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Why I blog – and observe, and do everything else – so unevenly

March 13, 2017

[Warning: this is by far the most navel-gazey thing I’ve ever posted here. It’s almost entirely autobiographical, and unless you are really interested in the answer to the titular question, I recommend going elsewhere. Proceed at your own risk! – MJW]

Let’s start with the obvious fact that I do do these things unevenly. I’ve noted this before. I’ll have months where I’m out almost every clear night, and months where I never go out at all, even in good weather. Admittedly those zero-observation months are way down now that I have a monthly column to feed, and one of the things I like best about having a monthly column is that it forces me to get out and observe.

The why of this is complicated. Partly it is a complex and seasonally-shifting work schedule. Except for a couple of weeks between terms in August, and a week here or there for fieldwork or a conference, I teach human gross anatomy every weekday between mid-June and the end of October. November through May is given over to research and writing, committee work and other forms of administrativa, and prepping lectures for the next teaching block.

Layered over that is the waxing and waning of enthusiams that I think is natural for most people. As my friend Mike once put it in an email, “I know from many, many years’ experience (in programming as well as palaeo) that my phases of enthusiasm drift in and out of being in a totally random way, so I need to seize each one as it comes past and squeeze it till it bleeds productivity.”

I feel that, strongly. Very strongly, in fact. There are times when Subject X is all I can think about. It literally keeps me up at night. And then a few weeks or months later, I’ll only be able to think about Subject X with an immense act of will, and little to no enthusiasm or enjoyment. These periods of fascination typically last 4-6 weeks, after which I’ll have two or three days of feeling restless and bored as I cast about for the next thing. They also vary in intensity – sometimes Subject X is just something I think about in my spare time, and sometimes it’s about all I can think about during my waking hours. Privately I refer to these things as my ‘manias’, but a therapist once told me they were more likely to be properly classified as obsessions. Although I remain undiagnosed, I assume that there is some behavior spectrum on which I am a few paces farther away from the mean than most people. (If you have some relevant technical knowledge, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or by email.)

Subject X can be just about anything. I don’t know in advance what the next one will be, and I don’t pick them. Certain subjects come around repeatedly, and other don’t. For a brief period in the mid-2007 it was houseplants. We went from zero houseplants to about 20 in the space of a month. I’ve managed to kill all of them except one over the following decade, and that particular mania has not returned.

Fortunately for my career, the interest that has returned the most often and at the greatest intensity has been paleontology, and biology more generally. It is not an exaggeration to say that my career has primarily been built on work I got done when I was in the grip of a mania. This worked really well in grad school, before I was a parent and when I had few real responsibilities. I could hole up in the spare room and work for 12 or 16 hours a day, emerging only for meals and bathroom breaks, and go to bed happy and fulfilled and ready to repeat the process the next day. Then I’d have months-long doldrums in which I got nothing done.

Even when I’m ‘on’, it’s a lot harder to channel that level of energy and enthusiasm when my days are so broken up by the spectrum of family and work responsibilities I have now. I’m not complaining about the latter! Being a parent is the most fulfilling I’ve ever done by a long shot, and I am fortunate to have work duties that are interesting and rewarding. If anything, I’m not complaining about my present situation as much as I am pointing out how far I got on very little discipline, because I was able to crank out lots of work in very little time. Even now, many of my papers have their genesis around 2:00 AM, when I can’t rest because I can’t stop thinking about a particular problem, and writing about it is the only way I can exorcise it, at least enough to get to sleep.

So, about this blog. Sometimes stargazing is Subject X, and sometimes it isn’t. The first time was in 2007, right after the houseplants. If the houseplant mania had returned and astronomy had not, I’d probably be blogging about plants on an equally erratic schedule. Because even when I’m in the grip of a mania, I don’t always have the desire or time to blog about it. Activity on any of my blogs is like a spring tide, which requires both the major driver (the moon/a mania for that subject) and the minor driver (the sun/interest in blogging) to align. Except for the first couple of years of SV-POW! when Mike and Darren and I were trying to actually trying to get at least one new post up every week, I have always felt that my blogs existed primarily to serve me, rather than the other way around, and I would blog when I felt like it and not push myself to blog when I didn’t. That’s not to say that I don’t care about my readers. I do, and I’m very grateful for all of the kind things people have said in the comments over the years. I wish I had the capacity to write for you more regularly. I guess I do, you just need a subscription to Sky & Tel to see it.

