Monday, January 30, 2006

no words right now

Randy passed away last night. I am alternately numb and hysterical. Please excuse me while I take a few days off from this. From having to tell people what happened. From agreeing that he was much too young and undeserving of this. However, I would really like to write something nice and appropriate to memorialize my dear friend before getting on that long scary road to healing.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

nature is a horrible awful bitch

I went to see Randy in the hospital with an unammed friend (UF) yesterday. Wednesday he had gotten up and stood for several minutes and did arm curls for physical therapy. He had made a couple calls on his cell phone and had been eating real food for a couple of days. We had all let our guard down. Exhaled a collective sigh of relief and started making plans for when he could come home. UF and I heard he had a couple bad days Thursday and yesterday, which was expected. He had a very long road ahead of him full of good days, great days and a few not so good days sprinked in. We were not prepared for what we encountered.

For the first time I did not recognize the person in the bed. He did not open his eyes and give me a reassuring "really, I'm going to be fine" look. For the first time he didn't wake up at all. He didn't squeeze back when I squeezed his hand. We were a little stunned but not willing to let go the images of Randy's obvious improvement over the last few days. The sitter commented that he was wiggling his fingers in his sleep. She said she had asked a nurse about it, wondering if he had played piano. The nurse said she didn't know but that he had programmed computers. UF and I jumped to correct her.

"He does play piano. Very well," I said.

"He does program computers. He does both. And he has a masters in physics," said UF on the defensive.

We didn't realize that the staff doesn't know him like we do. Just snippets of what he says and overheard conversations. The nurse came in to check on him and we asked her to please be honest with us. How bad are things. Very bad. He can still turn around but it is not looking good.

"I wish I would have known him. I heard he was funny."

"He is funny!" UF adamantly corrected again.

UF has been a rock through this whole thing. She is Randy's closest friend and biggest cheerleader. For the first time though I saw a chink in the armor.

For the first time I cried for Randy. Up until now I was unwilling to believe any of this. 27-year-olds don't die. Not brilliant, unique individuals with long important lives yet to live. Firy tears ran down my cheek. I didn't leave the room because I knew Randy couldn't tell I was crying.

Before we had even gone to the hospital, Randy's mom asked UF and me to stop by Randy's apartment where she and her sister were staying. After the talk with the nurse we knew she had wanted to give us the grim update. Randy's mom was alternately teary and cheerful. She would tear up then I would tear up. "Do you need a hug?" She would ask. I didn't but I let her hold me because I think she needed to. UF was still stoic though she reported being near the breaking point.

After spending a couple hours talking to Randy's mom and aunt we went back to my lab to talk to the boys. They were as shocked as we had been hours earlier. By this time it was past six and we knew the guys would have questions. We decided to go to Randy's favorite restaurant.

I got in my car to drive separately. It was my first moments alone since before the hospital. The quiet tears turned into racking sobs, shaking my whole body and my car as well. I couldn't stop crying. The keys in the ignition caused the radio to be quietly playing. Classical music, which just made things worse.

I was late to the restaurant but I felt a little better. Randy's favorite waitress waited on us and reported the soup of the day was creamy potato. Also his favorite. We talked about his favorite foods and about the time he took a five dollar bill (his tip for the waitrees) and folded it up until it was the size of pea and silently dropped it in the palm of her hand. His way of flirting. Our memories will be what gets us through the next few days. But it will be hard as hell.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Heaven Meme

I got tagged by Jackie. I hadn't seen this one before.
Okay, here goes..

What five things would you ask Jesus should you get to Heaven?
1. What was really up with you and Mary Magdalene?
2. Which way to the pet department?
3. Why is there so much pain in the world? I get the whole Ying Yang thing, the whole there-can't-be-happiness-without-sorrow thing. But sometimes its just too much.
4. Is there a Grand Unified Theory? What is it?
5. I couldn't think of another one. I decided to ask Dean what he would ask Jesus in Heaven for my last entry. Here it is, "How long did it take you to grow that beard?"

Who are the first five people you'd like to see in Heaven?
1. Grandpa Reuben, my dad's dad I never got to meet.
2. My great grandparents.
3. Albert Einstein.
4. Marilyn Monroe. I just know she wasn't as dumb as she let on.
5. Ghandi.

