Friday, September 28, 2012

Feed Me, Seymour

Once upon a time, a long time ago, back when the west was wild and I was a real biologist, "safety" meant not going too fast when you were doubling someone on your quad. Nowadays, the amount of paperwork one has to do just to drive across town for a meeting is enough to make a person weep with frustration. (If they can find the right forms on the shared drive, that is.) Although I'm convinced it also keeps us safe, for surely all the paper we've collectively armed ourselves with will at least function to absorb some of the impact in the event of a collision.

Of course, back when I was a real biologist people also asked me things about biology rather than just harassing me about deadlines and paperwork. My, times have changed.

But every so often, a relict of the old world surfaces to mingle with the new, and strange and exciting chimeras are brought forth of their union:
From: Safety Guy
Sent: September 27, 2012 2:30 PM
To: Frecklepelt
Subject: Vegetation Emergency

We have a large cactus plant in one of our meeting rooms that is quite prickly and may have poisonous sap. It has been identified as a potential safety hazard and we need your vegetation expertise to help assess and mitigate the risk. 

Can you please confirm the species, identify the hazards, and suggest a safe disposal plan? Thank you,

Safety Guy

Health and Safety Advisor

Modern-day safety, meet biology. And welcome to the world a terrifying suite of previously-unrealized office hazards.

I read the email again. It had to be a prank, but he seemed so... sincere... in all my bitterness and distortion, what if I just wasn't giving Safety Guy enough credit? There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for his concern. Maybe the cactus was a really scary cactus, with, say, two-inch-long serrated spines, or a predilection for actively shooting passers-by with its poisonous sap.

I suspended my disbelief and went to see the cactus for myself.

The thing was massive. Six feet tall, gnarled and gangly, stooped under its own weight. Some segments dry and wrinkly, others fully brown and dead. But... standard-issue prickles. None of the infamous poisonous sap in sight. Basically, a pretty ugly plant - I could see why they would want it out of the room - but hazardous? Not exactly the term that sprung to mind.

Safety Guy showed up. We made small talk as I tried desperately to figure out whether he was actually serious about needing a safe disposal plan. While I pondered, he struck:

"So I'll bet, as a veg person, it's kindof sad for you to see it go, hey?"

Touché, Safety Guy: fretting about vegetation is my job as much as fretting about safety is his. We both knew in that instant that if this was our own cactus in our own home, we would heave the thing into the black bin without a second thought. However, here in the workplace there are certain images that must be upheld. The irony was palpable: he was Safety, pretending to care whether this plant was disposed of in a safe manner, and I was Biology, pretending to care about this plant. Like, at all. 

We had reached an impasse.

There was a long silence. We looked at the cactus. We looked at each other. We looked back at the cactus. When our eyes finally met, a current of understanding passed between us and we realized simultaneously that both of us were too deeply invested in this charade to call the other person out. Tentatively, he suggested it would probably be best to wear safety goggles while disposing of the cactus. Feebly, I replied that it was a shame that we couldn't find a forever home for the cactus. He espoused aloud the pros and cons of nitrile versus leather gloves for use in disposing of Very Prickly and Poisonous plants. I expressed frustration at a society that is blind to the charms of cacti, and thus fearful of them. 

Once we were both satisfied that a sufficient amount of posturing had been conducted, Safety Guy and I got down to the nuts and bolts of the Safe Tackling of Our Plant's Imminent Disposal (STOOPID) Plan. Then we parted ways, each of us secure in the knowledge that our cover had not been blown, and ostensibly shaking our head at the folly of the other:

"Fussbudget," I muttered as I returned to my desk.

"Tree-hugger," he grumbled as he gathered the appropriate PPE.

And thus the status quo lived to fight another day. Even if the cactus didn't.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Yep. And Hungarian, Too.

Little-known parenting fact No. 138: your child care situation should make you feel like a bad parent.

Not will; not could; but should.

Don't get me wrong. You should never find yourself wondering if today is the day your child's brain actually melts out from doing nothing but watching TV and going to WalMart for forty hours a week, nor should you be afraid to occasionally give them a treat on the weekend because you know they've eaten nothing but McDonald's and Nutella on white all week.

The ideal child care situation produces parental guilt for reasons entirely different:

... in short, because your child care provider is way better than you. That is the child care situation you seek.

Once you've given yourself a solid guilt trip over never having learned Russian - or, truthfully, much of anything useful, what was all that education business about anyways? - then maybe one or two more just for good measure and to get it out of your system, come talk to me.


Closer, Grasshoppah, let me whisper in your ear.

It's alright.

No, really. Someone else just did all the hard work for you. You paid them for just that purpose; your conscience is clear. Now you are free to chill out with your family and really enjoy your kids all weekend long. черт, maybe they'll even teach you some Russian.

