Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Belly of the Beast: A Surprisingly Warm Trip to Pittsburgh

Disclaimer: despite all attempts, there appears to be more exposition and less hilarity than usual in this post, and also lots of therapeutic emotional musings.  But there are cool sock designs at the end to make up for it.

So Andrew and I visited his hometown of Pittsburgh last week and it went much better than expected.  Andrew has not been home for the holidays in three years and wanted to see his family, and despite our history of tension, I agreed because a) I like plane rides, and b) I like Andrew almost as much.

We boarded our plane early last Saturday, where we dozed our way 3,000 miles across the continent to Pittsburgh.  I took some anti-anxiety medication before we left the terminal to see his mother.  My face had already broke out in some impressive acne in anticipation of the trip.

 Thanks, Brain.

Andrew's mother, Gail, met us and was very cordial, and we went to her home, which is also Andrew's childhood home.  I have always been a bit jealous of this home.  It's a three-story brick house with an expansive front porch at the end of a cul-de-sac that opens into a front room with a fireplace flanked by bookshelves.  Andrew lived a very upper-middle class life and I envy that.

Regarding my own childhood, it wasn't all that bad, though.  My mom let me pet tigers.

Anyway, back to the trip.  We put away our things in Andrew's childhood bedroom, which had that sad storage-y look that the childhood bedrooms of adults who have moved away often have.  His mother and stepfather took us out to dinner and then we (Andrew and I) went to meet up with two of his friends at a shithole of a dive bar.  It made Golden Corral look like Sardi's.  The two friends ignored us while I tried to ignore my increasingly loud, nagging alcoholism, and finally asked Andrew to leave because the place was filled with smoke and his friends were more interested in each other than us, no homo.  We did get a couple of games of billiards in, though.  (We lost but considering the bar we were in, we definitely weren't the biggest losers there.)

So we went home and started Sunday off with a nice "family hike" along the creek of a local park, where I identified a falcon, some orb-weaver sacs, tangle webs, some enormous Artist's Conk mushrooms, some tiny freshwater shrimp, and Andrew's mother's discomfort as I waded into the woods in search of things with too many legs.  The landscape was without snow, much to our disappointment, and it felt more like autumn than winter.  Old stone bridges covered in lichen crossed the creek in places, much to the approval of those who think shrimp are icky and would prefer not to get their feet wet.  Andrew's mother walked far ahead of us, as if I was generating spiders by pointing them out.  I felt awkward.

Spiders are under-appreciated.

It was a nice walk through lovely country.  Shortly after getting back, though, I had to go upstairs and have a crying spell, because I felt so out of place and alien.  No one had made me feel that way; that's just how I felt.  Also, Andrew's grandmother had asked to see him, in private, and had confessed she didn't want to see me, which really hurt.  Andrew's mom texted us and asked if we wanted to come downstairs and talk it out.  (I didn't.)

We went downstairs and had a long heart-to-heart that was about 60% crying and 40% talking (on my part).  I felt especially bad because I've felt that my and Gail's relationship has been improving incrementally and she'd done nothing to make me feel unwelcome, but I was just so anxious and also feeling really bad about the rest of the family and was worried about Andrew.  Andrew said he thought it was a good talk but I didn't feel it was entirely necessary, since I don't think Andrew's mom had much to do with my emotions at that time and was nothing but a very hospitable host.

She had the graciousness of seven or more dwarves.

I will say that she brought up this very blog a few times and seemed upset by its contents, which I guess is understandable to some degree.  I apologized but told her I wouldn't censor myself and she oughtn't read it if she thinks it might hurt her feelings.  Like the rest of the family, she denied reading it, which is important later on.

Anyway, I coped by taking more anti-anxiety medication and by binge-watching "Hoarders" on Netflix in bed, while Andrew, perhaps motivated by "Hoarders," sorted through some of his childhood things and cleared out an old closet.  That evening we walked with his mother to the market to get some food, and after dinner, we watched The Daily Show like a normal family in the living room.

