Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: June, 2009

What I Did Last Weekend: Part II

There’s a whole cultural aspect of the event that I had started recounting previously that I did not mention. The bride and her family are Chinese/Vietnamese with the parents’ generation being first generation immigrants. The groom and his family are white, fairly established Americans. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about interracial couples, but then again, I’ve never before actually observed the interesting phenomena that result when the two cultures mix (or not) at a wedding.

At breakfast on the day of the wedding, my immediate family and I met up with numerous other aunts, uncles, and cousins staying at the hotel. In a way, the wedding doubled up as a family reunion–it was the first time I’ve seen all my relatives in one place at one time since we’re such a far-flung family. One aunt was trying to figure out who all was present by going through every family relationship in specific Cantonese terms. After trying to count on her fingers for a while, she exclaimed, “In English, it’s just uncle, auntie, and cousin. Very easy, but confusing.” (Later, the groom would remark that he was having a hard time keeping track of all the aunts, uncles, and cousins, but his new wife would reply indicating my sister and me, “But they are my true first cousins!” If it helps, we were her only first cousins there.) And, of course, there was the batty cheek-pinching aunt. Batty cheek-pinching aunts probably transcend all cultures. However, it’s really weird when they inflict their unique brand of torture on you, especially when you’re almost thirty. But I suppose it’s inevitable when everyone says that you still look the same as you did when you were a little girl.

The wedding itself was in a very typical traditional western-style. The entire setting was unremarkable except for the fact that the church had been built on top of a prison. This more literal (and on my part, smirk-inducing) meaning to the marriage saying “ball and chain” probably went unnoticed by most of the guests as the pastor rambled on about forks and chopsticks.

At the reception, my sister found a pair of purple pliers at our table which (with an evil cackle) she promptly confiscated. The pliers were probably forgotten by the people who had put up purple orchids as the centerpiece. It was with a bit of irony that the orchids were often shoved aside as an annoyance when pictures were taken–as I had heard through the grapevine that a Certain Someone had gone all bridezilla at the last minute in an effort to obtain them. And then there were the toasts by the best man and maid of honor–both examples of what not to do in public speaking. The brother of the groom made a very slick speech, so slick that it sounded like something cribbed from an internet site on wedding reception speeches. He also mangled a Chinese saying on “one hundred years of harmony” in such a way that I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to say it in Mandarin or Cantonese. The sister of the bride was extremely nervous while giving her speech. I understand that my cousin was trying to be heartfelt about it all, but some of the metaphors she used were unfortunate. I mean, the bride and groom “fitting together like puzzle pieces”? The groom’s side of the family immediately guffawed while the older generation on our side were clueless. My sister had to spell it out for my Mom while I mentally slapped my forehead and groaned.

My grandmother complained that there was too much cheese at the reception. My Mom tried to explain to her that this was all catered towards American taste. Another example–the dance floor. Practically everyone on the groom’s side was hitting the tiles to groove with the band while only the very adventurous of my relatives did any sort of dancing. The whole thing (which was organized and paid for by my aunt and uncle) was quintessential assimilation–I’d argue that the only ones comfortable at this whole affair was the groom’s side. My relatives, on the other hand, were probably doing the ol’ grin and bear it routine because, heck, apparently this is the sort of thing you do in America if you get married. There was a tea ceremony–which I missed due to an early flight back–but from what I’ve heard, it was more of a show piece for them rather than anything really meaningful. And finally, another instance: the father of the bride dance. Others would go all weepy and sentimental. But the Asian relatives and friends were muttering as my uncle headed off towards the dance floor–Oh my God, does he even know how to dance? I hope he doesn’t embarrass us all.

In my mind, whether or not the whole event was a successful fusion of east and west remains debatable. But in some ways, my opinion doesn’t really count. If the bride and groom are happy with it, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?

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What I Did Last Weekend: Part I

I was very surprised when my cousin mailed me an invitation to her wedding a little while ago. The last time I was at a wedding, I was about seven–and I only went because my parents were invited. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a Cynic in Many Things. In other words, I’m not the sort of person who gets invited for anything because I have no close friends and many of my relatives probably secretly consider me a Loser since I have not gone to medical school (or done something equally “impressive”) like everyone else.

After two different flights, but strangely both captained by the same lady pilot, I landed in the Dayton, Ohio airport feeling hungry since I hadn’t eaten since three in the morning. I met up with some friends of my uncle who were letting me hitch a ride to Cincinnati. I had a rather predictable conversation with them. They asked me what I wanted to do after I graduate. I said I don’t know even though I knew it made me sound like a wishy-washy ditz. They proceeded to tell me their family’s success rate at churning out offspring who went on to become medical doctors. I made suitably impressed comments. They also ranted about how universities are trying to change their admissions requirements so that Asians wouldn’t dominate and that whites and blacks could be more competitive. I made suitably sympathetic noises in hopes that this would keep the driver calm and more cognizant of the road.

