Sunday, September 27, 2015

It's officially autumn! Have some early Halloween stuff.

In celebration of the autumnal equinox, which occurred last Wednesday, and Halloween, which is rapidly approaching, let's talk scary!  If you don't like scary stuff, go watch this video and don't bother reading further:

If you're still reading but not quite ready for spooky stuff, let's warm up by pointing out a major flaw in everyone's favourite witch-and-wizard series, Harry Potter.  Specifically, the horcruxes.  Goddammit, Voldemort, you chose some really bad horcruxes.  One of them was a book, for God's sake.  A book.  Books are crazy easy to destroy.  Water, fire, wind... hell, even heart could probably injure a book.

Books are made of trees, you guys.

So I came up with a list of my own horcruxes for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named:
  1. A really cute puppy.
  2. A rock thrown into the ocean.
  3. A bucket of water.
  4. A Muggle quarter.
  5. The Mona Lisa.
  6. A phoenix.
  7. The moon.
Of course, J.K. Rowling will have to rewrite the books, but I know she's up to the task.  I already rewrote the titles for her:
  1. "Harry Potter and the Queen's Corgi."
  2. "Harry Potter and the Muggle Submersible."
  3. "Harry Potter and the Bucket of Water."
  4. "Harry Potter and the Cursed Vending Machine that Doesn't Give Change."
  5. "Harry Potter and the Guards of the Louvre."
  6. "Harry Potter and the Resurrecting Horcrux."
  7. "Harry Potter and the International Space Station." (Released in the US as "Harry Potter Ruins the Tides.")
But I'm not doing any more than that, because I'm too busy writing my own shit, such as the next two short campfire stories!  For the consideration of the Midnight Society, I now present...

Out to Lunch

Every work place probably has "that guy." You know the one I'm talking about, right? The one who doesn't quite fit in. Maybe he smells weird, or has a really nasal voice, or seems like he's just a little too friendly with the ladies. Or maybe, as is the case where I work, he's Richard.

I want to clarify right away that Richard is a good guy. He's a hard worker and he's easy to get along with. He's been with the company for over 40 years, making him our oldest employee in all senses of the word. In fact, he just celebrated his 70th birthday.

But the thing about being that age is that, well, he's started to slow down a bit, and at times, he's just not quite right in the head. He wasn't always like that, but over the last two years, there's been a subtle change, and more and more often, he seems to be a little bit lost. Don't get me wrong; 95% of the time, he's fantastic at what he does. But that other 5%? He just sort of turns inward, becomes lost in his own inner world. When this happens, he can still be directed, but the tasks need to be very, very clear and very, very simple or he gets overwhelmed and just sort of shuts off. Or sometimes he'll confuse two tasks; last month, for example, he loaded a stack of order forms into the printer and then put the printing paper into the outbox.

Let me take a moment to back up and talk about my job. I work in a laboratory setting, which is not normally the type of place you'd find people like Richard. I study chronic diseases like epilepsy, and a heavy component of that type of research involves live animal models. Richard's role is not, as you might expect, a janitorial one, but a technical one. A lot of animal research involves nitty-gritty work: cleaning test tubes, wiping feces from cages, feeding animals, and sometimes euthanizing animals when they get too old or too sick. So you can understand Richard's role in our lab: he's an assistant that helps us set up cages for the animals and carries bags of feed to the rooms and wipes down chemical hoods so they're clean. That sort of thing. Even euthanasia is a pretty streamlined process; we have a machine that automates it. You put the mouse in the machine, flip a switch, the animal goes to sleep, you put the carcass in a brown paper bag, and you put the bag in the freezer until you have time to take it to the incinerator. VoilĂ . No problem.

So Richard. I've always felt a bit bad for him. Here in the city, the cost of living is high, and he gets paid minimum wage. Retirement is not a possibility for him. He lives alone; his lunch is always finger foods like carrot sticks or Pop-Tarts or pastries; I don't think he knows how to cook. I know it's rough on him because I've seen him occasionally take things from work. Nothing major, and nothing I think is worth even mentioning to management. A roll of paper towels from the store room, for example, or the brown paper bags from the euthanasia room for his lunch sacks, or a pen from the office. Just little stuff like that. Considering brown paper bags cost a dime for a pack of 100, it doesn't matter much if he grabs five for the week ahead.

Last week, I found Richard spaced out in the hallway. He was staring at the wall with a completely unfocused expression. It was honestly a little unnerving. More and more often, I've caught him on "auto-pilot;" he'll be wiping down a countertop, or changing the trash, and you'll get the sense he's on another planet. One time, he was drinking coffee, and there was nothing in the cup.