Who I tag:
1. anonymous female physicist (you know who you are!)
2. lefty_grrl (I know you're agnostic. I am too, this is just for fun.)
3. Scott
4. Mr. Schprock
5. hot4teacha (update, girl!)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Juror No. 2513

Today I fulfilled my civic obligation. I spent all day at jury duty, a huge waste of time.

My first mistake was thinking it would be perfectly okay to show up to jury duty with a hangover and on six hours of sleep. Not smart. I had been warned that my day would mostly consist of sitting in a room reading. I thought, " No problem! I'll just drink as much as I want to Sunday night, go to bed at midnight and zone out for awhile at jury duty." Sitting absolutely crammed into hard backed chairs next to total strangers while a droning, nasally voice called out names did little for my pounding headache. Plus, I'm sure my fellow prospective jurors appreciated sitting next to someone who smelled like stale beer at 8 a.m.

When I first got there, the judge came in and commended us for participating in "one of the cornerstones of our democracy." That got me a little hyped up about the whole thing. By 11:30 though my excitement at playing a role int the democratic process was wearing thin. I was starving and bored after finishing one book and making a sizeable dent in the next. I was counting down to the noon lunch hour when my name was finally called (mispronounced, as ALWAYS).

We were led into a courtroom. Okay, I thought, this is where it's going to get fun. I imagined being questioned about my political views, my career, whether under any circumstances I could sentence someone to death (no, by the way), and a scene culminating in a Pacino-esque "This whole court's out of order!"

Instead we were seated in the rows with the lawyers facing us while the judge described the entirely mundane trial that would take place tomorrow and what to expect if in fact we were chosen to serve on the jury. The whole time the lawyers for both sides sized us up, taking notes. The defense attorney was an older, rather sleazy gentleman who I couldn't get a good read on because he was the furthest away from me. The defendant looked scared and I felt sort of bad for him. The two prosecuting attorneys were a couple pieces of work. They looked no older than me, and gave off the air of a recently graduated sorority girl and frat boy. You can still spot them without their Tri-Delt Cancun Spring Break t-shirts and whatnot after they make the transition to Armani suits and Chanel purses. They were also doing a very poor job concealing the fact that they were sleeping together. After the judge was done explaining the details of the case, the lawyers for both sides approached the bench after which there were several minutes of whispering. Then were all dismissed from the courtroom. That was my shot at being on a jury. No questions, just a lookover by a few jerky lawyers. I felt kind of violated.

We were allowed to take a later lunch and then report back to the waiting room to possibly be called for another propective jury. I didn't get called again. At 4:30 I was allowed to go home.

On the upside I did get a lot of reading done. Probably picked up an illness frmo the hundreds of people I shared air with all day, and got send back with a note to give to my employer. That should give Dr. Hari a good laugh.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


I have been keeping something out of the blog world. I don't know if it's fear that writing it will make it more true or out of respect to one of my dearest friends. My friend Randy, a.k.a. hairless, is in the hospital suffering from graft versus host after a stem cell transplant. He was diagnosed with Leukemia last spring and has battled courageously with it. So courageously in fact that he had us all going like it was nothing. You see Randy is a tall, strapping specimen of strength, a hearty eater and exercise fiend. Most of my readers either know Randy personally or have read his silly, at times unintelligible comments on my blog. I don't know how much he values his anonymity, or if he goes by hairless in order to get into this game of alternate egos in the blogosphere. Knowing Randy, I can't imagine he much cares.

I finally decided to put down my thoughts mostly because his health has been weighing on my mind heavily. I can't imagine how is family must be faring. All I know is that this disease doesn't just affect him, it affects everyone who cares about him and in a different way at that. I don't want you all to feel sorry for him, he has never ever felt sorry for himself. I don't want you to feel sorry for me either. I'm not looking for sympathy because my friend has cancer, I'm looking for some eyes to read this and maybe appreciate their own health a little bit more.

