This article is part of a series called “How to Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells.
One day Lulu Miller, the co-founder of the science podcast Invisibilia, was out birdwatching with her father. She was 7 years old and eye level with his “friendly belly,” when she blurted out one of those deep questions kids like to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” Under a hot summer sun, her father’s answer tore open her world. There was no meaning to life, he said. Everything was meaningless.
So begins Miller’s origin story. That 7-year-old would grow up to become an award-winning science reporter with a mission to tell stories that give meaning to life, to investigate why we are here and how we live out our days. One such story was that of David Starr Jordan, a 19th century taxonomist who sought to bring order to the natural world. He spent decades trying to collect every species of fish, and over the years he amassed a shoal numbering in the thousands. But then the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, and his life’s work — stored in glass jars — fell to the ground and shattered. But instead of wallowing in his loss, he did the unexpected. He tried to put his collection back together. He looked chaos in the eye, and said, “I dare you.”
That’s where Miller picks up the story. In her new book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” which comes out on Tuesday, she dives deep into the story of a man who believed he could make sense of the chaotic world. She investigates how Jordan was able to overcome not only the loss of his life’s work, but the human loss of his children, his wife and his colleagues who all died too young. Jordan possesses a godlike level of resilience and Miller explores where it came from and how she could learn from him.
“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” strangely, could not have been better timed, publishing during a global pandemic that also seemingly came out of nowhere and upended millions — if not billions — of lives in unthinkable ways.
HuffPost caught up with Miller by phone, as she took a walk in her neighborhood in Chicago. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Where are you right now? What do you see?
The streets are empty, it’s completely empty because it’s pretty freezing and rainy right now. But I’m all bundled in my kick-ass giant coat and hat and I even see some bark and pine cones and the moss looks extra green because it’s that gray and rainy.
I feel like we should start our conversation with the topic of chaos. Your book is a study in how chaos strikes without warning, and with coronavirus striking in a similar fashion, it feels as though your book publication could not have been better timed. So thanks for writing a book about chaos!
You’re welcome, I really wanted to sell some books. Make it relevant.
The book opens with this same idea that chaos can strike at any minute — Jordan trying to salvage his collection of fish after the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco. Our world right now feels like it was hit by an earthquake in the form of COVID-19. One minute we were going to work and the next minute we weren’t, and one minute we were sending our kids to school and the next minute we’re homeschooling them. And for you, one minute you were about to go on a book tour and the next it was canceled. When the news of the coronavirus started to bubble up did you think of Jordan during this time? Did you see the parallel?
So on one hand, I was so bummed and I was sulky and profoundly disappointed, but then the next step was like, “You don’t get to pout about this, when your book is about how to move forward in chaos ... You should never be surprised when chaos foils all your plans. That is, you have just written a book that maybe even gets a little preachy at the end about how to see the good in chaos, and if you can’t see the good in this moment you are the biggest hypocrite, you have spent 10 years thinking about this kind of moment.”
So I think I felt disappointed and then I immediately was like, “OK, what did you just try to teach yourself?” And I think I haven’t been as quick as I would have liked to recalibrate or move out of the paralyzed, frustrated zone, which also feels so petty in comparison to everything that is going on. I’m so lucky I’m safe, everyone I love is safe and well thus far, and I think each day that goes by I just appreciate that more.
Anyway, so I think I’m actually authentically on the other side of that aspect but now what I’m trying to do is just think about like, okay, we are all in a huge moment, there’s so much uncertainty ahead, there’s so much uncertainty about what do we do to be a good worker, a good family member, a good citizen. So yeah, I’m trying to just think about some of the lessons of the book and how to apply them to my life.
OK, so for the purposes of the reader coming to this story, could you talk about the moment you came across Jordan and what it was like and what you thought about?
Yeah, so I was in my early 20s and it was totally random. He was basically a passing anecdote while I was getting a tour of the California Academy of Sciences, and the little detail was that this guy’s entire life’s work of fish specimens, fish collecting, discovering new species, ordering them, thousands and thousands of jars — a huge amount of it came down in the 1906 earthquake. Shattered, the fish were separated from the names. And as he stood there in all that wreckage, instead of just giving up, he invented this little new technique of sewing a label to a fish so that should another earthquake come, the names would never get separated.
