Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dodging Turtles

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.
--John Steinbeck

Friday, my birthday, I got up at my usual time in the morning to prepare for the exam in my 9:00 class. After breakfasting on cake (thanks, parents!) I drove off on my usual commute. On left side of the road I saw a dark shape, so I slowed and glanced over to see the ambling form of a box turtle. It had been many months since I’d seen one, since winter seems to lead to the seasonal disappearance of reptiles, so I smiled fondly at the old familiar sight. Cresting a hill as I continued on my way, I saw a second tortoise right in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and all of my books and papers flew heavily into the back of my seat and crashed to the floor. Then, turning a corner into a wooded stretch, I had to swerve around a third turtle. What biological signal told them that April 24th was the day to reappear, as suddenly as the reversal of a magician’s vanishing act?

The funny thing about the animals is the symbolism they’ve taken on. Simultaneously ridiculed for their sloth and praised for their perseverance, they nevertheless hold great significance in the stories we tell. Slow and steady wins the race, after all.

And there have been times in my life when I’ve felt very much like a box turtle, severe red eyes glaring out from under the lip of my domed organic dwelling. It’s not so much about hiding behind one’s proverbial shell as it is about plodding on and on and on. Despite the obstacles, setbacks, trials and tribulations, or just life in general—despite discouragement and feelings of doubt, uncertainty, or hopelessness, just keep trying to cross the road, one scaly clawed foot at a time. And when someone picks you up, carries you away, stuff you in a box and tries to shove lettuce down your throat, well, just bear it with a smile and an unfailing sense of optimism. Promise is on the other side of that stretch of gravel, so how can you live save by chasing it?

Returning that afternoon, I passed through that same stretch of road to see that one turtle hadn’t been so lucky—its shell smashed, caved in, redness oozing from the broken shards. Pity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Is it bad that I want to burst into song to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof's “Tradition?”

It’s an interesting subject, though, and one that’s been coming up quite a bit in my conversations recently. The most striking thing about ambition, at least to me, is how completely subjective its definition is. Some view it as a virtue; others, a moral flaw. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar revolves around the title character’s ruthless ambition and how it led to his justified demise. Conversely, other famous tales praise characters’ internal drive and desire to better themselves. Stories like those of Horatio Alger commend the attitudes that led to success and self-betterment.

In today’s contemporary culture, people are still arguing about what exactly “ambition” means. In a thread on an online forum I frequent, the topic came up. One 60-year-old male banker described ambition as the motivation to climb the corporate ladder in the business world, overcoming both internal and external obstacles to find fulfillment in both material and hierarchal success. A 25-year-old female engineer and outdoor enthusiast defined it as being the best self that she can be, regardless of what others think—what makes her happy (and does not negatively affect others) is all that matters.

This of course made me critically evaluate my own feelings on the subject. I’m not exactly an extremely competitive person by nature—I’m as comfortable following as leading, but if I sense on incompetence on the part of the person in charge, I waste no time before jumping in and bossing people around until the problem is fixed. I like to be recognized for my achievements, but at the same time I’m embarrassed when my name is called and my accomplishments are listed. I prefer to stay on the fringes, present, but unnoticed until I choose to make myself known. I’m a quiet person by nature—I don’t like a lot of fuss. So even when I do get a competitive urge, I strive to win only for my own sense of self-worth, not to make a name for myself or impress people. Of course, there are the petty but somewhat-justified times when I get the impulse to take some arrogant individual down a notch or two. Maybe it’s human nature, maybe it’s just my own wild competitive dominance-seeking streak, but there you have it.

But then, is ambition a “bad” thing when it seeks to take advantage of others or advance in a chain of command? If the ambitious individual acts justly, honestly, and causes no harm along the way, I see nothing wrong with a healthy competitive attitude. People are hard-wired to find self-value in different ways, and if success in the workplace is what makes them tick, then more power too them. Competition turns dangerous when the stakes are too high, though. When some succeed greatly and others fall by the wayside, things have gone too far. Really, that’s the great problem with laissez faire capitalism…"the poor get poorer and the rich get richer." But I digress.

Self-betterment and fulfillment (what some could call personal ambition) are good things, I think. They can bring greater happiness and lead to advantages not only to the individual, but to the community as well when personal values are involved. On the other hand, when third parties are negatively affected, egos get too inflated, or ambition turns into conquest for conquest’s sake (as was the case with Shakespeare’s Caesar), what was a virtuous ideal becomes a hollow victory and dangerous character flaw.

So, as Socrates would say, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Only through self analysis and introspection can we truly live “well.” To summarize my opining, everything in moderation. Ambition can certainly be a beneficial thing, but by all means keep it in check.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

First Day on the Job

Today I started my first “real” job. I’ve found various ways to make money in the past—riding, training, or exercising horses, teaching barrel racing lessons, buying and selling for commission or on my own (I cleared a fair chunk of cash that way starting when I was 14), and making a bit of custom tack. But I’ve never been on an official payroll before, so I was a tad excited to get to it today.