They got me to the hotel without getting pulled over, and I met up with my uncle who was waiting at the front entrance. It was great seeing him, but I noticed he looked a bit older than what the intervening years would have suggested–my father is his older brother and he still mostly has black hair while my uncle’s hair had gone completely gray. I think, perhaps, it is the stress. On top of the wedding, he told me his worries about job security as he’s an engineer in the automotive industry. As my uncle and I were walking into the hotel, my aunt and two other cousins were walking out. I tried to hug my aunt, but she kind of freaked. Probably from the stress as well–because apparently they were late to a rehearsal at the church.

The subsequent fifteen to twenty minutes was a white-knuckled comedy of errors as my aunt, uncle, and cousins dragged me off with them. I tried to call my parents to tell them to meet me at the rehearsal dinner (which they did not have directions to–and I was not qualified to give them any since the last time I was in Ohio was when I was eleven). One of the cousins drove like a bat out of hell down I-75 while having anxious conversations with friends of the bride on her cell phone only to pause momentarily as we passed a Honda dealership to say, “Hey! That’s the place I got my car fixed after the first claim!” First?, I thought. There’s more than one?!!

We got to the church, in one piece, and the rehearsal was already underway. I didn’t pretend to understand any of it. I just figured I’d sit in this back pew and stay out of everyone’s way. But it was hot–humid hot–and the pastor’s wife shoved a fan into my hands even though I initially denied needing one, perhaps as an effort to avoid having a victim of the heat puddling to the floor and messing it up before the Big Day. The church itself was nice, but a little small with no air conditioning. After the rehearsal, I asked my aunt how many people were expected to come. “Two hundred from the groom’s side and about ninety-seven from our side.” I wondered if it was possible to cram three hundred guests into one uncooled space without having someone expiring. (The next day, after the ceremony, my sister and I discovered a sign declaring the maximum occupancy at 249.)

I had not seen my cousin (the bride) since she was in middle school. She’s grown up to be quite the sophisticated young woman–in many ways, very opposite of me. “Out of all of us [my father and uncle’s daughters], she’s the most traditional,” my sister had remarked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future she has the house with the white-picket fence and the two point five kids. Well, not the point five kid, but you know what I mean.” (However, I’m not sure if my cousin had the same impression. During the reception, she told us, “I never imagined that I would be the first to marry [because I’m the youngest].” I suppose she expected me to have gotten married first since I am the oldest, but I’m such a cynic that I’ll probably never end up tying the knot with anyone.) I had not met the groom before. He had gone to pharmacy school with my cousin so he has more than a few things in common with her, but it sort of seems a little odd now to think of him as family–mostly because I don’t really know him. If he ever manages to remember me, I will most certainly be the weird, socially inept cousin, the perpetual grad student piddling away in a state that everyone else thinks is full of potatoes.

The rehearsal dinner had been arranged by the groom’s father. I shook his hand, but I’m not quite sure if he was even pleased to see my parents and me since we hadn’t been formally invited to the dinner. After the dinner, my parents and I left for the Cincinnati airport to pick up my sister and grandmother. Then we headed back to the hotel where theoretically, we should have gone to sleep. Except both my sister and I were still on Pacific time and we ended up having a little adventure in the wee hours of the morning.

Wandering Like Ghosts

Last night at two in the morning, my sister and I went in search of cold soda. We went to every single floor (thirteen of them although there wasn’t a floor actually named “13”) in search of a vending machine that took dollar bills. We didn’t find any. Or any that worked, for that matter.

However, we did discover a half-sized door (for hobbits?) on the second floor.

So What Do They Want To Hear?

One student has started asking what he calls “Miss America Questions” to everyone in lab. Last week’s question was: If you were a fish, what fish would you be? Predictably, a lot of people answered, “Shark.” This week, the question is: What would be your perfect vacation?

Various answers from other lab members:

Visiting all the Greek islands1

Some place with a temperate climate with water nearby2

Touring Africa while giving out Bibles and anti-malarial tablets3

Any place where they speak Spanish4

Bali5

South Africa, taking care of penguins6

1Said by a former winner of a local beauty pageant.
2Includes shopping district and cabana boys.
3The smart-aleck response.
4With no clarification when prompted by the question asker.
5For the sole purpose of eating very strange food depicted on travel shows.
6My answer, because I saw this while tooling around on the web.

Punny Research

I was reading this and recalled that I actually did use a LOLcat–or rather, a LOLbacteria–in a presentation not too long ago. But in retrospect, it was probably overkill. My particular research topic just begs for bad puns. So much so that my advisor keeps griping, “We’ve got to find another name for this thing!” I shrug it off because, hey, it pretty much makes it a no-brainer when coming up with snappy (albeit groan-worthy) titles.