I don't know if he remembers or not, but I met Randy when the department was recruiting me and paid for me to come down for a visit and have a look around. He was hanging out in the lab I am sitting in now even though he worked down the hall. My host invited everyone for lunch and he was one of the few who accepted the invitation. At Bennigan's he sat next to me, a foreshadow of his tendency to always take the seat next to mine at restaurants. I had a chicken salad. After he was done, he leaned over to me, pointing to my dinner roll, "Are you gonna eat that?" I was a little stunned, but it was the first gesture of acceptance towards me. Rather than being offended at his forthright nature, I felt at home.

Randy is a genius. Literally. His IQ is through the roof. He used to be an experimenter, and then switched to theory after he got his Master's because he was bored. He left school after only a semester in theory without getting his Ph.D. I know there are people that thought it was a shame, him being so smart and not staying for his Ph.D. It turns out he knew better. Before he got sick he took a job writing physics related computer code for video games. Most of his time was spent debugging it, so he ended up getting paid generous amounts of money to basically play video games. A dream come true for any science geek.

Unlike many physicists, Randy is also extremely well rounded. He enjoys learning and speaking foreign languages. He listens to classical music. He likes to cook and tend to his aquarium. He used to go to the gym four or five times a week to run and lift weights. He played on the physics department intramural softball team (we were the Rocket Scientists). He plays tuba and piano. He watches baseball and football only on TV. The stadiums are too loud.

Because Randy's mom had bought him a digital piano, he was generous enough to let me come over and play it whenever the mood struck me. I finally "moved in" by bringing all my sheet music and leaving it there. I didn't need it in my apartment. Sometimes he would call and ask me things like "Can I bend the binding on your new Chopin book? There's a song I really want to learn." Every time I went over there, I could play for an hour or so without distraction while Randy read a book or played a video game. Inevitably though, he'd wander over while I was playing and start harmonizing on the highest register. Whether he specifically knew the piece or not. I'd find an appropriate stopping point and scoot over so he could sit next to me on the bench. Then we'd take out a book of duets or a book of Bach fugues and inventions and turn those into duets. Sometimes improvising, sometimes butchering, usually laughing at silly things only musicians understand.

Randy is an atheist. He doesn't believe in the supernatural. He thinks what you see is what you get. His friends and family are praying for him though and we can't help but notice him perk up a little when we come by to visit. We can't help but feel like our strength and good feelings are somehow channeled to him, feeding him and nudging him along.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

A Frightening Look Inside my Mind

Baby ducks stress me out. I know what you're thinking: Finally! Somebody who says what all of us are thinking! You mean, normal people don't see a mess of baby ducks and get knots in their stomach? Okay. I already knew that. One thing a lot of people may not know about me is my extremely dysfunctional sensitivity. This is not an "expressing my feelings every chance I get" type of sensitivity. This is "seeing an animal in pain and crying for hours after that" sensitivity. This post was not brought on by recalling wanting to be a vet when I was younger (see previous post). Rather, it was brought on by the five ducklings I found with their mama on Saturday beside the pond in my complex. Five fuzzy, teetering, squeaking ducklings cute as can be. And I had an anxiety attack. You see last year we had two batches of ducklings. And for each batch, they disappeared one by one. I don't mean this to be depressing, but it's nature. My head knows that but my heart does not. Each day I counted fewer than the last and each time I reached a number, my heart sank until I felt like I was slowly losing my mind. One time I even ran back up the stairs in tears, not being able to properly express my grief to Dean. But he understands. I am afraid to speculate on the nature of their disappearance. I like to think each time a different little kid has caught one and brought it home. Raised it and put it back in the pond when it wasn't so cuddly anymore. But this year more than ever I am acutely aware of the predators lurking around my complex. The predators I encourage with everyday feedings. Yes, the dumpster kitties. The animals I used to consider abandoned and alone in this world. Underdogs that I liked to think were a little better off because of me. I know that no matter how fat, fed and happy a cat can be, it will still hunt when it sees a vulnerable animal. Ugh! Why does nature have to be like this?
This month for my book club we read Wicked. I read it for a second time. Despite its strong political undercurrents obviously making a statement about civil rights and oppression, it also said a lot about how our society treats animals. Ghandi said that a society can be defined this way (props to my mom for displaying his quote on the fridge). Glancing tentatively in my direction, our group leader remarked, "There are some people who go a little overboard with animal rights. Like to the point where they put the welfare of animals before those of people." My response is this. 99% of people believe the welfare of people come first. For rather obvious reasons. Animals deserve to have people in this world who put them first.
So there is my animal anxiety in a nutshell. Where did it come from? When pondering this I can't help thinking of my grandma Frey who nursed a sick squirrel back to health by feeding it peanut butter for a couple of weeks. Then there's my mother (not related to my grandma) who once yelled at my step dad to "STOP THE CAR!!!" while driving up to the cabin to herd a wayard litter of baby skunks across the street and to safety. Then there's my dad who uses Dutch cheese and candy bars to lure mice into safe traps and gently deposits them outside. Only to respect the hell out of them for outwitting him. In other words, I guess there was really no hope for me.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Interview with the Physicists

