Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Unwanted Dinosaur Dream

I remember it well. I stood with my face close the glass, breath fogging it - my hands rudely pressed against the pane in that kind of detached state that happens when you are so far lost in thought. I watched them do their work; painstakingly brushing off dirt and cataloging minuscule leg bones in a sealed and controlled environment, a windowless room save for the one looking out into the museum, the one I was peering in from. This? This is what a real paleontologist does?

We were visiting the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a few years before the kids were born, during a 4-day spontaneous trip to LA (that seems so over-the-top lavish now, lol!). I met my husband there after his work trip ended, savoring the warm Cali sun in a late November escape. We had always wanted to see the Tar Pits, and since the Griffith Observatory was closed for renovations (major bummer!), we decided it was the next best place for us geeks to hang out for part of the day. Oh, don't worry - we also got our fill of the Hollywood Hills, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Sunset Blvd, Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame, Pink's heavenly hot dogs and we even caught a taping of the episode of Joey (Matt LeBlanc is awesome to watch). So don't fear, we aren't full-on geek all the time! lol

But seriously, as a dinosaur addict, how can you beat ogling gigantic dinosaur bones, some being the best finds in the world? I turned the corner after endlessly circling their goosebump-inducing T-Rex collection and there they were, the resident paleontologists working on cataloging their new finds, placing them into the slim drawers that lined the walls of the small room. I stood there, transfixed - overcome by a flood of emotions that tripped over each other for dominance: giddy excitement, childlike wonder, curiosity, puzzlement, disappointment, relief - a feeling as if I'd dodged a bullet somehow... and then it cycled back to wonder of a different kind, the adult kind - the analyzing kind.

I realized that this is probably what most of the world's paleontologists were doing, not the exploring and huge discoveries that changed the world's thinking, the grand-scale dream that occupied my mind's eye when I remembered my 8-year-old self's passion for dinosaurs. They had to find the small with the big, do the practical science... and do it with such precision, patience and reliable repetition - not getting bored with the small potatoes, but actually getting excited that even if this incomplete set of bones was a duplicate of a common specimen they already had thousands of, this one may have a slight difference in the tailbone... and it was to be treated with all the glory of a first-time Spinosaurus find. :) I looked at them with new eyes, as if they were the CSIs of a prehistoric era... and that's really what they are. Preserving evidence; though they do it to prove life, instead of death.

But this realization made me feel like I had gotten lucky to be discouraged from Paleontology, even though on paper it seems like it should be a perfect fit for me, even though it would have been my dream. I was aware in that moment, just seeing the practical job in action, the everyday of it, that what I was feeling clinched it for me. Funny, that I was discouraged for the opposite reason - that everyone deemed it too grand and fluffy to be a real career choice, but the grind of it is what turned me off. I knew it that moment that I was not equipped with a sufficient level of interest, passion or motivation for the needed patience to enjoy it. The grand explorations and discoveries sounded amazing, and now that I am older, the small ones sound pretty amazing too - the grunt work in a windowless room did not.

Now, I am very detail-oriented... and many times while watching CSI (I still miss Grissom!), I would think to myself that I might be really good as an investigator. I know I am a thorough, determined and methodical thinker - and I could spend the hours it takes to work through the evidence in a linear fashion... but... would I enjoy it? Would I have a passion for that work? And the answer would be a wholehearted.... no.

Same applies to paleontology - I know I could be really good at it, but in the end, I would not enjoy it. Love for dinosaurs, check. Love for discovery, check. Ability to work on the small details for hours without human interaction, check. Enough interest and passion to care about the final outcome, putting finds away safely in a drawer and to move on? Uhhh, no check. Well, 3 out of 4 ain't bad, right? But that 4th piece of the puzzle would be the stickler. If you don't have any interest or investment in the final product - the reason for what you are doing, failure and/or an eventually miserable life could be the only results. In contrast, with photography, from the beginning until now, I lie in bed, not able to sleep at night because I am so excited to get out my camera and try this or that, just to play with it. Play! I think that says something right there. :) And I love making people happy with my end result. It fulfills me.

Most people have hobbies that they love - but the moment you think of doing it as a job - when you have to do it - it probably falls away as a candidate. You can think about what you are good at - what your skills and talents are - I know I can sit for hours and work on a mosaic project without uttering a word, not even having music on - just lost in my own head - and I love it. I know I am good at getting lost in my head without feeling deprived, but do I want that in a constant job? What you would be good at is not necessarily something you would like in a career. I would be good as a CSI, but I would not be happy. I'd probably be good at being a Paleontologist too - maybe even better because I'd be more interested in what I was spending so much time on - but I still would not be happy. That's when I really started to look at why. Why wouldn't that make me happy, if I were good at it? Another piece of my puzzle fell in place when I realized that it's because I wouldn't be expressing myself in any way. I would be finding something, not putting something out there. The scientist vs the artist. Did that make any sense? :)

There are so many questions kids in high school should be asked to consider and then helped along with some observations from those closest to them. Sometimes you need others to tell you what they see so clearly when you can't. :) Writing down interests, hobbies, skills, talents, what you love to do on one side, what you are good at on the other. This is a great exercise. This list can then be cross-referenced to see if anything pops up as a passion. Keeping in mind that this is still on paper, just to help things not previously obvious to jump off the page, help you to see more clearly. But in the end, the feeling of doing it, or seeing it done will always trump paper. In that instant, you will just know - even if you are rudely leaving your hand prints on the glass. :)

One of the kids pop-up books we were looking at this morning - which reminded me of that day. :)

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