Book Review: Lab Girl

I consider myself a strong, intelligent woman who is equally left- and right-brained. By this I mean that I’m analytical and fascinated by all things scientific, but I’m also creative and love to write. So it was gratifying to come across the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, because she can be described in the exact same way.

Hope is a professor of geobiology at the University of Oslo. Science is her passion as well as her bread and butter. Because of that, you’d think that any book she wrote about her life and career would be dry and pedantic. But no.

This book is a work of art. Read it. Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

This is not just a book about plants, although if you read it you’ll learn all sorts of amazing things about them, and you’ll never look at a tree in the same way again. For me, though, what it is about, more than anything, is friendship.

Woven throughout this book is her relationship with her senior research laboratory manager, Bill. They have worked together in various labs around the world for 25 years. Theirs is not a romance. It’s something better. It’s unconditional, platonic love and respect. It’s dedication. It’s mutual support. It’s the kind of relationship that all of us aspire to, and most of us only dream about.

The book also talks about being a woman who chooses a career in a male-dominated field, which is something to which I can definitely relate. It’s also about mental health, and finding your place in this world, and never quite feeling like you fit in. It’s about being misunderstood by many, except for the most important people in your life. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

And it is amazingly well written. I keep a quote book where I save passages from books that really resonate with me. Here are some of the ones I plan to save from Lab Girl.

“He (her father) taught me that there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it.”

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting.”

“In Georgia, when someone walks up to you wearing overalls with no shirt underneath them, it is unlikely that something good is about to happen.”

“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.”

“Being paid to wonder seems like a heavy responsibility at times.”

Because of this author, I went out and planted ten trees. How many people have gotten you to do that? And hey, she has inspired me to write a future posts about Stuckie the Mummified Dog and about Anomalocaris, “a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever” that, thanks be to God, no longer exists. Now if that doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will.

Lab Girl

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The Physics of Friendship

In my freshman year of college, I was scared to death. I was away from home and family for the first time in my life. I was being exposed to new ideas. I was working toward my future. I was adulting with no instruction manual.

Fortunately I made an amazing friend, and we became practically inseparable. She was my lifeline. We were like binary stars. No pressure there, right?

She was from a different country, with a much more reserved culture. So when she occasionally acted rather cold, I cut her some slack. I’m a loyal friend, and that’s what loyal friends do.

And then one time she cut me out entirely. She avoided me and didn’t speak to me for about two weeks. I have no idea why. I didn’t have a clue then, either. That was the worst part about it. I had no idea what I had done to deserve such treatment. And since she was the only close friend I had made there, it felt like someone had scooped out my heart with a rusty grapefruit spoon.

Finally, her roommate couldn’t stand to see me so distraught, and forced her to talk to me. I was so relieved that I didn’t even question anything. I don’t even recall there being any awkwardness to our friendship after that. We just picked up where we left off. So be it.

During one of our breaks, she came to Florida with me and stayed with my family. Two years later, when I was studying abroad and she was bicycling across the United States, she left her bike in the garage of a total stranger in Texas, hopped a bus, and came to visit me in Mexico. In a time before internet, we would exchange 30-page letters with each other. I loved those letters.

I considered her my best friend. She never said the same to me. (That’s happened a lot in my life. A whole lot. It’s hurtful.)

Over time, we’ve drifted apart. Thirty-page letters are no longer feasible for either of us. Still, I continued to reach out, despite the oceans and continents between us.

She’s never been very comfortable with the internet. She doesn’t have a Facebook Page. She stopped answering e-mails at least a decade and a half ago. My attempts to connect have been ignored.

I still think of her often, but I’m no longer the girl I was at 17. I’m no longer willing to be the only one who makes an effort to sustain a friendship. I realize that I deserve more than I’ve gotten in recent decades. I know I’m a good friend to have. But I can’t force anyone to care.

In recent years, I’ve taken the Physics of Friendship much more seriously. Newton says that an object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless a force acts upon it. The same applies to friends. We are all objects in motion. If friends drift away, I used to try to be that force that slowed them down. Now my energy is much more limited.

Maybe I should stop viewing it as her pushing me away, and start looking at it as her pushing herself from me. Because I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m in a good place.

So when you feel that gap starting to widen with someone you care about, let ‘em drift, I say. You are not responsible for their motion. Don’t cling. Nothing ought to be that hard.

And then, too, letting go is sometimes all it takes for someone to want to return to your orbit. But mostly not, truth be told. Mostly not.

