After grading my last final exam in early May, I lock my office door, jump in the car, and head to a lake in Minnesota where I help run my parents’ fishing resort. I’ve written a bit about my dual lives as a VMS lecturer and a resort owner/writer. You can read more about them here.
The point of this entry, however, is that I have a lot of time to think in the summer. This can be a good thing: when I’m scrubbing the shower house floor and figure out the perfect line of dialog (“We’re not so cute anymore”) for the screenplay I’m working on; when I’m mowing and trimming around the cottages and devise a new writing assignment to test out on my next crop of students.
But when given the space and a lack of focus, my brain can be a scary, marvelous playground. In a moment’s time, a lifetime’s worth of thoughts flit between synapses, a stream of Mrs. Dalloway-esque consciousness...
I think I have a dentist’s appointment this week. If I start flossing now, will she know I haven’t been flossing? Floss is such a strange word. Monkey is another strange word. Monkey is a cute nickname. What’s the etiology of nickname? What’s the etiology of etiology? I should have taken more than one semester of Greek. I think Homer would have been an interesting guy to sit with and have a cup of tea. I’m really thirsty.
...that goes on and on. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this somewhat unconventional life I’ve stumbled into and, strangely enough, using it to chronicle the things I have in common with microbes.
I’ve decided that my dual lives have dual fits: at one turn, I’m free-living and adaptable, at another, I’m parasitic and surprisingly susceptible.
Let me explain...
In my free-living state, I spend most of May in continuous motion. Fourteen hour days at the resort. From project to project. Painting, raking, cleaning, painting, plumbing, roofing, painting, cleaning, lifting, organizing, cleaning... cleaning... cleaning, sewer filters, minnow tanks, fishing boats, cottages... cleaning... cleaning... cleaning.
Come early June, just in time for my birthday, my summer body emerges. I wake up early, look in the mirror, and smile. “Hello, old friend. Welcome back.”
I’m an endospore that after 1,000 years of dormancy, with food and water and favorable growth conditions, germinates into a young, fit, vegetative cell.
I am my friend Mary’s daughter, Hennessy, who last spring (when she was just three years old) on their first trip back to the lake, jumped out of the car and onto her bike and said, “Mom, do you have enough Band-Aids for when I fall?”
For the free-living, it’s that simple: do the thing. React, respond, be impulsive. Anticipate the hurt, prepare for it, have ready the sporulation machinery, hoard the Band-Aids, but do the thing.
These are the things I do in a typical day as a free-living organism:
- teach two little kids how to play Air Hockey;
- negotiate the price of worms with a 7-year-old (he hoodwinked me, by the way);
- rake 1000 feet of beach and compost the weeds;
- throw rocks into puddles with my 20-month-old niece;
- repair a busted boat-lift cable;
- haul a truckload of stuff to the local recycling center;
- edit the proofs for a new microbiology lab manual;
- replace the water in the leech containers;
- write a new scene for a short film my sister and I are working on;
- and the last thing on my list of things to do today, finish this blog entry.
On any given day, the only thing I can count on is that I’ll be exhausted by the end of it.
I’m a lytic phage after its parts are assembled and packaged and it’s shoved through the fuselage of a dying, blown-out host cell into the dark, unprotected space of the unknown.
Every dive, every day, is an adventure. And I love that.
Even when things go wrong...when we get three inches of rain in three minutes and the people tenting on the west end of the property float away; when my dad and I get so sick of each other we start picking fights about why I chose to buy strawberry tootsie rolls for the store when I know perfectly well that grape sells better; when someone’s sewer clogs and we all draw straws to see who has to dig...even when things go horribly wrong, there always seem to be enough Band-Aids.
Because they take many forms, the Band-Aids: the pelicans swooping in for their 6:00 am feeding; the moonlight dancing on the water; the kids lounging on air mattresses in the mud puddles, making the most of crappy weather. It’s as though my summer life, my free-living state, insulates me from the worst of the multitude of things that define bad times.
But if I take a lesson from microbiology, it should be the other way around. I should be more vulnerable as an independent organism, while in my winter life, my parasitic state, I should feel secure. Bad days in my winter life, however, always seem so much harder. The problems tougher to solve. The mishaps and poor decisions more acute. No amount of Band-Aids can make it better in my winter state.
But lysogenic phages would laugh in my face at that statement.
Lysogenic phage. That other virus. Can you imagine the first one? The one that stepped up to the edge of that ragged, lysed bacterial host, like the blown out shell of a Battlestar Galactica ship, and couldn’t help but wonder: “Who thought this was a good idea? Why don’t I stay the heck inside where it’s safe and warm?”
And so, the lysogenic phage was born.
I have a lysogenic side. I have built myself into a part-time parasite. I infiltrate Van Es Hall in late August, inject myself into the process of shaping young minds, and then I hangout for a while.
Like most parasites, I’m protected inside my host. I’m fed a stable income, health insurance, and retirement funds. And like some parasites, I try to earn my keep. I give back.
I’m Aliivibrio fischeri swimming around the ocean and getting sucked into the light organ of the Hawaiian bobtail squid. Inside, it grows and divides and grows and divides all day long until the squid pops out of the sand at night to feed. At that point, the bacteria are at such a high concentration they all start to glow at the same time. This bioluminescence protects the squid from predation.
And so I too shine my shiny Jessie light all over the halls of Van Es. (Conceited, anyone?) In all fairness, I do actually teach people things, like: how to write without sounding like a pompous scientist; how to tell a good story and not just slap together a collection of facts and numbers; how to hold an inoculating loop like a pencil.
But like many intracellular parasites that overtime get so complacent they start to shed genes, I lose functions too. Like right after the holidays when I lose the ability to zip up my best, most flattering jeans. Like after so many hours of sitting quietly at my office desk when I can no longer muster up a feeling of autonomy.
And now that I’ve made my life as a part-time parasite sound miserable, let me reassure you. I love being a parasite. I love to teach; I love the energy of a college campus; I enjoy the people I work with.
But I love my free-living stage too, because when I’ve just about forgotten how to be self-sufficient, finals roll around, my dad puts a rake in my hand, and I’m back on the beach, under the sun, getting all tanned and bleached blond.
And my brain has all the time in the world to conjure Band-Aids.