The next day, Monday, Andy went to see his grandmother.  He said that the talk didn't go so well.  She accused me of being a manipulative liar and refused to believe otherwise.  Andrew tried to reason with her, but her protectiveness of the family overwhelmed any of his pleading, and she refused to think better of me despite his reassurances.  Andrew said it was curious to see his grandmother, usually so warm, acting so ferocious and aggressively dominant.  "I kept reaching for my water glass and there was no water in it," he reported. 

 She's a tough cookie.

As for me, I was still in bed, exhausted after the previous day's emotions.  I got up for a late lunch and then we went to Phipps conservatory to meet Andrew's friend Rachel.  I've never gotten along with Rachel because she always seems very high-strung and reactive when I see her.  As usual, she showed up tense and a bit manic.  She was talking far too fast and seemed on the verge of hysteria.  But as we walked through the conservatory, identifying plants, she calmed, and by the time we went to the café for dinner, she was calm and pleasant.  We had a great conversation and for the first time I really got along with her; we really clicked and I was happy to have met Rachel at a good time.  She actually is a really cool person, once you get past the short fuse and the mania.  As a fellow anxiety-haver (well, depression-haver, but same diff), I realized that our impressions of each other in the past were always negative because we'd always been anxious and unable to focus on anything but ourselves.  Once in a safe place, we got along swimmingly, and it really delighted me to know my medication is working and that I can find new friends in people I never expected.  Andrew was also very happy about our connection, even though we teamed up to nag him to put a ring on my finger.

Tuesday was "my day."  We drove to State College, home of my alma mater, Penn State.

  Nothing but fond memories.

We met my little sister Kait (from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program), who is now 21 years old.  We brought her a nice gift basket with some nail polish, wine ("Drink responsibly!" advised her birthday card), a little plush cupcake, and a few other goodies.  We had lunch at the Corner Room, a State College classic, and after a brief tour of her very own new apartment (so proud of her!) we went back downtown to Herwig's Austrian Bistro, where we met my friend Lily.  I got to meet Lily's new baby, Andrew, who I fed, burped, and paid more attention to than my own Andrew, who was engrossed in conversation with his old college friend, Laura.  On a tight schedule, we then drove another 90 minutes to Harrisburg to meet my old friends Kevin and Tom.  Andrew parallel-parked Tom's car L.A.-style into a space with about 6-8 inches of room total to spare, and we went off to a pub to catch up.  We didn't leave until 10 and so we got home by 2.

Again, exhausted, I slept in, while Andrew went to do chores with his mother.  When he came home, I was called downstairs by Gail, who said that Grandma wanted to meet me.  I was under the impression she didn't, but I went downstairs anyway and stood politely by Andrew's side, trying not to look like a manipulative liar.

 I kept nervously twirling my mustache.

His mother, in what I think was supposed to be a kind gesture, asked after my dogs.  "Who's watching them?" she said, knowing that I'm always willing to talk about my dogs.  If I was fighting in the trenches and someone asked me about my dogs, I would probably yell their entire life histories over the booming of mortar.

"And my bunny's ears look like this!"  
"I... I think they're bombing us!"  
"...and her wiggly little tail goes boop, boop, boop!"

"Jack's looking after them," said Andrew.  Uh-oh.  Sensitive topic, here.

Now, remember how I said earlier that Andrew's mother claimed not to read my blog?  Well, she then pulled out this gem.  Looking directly at me, she said, "I thought you hated Jack."

Whoa.  Whoa.  Whoa.  Hate is a pretty strong word here.  I've never given any indication that I hate Jack.  I don't know if Jack said something to her, but it seems more likely she read about our little feud in my post from July.  I'd like to quote myself here regarding Jack:  " I'm not angry at Jack.  I just recognize that he is a very fair-weather friend, and his actions aren't supportive.  I'm someone who puts a lot of value on reliability, and... his inability to accommodate or compromise when we had conflicting plans is part of a larger pattern of bad behaviour that hurts me.  I don't feel like I need to stick out a hurtful relationship.  ...Instead of getting angry and bitter and passive-aggressive, I'd rather just shake hands and part ways."