Today I went and judged a science fair. Yep, that's what I'm getting paid the big bucks to do. I went with two guys from the department and we did judging on third, fourth and fifth graders. I got the fifth graders. Unfortunately the judging was done in private and I couldn't ask the students questions which would have been very helpful. There were a few erupting volcanoes, a few paper airplane experiments testing the variables of either wingspan or paper material, a few consumer experiments testing the effectiveness of different brands of batteries, stain remover, kitty litter, etc. At first I didn't understand why the coordinator of this event needed three Ph.D. students to judge an elementary school science fair. When it came time to pick winners though it became clear. I chose two winners, between the two the coordinator could make the final call. The two were not flashy and not the most creative but were neat, systematic and thorough, and most of all practical. Hallmarks of a successful experiment and would have probably gotten funded if submitted to NSF.

After the judging, we were led to the second and thrid grade gifted science class where we participated in an hour long question and answer session. Some of the questions were hilarious, some very well thought out and some were total stumpers. Here is an excerpt from part of the interview.

Student: Do you study bugs?
Phys. 1: No.
Me: No.
Phys. 3: Well, I actually made holograms of bugs for my research a while back.
Teacher: Do you know what holograms are?
Class (nodding): Coooooool!
Student: Who's your favorite scientist?
Me: It's a tie between Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.
Phys. 3: Stephen Hawking.
Phys. 1: My boss.
Me: Suck up.
Student: Were you all in gifted classes when you were our age?
Phys. 1: Yes.
Me: Yes.
Phys. 3: No. I hated school.
Student: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Phys. 1: I wanted to drive a bulldozer.
Me: I wanted to be a veterinarian.
Girl student: Me too!!!
Phys. 3: I always wanted to be a physicist.
Teacher: Natalie, what made you not want to be a veterinarian and be a physicist instead?
Okay. I really took issue with this question. First, like most aspiring vets and probably like the girl in the class will figure out, I didn't want to euthanize animals. But I couldn't say that. Second, becoming a physicist isn't just like waking up one day when you're 9 (unless you're James) and saying I want to be a physicist. I didn't want to list my plethora of college majors. In the end I couldn't even decide so I got two bachelors.
Me: I didn't really want to do operations on animals.
Student: Who's your favorite president?
Phys. 1: Bill Clinton. He was the man.
Me: That's a heated question! Yeah, I'll go with Clinton. He gave scientists a lot of money to do research.
Phys. 3: Abe Lincoln. He freed the slaves.
Phys. 3 has obviously never read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
Student: What's your favorite mythological creature?
That one was from left field.
Me: Pegasus was pretty cool.
He whipped out a book and showed me a picture of Pegasus.
Student: Can I show them this week's brain teaser?
Teacher: Sure! What a great idea!
Student, writing an equation on the white board: Using only ONE LINE, make this equation true.
One line means a single straight line anywhere, and it cannot be to put a slash through the "equal to" sign, making it a "not equal to" sign.

We couldn't get it. But you are more than welcome to try. Here it is:

5 + 5 + 5 = 550

Monday, January 09, 2006

Whoever said money can't buy happiness must never have been poor

Some of you have been faithfully following the story of the interdisciplinary bio-nano mucho moolah fellowship I applied for back in June, which I chronicled here, here and here. Well, 7 months later and the verdict is in: I got it! They had deferred my application fall semester for spring and I still hadn't heard back until today, the first day of spring semester. I was sure I had to teach three classes and have a miserable semester. That's actually not true. My fabulous boss (Dr. Woods, not Dr. Hari who's also fabulous) in charge of teaching assisstants had a "hunch" I'd get it and neglected putting me on the teaching schedule. He said if I didn't get it, he would have let me be his personal aid for the semester.

