Monday, January 26, 2009

it's the season of eyes meeting over the noise

My biochem problem set is boring me greatly, and nothing's going on at work except for running into an old Calculus buddy, so I'm going to discuss something that's been on my mind lately. Actually, an alternate title for this post is "Slippery Thoughts."

Sometime in the last month I was making my cautious way along the south 700 North sidewalk. It was snowy and the sun was shining, making it really quite treacherous. On my way I espied a young man who was also making his cautious way along the sidewalk. When we passed, we met each other's eyes for a brief second, and I knew: He was as determined not to fall and make a fool of himself as I was. We both knew that we would be the height of kindness (perhaps only laughing a little) if one of us fell, but why not save ourselves the humiliation and stay upright?

We both managed it. I did spend a moment pondering what a good "meet-cute" that would be, especially if we both fell. But I was more amused by our shared determination not to fall at all.

That first day it was warming up was dreadful for walking. Other days have been dreadful for walking as well (today may just be one of them), but it was of such a degree that I announced as I blew into my apartment in a rush, "The parking lot is ice-skatable today!" How fun. I had to go around the front so I could get to the places I needed to be on time without having to slide my feet carefully along the terrible sidewalk.

I kind of wish I'd had time to take advantage of it. I am rather poor at ice-skating.

My roommate Allison always falls instead of me. It's kind of nice for me, but kind of awful for her. Last week there was this huge puddle where we usually walk through. Not only that, but the ice surrounding the puddle was abnormally icy. It would have been terrible to fall into the 2-ft deep puddle (I exaggerate not). I know this because Allison did fall in it, and it was awful.

Basically I just wish that it wasn't ever slippery. Or that we had puddles that make it hard for those that don't wear high heels (luckily yesterday I was) to traverse. Ice and snow are okay, though. Moderately.

"Atheist Christmas Carol" ~ Vienna Teng

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I can see what I've begun

Hello. I am cultivating a grey hair. Over Christmas break it was almost bang-length, and I took great pleasure in teasing it out to hang conspicuously over my hair to make my family comment, but they never said anything, so I forgot about it.

Until a couple weeks ago, when I found that it was very short. It must have broken, brittle as it is. So I'm trying to grow it out again.


Why, you may ask, do I not just pull it out and preserve the illusion of youth?

Because I like being old. I feel my years, and my grey hair proves it! Hahahah!

"My Medea" ~ Vienna Teng
[that was tricky. i wonder if there's a better song for this.]

Sunday, January 4, 2009

one by one the neighbors' lights come on

How would you like to see my essay? Very little of the content is really "news" to anyone that's read any other entries in this blog, but it is something I wrote. Some of it is actually okay. It is entitled "Details."

The stars were bright as I walked to school one Wednesday morning in fall, but I barely glanced up long enough to find Orion, one of two constellations I can identify. I’d done plenty of stargazing the past few days: my new habit was coming to school at six in the morning.

Most people are smart enough, when they’re taking sixteen credits that mostly contain advanced biology courses (with a smattering of Creative Writing on the side), to carefully arrange their work schedules to give them as much free time as possible to do my homework, or social things. Clearly I no longer belong in this category. It showed some remarkable lack of foresight to dismiss my schoolwork with a wave of the hand, scoffing, “Oh, pshaw. Who needs school, anyway?” With this idea in mind, I blissfully signed up for about thirty hours of work a week. Not on purpose, really. But the advanced ballet classes needed a talented, experienced pianist with good knowledge of the combinations; the voice teacher needed an accompanist who could sight read the pieces her students sang; and the Ecology teacher needed someone to take a load of grading off her single-mother shoulders and conduct review sessions about climate patterns. Who was I to deny them the assistance that I could best provide?

Then I started attending my classes. Knowing that I had a full work schedule, I went from class to class with an increasingly desperate expression on my face. Did they all think it was the only class I was enrolled in? That I had nothing better to do with my life than work on their class? My academic inclination, buried all summer, came roaring back to life and threw my glib dismissal of homework into shambles. I needed, according to my calculations, thirty-hour days, some of those hours for extra sleep. As far as I know that hasn’t been accomplished by any time-twisting feat to date, so I wondered if I needed to begin making arrangements for my funeral.

By far the most time-consuming class that semester–beating out even Plant Cell Biology and Plant Breeding & Biotechnology—was Mentored Lab Techniques. The premise appears fairly simple: complete lab protocols before a certain due date. This provides students an introduction to the way things work at the Genetics Laboratory and gives them an additional appreciation for being a lab slave: They will, by the end of the semester, have successfully completed a real-life experiment comparing the genomes of Arabidopsis (the genetics model plant) and aspen.