Monday, September 17, 2012

You Never Know What You're Gonna Get

I was paralyzingly shy and self-conscious as a child - I still am, it's just that I now have the benefit of years of practice navigating social situations (also booze) so I've gotten a little better at faking it. But Medium Fry doesn't have a shy or self-conscious bone in her body: she will talk to anyone, try anything, and perform impromptu violin concerts at the merest suggestion of a willing audience. These are all good things - kudos to her. However, she also wears impossibly weird clothing combinations, never remembers to conduct any sort of personal grooming or hygiene, and will say anything to anyone. (This last probably has you chuckling because of my notorious lack of filter, but trust me - I don't hold a candle to Medium Fry.) She is either the most supremely confident being on earth, or suffers from a debilitating lack of self-awareness. Jury is still out.

Something Medium Fry did inherit from me is her athletic prowess. And by prowess, I mean utter ineptitude. Here are some examples of how our shared inability reacts with our respective personalities to elicit new and exciting athletic misfortunes at every turn: Medium Fry runs into inanimate objects on her bike about once a week; I simply don't ride a bike because the possibility exists that I might embarrass myself in a similar manner if I did. Medium Fry proudly performs elaborate and graceless belly flops for anyone who will watch at the swimming pool; I wouldn't wear a bathing suit if my life depended on it. You see the pattern.

Although it doesn't faze Medium Fry in the least that she's making a fool of herself at any given athletic pursuit, she would far rather spend her time reading so it's generally pretty tough to get her out of her room and into the great outdoors. We're great outdoors people, but after twelve years of trying, we just had to face the sad fact that we have an Indoor Kid. So you can imagine my surprise when I got a permission slip to sign for her participation on the junior high cross-country running team last week.   

'Um, you signed up for what?'

'The cross-country running team.'

... long silence...

'Honey, do you have any idea how long five kilometres really is?'

(ponders a moment, then, very solemnly:) 'Yes. It's five thousand metres.'

DH and my mother tried to be optimistic: "Maybe she'll surprise us! Maybe she's secretly a really good runner."

Yeah. Like really, really secretly.  

I do my best not to pin my own sense of accomplishment on the achievements of my children, but I admit there is a part of me that hopes - not that she will secretly be a good cross-country runner - but that she will not be the worst runner on the team. Back in the bad old days when grown-ups could still force me to take swimming lessons or participate in track and field days against my will (and, I might add, better judgment), I was always the kid with the participation ribbon and the report card urging me to try Yellow just one more time. (Dude, I was eighteen, couldn't you have just put me in Orange already?) It's hard on a person to always be the worst. So I'm not looking for a miracle here, just please lawd don't let her be the worst.

'So! Er, what made you decide to sign up for the cross-country team?'

'Maya was signing up.'

... 'Oh.'
I've seen Maya. She's built for loping gracefully through the plains like Medium Fry and I are built for making it through the winter in a northern European cave. Nineteen antelope-like children signed up for their love of cross-country running; one Indoor Kid signed up to hang out with Maya. My fragile tendril of hope-for-not-worst shriveled. All that's left for me now is a Forrest Gump-with-his-leg-braces-still-on-and-the-bullies-in-pursuit kind of hope.

The first meet is this afternoon. Wish us luck.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kahlua Would've Been Way More Legit

I'm a botanist so I know all about arbitrary yet deeply-ingrained distinctions between like groups of things. You think I'm talking taxonomy right now, but I'm not: I'm talking about how wildlife biology is way sexier than botany, but, like, whatever, because there are always actually dorky things like bryology and entomology for the botanists to look down on and feel alright about themselves.

So I'm sensitized to this sort of stuff, and I try to temper my botany problem by only doing super cool stuff in the rest of my life. Like camping. Camping is cool, right? I mean, you're dirty, you're cooking like a caveman, you're having sex with your socks on - you're just 100% hard-core when you're camping. But this past weekend - much like the sad point in my life when I believed that all biologists were created equal and foolishly chose botany as my specialty - I was unwittingly sucked in to partaking of camping's "special" cousin, Girl Camping.

Girl Camping is the entomology of camping. Sure, there was a modicum of filth and some wood combustion involved, but while these things lulled us into believing we were credible campers, RV-ers and backcountry-ers alike took one look at us, glazed completely over and started talking about caribou amongst themselves.

How could they tell at just a glance? The signs were as obvious as wearing a hand lens rather than binos around your neck: we drank lite beer; we ate fruits and vegetables with every meal; we held brief tailgate safety meetings prior to embarking on any hikes.

We said things like, 'I'm going to the bathroooooom, who wants to come wiiiiith meeeee!' (A lot.)

Many newspapers were harmed in the making of our fires.

And the killing blow: coffee time. Sure, your average RV camper might be brewing up a fully civilized and cushy pot of java on their stove in the morning, but that's nothing compared to Girl Campers. We had 4 kinds of coffee (percolator, French press and two types of instant), 3.5 varieties of sugar (plantation raw, artificial sweetener, and three packages of granulated - one cubes, two regular), and 9, nine!, types of whitenening agent: skim milk, 1% milk, almond milk, half & half, full-fat cream, Coffee-Mate, two bottles of Bailey's, International Delight fat-free French vanilla, and some kind of non-dairy, non-soy, gluten-free and vegan nut-based stuff called MimicCreme.

Srsly, MimicCreme? Is there anything Girl Camping-er in the entire world?

*sigh* No one is ever going to take us seriously at conferences again.