Sunday, June 30, 2013

Educating Me

I went to college a long, long time ago, and I did manage to get a four-year degree. For the record, my B.A. is in History and Journalism (I double-majored at San Diego State, the only time I ever even attempted to be an "overachiever.")

But, for the most part, I have been an autodidact throughout my life, with all the pleasures and pitfalls that entails.

Welcome home, old friends from my childhood.
Autodidacts pick up a lot of information, but since they do most of their studying without professional guidance, they often wander astray into weird areas, you know, like astrology, or worse, the strange, dark world of conspiracy theories.

One of my favorite authors, Henry Miller, was mostly self-taught, and he read hugely. But he never managed to divorce himself from some pretty odd stuff, including the aforementioned astrology. (Miller also took Oswald Spengler seriously, something no discriminating student of either philosophy or history would ever do.) Then you have Bobby Fischer, chessmaster genius, school dropout and total kook.

But these guys were geniuses, with all of the dangers that lie that way. I'm just an average guy who, like my hero Miller, has read a lot and continues to. (Why not? Reading and sleeping are two of the cheapest activities I know.)

For a few short years when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronomer. Honestly, I did. Outer space fascinated me,  and besides, I was growing up in the 1960s, when the race to the moon was in the headlines. Many boys of my generation dreamed of becoming astronauts, and I did too, for a while. But it was a short-lived dream. By the time I was 12 or 13 I had realized that I didn't have The Right Stuff. Somebody else was going to have to take that trip to the moon for me.

But that didn't mean I couldn't gaze at the stars and dream. I read every book on astronomy I could get my hands on, and between the ages of 11 and 14, went through three telescopes.

That dream died about the time I was starting high school. You see, I'm hopeless at mathematics, and the modern astronomer is a mathematician who works mostly at night. I flunked basic algebra in the 11th grade. So much for my becoming any kind of scientist.

But one discipline connects to another, and my boyhood interest in astronomy led to a concomitant interest in the science of physics. Einstein and Niels Bohr were among my childhood heroes. Now, I was never, ever going to become competent at physics. Not with my complete incompetence at math. In fact my experience of failure in high school algebra was related to my interest in physics: you had to pass algebra before you could take physics. My plan was to take algebra during my junior year, then take physics my senior year. Well, having flunked algebra, there would be no physics class for me. I took humanities and sang in the school choir instead.

But when I was still in junior high school, at the tail end of the 1960s, I bought a three-volume set of paperback books, Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov (New York: Signet Books. 1966.) These little books were so cool-looking. Their covers featured colorful, sixties-style "op art." The three volumes were subtitled, respectively, Motion, Sound and Heat; Light, Magnetism and Electricity; and The Electron, Proton and Neutron. Had I any aptitude for this stuff at all, I might have become a classic nerd.

But I had none. And although I possessed these books for many years, I never managed to read them. Poets seldom make scientists, despite the occasional exception like Loren Eiseley.  My acquaintance with the world of science remained largely a question of reading biographies of guys like Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. The science was lost on me because the math was lost on me.

On the other hand, there are examples in history of people with a childhood or youthful interest in science or engineering who go on to become creative artists. Poet W.H. Auden thought he wanted to be a mining engineer until a friend suggested to him one day that he should write poetry. Norman Mailer majored in engineering at Harvard, many years before he wrote his breakout novel The Naked and The Dead  in 1949. Many years after that, Mailer's training in the field of engineering would stand him in good stead when he wrote Of A Fire On The Moon, a book about the U.S. space program.

My childhood interest in astronomy and physics, hopeless though it might have been, has influenced my own poetry since I began to write poetry just about the same time my dream of becoming an astronomer was waning. And so, at age 57, I am now force-feeding myself those very three books by Isaac Asimov that I purchased as a teenager but could never get myself to read, chiefly because their plenitude of mathematical equations, even on casual glance, would send me into a confused slumber.

My strategy is simple: concentrate on the narrative and skim over the math, which is going to be lost on me anyway. I have already finished the second volume of the trilogy, Light, Magnetism and Electricity and have now backed up to volume one, Motion, Sound and Heat. Yes, yes, I know that these books were published nearly 50 years ago and are no doubt quite dated (they mention things like typewriters, film cameras and record players, which we don't have any more) but it doesn't matter. They're basic, and they reinforce a lot of stuff that I picked up as a child but have long since stopped thinking about.

I am hoping to avoid my father's fate, you see. In his final years, my father made so little use of his brain that it turned to mush. I was his caregiver as he sank into dementia, uninterested in much of anything beyond large-print westerns and John Wayne movies. I don't want to go that way, although I still might; after all I'm up against some powerful genes. I've always been told that if you keep your mind busy, your mind will remain clear. At least up to a point. So, as I approach 60, I am reading through those very books on science which I relished (but did not read) as a boy. It's edifying. It's a jog down memory lane.

And maybe, just maybe, it might help me hang on to my memory.