Monthly Archives: February 2017
Recently I took a trip down memory lane with a fellow co-conspirator of one of my most memorable spring break trips ever, a canoeing/backpacking trip to the wilds of Mississippi. It was a trip to be remembered not only because of the adventure but also because of so many things that frankly went haywire:
One of our cars breaking down on the first night in the country town of Effingham, Illinois; sleeping in our cars in the parking lot of the repair shop that first night waiting for the shop to open in the morning; taking a pilgrimage to the second-largest cross in America beside the freeway while waiting for said car to get repaired; running into a traffic jam at a police checkpoint on the highway late at night in muggy Mississippi—and having the power braking go out in the car during that episode; awaking our first morning in Mississippi to gunfire from local turkey hunters wandering through camp; canoeing down a river traversing from bank to bank the whole time because no one in the group actually knew how to canoe; nearly stepping on rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the trail—multiple times; having a deer run through camp at night and scare the living bejesus out of us; having one of our friends get bit by a water snake while we were bathing in the creek; visiting Alabama’s Dauphin Island on the last day of our trip and finding out there were no campgrounds to stay at—so instead after much searching, eventually knocking on a random parsonage door at night to ask if we could sleep in a parking lot (and instead getting invited to sleep in the church’s retreat center!); a fateful morning of napping on Dauphin Island’s beach, leading to second-degree sunburn and sun poisoning before driving through the night back to Michigan; stopping at a place called Hart’s Fried Chicken and ordering the greasiest things on the menu before the drive; washing all of our clothes at a friend’s house before the dorms re-opened, and then finding out that the dryer was broken; some friends finding ticks engorged in uncomfortable places after arriving back from the trip; it could go on…
Some might say that on this trip a lot of things went wrong. Personally I’m not apt to call these events wrong as such—more so, the events of the trip just went much differently from our idealized expectations of an uneventful vacation. Reflecting on the premises of the trip reveals that running into some snafus seemed likely. We were, after all, only a group of ten friends—sophomores in college—without any significant experience canoeing or traveling in the backcountry (and perhaps our resumes were lacking for road trip experience as well). But despite all the happenings and dangerous circumstances encountered, we all survived to tell the tale. We can look back fondly and humorously at the entire experience because no permanent harm was done (perhaps with the exception of guaranteeing ourselves skin cancer).
This trip to Mississippi stands out from other trips I’ve taken particularly because of the number of things that went unexpected. Looking back, the whole trip could have been written as a comedy sketch. How many goofy things could possibly happen in this episode of college wilderness spring break? On trips I would take in the future, I would apply the lessons I learned from past mistakes. I would gradually get more comfortable in the outdoors, make better trip preparations, and foresee adverse situations before they would arise. Things got a lot easier with more experience. But I also found they got less memorable.
The following spring break was also a canoeing trip with friends, this time on Florida’s Suwanee River. The entire trip went off without a hitch. No car trouble, no inadequate provisioning, no half-baked plans. It really was a trip you could wrap up neatly and put down in the books. But I felt a little shortchanged from it. I felt like I got off that trip a little too easy. Somehow, I felt like I had been gipped. Thinking about the Suwanee trip years later, many fine details of the experience are largely forgotten, and few stories about it have been re-told. The trip itself does not possess much salience in my mind either.
I think this example of these two spring break trips illustrates a trend I’ve noticed in my life. As someone who learns quickly from past experience, I don’t possess anywhere near the level of greenness or naïveté I had in my early college days. I’m now able to get through life easier without committing so many of the egregious errors or faux pas of my younger years. As I get better at navigating the messy world of life, I’ve noticed one unintended consequence: I’ve been making these distinct memories of unexpected circumstances with far less frequency.