And that’s okay. As Max Ehrmann wrote, “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Drifting Apart

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Contaminated Connections

I remember sitting on my couch with an old friend in Florida. We were having a pleasant chat, just as we had done dozens of times before. Then he looked out the screen door toward the park across the street and said something disgusting and hateful and racist about the guys who were playing basketball therein. I refuse to taint my blog by repeating it.

I could tell he meant what he said to the very marrow of his bones, and I was horrified. In that instant, reality shifted for me. I had never heard this man talk like that before. It wasn’t part of my truth about him. And yet, I could tell that in that instant his mask had fallen away, and I was seeing the real ugliness inside him.

And the weird thing was, he knew I’d seen it. As I sat there with my jaw hanging open, he got up, walked out of my house, and I never saw or heard from him again. I was relieved.

Normally, if I think someone is acting out of character, I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I try to get at the root of the aberrant behavior. I try to explain why I am feeling the way I feel about it. I try to salvage the relationship. But some things are just a bit too revealing about a person’s basic values. Some things cannot be undone.

It’s not as if we were expressing opposing views about Brussels sprouts. This was major. Some things you can’t simply agree to disagree about. Not if you value your own integrity.

It’s hard to maintain a friendship with someone when you lose respect for that person. It alters the context of every interaction you’ve ever had or ever will have. The foundation crumbles, and the whole structure collapses like a house of cards.

I had a similar reaction when a female coworker, upon discovering that an 11 year old girl had been sexually abused, said, “Well, she must have wanted it.”

After my head exploded, we did our best to avoid each other from then on. There’s no recovering from that. It just says too much about the person that you are, deep, deep down, where it matters most. It says too much about the way you view the world and the people in it.

It’s sad to lose a friend. But it’s heartbreaking to discover that the friend you thought you had never really existed in the first place. Fortunately, these situations are rare. I’m glad to say that I haven’t had an experience like this in years. Maybe I’m becoming a better judge of character with time. But unfortunately, to have a healthy home, sometimes you have to take out the garbage.

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My Voice

I had a fascinating conversation with some old friends recently. I’ve known them for 10 years in the virtual world of Second Life. We hang out a couple times a week, but in all that time I’ve never heard their actual voices. All our communication is via text.

Am I alone in this? When I read something, I “hear” what I’m reading inside my head. I’ve always done that.

But the other day, for the first time, it occurred to me that when I read what these two friends type, I have different inner voices for each of them. Based on their personalities, my mind has created a kind and gentle voice for one, and a straightforward, practical, no-nonsense voice for the other. Fascinating.

So naturally, I asked what my “voice” sounds like to them. I was really surprised by the answer. They said it doesn’t sound like my blog.

That’s intriguing. I think of this blog as me on a screen. I’ve taken pride in laying myself bare and being honest and vulnerable here. But my friends say that in my blog I sound like a strong positive woman, and when I talk to them, I’m more fragile.

Hmm… Yeah, I can see that. Since I write my entries several days in advance, I have plenty of time for multiple revisions. That means by the time my posts reach you, I’ve edited out a lot of the craziness, impulsiveness, negativity, and basic hysteria. (Yeah, I know. Hard to believe.) I think that makes the blog infinitely more readable, but perhaps it also makes it less “me”.

But when all is said and done, that’s the definition of true friendship, isn’t it? Someone who sees the unedited version of you, warts and all, and loves you anyway.

I’m a very lucky person.

voice

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Don’t Write People Off

I know a woman who stops speaking to people entirely after one disagreement. It must be awfully stressful to keep track of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I wonder if she keeps a sad little list or something. That, and she seems to think that a lack of interaction with her is some form of punishment. I suspect many people find it to be a relief, because it is nearly impossible to meet her high standards. Who needs it?

And then there’s the friend of mine, in his 50’s, who is still bitter and obsessed with the poor treatment he received from his classmates in high school. Rest assured, none of those people are spending time thinking about him. And are any of us the people we were in high school? (God, I hope not. I was shy, lonely, and chronically depressed.)

I’d like to think some of those bullies matured and became decent human beings. Or, yeah, it’s equally possible that they are still asshats. Who knows? But that’s no reason to waste your emotional head space keeping them locked in your acidity. It only hurts you.

And then there are those people who seem to have difficulty distinguishing opinions from personal attacks. For example, I don’t like cranberries. You love cranberries. My dislike of cranberries doesn’t mean I’m passing judgment on you, even if you are a cranberry grower. It just means I don’t like cranberries. I feel sorry for people who can’t make that distinction. They spend an awful lot of time feeling rage and missing out on friendships. This is a waste of their valuable time, and an impediment to their happiness.

