At last, I put my daydreaming to good use

I am the person who can stare out the window of a bus or train until reaching my destination, wondering about the lives being lived in the communities we pass through. I'm the guy who seems to be listening to a concert but am, in fact, a dimension of mind away. I'm the erstwhile student who, when asked by his teacher if he understood a concept, assented "Of course," then drifted away wondering what that was all about.

I can't remember a time when I was not a day-dreamer. I can recall sitting in kindergarten, watching the class parakeet ("Peetie") preen itself in its cage as Mrs. Aronson tutored us in the crafting of paper doilies. I remember, in second grade, being called upon to read aloud a passage from a book. I couldn't, because I had been counting floor tiles, wondering if every row contained the same number.

And then there was seventh grade, where I was unfortunately seated right by the window, where I could observe the antics of the pigeons on the sill of the tenement across the street.

High school wasn't much of an improvement - if, indeed, there was something in me that needed to be improved. I loved my teachers, I liked my courses (especially biology). But no matter how charismatic the instructor or engaging the subject, I always had a sideshow going on in my head. Such as the day Mr. Mundy was describing the behavior of bees - bees! - and I, half-listening, was contemplating if one could hold one's breath longer in saltwater or fresh.

The increased demands and headier pace of college forced me to get more of a grip, and I did my best to rise to the challenge. The highly structured biology curriculum didn't allow for exploring many byways: There was a mountain of scientific literature to plow through, a world of new vocabulary, and the burden of accuracy in all of one's observations. These things served to keep me focused, more or less, but now and then the daydreamer within would echo and be heard. I eventually stumbled into turning my disposition to good advantage.

It happened in my junior year at the university. The course was Invertebrate Zoology, dealing with the anatomy and habits of worms, clams, sea urchins, and other animals without backbones. The course required each student to produce a final paper, from eight to 10 pages, detailing some modest research project. My classmates investigated such things as food preference in starfish, light sensitivity in pillbugs, and territorial behavior in fiddler crabs.

It took me the longest time to come up with something. In fact, I was the last to do so. The problem was, the school was located on the banks of a river, and I felt the most incredible pull to just, well, to just spend a lot of time sitting by the water. It was interesting to me, that's all. Perhaps I would see a fish jump, or discern a pattern in the ripples created by passing boats. In any case, after many days of watching the river it finally sank in that it was a tidal body of water, and as such there were times when, at low tide, expansive mud flats were exposed. Hmmm, I thought. Since the flats are wet and warmed by the sun, they must harbor a lot of life.

I went home that day and curled up with my books and papers. Within three weeks I had taken samples, burned the midnight oil in the laboratory, and classified every invertebrate organism, plus some microscopic critters, of a Hackensack River mud flat. When I brought the finished product to class there was a collective gasp.

Yes, I knew the assignment required no more than 10 pages of work, but that was too limiting for a daydreamer. I handed in a tome of 139 pages, including illustrations.

The professor accepted my offering with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. And then, several days later, he collared me between classes. "I've read your work," he said. "To put it briefly, I think it should be the basis for a graduate degree."

I was stunned. How could I have foreseen such a thing? "But Dr. Gittleson," I protested, "I'm not thinking of a master's degree yet."

"Neither was I," he said. "I'm talking about your PhD."

To make a long story short, I respectfully declined the offer to stay on and work toward a doctorate (that would come later). But I was grateful for my professor's having appreciated the product of what started out as daydreaming about the life of a river.

Is there a pleasanter way to get one's work done?

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