Yeah, so no hate there.  Shocked, I said, "I don't hate Jack.  I mean, we bicker sometimes... all friends bicker."  I didn't feel like I should go into details about our bickering.  But my voice faltered.

"That worries me," said Andrew's mother.  Her eyes narrowed a little.  "I've very protective of Jack."

Grandma's eyes narrowed too.  "And I'm very protective of you, honey," she said to Gail, despite staring straight into my eyes.

I stood there awkwardly for a bit, then reached for a glass of water.  It was empty.

I politely excused myself and went back upstairs, feeling sad and more than a bit rejected.

Don't leave me hanging, Grandma.

After some moping and the departure of Andrew's mother and grandmother, we decided to focus on the positive, which was the general way Gail and I had gotten along.  We walked downtown and Andrew indulged me in one of my favourite hobbies, which is making gift baskets (aka "grab bags").  Since RedditGifts, I've been really obsessed with this hobby.  In fact this was the fourth gift bag I'd made in four days, the other three being for RedditGifts (you can view it here!), our lab office party (we did a Secret Santa!), and Kait.  We loaded up the gift bag with a scarf, candles, soaps, and tea, and tried to make each as personal as possible.  We presented it to Andrew's mother Wednesday evening before going out and she loved it.

When we went out Wednesday, it was to meet Andrew's friends Sarah and Jedd.  I was dismayed to see Sarah had purchased a bottle of wine already.  Sarah seemed like one of the more interesting, outgoing, and amiable of Andrew's friends and I would have loved to have gotten to know her, but anxiety was tugging at me.  Seriously, she seemed awesome, but alcohol has a tendency to counter-act even the best anti-depressants.  A glass of wine went down, then another.  We left after dessert (pear gelato and vegan pumpkin cheesecake) to a bar, where I had a third drink.  (My limit in social situations is two.)  I begged Andrew to take me home, feeling the bubbling of an anxiety attack in the pit of my stomach despite the soothing effects of the pear gelato, and he acquiesced.  We got home and upstairs just in time for me to melt down completely; I sobbed miserably, which undoubtedly made Andrew's mother downstairs very concerned that I was either dying or watching Looney Tunes

"Ooooooh, I'm dying over here!"

Fortunately, even though I was sure I was dying and the world around me was falling apart (as one does during panic attacks), I had the presence of mind to tell Andrew to go back to see Sarah and Jedd.  With some hesitancy, he did, and was able to have a good time catching up with his old friends.  He was also able to meet briefly with his friend Jason, who had eluded us like some sort of rare bird for the entire trip due to work.

And that's what the trip was all about, connecting with old friends, so it was good that Andy was able to visit all of his friends and family, except his sister, who continues to blacklist Andrew for fraternizing with the enemy (me).

The next morning, Thursday, I felt wrecked from the previous night.  Thankful that the trip was over, I was dropped off at the bus station by Andrew's mother, and Andrew and I got on a plane to get back home.

Overall?  I gave the trip a B- and I think Andrew gave it an A-.

This wasn't just a vacation, but a test for us to see if my medication was working, to see if we could maintain our friendly and familial relationships despite internal tension, and to make sure our own relationship can withstand the pressure put on it by my own failings (such as having anxiety) and by his family (Hi, Lilly).

I was happy with how well his mother and I got along and even more happy to connect with Rachel and see her as Andrew does.  Truth be told I got along with all of his friends really well, which was great because in the past I've had trouble navigating social situations and I know that one of Andrew's concerns before getting engaged is the assurance that he can maintain his old friendships with me in tow.  The best part of the trip was how much it strengthened our relationship; we're stronger and happier than ever and I'm glad we went even though it was very difficult, emotionally, for me.