After hearing the PI complain about it for the umpteenth time, one undergrad coined an alternative acronym that was hilariously worse. LAME.

* * *
During the summer, the lab is trying out a new format for meetings–joint lab meetings with another lab and journal club on alternate weeks. The two PIs have already presented papers so that earlier this week when we had a meeting to decide who would present next, the PI for the other lab suggested: “The PhD students should present next.”

There was a pause before I realized aloud to everyone’s amusement: “Hey, I’m the only PhD student here.”

Yummy Experiments in Progress

Someone once told me that I was probably a scientist in the kitchen as well as the lab. I beg to differ. For scientific experiments I follow protocol, optimize and troubleshoot with sometimes frightening thoroughness, and document everything like an obsessive diarist. In the kitchen, I don’t follow recipes at all. I just throw whatever I have on hand together and hope it tastes good. The only two reasons I read or own cookbooks at all are the pictures and any bits of cooking science trivia.

The smoothie is the one kind of food that seems tailor made for my kind of cooking philosophy. I love fruit smoothies, but I hate buying them because they’re too expensive for the amount of work the person on the other side of the counter puts into them. And if ice is added into the mix, I think it’s a total rip-off. So my goal this summer is to figure out (by random trial and error) what makes for great combinations.

Notes so far:

*Substitute ice with frozen fruit.

*You can never go wrong with banana and/or yogurt–especially if you want a creamy texture.

*Never use beer.

*Apples make things more runny than you might first assume.

*Ice cream might be something to add–if you want to drink liquid frosting.

*It’s quite possible that there is no optimal ratio for pineapple to coconut.

Brainstorming Aloud

It’s around this time of the year that I start thinking up ideas for the crazy thing I will do in five months time. So far, I have a hot dog stand in Iceland, a mad cryptozoologist, some Dune-obsessed geologists, and a blimp. I need a villain.

*Addendum: The villain cannot be a worm because the protagonist is a wyrm.

Link Clearing XII

Western-Chinese Calendar Converter. The converter only works for 1911 to 2050 but still nifty.

I don’t precisely remember why I bookmarked this series of links, but I must have been doing some base conversions: Bin-Oct-Dec-Hex Converter, Number Base Converter, Number Base to Number Base Converter.

Folklore. Most of it is Estonian folklore, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

The Book Cover Archive. I dislike most book covers so it’s kind of interesting to see all of them at one place and see the designing trends that people think will sell books.

The Ancient World’s Longest Underground Aqueduct. “Roman engineers chipped an aqueduct through more than 100 kilometers of stone to connect water to cities in the ancient province of Syria. The monumental effort took more than a century, says the German researcher who discovered it.”

The Horns Are Probably Underneath All That Hair

Turning in paperwork to university drones is ridiculous. Having the FBI do a background check on you is probably less painful. For instance, this afternoon, a new undergrad working in the lab came back with the story that some administrative assistant was going to shred her recommendations from her professors simply because she had hand delivered them instead of faxed* them. (Fortunately, she got to keep her documents because she looked “trustworthy”. Sheesh.) This kind of stuff is not new. I’ve heard tales of these administrative assistants telling students that they had better things to do than to process their forms, promptly lose those forms, just plain ignoring people to play solitaire, and other idiotic and incompetent crap.

I’m fairly paranoid about paperwork–thus the many backup copies that I keep on hand–so when the stuff I turn in is lost, I just roll my eyes and turn in another copy. And frankly, I have the feeling that some of those administrative assistants hate everybody–whether you’re attractive or plain, male or female, young or old, a lowly student or a Very Important Professor.

*Dinosaurs and inertia. It’s like trying to chop down a tree with an axe when a perfectly good chainsaw is available.

Two Books in Brief

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. For such a morbid subject, the author has a quirky writing style punctuated by humor, odd juxtapositions, and a liberal use of footnotes. Of course, after finishing the book, I can’t help but think that there might not be any other way to approach the subject, as what’s death without a little laughter? There are a lot of interesting things cadavers are made to do aside from dissection labs, organ donation, or just plain being buried. They can be used as test subjects for accidents, targets for ballistics trials, medicine, or fertilizer. I think what made this book the most effective was the sense that the author was taking you (the reader) with her as she went to interview the people behind cadaver research, to witness actual dissections and tests, even to get sidetracked as she looked up various research papers.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip. I am of two minds about this World Fantasy Award winner. On one hand, I can definitely see why this was a winner–McKillip has an interesting and lyrical flair with formal and archaic language. The character conflict of Sybel, the almost misanthropic sorceress who struggles with relating to those who care for her and for revenge, is something that can either be taken at face value or analyzed to death. This would have been the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager–if I had discovered it back then. Having read it now, though, I can see it as a very well written book, but it doesn’t precisely engage my imagination in such a way that I felt immersed or personally invested in it.