It’s not that simple.

At the end of the first week, I had unwittingly completely destroyed my experiment twice and made an enemy of my handsome Nepalese TA, Prabin. All of my classmates had completed their assignment, and I was left alone in the lab (except for the graduate students, who are actually supposed to be there) to glare balefully at the pipettes I was supposed to be using for my PCR reaction.

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is supposed to be an easy reaction to accomplish. It’s a method of amplifying DNA so that there’s enough to work with in subsequent experiments, and all you need to do is take some reagents, pipet them into a microcentrifuge tube, and mix it all up. Then you pop it into a thermal cycler and it magically multiplies. You wouldn’t think that could be messed up. Believe me, it can.

I did have other classes, not to mention a bit of employment, and I soon struggled finding time to spend an hour or two in the lab every day trying to get my gel to run. Thus the brilliant 6 a.m. idea was born. What could be smarter than coming in before any other living soul (besides the Army on their morning run and the custodians) and trying to find the E. coli in the vast array of fridges and freezers in the laboratory? I thought I was ingenious; my roommates thought I was crazy.

That particular Wednesday morning was chilly. More than that, it was downright frosty. The stars glittered coldly above as I took my scarf and wrapped it around my head like a babushka’s headscarf. I was grateful that there was no one else around, because I was fairly sure I looked like an idiot. Or a Russian Jewish girl straight out of Fiddler on the Roof.

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match,” I caroled. I was alone in the lab, and if I sang it helped soften the harsh truth that was coming clear to me as I stared numbly at the newest failed gel image: I simply could not pay attention to the details. Little things like wearing latex gloves, getting ice for my reagents, and mixing my reaction carefully were rationalized away in my subconscious before I even noticed that I had neglected something that could prove to be important later. And I wondered why I was failing the class?

The irony was not lost on me. I’d always gotten good grades, and past experience has shown that I can succeed at anything with a bit of work. But succeeding at lab work continued to elude me—and lab work is the only job I’ll be fit for after I graduate. Some foresight would’ve been wise, because I knew from the start that a lab technician wasn’t my dream job (is it anyone’s?) but still I neglected to major in anything that lead to a dream job—possibly because I haven’t figured out just what a “dream job” would be. Definitely not anything to do with PCR.

When I went to ballet that day, I was reminded again of how much detail orientation is required for just about everything in this life: ballerinas must be completely in tune with their bodies at all times, keep good posture while executing difficult moves, and even remember to point their toes and keep their fingers straight. It’s probably not something I’d excel at. It’s a pity, because ballet is pretty (and who doesn’t want to be pretty?). Instead I make my paltry contribution by trying to choose the best music to enhance their dancing experience.

By the time I made it to Voiceworks Studio that afternoon, I was feeling my extended run of early mornings, but I was alert enough to plunk the ivory. In the months I’ve worked there I’ve discovered that I’m practically getting free voice lessons as I listen in, waiting for my chance to play. But the details combine to defeat whatever singing aspirations I might have (which certainly don’t extend far past the empty genetics laboratory): there are so many essential habits that must all be employed at once. Debra (the voice teacher) must give the same speech about posture and breathing about fifty times a day, not to mention resonance and belting. I’m content enough to play louder when they’re supposed to sing louder.

The stars were shining brightly and the moon was rising by the time I got out of voice lessons. I gave them a cursory salute, not even looking up to find the constellations. As I got into my car I tried my hand at belting the song I’d played for most recently; nope, no good. What could I do that didn’t require details? I could drive. Pretty well, actually, except when sunsets or moonrises distracted me from the road. There was some multitasking there, but after playing piano for years it was hardly a struggle for me.

Then the lightbulb came on (or was that my headlights?). There are lots of nitpicky details in learning to play the piano, and I’d learned them. Sure, I may not be able to improvise terribly well, and finer points of theory continue to escape me, but I can play—with curved fingers, no less. Life wasn’t hopeless after all! If I wanted to learn to sing and dance, I could. It would just take some work. Of course, learning to sing and dance couldn’t be top of my list that fall: lab work was. I almost smiled (it’d been a long day) and hummed as I set my alarm, new eagerness for my 6 a.m. appointment with pipettes blossoming within me.

I wish (I really wish) I could say that at this point lab work came easily to me, and I passed the class with flying colors. Instead, I learned that details aren’t all that goes into a successful experiment (everything that goes into a successful experiment still elude me, to my distress). But details are an important part of so many aspects of life, and learning to pay attention to them is a skill that can be applied to other places—like the sound of sentences I write. It’s just a matter of choosing to see, feel, and hear.
"Antebellum" ~ Vienna Teng