I’m aware of this trend, and part of myself is frightened that I’ll stop making memories quite as spectacular as my Mississippi spring break. I’m concerned that life will become mundane and routine, and the vivid experiences of life will slip into the hum-drum milieu of quotidian tedium. I’m afraid that I’ll no longer be making the memories which I’d love to look back upon. Psychological research details how our lives mellow out as we age. I was a mellow personality to begin with, and I’ve already seen myself soften out more as I’ve gotten older. As I mature further and gain more life experience, am I going to find it increasingly difficult to make specific memories? Am I going to run out of things to try that are absurdly outside of my range of expertise—or will I even lose the motivation to try such things?
I wonder if this fear is one of the reasons why I’m wary of settling down, why I keep flirting with transiency and playing hard-to-get with consistency. That instead of doing one thing in one place for a long time, I keep wandering from place to place and from job to job seeking out new places and experiences. I’m no longer absurdly incompetent in a lot of areas as I once was. Years later, I have become very proficient in outdoor travel. I’ve even worked as a canoe guide. If I were to take it again now, a trip like my Mississippi spring break would likely present little challenge to me.
Instead, I find myself seeking out new areas in which I will continually challenge my limits, branching out into more and more disciplines. Once I felt comfortable with my level of mastery at the things that interested me most, I had to start seeking positions further afield where I could step yet again outside of my comfort zone. True, part of my motivation for doing this is the desire to develop new skills in other disciplines. But I am also motivated by the challenge of doing things that I’m not familiar with and the memorable experiences that ensue.
And this process of doing things outside of my comfort zone, I’ve found, is a key element in adding to the memory-making process. It’s something I can control that augments the production of memories. Truly, my working holiday in Australia was partly motivated by this, especially by a desire to break from the monotony of going to grad school day after day and living a stable life in the same house for two years in a row. The scope of my Australian journey was a stretch for me, and how it comically unraveled produced many great stories and memories about how naïve and unprepared I actually was. But—I learned so much from that experience that if I were to do it again, it would be far easier for me—and also much less memorable.
I still find myself drawn to employment positions that are slightly out of my comfort zone and realm of experience as well. In fact, it seems to be a job requirement for me. Substitute teaching in public schools has been a great example of this. I was incredibly nervous before I started subbing, and I still often feel out of my element in the classroom. But I have accumulated a treasure-trove of memories and stories from the experience (although my most vivid memories are of just how awful children can act). Though far from a professional, even after just a few weeks of subbing I’m beginning to feel more comfortable leading a classroom. I wonder if that’s a sign it’s time to try something new?
Am I drawn to the memories? Am I addicted to them? Am I drawn to novelty and repelled by familiarity because I covet the memories that novelty so often provides? Am I scared that based on the trends I’ve seen so far, that I’ll eventually run out of things to do in order to make new memories? Is my incestuous desire for vivid memories stifling my development?
I want to keep making new memories, though, and memories that will stick around with distinction. The question may be how to go about this. How can I still make new memories and lead a more stable and consistent life? Somehow I need to find a way of continuing to make mistakes worth learning from. As long as I survive those mistakes, I’ll be able to look back on those memories fondly.
There ought to be one day of the year set aside specifically for love. It should be a celebration of all which you hold close to you. How about February 14th as a celebration? It’s a pretty ordinary day otherwise, and a pretty bland date coming in the middle of a late winter month as it does. I think today would be the perfect candidate for a special holiday.
In addition to celebrating the things you love today, why not also focus the day on cuddling—or, perhaps it’s more like cuttling? If you haven’t picked up on my point yet, I’m writing about none other than the cuttlefish. By far my favorite marine cephalopod. And why not? Just take a look at those big puppy-dog eyes and that tentacled smile waiting to embrace you in a kiss.