And I don’t know, it just struck me as this little perfect emblem of human persistence and just the refusal to back down in the face of all these huge forces that will always do us in. When I first thought about it, I just was like, “Oh you fool, chaos will keep destroying you.” I don’t know what it was, I just thought he was pathetic. I thought he was an Icarus, I thought he was a fool.
And then I didn’t think about him for years. Then in my late 20s, I had just screwed up a bunch of stuff in my own life and I found myself in my own proverbial wreckage, personally and professionally; I had left radio and I was trying to write fiction and I was really bad at it and I was lonely and I screwed up a whole relationship and I was in a new place, I didn’t really have a community, and I was just alone, and lost. I wanted to keep pining for this person who I really wanted to get back together with but was showing me no signs that he was going to ever take me back. And I suddenly wondered, “Am I being crazy or is this hope and this persistence the kind of faith you need that ultimately wins you, sails you through the storms, like is it actually noble and beautiful?”
And then I thought of this David Starr Jordan guy again and I was like, “I wonder what happened to that dude, because he is the most comic example of this, and did he end up a king with tons of kids and admirers or did he end up alone and poor and a fool?”
So then I set out to — not knowing what else to do — I set out to research his life, thinking I’d write a very short essay and get a little clarity or a little hint of what to do for myself. Then it just spiraled because he had such a weird tale and he was also a profoundly interesting person to study because he left behind so much to go through and he’s funny and he’s kind of evil and it just made him a wonderful person to obsessively research while I wasn’t sure what the heck to do with my life.
That’s such an interesting way to take solace in the wreckage of someone else’s life and figure them out. As if they could offer a map of the way out.
It’s like the journalist predilection; I think sometimes you go and see how other people are getting through similar questions or similar situations and it’s such a privilege to get to be able to do that for a living. But yeah, I was doing that with him for a while.
This brings me to another question. Jordan just loses so much, like there’s so much fire and loss. I was thinking this is actually a story about loss, and that loss, and perhaps tragedy, are other words for chaos. They help label and explain the unexplainable. That was something I took away from everything that kept happening to Jordan.
Well, you’re actually totally making me think about something differently right now, which is that I think when I went into writing about him I was sitting in this growing loss of this person, who is alive, and it was my fault, but I was staring at that loss, and in a way I couldn’t take my eyes off it, the shape of the loss, what was gone, how this person wasn’t even responding to jokes in my head. I was just looking at the shape of the hole of the loss as it grew larger and larger in my life, and considering its contours and studying the loss, I was transfixed by it.
And then here is David Starr Jordan, this person who didn’t seem to look and seemed to move right on. I think in a weird way, like for as much as that man named things and ordered things, one thing he was really good at doing was not getting transfixed by his loss. Like the minute the lightning strikes, he doesn’t study the fire, the ashes, or wonder what went wrong. He just keeps going. He turns away, he turns to the future. And you see that time and time again, like the fire, the death of the wife, the earthquake, the death of the colleague.
Maybe loss is the one thing he doesn’t study and name and maybe that’s part of his trick, maybe that’s actually part of what he can teach us. I will sit around and consider my loss forever, like three years went by as I stared at it and tried to order it, and it’s one of the few things he wasn’t interested in looking at. For as much as he studied the world, loss was one of the few things he didn’t seem to consider.
Let’s talk about Chapter 3. You step back from Jordan and write about your personal moment of chaos. You know that conceit where every superhero has an origin story, that moment in time that turns them into who they are? I feel like Chapter 3 is your superhero origin story. You describe a scene of birdwatching with your dad, and you’re 7 years old and out of nowhere you ask him about the meaning of life, and he tells you that everything is meaningless. And his answer unhinges you.
Totally. Yeah, it did. I think I say it felt like a big feather comforter had just been ripped off the world. And that’s what it felt like, it felt like it was really shocking. There was no room for any magic. I was such a daddy’s girl, I believed him fully. It immediately just threw out the question of, “What are we all doing, like what is the point?”
As a little girl, it really frightened me. And I think a lot of my life has been centered on that conversation with him. The first job I had was working for Radiolab, and I loved that show because it was all about spirituality and magic, but all through science that showed that there might be weird mathematical cosmic justice, or there might be ways to connect. That conversation created some sort of pull in me that I keep trying to shove back into faith and say, “There is meaning, there is magic.”