I was hired by my neighbor the equine vet, and until the end of the school year (in just a few short weeks!) I’ll be working one day a week as a degree-less tech—holding horses, managing equipment, and just being a general lackey. This morning I arrived just as the vet and her assistant were laying down a big white-faced mustang with squamous cell carcinoma on his lower eyelid. She used a scalpel to cut out the cancerous growth, then stitched the slit closed. While she was finishing the sutures, the gelding started to wake up, dopily and clumsily heaving himself up one his feet. He was far too sedated to actually support his own weight, however, and what followed was a dangerous dance as we attempted to keep the horse under control and on the ground. The thousand pound horse staggered drunkenly, fell, scrambled, and rose again. He was making his way slowly to where the cars were parked. His legs gave way. He stumbled and crashed sideways into the front bumper of my car. No harm to vehicle or animal, surprisingly, and things eventually calmed down. The vet was pleased with the results of the surgery, but suspected that she didn’t cut out all of the growth and predicted that the horse would come back in six months to have his whole eye removed. Sad, but it beats dying of cancer.

Next was cosmetic surgery on a show horse with an old injury to his nose. When he had been young, he had sliced his nostril half off, and it had healed with a long flap hanging off to the side. The vet reopened the old wound and stitched the sides together. This surgery was followed by a few ultrasounds on recipient mares for embryo transfer, then we headed out to do a dental float on an aged Arabian mare named Rosie. She was heavily sedated, almost to the point of collapse, but still she fought the hydraulic float and it was all I could do to hold her head still, even with the weight of it supported by the overhead beam. Her mouth was a mess, and during the procedure one of her teeth fell out, accompanied by much blood. She was underweight, too, because the pain in her teeth kept her from eating like she should. Poor old girl.

Finally, we arrived back at the clinic to collect semen from a stallion and do a few more ultrasounds. Overall, it was a pretty interesting day. I learned a little, and I’m glad I found a job that I enjoy and will benefit from in terms of life/career/résumé experience.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday, 2009: Riding Westward

In 1613, the immortal John Donne penned this famous work. Today, 396 years later, while accepting my unfortunate limitations as a sub-par poet, I am inspired to answer:

“Let man’s Soul be a Sphere”—a proclamation
That fuels our quest across Creation
Always hoping, with any luck, to find
The origin of God, or the Heavenly Mind
But Society’s motion exerts its force
And all too often we are blown off course
We pick up the fragments to start anew
For what more, we ask, could we hope to do?
But as we grow old, our eyes grow dim
With faltering heart and weakening limb
Lost and circling, deaf and dumb
Simple ants being crushed by opposing Thumbs
Or so we think, in our cynical Hearts
Depressed bodies, broken parts
But Hope exists if we should but look
Up to the Sky, into the Book
So it is, on Good Friday, that I ride
Through the dark hills and green valleys wide
I raise up my head to the fast-clouding sky
What a death were it then, to see God die?
What Thinkers before me have wondered the same?
What countless Others have shared my aim?
My young horse beneath me does shudder and prance
Partaking in youth, and the joyful spring-dance
Perhaps I should join her—with wings we could soar
‘Cross the bright heavens. Could one ever want more?
What is Eternity? The Mystery deep
Does cloud our Conscience, corrupt our Sleep
The Unknown is brutal; our Hearts are shy
We fear the unknowable question: Why?
But why do we always have to know?
Perhaps the time has come to let go
Life is good; God is great—if these things be true
Then they are enough, and no more can we do
God willing, my time on Earth is yet long
This is but the prelude to my worldly Song
The Aria of youth; adolescent Crescendo
Vitality’s Symphony picking up tempo
Every Soul; every Sphere has a place in this Choir
From the birth of the World, ‘til the perishing Fire
Soft! Little horse, let us ride through the day
While the Sun is still high; ‘fore our lives fade away

Well, I may not be Donne, but I am done, so everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So that means I get to name it, right?

Today I discovered a new species. Or at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

In Zoology lab, we were again viewing slides from our collected microcosms underneath the microscope. During the past week, our water sample has become much more, well, fragrant. The jar was filled with filamentous brown algae which choked out other life forms (most of the amphipods, copepods, and planarians had died off, it appeared), and the water itself was a murky amber. Unidentified chunky objects floated ominously near the surface, and I wasn’t very excited to stick my hand into the nastiness. Still, it had to be done, so shutting my eyes and holding my nose, I collected a few drops of liquid with a pipette and dribbled it onto my slide. The findings were exciting. There were multiple vorticella, telescoping in and out rapidly by contracting their myonemes. Paramecia and euplotes abounded, and I even saw an elongate diatom, a round foraminiferan, a bring pink blespharism, and an elusive trumpet-shaped stentor (can you tell that I like dropping technical terms in an effort to impress laymen with my uber-cool invertebrate knowledge?). Then there were the strange, large, round ciliates with obvious internal contractile vacuoles. I called the lab assistant over to identify the specimens, and he was stumped. The professor, too, didn’t know what to make of it, besides “Cool!” and “I’ll have to look it up in my protozoa guide later!”

