The return of magic

For the longest time, I've been intending to get this web site started. And, this last week, I rediscovered something that had left my life for the longest time. I figure this is an omen, and it's time for me to start telling some of my stories.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the world around me, and being amazed by what I saw. The complexity of a leaf, the amazing strength of an ant, the pitter patter of rain on the roof of the house. And I remember thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if I understood where this stuff came from?"

So, I put myself on a quest to discover the how and the why of the universe. The question of "how" led me to science, and the question of "why" took me to religion. And both of these have become interesting questions in my life, still, to this day. But, the nature of the questions, and the way I was asking them, changed .

Enter my years in high school. While I was there, I forgot about my interest in religion. Part of that, I suppose, must be blamed on two twin facts:

  1. My church basically melted down over a building program.
  2. I found that most religions arrived at the same rules from different starting places.

At the time, I had a lot of problems with the idea of convergent religion. I'm not sure why, but I did. This led partially to my application of the scientific principles to my study of religion, and a decision that most of it was bunk, and had value to society as a way to pass ideas of morality and ethics to children who were too young to understand the idea of right and wrong.

Thus, when I applied to UCSB, I entered school as a physics major.

One of the first things that happened at UCSB is that I ran into a guy by the name of Ezekiel who I went to grade school with before he moved away. And, we went to lunch and caught up on old times. During that lunch, the subject of religion came up. At the time, I was going through an agnostic/atheist period, which surprised Ezekiel. After all, he remembered me from the period of my life when I hadn't started to question things, and simply accepted the fact that there was a God above and that he cared about everything that happened. What Ezekiel and I discovered over that lunch is that where I had started to reject my upbringing, he was becoming more religious. Sufficed to say, we didn't spend all that much time together over the next couple of years.

My position, at that time, was that religion was the "philosophy for the masses." (Some of you will remember my taking this position at some points in time.) And, I spent much of my freshman year trying to apply the same dispassionate ideals of science to my beliefs. I vividly remember actually starting to write out axioms and postulates for a moral system. *shudder*

More importantly, over this period of time, I lost a lot of my sense of wonder of the world around me. Everything was becoming more complicated, simply because I stopped watching what was going on around me. I started looking at things in terms of equations and in terms of facts; I let cynicism and sarcasm take over, and forgot about what feelings were for.

And, as many of you know, once cynicism and sarcasm are picked up, they are hard tools to put down.

During my second year at UCSB, I befriended one Jennifer Gertwagen (hence married, and now goes by Jennifer Heisler). One of the subjects we both understood -- at least, she understood, and I knew enough to make a fool of myself in -- was comparative religion. And we spent a few evenings of the following summer discussing the subject late into the night, and generally having a good time.

The other important event of that summer was the death of a post doc that I worked with, a woman by the name of Hannan. This event rattled me to my core; the physics I had been studying and my axioms of reality couldn't help me deal with this event. Jen sat up with me that night, and let me cry myself out. But the pain was still there, as I had no real way to deal with it. Part of me cursed the God I was raised to believe in. I figured the best way to rebel was to throw myself even more into my work. During the next summer, I remember a fight I had with Jen, during which she brought up the fact that I seemed to be rejecting my interest in religion, and be throwing myself even more into my work. What I couldn't admit at the time, was that she was right.

And this is the way things continued until about September of last year, and my qualifying exam (physics grad school at UCSD). I spent months studying for that test. (What?!? Brian studying?!?) And, when it was over, I immediately went to Santa Barbara to decompress. While I was there, Jen made some flippant joke (I forget what it was), and I simply broke down. I didn't know what was wrong, all I knew was that something was missing. I had lost my view of the magic. Trust me -- it was a complete breakdown. But it didn't end there.

In October, I was visited by Ning. And I was still looking for what was missing. At the time, I thought it might be her. So, I spent a weekend bumbling about, not knowing what to say, and too scared to be myself. After all, we hadn't seen each other in almost 6 years. What I learned during that trip is that it wasn't her that was missing, and that our friendship was exactly where it belonged. And I'm glad that my abysmal behavior during her visit didn't destroy our friendship.

Then, I thought, maybe it's the research that's missing. I hadn't been involved in research for a few years. So, I looked around, had a lousy month in February (where I almost threw away my career in a very childish fashion), and finally found myself a wonderful advisor, a man by the name of John Goodkind. Trust me -- he lives up to his last name.

Well, I've since learned that the research was a large part of the hole, but it wasn't all of it. I've had more fun in the past few months I've been working for John than I had in the entire previous year.

Working straight through the summer, though, seemed like a terrible idea. So, I decided to take a week off to just go somewhere. To make a long story short, I ended up visiting Ning in New Jersey (just a couple of weeks ago, actually). While I was there, I had two epiphanies. The first of them was on the first full day I was there. We went to Longwood Gardens (in Pennsylvania), and while there, watched both a Celtic concert and a wonderful fountain show set to Prokofiev's excellent ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The epiphany of that day was that I was just going through the motions, and not living. I decided it was time to change that. The second epiphany occurred on the following Sunday, when I went to church with Ning and her mom. It was a service for a Taiwanese congregation. There couldn't have been more than 30 people in the church, but there was more of a sense of community there than I ever felt in the church my parents dragged me and my brother off to for years. The epiphany of that day was that not all churches are necessarily full of hidden agendas and politics. And, it might be time for me to reexamine certain assumptions I've been making for years.

Of course, these lessons took a while to sink in, and still are. Like all of the non-trivial lessons of life, I'm still exploring their full implications. And, as part of taking these lessons to heart, I've started to watch what is happening around me more. In doing so, I've rediscovered magic. Now, by magic, I don't mean the ability of people to hurl fireballs down streets or to call down the wrath of heaven. It's something more subtle than that. It's more the simple things I'd stopped noticing. In the few days after my visit, I made a short list:

So, I've rediscovered the world I was once so curious about. And I'll be damned if I'll ever give it up so easily again. I'm still not sure where I stand on the whole subject of religion, but it's time for me to give it another serious look. To paraphrase Kevin Smith's excellent movie, Dogma it's not so much that I necessarily believe, but I have a good idea.

So, we come to the inevitable mission statement for this journal and web site. As you can see from looking around, there isn't much here aside from this page. Eventually, there will be a music section, for those of you who are brave there will even be a works in progress section. There will be this journal, obviously. Much of it is going to be devoted to the rediscovery of magic. Hey -- that's a neat title for a journal... And, pending John's approval, there will be a section devoted to our research into quantum computing here.

But, I felt that while this is probably not the final way this entry will look, it was important to get it out here now, rather than later. Once I'm done designing, I'll update it.

Brian Naberhuis
Last modified: Mon Aug 27 21:46:31 PDT 2001