With all of that said, there are certain conditions that tend to push me toward stargazing. I typically do a lot of stargazing in the summer (up on Mount Baldy) and early fall (out in the desert), partly because the weather is nice, and partly because teaching anatomy is sufficiently technically demanding that I don’t have much energy or enthusiasm left over for paleontology, and I’m actively looking for something very different to do and think about. Stargazing versus teaching anatomy: outdoors vs indoors, alone or in a small group vs being in a lab with 50-150 people, no pressure vs trying hard to get everything right, on my own time vs scheduled. It’s the perfect getaway from my day job.

Likewise, I’m blogging a lot right now in part because I have a whole stew of stuff keeping me busy at the university, including some demanding committee work. And in part because I realize that these ‘spring tide’ events of stargazing mania, desire to blog, and time in which to do so don’t come around very often, so I’d better get as much done as I can before conditions change.

And they will change. My ever-cycling interest will turn to something else. In a few months we’ll have a beautifully clear evening and I’ll see the scopes in the garage and do nothing with them because I will feel nothing. I am fully cognizant of this now, and I will be fully aware of it then, but that knowledge will not motivate me. I simply will not care about stargazing, and I’ll go do something else instead. All of the subjects that fascinate me are tinged with this Flowers for Algernon-esque bittersweetness. But I rarely think about that – I’m usually too busy thinking about the current mania.

I have wondered, if this whatever-it-is that I have is ever diagnosed, and a treatment offered, if I would accept it. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to think about what I want, instead of whatever semi-random subject has a hold on my mind at the time. But I don’t think I would give up the exhilaration of these obsessions for mere convenience. I have previously compared them to falling in love, and when you are madly in love, there is no number of ordinary friendships that you would accept in trade.

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7 comments

  1. I appreciate the insight you have into your behavior. The comparison to falling in love seems apt. I don’t experience the shifts in attention you describe. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve been following you a short time in this blog and enjoy it. Our loss when your interest in astronomy wanes.


  2. I know that you’re expressing something deeper than just a simple waxing and waning interest, but just so you know, I believe that this does happen to all of us. Even though astronomy has become my passion these last three years, I go through a waning period myself every spring when I don’t feel there’s all that much to see up there. But I’ve also been in a waning period for the past couple of months when I feel like I’ve seen all I can see with my current scope. This is my third winter back in astronomy, and I feel like, “How many open clusters in Canis Major can I look at – again?”

    On the other hand, I have made a nice little hobby for myself of passing along advice to beginners in Facebook astronomy groups about what scopes they should get, what eyepieces they should buy. I’ve also been going to my club’s outreach sessions and helping newbs directly that way.

    With a recent appearance on a gameshow, lately I’ve also been dreaming and daydreaming about what I’ll be able to see when I get my new scope (I’m planning to go from a 5-inch to a 9.25). So even though I’m not actively observing, I’m still keeping my hand in in other ways, doing other things to occupy my astronomical energies.

    So, like I said, this happens to all of us. Enjoy the “love” while it’s there.


  3. Thanks for this. It comes at a good time for me, as I am feeling drained of all energy by the series of acts of self-harm our respective countries seem to be still right in the middle of. It’s nice to think there will come a time when the black cloud recedes and I can once again be enthusiastic about, well, anything really.


  4. I also have interest shifts as described. I think it becomes a problem if extreme and disrupts other aspects of your life. Could it be OCD? Manic depressive illness with emphasis on mania? One cannot self diagnose very well-too much bias. I doubt very much it is manic depressive illness. There is nothing wrong with seeing a psychiatrist for an opinion.

    There you go: $0.25 from a retired Urologist.


  5. Matt,

    No one is, or should be, judging you about this. For us amateurs, astronomy is a hobby and not an obligation. If you felt obligated to post every week, for example, I wonder how long it would take for burnout to follow? You have your priorities straight, you’re a husband and father first, all other things are distant seconds, thirds, etc.

    What I appreciate most is that when you do blog, you have something meaningful to say.

    Best,
    John O’Hara


  6. Thanks, all, for the thoughts and kind words.

    Jon – a 9.25! Wow! Now that’s a dream scope.


  7. Matt – Yeah, it’ll take me about 1.5 magnitudes deeper, which is a big leap. I’ll have to wait a while until the money comes through, but in the meanwhile, it just gets my brain going about what I hope to be able to see.



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