I thought about all this last February 14th too. On this day last year, I took a long sunset stroll down the white-sand beaches of Australia’s Bribie Island. In the fragrant subtropical air and the warm, salty ocean breeze, I found my love—or at least their remains. Along the beach were washed up several large cuttlebones—the hard remains of these invertebrate animals that give the cuttlefish both its internal structure and its buoyancy control. Like a lover’s distinctive gaze, the cuttlebone is the distinguishing feature of the cuttlefish, separating them from all other classes of cephalopods. But don’t take the name ‘-bone’ literally—the cuttlebone is extremely porous and composed of the mineral aragonite, unlike our own calcium phosphate skeleton. Maybe you’ve even handled a cuttlebone yourself, if you’ve ever fed one to a pet bird or reptile as a good source of crunchy calcium.
Before my long walk on the beach that night, I had a romantic dinner with my cuttlefish love; the cuttlefish showed up for the main course. Worldwide, many people enjoy dinner with a cuttlefish regularly. Especially in coastal areas of Europe and East Asia where the cuttlefish inhabit the waters, cuttlefish appears frequently on the menu. One typical Italian dish, risotto al nero di sepia, marries Arborio rice with cuttlefish ink.
I try to see my love frequently, not exclusively on February 14th. At every aquarium I visit, I instinctively zero in on the cuttlefish exhibits. Watching both their sleek movements and awkward bumbling can make anyone’s day. Cuttlefish can rapidly blend into their surroundings by changing the colors, patterns, and textures of their skin, which helps them both hide from predators and ambush prey. Their camouflage can even form moving patterns along the body, like nature’s organic jumbo-tron television.
Hearts are a rather appropriate metaphor for love, especially for the cuttlefish. With one heart for each gill and another for the rest of the body, cuttlefish max out at three hearts—that’s a lot of love to give. And these bleeding hearts don’t turn red; cuttlefish blood is a distinct blue-green hue due to the copper-containing molecule haemocyanin that transports oxygenated blood rather than the deeply-red colored haemoglobin found in vertebrates.
Gaze deeply into your lover’s eyes as well. Such a graceful W-shaped pupil, so deeply black and yet so alien. Any resemblance to our own eyes is a superficial product of convergent evolution. The cuttlefish can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves; though their eyes cannot detect color, they can sense the polarization of light. And unlike our own flawed perceptions, these creatures don’t have blind spots.
A love for cuttlefish isn’t complete without cuttlefish love either. In their relationships, cuttlefish are excellent communicators, changing their colors to reflect their moods and intentions. A male cuttlefish can tell if a female cuttlefish is ‘interested’ if she turns the aptly-named ‘precopulatory grey’ pattern. But cuttlefish romance is also full of intrigue and deception. Non-dominant males can change color to pose as a breeding female. They can then sneak into the territory of a larger competitive male and surreptitiously mate with females. Cuttlefish romance sounds like the makings of a terrible aquatic soap opera!
The preferred copulatory position is face-to-face. The male cuttlefish will grab ahold of the female with his tentacles, and then use his extra pair of tentacles to insert his sperm sacs into an opening near the female’s mouth. The male holds onto this lovers’ embrace until the female lays her eggs a few hours later.
It’s tough for a male cuttlefish to find love out there. Typical cuttlefish populations have up to 5 times as many males as there are females. The playing field is jam-packed. If a male loses his female, there just as well might not be more fish in the sea (actually, cuttlefish aren’t fish but are mollusks. They are more closely related to snails than vertebrate fishes). If all chances of love fail nevertheless, a cuttlefish can still try their luck with brains. These animals have one of the largest brain-to-body size ratios in the animal kingdom.
Finally, any romantic holiday should include a fancy dinner. Seafood is a wonderful idea. The cuttlefish love to dine on shrimp, crabs, and fish. Their table manners could use work, though. They grab ahold of their prey by sneaking out their two feeding tentacles then snatching their prey at rapid speed, shocking their victim in the sneak attack. The hapless prey is then brought into the folds of the cuttlefish’s tentacled mouth, where it is paralyzed into submission with a toxic venom. Though they may gnaw on their entire meal whole, at least they don’t have bad enough manners to chew with their mouths open.