My advisor Dr. Hari is THE worst person in the world about keeping secrets. It's funny because he will be the first one to tell us gossip about faculty members and even students sometimes. He called me up to his office today very morosely. When I walked in he was nonchalantly flipping through a magazine, trying to cover up a grin.

"Do you want the bad news or the good news?" he said.

"Bad." I said, playing into his melodrama, which at this point I already suspected was a total put-on.

"There is no bad news. You got the fellowship!"

He shook my hand while I sat there stunned. I assumed it was over when I hadn't heard anything for months. Now I am officially a National Science Foundation fellow, awarded a prestigious title and making one and a half times the school graduate student stipend.

Dr. Hari said, "Please wait to tell the others until the Program Manager has sent you a confirmation letter. He gave me word a couple days ago and I thought I would burst for not being able to tell you sooner. But congratulations."

I went back down to the lab and told the others immediately. I had to, I was so excited. I warned them that I wasn't supposed to tell and to try to act surprised when Dr. Hari made the announcement.

They shook my hand, hugged me and clapped me on the back. Then James said, "Go ahead, say it!" So I boomed in my best Dave Chapelle, "I'm riiiiich beeeee-yotch!"

A couple of minutes later Dr. Hari came downstairs. "Well, I have something to tell you all."

Srinath blew my cover. "Natalie told us she got the fellowship." Thanks.

Dr. Hari looked at me, surprised at finding somebody worse at keeping a secret than him. "You didn't even make it five minutes!" He said teasingly, "That's okay. I told Jeff a couple of days ago because I couldn't keep it to myself."

Jeff, my closest friend in the lab had known since Friday. I turned and glared at him. "You.....STINKER!" I shouted.

"It wasn't easy not telling you!" he countered back. I had already forgiven him.

So there it is. I have entered the scary realm where biology meets nanotechnology and my resume will be better for it. Not to mention my credit card bills. And my bookshelf...

And just to reiterate, I am making 50% more than my male counterparts now. I kick ass.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What Happens When I'm Gone

One of my favorite things to do when I get back from a trip is to try to piece together what Dean did while I was gone. It's not at all that I don't trust him. I trust him as much as one person can trust another. I am by nature a very curious person, as is reflected by my choice of profession. So I often wonder what he does without me there.
I was especially curious the day after I got back when I noticed a dirty wine glass in the sink. Firstly, I am always careful not to leave any nice glasses dirty while I'm gone for fear that Dean will put them in the dishwasher, which is why I immediately noticed this anomaly. Secondly Dean will enjoy a glass of wine with me if I pick out a bottle, but I just couldn't imagine him going in to the liquor store, passing up the Budweiser in favor of a bottle of red wine.

"Deano," I called, "Did you have a bottle of wine while I was away?"



"Huh, what?"

"Well, I was pretty sure I didn't leave any dirty wine glasses, but I must be mistaken."

That was the end of it. Until last night. I was cooking up a batch of my Dad's infamous goulash. I had browned the meat, onions and garlic, chopped the peppers, opened the cans of tomatoes and sauce (I'm not revealing the secret ingredients) and was reaching on top of the fridge for the cooking wine. It wasn't there. Suddenly I remembered the rogue wine glass and it all came together. Dean drank my cooking wine while I was out of town. I was alternately laughing hysterically and furious because I was not about to make this meal without cooking wine. I called him on his cell phone while he was still at work and left a message.

"Dean, give me a call when you leave work. I need you to stop at the store for me on the way home."

Finally I became antsy enough to turn off the stove and drive to 7-11 to pay way too much for a crappy bottle of red wine. On the way home Dean called back.

"What do we need?"

"Cooking wine."


"Somebody drank mine."

"It wasn't me."

"Oh, really? Then who was it? One of the kitties?"

"Okay, it was me. I drank the cooking wine."

"How come when I asked if you had a bottle of wine when I was gone you said 'no'?"

"Because I didn't have a bottle of wine. I had a glass and a half of the wine on the fridge, decided it was skanky [as it should be; it was sitting there uncorked for two months] and threw the rest out so you wouldn't try to drink some."