When he gets like that, it's best to try to snap him out of it early. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

"Hey, Richard!" I said, loudly. Richard gave no indication he'd heard me. He continued facing the wall, his jaw slightly slack, his eyes glazed. "Richard!" I repeated. This time his eyes slid over and met mine, though he remained completely silent.

Pretending this was entirely normal, I held out a bag to him. "Hey, can you put these mice in the freezer for me?"

He reached out, still silent, and took the bag. For a moment, we stood there. I wondered if he was going to keep staring at the wall. But then, he turned and began wandering slowly off, clutching the bag.

Poor guy.

Being his age, all alone, and with some of his mental facilities failing... it's humbling to work with someone like that. You might wonder why we keep him on, but honestly, this job is all he has, and at his age, he wouldn't be able to find anything else. An extra set of hands is an extra set of hands, anyway.

I went back to the procedure room to finish up what I was doing. I made sure to check in on Richard about an hour later; when he slides off into his own head, you sometimes have to reorient him more than once before he really snaps out of it. He seemed okay, though. He was in the break room when I saw him at noon, washing his hands in a slow, methodical way. The break room smelled absolutely horrible. Horrible smells have never bothered Richard much. He must've had Hot Pockets for lunch. Old Hot Pockets.

"Done with lunch?" I asked cheerfully, as if the break room didn't smell like nine-day-old ham. He grunted at me, which I assumed meant yes. "Great!" I exclaimed. "Would you mind replacing the biohazard bags in room 18, and also taking the carcasses up to the incinerator? I think the freezer is full." He grunted at me, which I assumed meant yes.

It was maybe an hour or two later that a postdoc caught me in the hall. "Excuse me, but the freezer is full," she said. I groaned internally. I thought Richard has snapped out of it, but he must have wandered off again.

"I'll take care of it," I said, making a mental note to find Richard as soon as possible. I hurried off to the biohazard storeroom, which is basically just a closet with two deep freezers for carcass disposal. The freezers fill up quickly and need emptied regularly, lest they fail to close entirely and the carcasses rot. (This has happened twice so far.)

I opened up the freezer and grabbed one of the over-filled bags, which was brimming with little brown paper sacks. It was heavier than I thought, and I dropped it. I swore, expecting dead, frozen mice to scatter across the floor. But what fell out of the bag was far worse: a handful of uneaten pastries, frozen solid.

Whatever Richard had had for lunch today, it hadn't been pastries.

The Day Baxter Came Home

Someone called to tell me they’d found my dog.

It was a pretty standard phone call. The lady’s voice was mild and unassuming. Her exact words were, “I found your dog.”

Normally I would be ecstatic. I used to get intensely anxious anytime the dog wandered off, imagining him streaking into oncoming traffic in pursuit of a squirrel.

But I didn’t feel ecstatic this time. I felt perplexed and a little unnerved. I knew exactly where my dog was. My dog was buried in the corner of the garden under the mountain ash tree.

“You must have the wrong number,” I say.

“I’m calling the number on the poster.”

Poster? There haven’t been posters in almost three years, since Baxter succumbed to renal failure at the ripe old age of fourteen.

“You must be mistaken,” I say, still not sure how to handle the situation.

“I can send you a photo if you like,” she says. And before I have time to tell her that’s not necessary, and that I don’t even have a dog, she hangs up. I get a picture from her moments later. It’s small on the screen of my phone, but unmistakable. That’s Baxter, all right. Baxter was (is?) a border collie, but I couldn’t have mistaken him for any other border collie. Not in a million years. In the photo, I can clearly see the torn ear he got as a puppy, and the faded red leather collar we bought for him after he snapped the blue one. There’s no questioning the photo. Especially since I was the one who took it, eight years ago. I recognize the bit of rose bush in the corner, the grape Popsicle wrapper at Baxter’s feet. I’m feeling even more confused now. Is this a prank? That photo is in an album at my mother’s house, three states away. To my knowledge it was never shared with anyone, and even if it had been, how would they be able to connect it to me?

The phone rings again and the lady is back. “Are you coming to pick him up?”

“I… I don’t think that’s my dog,” I protest weakly.

She lets out an exasperated noise. “Then I’m taking him to the shelter.” And she hangs up.

What could I do? I couldn’t leave poor, loyal Baxter with a stranger, to be dumped at the pound, wondering where I was and why I wasn’t coming for him. So I went. Of course I went. Wouldn’t you?