I find black and white thinking to be rather troublesome because human beings, in general, are rather complex.  For example, I can be cranky and opinionated and forgetful and (brace yourself) unrepentantly liberal and inherently flawed, but I also financially support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the DAPL Water Protectors, Storycorps, the International Red Cross, the Humane Society, Goodwill, and my local blood bank. I try to be a good friend. I work hard. I love my dog. So am I irredeemable? No. And neither are you.

The people I respect the most in this world are the ones who can say, “I may not agree with you all the time, but I don’t mean you any harm.” First, do no harm. The golden rule is also an excellent philosophy.

Kindness, not confrontation. Calm, not chaos. Good will, not hostility. If you give yourself a chance and get to know people, odds are good that they’ll delight you. But you only get that gift if you don’t write them off based on brief experience.

kind

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Daily Affirmations for a True Friend

A dear friend of mine is about to move thousands of miles away from me. She has been a steady source of support since the day we met. She’s my champion. She has my back. I can always count on her to keep her promises and provide pep talks when needed. She doesn’t judge me. I don’t feel the need to vacuum or dust before she comes to visit. She loves my dogs. If she saw anyone mistreating me, I’m certain she would claw out their eyes. I have told her things I’ve never told anyone else. And best of all, she makes me laugh.

Now, that’s a true friend. And just because she’ll no longer be just down the street, that doesn’t mean the friendship will end. No way. Our pseudo slumber parties will just be a bit more of a logistical challenge.

But here’s what’s important: I hope she can say the same things about me as well. Friendship is a two way street, after all. We’ve both lived through some long rough patches. We could both use a little shoring up now and then.

So what follows is a list of things I want you to read out loud, dear B, when times get tough. I want you to always remember these things. I want you to say them so often that you believe them as much as I do.

  • You are one of my favorite people on the face of the earth.
  • Anyone would be lucky to have you in his or her life.
  • You are intelligent and hilarious and fun to be around.
  • You are as tough as nails.
  • You are beautiful inside and out.
  • You have a lot of gifts to give to the world.
  • You are extremely talented.
  • You have amazing insights.
  • You are a survivor.
  • You are compassionate and kind.
  • You deserve joy and goodness in your life.
  • These are all things that no one can take from you.

I really ought to make you tattoo all of this backwards on your forehead so you see it every time you look in the mirror. But if you forget, you can always call me, ’cause you know I’ll set you straight. I love you!

friends

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For Pete’s Sake

Many years ago, in the virtual world of Second Life, I made a friend. Let’s call him Pete (so I can have a cool blog entry title). It was purely a friendship. We were both in relationships at the time.  I enjoyed talking to him. He had a very creative mind, and was very good at banter, which is something I appreciate quite a bit. So we’d banter.

He lived in Seattle, and at the time I lived in Florida, so the odds of ever meeting face to face were pretty long. (I remember saying on more than one occasion throughout my life, “Who would be crazy enough to live in Seattle with all that rain? Depressing!”)

As time went on, I was in Second Life less and less, but we’d keep in touch. Exchange the odd e-mail. Flirt a little. Joke around. Nothing dramatic. But it was nice.

Then in early 2014 he moved several hundred miles from Seattle. Ironically, I moved to Seattle that August. Two ships that passed in the night. But he gave me lots of great advice on things to see and do here, and good areas to look for housing. That was a big help.

Occasionally he’d pass through Seattle to visit his son, but we never did meet. He always seemed to be here on days I worked, or I’d be out of town, or his time would be limited. He did say he might be moving back to Seattle at some point.

Then, about 6 months ago, he abruptly stopped responding to my e-mails. I knew he was still alive because I’d see him log in to Second Life every now and then. But he didn’t reply to my messages there, either.

I will never know why my friend disappeared. But I have a theory. I think that he’s back in Seattle, and the prospect of actually meeting me was too daunting for him. Was he expecting me to show up for coffee wearing a wedding dress? Please.

It kind of makes me sad. I really did consider him a friend, and it would have been nice to cross paths now and then. If something more had come of it, great. If not, that would have been okay, too.

Instead, as I walk down the streets of Seattle, I’ll sometimes look into the faces of the men I encounter, and I’ll think, “Pete? Is that you?” Sometimes I wonder if he crosses my bridge, and if so, have I ever made him late for some part of his life by opening it?

One thing is for sure: He’s somewhere out there, depriving himself of the opportunity to know a pretty awesome person. What a shame.

seattle

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