nature of life, I suppose, to remain complicated, no matter how much one wishes to simplify it.)

It's more important than you think.
There was a period of my life that I now call the "drought years". I don't call them this to anyone in particular, because it's a title that only I really know or use. Yet it's still what I call those years that I neglected to learn anything at all. I just...sat.

I've tried to describe it once or twice, to different people, but failed each time. I tend to get funny looks, as though I were queerer than they had ever imagined before. However, I am hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I'll have a better way of explaining here, on this journal.

Before the Drought

When I was young, I loved to learn. Sure, I'd move from topic to topic, and I'd only ever get breadth instead of depth, but I nevertheless was constantly on the lookout for new things. It was my passion. I read constantly, even to the limits of what my local library had on shelf access. I learned far more outside of school than in, and I longed for the future days when I'd be better able to do and learn more.

Sure, I had my problems back then, like everyone else. Yet, at least in terms of acquiring knowledge, it was a good time in my life. I was, in a sense, quenched.

The Drought

Then, just after starting classes at the University of South Alabama, my life derailed for a bit. I choked. Personal issues overtook me. I had thought that I could make a teenage marriage work, but I was still far too immature. Amber left (rightfully so), I dropped out of college, and my mind started focusing on other things. At sixteen, still just a child, I stopped learning. I started stagnating.

My Prize Possession of the 20th Century.
Remembering this past self is very difficult for me. Before this period, my prize possession was a copy of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I loved that set of books, and had gone through two and half of them on sheer joy alone. But the drought hit before I'd finished book three, and I never even bothered opening it again to finish the last few lectures for several years.

It's a bit hard to describe, as I imagine you're likely imagining it as a depression, or a funk of some kind. And it is true that I was depressed, and I was in a funk. Yet the drought was something on top of all that. You see, I could still get away from my dark thoughts by retreating to comedy, or reading science fiction. I still saw exciting movies, played fun games, enjoyed time with girls, ate incredible meals, and appreciated the beauty of nature. The drought refers to none of these things. Instead, it means that I just did not learn.

Maybe I overstate the case. Perhaps I'm using the incorrect word. Of course, I learned everyday things. I saw new things and experienced new concepts. What I mean is that when I went to the library, I exclusively went to the fiction section. When I relaxed, I spent my time appreciating my surroundings more than seeking out new things to understand. I know this sounds silly and trite. At the time, it did not feel like a drought. It felt right. But, after a few years, I realized that although I had experienced much, I had not learned anything new from outside my immediate sphere of influence. The Feynman lectures still sat in the corner of my bedroom, unopened in years.

After the Drought

One day, I just snapped. Classes had already started at the local college, but I didn't care. I went to the admissions of Spring Hill College and told them I wanted in. They enrolled me the same day.

My first day of classes was everyone else's second day. The first person I met was Shawn Allin, a newly hired chemistry teacher. I was the first student at SHC to talk with him outside the classroom. We hit it off quite well: we both had a deep interest in physics, and he caught me up on all the latest developments that had happened in the field since the drought had started. We talked quasars and fields,  buckyballs and standard models. We even toasted to the ill-fated SSC. That day, he introduced me to the books of Stephen Jay Gould, a writer whose works I have been in love with ever since. I borrowed one book that first day; another two days later; yet another at the beginning of the next week. At the end of every class, I'd return another book, and he'd supply me with a new one. Sure, I could have done the same at a library, but this was different. It was social reading. It was learning. The drought was over.

Pictured is a trike found by Bill, not me.
I learned a lot that freshman semester, mostly from Shawn. Sure, I took lots of classes, but they were intro classes. Shawn introduced me to several new things, not all of which I enjoyed. We had, for example, drastically separate ideas on what constituted good music. That summer, when we went on a dinosaur dig together with his archaeologist friend, we had a number of harsh words. Bill, his friend, was somewhat of an asshole, and even though it was just the three of us on site, the grandeur of finding a triceratops scapula was not enough override my distaste for spending 18 hours a day with Bill.

My friendship with Shawn was complicated, I'll readily admit. Yet the important point was that he got the drought to end for me. After Shawn, I learned on my own again. I finished the Feynman lectures. Somewhat more impressively, I worked my way through book one of Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Later, when Shawn died, his family gave me the first book that Shawn had ever loaned me: Gould's The Panda's Thumb. I still keep it with me not just in remembrance of my former teacher and friend, but of the spark that finally ended my drought.


Technology has progressed since that bygone age. Today, there are endless podcasts, videos, and websites available to help a person learn just about anything and everything. I spend several hours of every day learning new things, and it is much, much easier than it was when I was younger. I highly doubt I will ever enter into another drought, but if I do, I will have no excuse. It's just simply too easy to learn new things these days.

So I learn.

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