When we came home, I spent the three-day weekend of my vacation cleaning the house, inspired by my "Hoarders" binge.  With two bags donated to GoodWill, four bags thrown out, and another bag regifted, our house is reorganized completely and cleaner than it has been in the last three years we've lived here!  The kitten finally has some space and is getting along with the dogs, under the condition that Seamus doesn't see her leaving the kitchen or utility room, which Andrew has designated the "Kitten Ghetto."

It's a place of adorable gang warfare, like in "West Side Story."

In other good news, I returned from the vacation to work feeling refreshed as hell.  I've been PCR-ing and Gel-ing and Sanger Sequencing like nobody's business.  I finally feel like I'm getting control of things.  My last meeting with my boss felt exciting and instead of feeling shy and apologetic, I felt a click, like we were moving toward a goal together instead of her just coaching me.

The arrival of a package in the mail was also spectacular; my father sent me a watermelon tea kettle that was on my wishlist, and then called me yesterday.  We talked for nearly an hour.  Having had some friction with my own family in the past I'm delighted to hear from him.

The holidays are really being good to me and I really feel like the spirit of the season is working its magic.  At this time I don't feel like I have very many worries, complaints, or hostilities; the closest thing to a "problem" I have is my search for a new motorcycle and trying to re-learn my friendship with Jack, drawing new boundaries and expectations so we don't hurt each other in the future again.  Also, all this cheerful good will and productivity and lack of problems is making my blog less funny.  Sorry not sorry, Blog.  I'll try to find a way to make happiness funnier.  (You know what they say... Tragedy + Time = Comedy.)

As for the future... bring it on!

I'm ready for it!  2016 will be awesome!  Go ahead, 2016... sock it to me!

 (Also, I designed these socks.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

What a Wreck!

These last few weeks have done a great job of testing the efficacy of my new antidepressant, Cymbalta.  With the trip to visit Andrew’s family last week, I was a huge bundle of stress leading up to the trip to Pittsburgh, and there was a general miasma of foreboding floating through the house.

Andrew's sister, Lily, did not improve things.  Andrew's last two conversations with Lily were disastrous; she said that he might as well not come home for the holidays and also hung up on him after a "fuck you."

Dramatic interpretation.

The reason she claims for hating me more than loving her brother is that I've "said things" about her mother on "a public forum."  Let's get a few things straight.  First, this is a personal website, not a "public forum."  It's only followed by people who personally know me or that one guy in Albania who keeps sending me weird packages (Hi, Gregori!).

My blog is sort of a public journal, but not one that is read by the masses.  I'm just me being me in my personal space, and I suspect that Lily and her family's gossip is far more "public" than my teeny tiny little corner of the internet.  If they would stop acting like a soap opera I wouldn't be able to talk about them so much.  But I spend a lot of time thinking about what they say about me so of course I'm going to examine those feelings here.

This leads me to my second point:  I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings or ruin any reputations.  I'm either stating the facts or I'm stating my personal attitudes toward them.  If a person doesn't want to be called out for acting mean when she accuses me of faking sick while in the hospital, maybe she shouldn't accuse people of faking sick when they're in the hospital.  And also, the thing with Ben and Cara's wedding was totally lame and I don't think it was wrong of me to talk about it here.

Which brings me to my third and last point, which is that, as far as I know, nothing I say here on my blog is a secret.  I strongly believe in being as open as honest as is possible within the realm of good taste and discretion.  So while I won't be posting any nude pictures of myself here (sorry, Gregori), I also won't censor myself for anyone's benefit.  If you want things to be kept secret, you either need to specify that it's a secret directly to me, or not say it at all.  It's not my job to hide your skeletons for you, guys.  If you want to be a good person you'll need to actually act like one instead of hoping that Julie lies and says nice things about you on her blog.