He's so thoughtful.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Vacation Wrap Up

Well, I'm back in Tampa. It's my first day back at work and I'm surprisingly grumpy about it. Usually I get wound up and motivated to get back in the lab, but today I just wanted to lay in bed with a book and a couple of cats.

Sorry to worry everyone about my health. I know I and some of my friends have been on edge about these things lately since a dear friend of mine is battling leukemia right now. I tried to make it clear early on that I am alright now. I wasn't ever really that scared until the doctors started bringing up diabetes. They tested my blood sugar which was fine and I'm just taking it one day at a time right now. Let me continue with my day by narrative of my crazy vacation.

Tuesday, the day after the Wolves game I spent around my mom's house doing laundry. I walked up to the authentic Mexican restaurant a block away and got a take-out burrito. That evening we had planned a girls night, my three best girls and I. I sure wasn't going to let my wound get in the way of seeing my girls, and I knew that these are three girls I can completely be myself around even if I am crabby and in pain. They'd still be happy to have me there. Since I am at the mercy of whomever can cart my butt around while I'm in Minneapolis, one of the girls who was going to pick me up to take me to girls night at dancingo4's apartment came to my mom's house early to catch up. We were CNN junkies together for a couple hours, she helped my with my wash and then we made the trek to the 'burbs and stocked up on snacks and wine before arriving at our destination. Girls night was fun as always, but a little more low key than usual. Two of us were on the disabled list and one of us had to work the next day so she couldn't stay over night like usual. The huge amount of antibiotics caused me to take things slow, but I still drank my requisite amount of wine, and we filled our silliness quota once again.

Wednesday I hung out with Dean's parents. We went out to lunch and I helped them pick out kitten things for the kitten they were going to get that evening. I wish I could have seen it before I left but I am eagerly awaiting pictures. By Wednesday the antibiotics were taking their toll and I was seriously nauseated. That evening I took my aunt, uncle and cousin to the Bad Plus concert. They play every year in Minneapolis around Christmas time (since they are from Minnesota) and my Dad usually takes me to see them. Since he was still in New York, I took my aunt uncle and cousin instead. Besides feeling like crap, the concert was awesome. They are so fun to watch.

Thursday I had to go back to the ER to have my wound checked and the packing removed. My resident this time was a really cute woman about my age who was so pregnant she looked like she could go any time. She said my wound looked very good and that after getting my culture results back I could stop taking one of the two antibiotics. The bad news was that in the meantime the infection had spread to another boil on my back. I knew it was there and I didn't mention it earlier because I didn't want to complicate the story. The first resident said he didn't think the infection would spread. Lucky me. The other boil on my lower back (right below my "tramp stamp" as Dean affectionately calls my tattoo) had to be lanced and packed as well. I'm such a mess! She again brought up the diabetes and suggested I get screened further back in Tampa. Yikes. The immense neasea I felt stopped shortly after I stopped taking so many drugs and I started to feel halfway human again. Thursday I saw my extended family again for lunch. I also did some serious grocery shopping for my grandma. I brought the groceries over and visited with her for awhile, reminding her of the situation with Dad. She had been feeling espeically nostalgic that afternoon and told a few stories of the early years of her relationship with my grandfather, who died of Polio before I was born. I have been begging her to write them down so I can collect them some day. She assures me that he is one thing she will never forget. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I wanted the stories for when she was gone.

Friday I visited my great grandma once more and went shopping at the Big Mall again. There were "deep discounts" as my stepdad excitedly remarked and my mom and I got some cheap clothes. We had a quiet night and the next morning said our good byes before they had to go to work.

Then Saturday my grandparents took me to the airport. My flight was in the evening and delayed an hour. I was worried I wouldn't get home in time to celebrate the new year with Dean. It's important that we spend that evening together because it's our anniversary. We've been together 6 years now.

Sunday Dean and I drove down to Miami as an anniversary gift to eachother. We went to the Heat game (they played the Wolves, who got spanked AGAIN.) We had a fancy, delicious meal downtown after the game, spent the night at a hotel and drove back yesterday. It was a wonderful time.

That's it. You're all caught up. Now it's my turn to see what everyone else has been up to.