Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why it's not so much 'ha ha' funny...

So, what the frig am I doing in this picture? Well, according to your guesses I am either a) threading a needle, b) dissecting a worm, c) finding a cure for hangnails, d) drilling a hole in a mouse to make into a lovely pendant, or e) involved in a massive conspiracy theory involving world domination and talking horses. I am sorry to say that it isn't e), though I am almost equally sorry to say that Kono was nearly spot on with his mouse-drilling theory. I am indeed about to drill a hole in a mouse in this picture, which perhaps explains my look of slump-shouldered despair (and the mouse probably isn't too happy about it either).   

You can click on the picture to make it bigger. Go ahead, I'll wait.

It's a part of my life that most of the time I manage to forget about completely. But the other day one of my well-meaning but under-informed professors here asked me, "So how's being in grad school?", like you would to a toddler after her big first day in pre-K. "Well," I responded, "this isn't my first time in grad school. This is actually my third grad program, so..." So lay off my case and quit chirping at me, is what I managed to refrain from saying, and not a moment too soon. (Only sort of relatedly, my parents still routinely ask me how "college" is going. The next time they do I'm going to tell them that "college" is something that parents pay for, and if that's the case they can feel free to step up.)

But wait, did I say this is my third grad program? *Counts on fingers* What? That's right, I've been holding out on you. You may remember that I received my Master's degree in French literature in Boston. What you don't know is that three years prior to that, the reason I moved to Boston in the first place was to enroll in a different grad program there. A much, much different program. You see, once upon a time in a land far, far away, I somehow got it into my head that the answer to the question of "What do I want to do with my life?" was something I vaguely defined as "research." I had glamorous fantasies of wearing a white lab coat, scribbling data onto clipboards, and making important "discoveries." For which I would become famous, naturally. Now, the important question here is not why I would base my future career goals on such a tenuous understanding of the word "research." After all, I was young, and as such, stupid. The real question is why in the world a top-ranked research institution would accept as a student someone whose post-high school scientific knowledge was limited to two weeks of a freshman biology class that I signed up for as a senior and then immediately dropped because it was "too hard." I suppose the lesson here is never to underestimate the power of a compelling essay. That and the fact that I had once put some pigeons in some boxes was apparently enough to put me over the edge, and I was in.

I quickly realized that I was in way, way over my head.

In the picture in question, I am about to perform brain surgery on a mouse. Not a dead mouse, no. That would be too easy. In this picture, I am about to drill into a live mouse's brain while trying very hard not to kill it. (No pressure). Not only am I about to drill into a mouse's brain, but I am attempting to drill into one very specific and very small part of the brain. One millimeter to the right or the left and the whole thing is pretty much ruined. Again, no pressure. Oh, and you only have a few minutes until the anesthesia begins to wear off, so better hop to it. (Nooooo pressure.) Now, I realize most of you have probably had the good fortune of never having to look at a mouse brain, but let me assure you, it is small. Think of a mouse head. Now think smaller. In color and consistency, its brain is not unlike a wad of chewed gum. (Wrigley's, not Bazooka Joe.) But smaller, like a doll-sized wad of used up chewing gum. Now imagine that you are trying to locate one very specific point in that doll-sized wad of chewing gum. Now breathe. When it is all over you will need to perform tiny mouse stitches on the tiny mouse head. (Quick, quick, before it wakes up!) When your shaking hands fail to be able to even thread the needle, your (male) lab adviser will look at you in disbelief and say, "Have you never sewed anything before?" 

And that was just the mice.

Then, on a day I will never forget, my adviser informed me that his class of undergrads would be dissecting rat brains. He brought me a cage full of rats, a bucket of dry ice, and a rusty pair of Fiskars. "So I'll need you to get their brains," he told me. (And you think your job is bad.) If you ever wonder how you might react in a seemingly impossible situation, I will say that you will probably do what needs to be done. That you really can get used to almost anything. I am neither proud nor overly ashamed to admit that I did what needed to be done. I did my job. And years later, now that my bread and butter are books and not blood and gore, I can look back from a safely removed distance and and think how strange it all is, that life I once had. I don't want to get involved in any controversy on so controversial an issue; that is not the point of this story. It is something I once did and no longer do. Now I am a vegetarian about 80% of the time and am neither for nor against animal research. Rather, I am both for and against it and I know there are always two sides to every story. Again, that is not the point. Once I was young and led a completely different life. Like lots of people, I guess. I did my job.

Until one day when I went into my adviser's office with a quick question, and as I was leaving he stopped me with, "Oh, and one more thing..." I looked up. "How do you think things are going?" he asked, and I knew it wasn't an innocent question. "I just don't feel any passion from you," he said. "The spark just isn't there." Are you breaking up with me?! I wanted to ask. It was true, I lived every day in silent misery, something I had thought I could hide. 'Just one more year' was my daily affirmation and just-barely-coping device. One more year and I can get my Master's and get out. Don't let me have been miserable for an entire year for nothing. Just let me get my Master's. But when I brought this up, no dice. "I don't think that would be a good use of anyone's time," my adviser heartlessly said. He said anyone's, but he meant his. He said time, but he meant money. It didn't take a mouse brain surgeon to read between the lines.

I walked into the lab that morning like any other morning, but when I left that afternoon it was for the last time. I wondered how I was going to explain this to my parents. Though I had carried out every last gruesome, disgusting order, I was kicked out of my grad program for lack of enthusiasm. It could only happen to me. I went home and cried my eyes out. There I was, in a big city with no friends, no job, three months left on my lease, and absolutely no reason to continue living there.

Within a couple weeks I had found a job, met a guy, and ended up staying for four more years. Said guy had recently spent a couple years living in Mythaca, a town I had never heard of before, but after hearing his stories I soon felt like I knew it well. And while I spent countless hours musing over what our future would hold, never once during our time together did I imagine that one day I would find myself thirty years old, alone, and living in Mythaca without him. Isn't life funny?


  1. Jesus, you do not have permission to drill my brain! :)

    As for the rest, I am at a loss.


  2. That is impressive, right there.

    My essays didn't always go over very well in college and grad school. Some professors adored and admired my approach, and some resented me for being too flippant or ironic when discussing topics they deemed Serious Business.

    Seriously, I don't understand teaching classes on teaching. It's just redundant and stupid.

    I can honestly say that no matter how well-written my essays, I don't think I have the elegance and eloquence required to make people want me around them.

  3. Rassles--"I don't understand teaching classes on teaching. It's just redundant and stupid." Amen, sister. You're preaching to the choir. Just 9 more months, is what i keep telling myself.

  4. I think there is something wrong with people who make people who don't have a passion for rodent brain surgery feel like there's something wrong with *them*. I'm just sayin...

  5. Was the mouse ok? What happened to him after? Did he have health insurance for satisfactory post-op recovery (preferably in a private room)?

  6. gags

    remembering the smell of the pigs and fish we dissected in biology classes.