However, if anyone out there is in any way offended and wants to complain, you can fill out this complaint form and send it over to me and it will be ignored in the order it was received.

Now that that's out of the way, I want to apologize to Lily for not dying in a motorcycle accident two weeks ago.  That was very selfish of me.

I've been riding for about 5 years now and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the nice things about having a motorcycle in Los Angeles is the ability to "split lanes."  Splitting lanes is like doing a trust fall with the class bully; you didn't want to be paired with him but you do it anyway and you hope to God he doesn't fuck it up.  Similarly, when driving in Los Angeles, you hope drivers aren't going to do anything dangerous, illegal, or stupid, but you prepare yourself for the worst.  As a motorcyclist, it's generally considered good etiquette to drive in the farthest left two lanes (#1 and #2, formally) and not doing it in "merging" areas.  I normally go 25 - 30 miles an hour, which is well below average.  Like other motorcyclists, I wear a helmet, a jacket, long pants, boots, and gloves, under which are leggings and a long shirt and chain mail and an Iron Man suit and a couple of rolls of bubble wrap.

Anyways, it finally happened last Wednesday; I was puttering along and a lady abruptly turned left, right in front of me.  I had a split second to swerve, and if she'd seen me, then I might have gotten out of the way.  But she didn't, and I realized that we were going to impact, and in another split second I turned the handlebars and brought the bike down into a sort of controlled slide to try to mitigate the damage.

"I feel like I should be doing something here."

The first part happened all in slow motion and seemed very real.  The slide itself is a blur in my memory; the bike and I slid about 10 meters (or two car lengths) down the far left shoulder.  I am vaguely aware that I kicked the bike away from me so that it wouldn't pin me down.  (Later, several people said I bumped my head on the concrete medium, which I don't recall.  I was later confirmed to have a mild concussion but nothing serious.)

When we (my bike and I) had come to a stop, I sat up.  My bike didn't, presumably because it was two tired.  One of my feet was under the bike.  I tugged it out and stood.  The lady who had hit me had already pulled over and was on the phone with 911; her door was open and she was sitting in her car with her feet on the pavement.  She was crying.  Traffic had stopped and people were gawking.  (In Los Angeles, it is traditional not to loot the body of a dead person until at least one seagull has alit upon it.)

I lifted the bike and became aware that three other bikers had stopped.  Again, the next part is shaky; I know that the bikers were trying to determine if I had a concussion. ("How many fingers am I holding up?  Who's the president?  Name a continent that starts with the letter A.")  ("Seventeen! Harrison Ford! Albuquerque!")  I reassured the lady that I was okay (in the sense that nothing was broken.)  I tried to start the bike and found it was still starting, but the headlight was out and the front right brake was dangling off of it.  The front seemed a little bent.

It looked pretty okay overall.  Something like this.

"Look, I didn't even burst open my yogurt," I said to the woman who'd hit me, pulling an undamaged yogurt cup from my completely warped messenger bag.  She laughed through her tears.  I waved off the other bikers.  The EMTs and police left.  She and I exchanged our information, and after making sure the bike could still drive, I went to work.

I wasn't even late!

I took the bike to the shop and, afterwards, had a completely and total meltdown.  (According to my therapist, it is normal to react 8-12 hours after a traumatic event and not immediately, so at least in this regard, I am normal.)

The bike was later declared "unable to be driven" and a "total loss."  The arm of my leather jacket was shredded by the pavement, and so were my gloves, but aside from the knock on my noggin, I came out of it fine.

Serious time, guys.  Always wear protection.  This is a leather riding jacket after a slide; imagine if that were skin.

The lady's insurance covered everything, which means now I can upgrade to a bigger bike.  I'm leaning toward a Kawasaki Vulcan 650.

Next week: how I survived the trip to Pittsburgh and visit with Andy's family!

 (Hint: proper riding gear.)