I had a similar moment as a kid. When I was 10 years old, I had a job ironing my dad’s friend’s shirts — I don’t remember why or how I got this job, but I had it. And one day I was ironing, and as all 10-year-olds are wont to do, I was thinking about space and the universe, and I was trying to figure out what happens when you get to the end of space. I kept trying to think about how I could touch it, as if it were a wall, something substantive, and then I realized that there was no end and I almost passed out because I was trying to understand the concept of infinity and my little 10-year-old self couldn’t cope with it. I was ironing and I almost burnt the shirt because everything went black. And that moment right there made me be like, “oh, there is no god.” Like I had that kind of epiphany, where the universe was torn open.
Oh my god. That’s so vivid with the flatness of the thing you’re ironing and wondering about the edge. Wow, yeah. It is almost like, I remember later there was a Church of Latter-day Saints ad campaign that showed some little family mishap and then it would end with like, “Join the Church of Latter-day Saints and discover the meaning of life.” I remember being like, “So there is meaning.” And then I remembered what my dad told me and no, there isn’t, and so it felt like ... It made everything immediately feel — you described it so well — it’s like a terrifying pointlessness.
There’s a part of Chapter 3 that gets into the cruelty of middle school for you and your sister, and you describe a lack of light. You talk about how there was no gleaming, no glittering, no stars. And you talk about temptation, but you never actually use the word suicide, and I wonder if you could speak to that. Was it a choice?
Oh, that’s interesting, did I not use the word?
I don’t think so.
No, I think you’re right. Yeah. I think you’re totally right. I don’t think I used the word. It’s something that I actually have kept very private until now. But I think that there is a part of me that thinks, when you see that word, everyone has their judgments about it. And I think I was trying the do the writing thing where it’s like, are you going to be someone who sees the word suicide and thinks “self-indulge” or thinks “call for attention” or thinks “pathology, unhealthy”? There were just all these dangerous places that that word can go.
Or I think maybe it’s because I’ve been afraid. I think a lot of my personality after that attempt when I was 16 has been built around having someone never guess that I did that. I just didn’t want to be associated with it, maybe. So to actually go in and write about it, I think I was just really interested in talking about what the sensation actually feels like and call it what you will. I think I was maybe interested more just in trying to describe it.
I think for me, to let myself really go back there and remember what it felt like and then subsequently what that thought feels like when it appears is just, that’s always been what’s hard for me about it, is that it doesn’t feel scary in the moment, it feels lustful, it feels delicious. And I think that’s what I was really interested in trying to convey, and then also come to terms with, what do you do when this thought feels delicious ... but what if some other part of you knows you do want to keep enduring, how do you navigate that and how do we contend with that thought?
And so I think I wanted to write about what it felt like without having to throw around a word that might just be such a hot word in people’s mind that it takes them to other directions and prevents them from just feeling the feeling they could actually connect to. Does that make sense?
It makes so much sense. It gets at what you describe also in the book about something only coming into existence if it’s labeled, and that the word itself has so many connotations, and it doesn’t speak to the way it spoke to you. So the way you described it is much more personal and vivid to your experience and not to the word as a loaded cultural mine.
Yeah. And I think there was something in later years, really healing for me when I worked on Invisibilia where we talked about dark thoughts like it’s no big deal, like we all have them — getting over this instinct to pathologize them. And let’s shine light on them, not to downplay them, because they can be very dangerous, but let’s have a conversation where the reporter isn’t like, “So, person, troubled by dark thoughts.” Just instead like, “Yeah, I have them too, what do you do?”
What do you think Jordan would make of COVID-19? Like if he were to collect viruses instead of fish?
There’s this term called antifragile, have you heard that? It’s like something that’s fragile — so a plate, a ceramic plate, if the world is chaotic it’s going to break, and that’s going to be bad. But there are some things that are antifragile, which means chaos is really good for them and actually they thrive in chaos.
So I think David Starr Jordan is antifragile. When chaos strikes, he doesn’t break, he innovates. Oh my god, why am I rhyming, but you know what I mean? I think he would innovate right now. I think it’s just such an interesting time, the way chaos is playing out in various places with various governments and scientists. I feel like the way things are falling into place in America is that chaos is raining more. But because it’s not consistent there’s just various different ways things are falling out, like the slowness of some cities to come together. It’s just interesting.