~The Microbial Laboratory~
[Clockwise around the table, starting on the left: the eclair-baking postdoc, the lab's senior doctoral student, a graduate student friend-of-the-lab, the lab's masters student, the next-to-senior-student doctoral student, and the lab's exiled poet laureate. And yes, they're flipping me 'the bird'. You all should know by now that maturity isn't our strength...actually, they're just saying how unfair it is that I always take the photograph, and am never in them. I just say it's one of the few 'perks' of my pseudo-job.).]
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
So this is what a lab looks like during wartime: still smiling, still grateful, still funny, still passionate and productive - but also frayed around the edges, stressed, worried about what the future holds, and angry. Thankfully however, they are still willing to sit at a table with each other, with pitchers of margaritas and good quacamole and cheese dip - still willing to momentarily overlook the war and express gratitude. The tab was picked up by both of the lab's doctoral students - one had a gift certificate to the place we went to, and another used the money she won for her second place for her presentation in the graduate school's Student Research Day. Everyone was thankful for that.
WAR by an unknown Author
Politicians talk about the need of it,
Old men boast about the glory of it,
And the soldiers just want to go home.
This has been a laboratory ritual for over 10 years now - and I paused a bit this morning when I realized that four years of giving thanks, laboratory-style, are documented in these pages, this one as well as three previous years: 2006, 2007, 2008.
It's an important thing to do, this expressing of gratitude.
The end of the Cold War was not just a culmination of the Long European War that began in 1914, but also a new beginning that allowed us to direct our energies towards liberating societies further eastward. It’s a struggle we’ve devoted ourselves to for a while now, and we’re fairly far along with it: the European Union is now struggling to incorporate Serbia, and we are trying to salvage something noble from Iraq and seek peaceful regime change in Iran.
I know how corny this sounds, but I always start off by giving thanks for everyone's hard work - and I always end the exchange by saying how grateful I am that they all join me for this little ritual. In between these two things, we take turns, going around the table one at a time, and give thanks: for each other, for opportunities, for genomes and favorite microorganisms, for fellowships and interesting science and little discoveries and paychecks and poetry, for Obama's election and past mentors, and then finally we play a silly 'mad lib' game by the lab's former senior doctoral student (who recently defended and couldn't attend).
And then we go home.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Nidal Malik Hasan was (a) quite mentally disturbed and (b) motivated by religious beliefs, but that doesn’t make what he did a terrorist act. Unlike, say, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, there’s hardly even a hint that he was trying to make any kind of political statement. There was no note, no videotape left behind, no explanation while he was shooting, no nothing. What kind of terrorist does that?
(Did you immediately jump to the conclusion that the incident at Ft Hood was a terrorist act? I didn't. Even after I heard more details, I didn't view it as a terriorist act. I'm not trying to place any kind of judgement on this - I don't know whether it was 'good' or 'bad' that I didn't jump to that conclusion - but I do know that I'm glad that I didn't. In time, by following hopefully just procedures, we will know more.)
Oh! And not to forget that before we got started, Katherine (the lab's Poet Laureate In-Exile) read us a poem of gratitude that was written by a student in the poetry discussion group of her spouse, the poet Richard Garcia. It was a poem that made you hold your breath a bit, waiting to see if the outcome was the one you hoped for.
April 17, 1984 by Fred Thomson
Thank you unknown driver of the blue maxima
Who was doing only what the law allowed.
Thank you for having both hands on the wheel
And thanks for not lighting a cigarette
I appreciate it that you were keeping proper lookout
Glancing right and left
And that your speed was slow.
I’m grateful you had those brake shoes replaced
And the rotors checked;
the master cylinder reservoir topped off with proper fluid
And that the radio had not taken your attention.
And I apologize most solemnly for not
Making eye contact and failing to acknowledge your gift
As I chased my three year old son
From around the corner of
And down the walk behind the hedged sidewalk
Hidden from your view
Until he/we darted headlong
Into your path
So close we smelled the scorched rubber on pavement
and felt the whisper of your metallic blue hood
four inches from our wide eyes.
I am in your debt kind sir
Angel of god.
I would like to say that I left our lab gathering feeling warm and thoughtful - of course a bit of me did (and how could I not? It's a genuine exchange of gratitude - there is no sense of obligation or annoyance peaking through) - but honestly, as I left I found myself only becoming more (and more) angry. Angry about the situation that I find myself in, and as a result that I find my entire lab in - a situation that has evolved more out of fear and jealousy and misguided priorities and narcissism than about capability and dedication and science. The Microbial Lab has never been stronger, more interesting, or more productive. I wish I could share with you the full story here, but I cannot. But on Friday evening, I drove home knowing that this, this whole lab thing, is what I am good at - really good at - and I felt little gratitude and only anger that it has not been valued by a very few individuals (aka the ones in 'power') and instead has been resented...and because of this, I don't know if next year at this time I will have a similar gathering of passionate scientists sitting around a table warmly and sincerely reflecting on the past year and what they have to be grateful for - I don't know if there will even be a Microbial Lab or where I will be living or how I will be paying my bills.
They say that it is during the most difficult of times that it is more important than ever to be grateful, to find elements of your life or situation that you are thankful for...so with that in mind, I will say that I am forever grateful to the individuals that have walked through the door of my laboratory over the years - students and others who have struggled, worked crazy hours, grown frustrated, learned how truly difficult writing well is, had moments of discovery, accepted my Food Offense perogatives, and been gracious and generous with one another. I am grateful to those in my lab today, those who have kept their heads down during an extremely difficult time - and remained focused, hard-working and professional. They've been cheated out of one experience (and had it replaced by another) because of my situation - and have remained steadfast. For these things I am grateful.
But I am still mostly angry.
Disclaimer: I by no means equate the situation that my laboratory is in right now to a 'real' war. It is our own little 'ground' war, within the relative smallness of our individual lives. A real war is our experience times about a hundred gazillion worse experiences - and as someone raised as a pacifist in a 'peace church', I don't even claim to understand the true compexity of war and rarely deeply understand the need for it.
From an editorial titled 'The Historic Brethren Peace Position':
And it was in 1935 that the Church of the Brethren drafted the statement which says, "All war is sin; it is wrong for Christians to support it, or to engage in it."