I guess I can’t complain much. It took some getting used to, having Baxter around again. He’s mostly unchanged. He accompanied me around the neighborhood to take down the posters that I never put up, the ones with my phone number on them. I guess I like having him back. He still gets up on to my bed at night, though he no longer sleeps (or eats); he just watches me silently, and I try not to think about it too much.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Creative Outlets

One thing I've never understood is people who bitch about their jobs.  If you hate your job enough to complain about it daily, why not redirect that energy into finding a new job, perhaps one you hate less?

At a certain point, the buttons you keep winning just aren't worth it.

Yet sometimes, bitching is still easier than the stress involved in applying, interviewing, waiting for HR, signing the forms, and getting oriented.  I know this because my stress levels are through the roof.  Next week is my last week at my current job and it's not a moment too late.  Our staff has been at about 50% of what it should be and it's working me to the bone.  I'm exhausted all the time, and even if I didn't have this new job lined up, I would have probably put in my two weeks' notice anyway and started searching.  On top of my stress due to overwork, there's the stress of worrying about my new job.  Will I be good at it?  Will it be challenging?  Will I mess up?  Will I have fun?

For those just joining us, my new job is as the head researcher / lab manager of UCLA's new gnotobiotics lab.  Note that "head researcher" just means "researcher who's been there the longest" and "lab manager" just means "person who orders more pipette tips."  The true boss is the PI, which stands for Primary Investigator and not Private Investigator, which would be far cooler.

According to stock photography, both professions use magnifying lenses to an excessive degree.

Gnotobiotics is the study of microbial influence on neurological development.  This is also called the "brain-gut" axis.  Whether you like it or not, the reality of the situation is that you are mostly microbe.  You have ten times more bacteria than cells that are "you," and when you take a dump, 30% of the mass of that dump is E. coli.  With that amount of bacteria floating around in your body, it's inevitable that some of it is going to have a degree of influence over your thoughts, perceptions, and increasing cynicism about your job.

Then again, it's not really your microbes' fault that you got a liberal arts degrees.  ...OR IS IT?

Since switching over from one job to another takes time, I've been in a sort of career limbo where I'm not yet established at my new job, and tying up loose ends at my old job.  I'm feeling increasingly anxious about starting anew and being given new challenges and responsibilities.  It's a lot to think about.  The paperwork alone is a daunting, Sisyphean task.  My response to this has been to sleep a lot and to try to find creative outlets at home.

As usual, RedditGifts is one of my major hobby projects.  I signed up for two "secret santa" exchanges: an animal-themed one and a pet-themed one.

Here's a pretty typical wrapping job for the animal-themed exchange.  As you can see, each package has a dirty limerick attached to it, lovingly crafted and hinting at the contents of what's inside each gift.

I was especially proud of this one.  (The person I was gifting to mentioned that her boyfriend really likes ducks.)

As for the pet exchange, Andrew and I make a snake hut for someone with snakes.

  Lol, snake puns. 

Not that I spend all of my time at home painting houses for snakes, of course.  That would make me crazy.  And I'm certainly not crazy, which is why my friends often rely on me to get things done for them.  For example, one of my friends, a professional drag queen, was doing an Elvira act over the weekend and asked for two 4-ft.-tall cardboard cutouts of Elvira's dog posing with a boombox as stage props.  Does that sound crazy to you??? 

Here's the outline, and then the finished product.

Wow, this post has had a lot of artsy-fartsy stuff, huh?  Don't worry, blog.  I'm still a scientist and absolutely not a crazy one.

If I were crazy, my dog, who is also my captain, would have honorably discharged me by now to get some of that top-notch mental health care that America provides to its veterans. 

Next time, on iAlbatross: My picks for what Voldemort's Horcruxes should have been, two new short scary stories, and a charming Halloween video to ring in autumn 2015!  Also, some science stuff: insects and fish, and the world's smallest horse!

Also, sorry for the infrequent updates.  As always, please feel free to visit Andrew's more frequently updated but immensely less endearingly batty blog, SHRAD.ORG.  The name of his blog is not, regrettably, any sort of reference to a death metal band.  In fact it's quite the opposite.  For example, he recently wrote about an excellent date we went on to see Audra McDonald the soprano sing at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by a ballet performance of Fancy Free.  Not especially hardcore, but nonetheless amusing.

Fancy Free is a ballet about some totally heterosexual sailors, and the resemblance to Carlisle is uncanny.