Score one for me.

But then, oh joy of joys, I found the crowning glory of the lab. At first, scanning the sample at 100X magnification, I thought it was an amoeba. I zoomed in to 400X for a closer look. It moved and twisted about several strands of algae, presumably feeding on organic matter. It appeared to be dorsoventrally flattened, and its body was roughly triangular and very supple, with a definite anterior end. An artist’s (*ahem*) rendering is shown above. There was a clear area in the middle, which I at first took to be a vacuole, but it soon became clear that this was a multicellular organism, so perhaps it was some kind of organ. There were cilia surrounding what must have been some form of mouth through which food entered. I found it interesting, and observed it for a while. Eventually, it exhausted the food supply at its particular locale, and began to move forward. And then it extended the proboscis.

A long tube, at least as long as the “body,” protruded from the “head” region, whipping around every which way, feeling about in a way that very much reminded me of an anteater’s tongue. It could fully extend this introverted “trunk” as well as withdraw it completely. We have studied proboscis worms in class before, but that looked nothing like this: they weren’t microscopic in size, and they were round, not flattened. My new friend continued to move about in this manner, waving its tongue-like protrusion wildly about, while I hollered like a maniac for the professor. She arrived and bent down to have a look-see. Her reaction, and I quote, “Oh. My. Gosh. Oh wow.” She had never seen anything like it, and was absolutely amazed. “Draw a picture of it!” she said. “I’ve GOT to look this up!”

Score two for me.

Of course, although possible, it’s rather unlikely that this animal belongs to a currently undescribed species. On the other hand, with so many countless unknown species out there, who knows how many thousands (millions?) of creatures we have not yet discovered? It boggles the mind.

So, as a scientist, it’s my duty to name my new organism, right? Which leads me to a bit of a conundrum. I haven’t a clue what, given the opportunity, I would name a species I discovered. To name it after oneself seems vain and cliché. A simple description (anteater/large nose/worm) seems repetitive and not particularly fun. So do I give credit to the university? Or the month in which it was discovered? Or pay homage to my professor. Hmmm…what would you name it?

Unfortunately, as I watched in awe, fascination, and a tinge of pride for being a famous discoverer, the organism got too hot above the harsh light of the microscope stage. It stopped its movement, retracted its proboscis and, as I stood by in horror, lysed. Its cell contents oozed out into the surrounding fluid, and its marvelously unique form was no longer recognizable.

RIP, only known specimen of Myrmecophagidrhinoturbelladruriaprilonelsoniamozartiae.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Karma in Action

Yesterday I arrived at school an hour and a half before rehearsal was set to begin, so I thought I’d head down to the computer lab and do some studying for today’s pseudocoelomate exam. Of course, if I’m set up with a computer and Internet access, I’m unlikely to do much studying, but that’s beside the point. When I arrived at the lab, I found it full of people. A glance at the sign on the door informed me that I was just in time for the “Access Missouri Letter Writing Workshop.” “Come in,” a man told me, and pulled me through the door.

They were writing letters to senators and representatives about the plans to cut funding for scholarship programs statewide. While I don’t benefit from this money, they were asking from support from anyone who would help, so I figured, “What the hey, it’s a good cause and it should only take a minute.”


First, my nine-digit zipcode was not listed in the online database, so I couldn’t find out who my state representatives were. Several people scampered to my aid, but after a long and fruitless search, they gave it up as a lost cause and told me to write only to the Senate Education Committee. So I drafted a nice letter and proceeded to hit “print.” The computer froze. Nothing that I or the advisers did had any affect whatsoever. I hadn’t saved the letter draft, either, because it had come off of a template filled with and the like. Eventually, I again gave up and lost my work. I redid it, saved it this time, retried printing, and again the computer froze. So I attempted to email it to myself, but the Internet was down. Finally, I saved it on my flashdrive, went to another station, and voila! My document was in hand and signed.

Forty-five minutes later, I walked out of the room to a chorus of “thank you for coming by!” I had accomplished no studying. I was a little peeved.

And then today I got the email that, thanks to my participation in the campaign, I had been entered in a drawing and won a $10 Starbucks gift card. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s a little compensation for my frustrating afternoon. It’s the thought that counts, after all, and now I get to enjoy a mocha-frappa-something-or-other. OK, I’ve never been to Starbucks before as I’m not a big coffee drinker, so this will be a real experience. A little bit of good karma, right? It's nice to be rewarded for a good deed every once in a while.

The illustration, by the way, is Carousel, a piece I made in my Visual Arts class my sophomore year of high school, when I was in my “horse as a metaphor for humanity” phase. I was mighty proud of it at the time, and I still think it’s kinda cool. ;)