Friday, December 4, 2015

The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and other scientific musings.

It occurred to me recently that I've been so busy kvetching about the drama with Andrew's family (Hi, Lily) and my own personal battle with depression that I haven't made many updates about my new job, which is actually quite exciting.

(For those who have just joined us, my new job refers to my role as the lab manager of a gnotobiotics lab.  Gnotobiotics involves the study of the microbiome and what that means is that I work with a lot of mice, their feces, and the bacteria therein.  It's not a job for people who dislike smells.  It is, however, of interest to the government right now, who just passed the "Microbiome Initiative."  Therefore our research is very well funded.)

Things are certainly doing better since the rather overwhelming November AALAS conference.  I’ve progressed from sitting at my desk trying not to look too incompetent or terrified to growing bacteria while cackling maniacally. 

I’ve also run PCRs on those bacteria, which is a special machine that replicates your parts of your bacterial DNA for you so that you have more of it, and run some electrophoresis gels, which means zapping Jell-O with electricity while forcing your bacterial DNA bits through it to see what it looks like.


But seriously, if you are wondering how this works, it’s because DNA is negatively charged and you can draw it through a gel by charging one end of the gel “positive” and the other “negative.”  Large fragments of DNA will move slower through the gel, just like how a semi moves slower on the freeway than a car and a car moves slower than a motorcycle.  You can look at the resulting “bands” and roughly estimate what sort of fragments are there based on how far the band traveled. 

This is useful if you are on NCIS and need to "match" DNA, or if you have a mouse and you want to know if the mouse has a certain gene that makes it, say, susceptible to alcoholism.  Using PCR and electrophoresis together, you can both compare DNA and check for specific genes.

Woo, genetic excuses!

To check, you take the mouse’s DNA and run it through a PCR with primers that replicate the segment of DNA that you're interested in.  Different genes have different primers.  If the mouse doesn’t have the gene, the primer won’t be able to replicate the fragment, and when you zap your DNA through a gel, no band will appear.  It's basically the difference between asking Grandma to knit you something from a pattern and not asking Grandma for anything; if the pattern exists, Grandma will knit it, and if the gene exists, the primer will replicate it.

If your gene is present and replicated in the PCR, then running the solution of PCR'ed DNA will cause a bright band to appear on your gel when you view it under UV light. 


You can also use this method to genotype mice that look the same.  If you have a sample of DNA labeled “black mouse,” but you want to know whether the mouse is heterozygous (Bb) or homozygous (BB), you can check its genes using a variety of primers and seeing which ones work.  A “b” primer wouldn’t work for a homozygous mouse, and no band would appear on a gel.  This can be important for breeding.  Two homozygous mice (BB x BB) will have all black babies, but two heterozygous mice (Bb x Bb) have a 25% chance of having a non-black baby, bb, which may or may not lead the male mouse to accuse the female mouse of cheating on him.  I’m just kidding of course.  Mice don’t give a shit.

♫ ♫ Ebony and Ivory… ♫ ♫

I also recently mixed some special media for making growth gel, which is what the bacteria live and feed on in their little plates.  It had a total of 30 different ingredients, some measured in microliters and micrograms, and at least seven of which required special preparation beforehand and at least two of which smelled like sweaty cheese. 

Before mixing (a lovely peachy orange smelling of vinegary vomit):

After mixing (a frothy watermelon rose smelling of rotten eggs and meat):

As the year wraps up, I feel confident I took the right job and that everything is going to be okay, even if there is still quite a bit of a learning curve.  I'm learning more every day and the lab is shaping up nicely; I'm doing more things independently and though we still don't have any actual live mice, it's giving me the chance to catch up on basic lab techniques and other important endeavors.

Like decorating the ChemisTree.  

And now I present how science really works for all you out there who appreciate this delicate, often subtle art and the fragile line it toes between cooking, engineering, problem-solving, practicality, and magic.