Friday, September 16, 2011

The Laboratory and the Real Work

Many years ago I started making herbal liqueurs and tinctures for fun.  Along the way I went back to school to learn more about herbs and healing, and ended up with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine and state certification as a Licensed Acupuncturist.  For a couple of years I worked solely as a clinician, but then, to supplement my meager income and to get good benefits for my family, I  took a day job as a research administrator at the local university, and treated people in the evenings and on weekends.

I stayed at my university job for ten years.  It was a good job, with very little supervision and a lot of autonomy.  The scientists that I worked with came to trust and like me, and to rely on me to manage their grants.  We developed a ritual where, with every successful grant submission, we would share a glass of schnapps.  Over the months and years the drink would vary depending on what I had most recently produced: it could be a strong clear liquor made from the plums growing in my yard, or absinthe, or a mix of spring bitters.  Hanging out with my scientist friends, I came to admire them immensely for the work that they did as well as for the individuals that they were.  Many of them work in biomedical research, peering into the workings of cells and the molecular basis of life, and finding out things that are resulting in a deepened understanding of, and eventual cures for, diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.  But the work they did was so different from my work.  Seized by a problem or a question, they devised experiments to test hypotheses, they ran labs that were devoted to figuring out stuff they were interested in.  I distinctly remember once overhearing a researcher in the hallway, remarking incredulously to a colleague, “I can’t believe we get paid to fuck around!”  I knew immediately that he meant “fuck around” in the best sense of the word, as in trying things out, playing, experimenting, figuring out the problem that occupies you.  I wished I had a job where I could get paid to fuck around!

My administration job changed quite a bit in the last year or so.  With the economy tanking, the trend was for fewer and fewer people to do more and more work.  Plus, I had a new boss who managed to turn my job into that of a glorified clerk.  I used to feel like a valued consultant, advising my PIs (Principal Investigators) on grant-related issues, but more and more I felt like an overheated machine, scrambling to stay on top of never-ending bureaucratic tasks that the University would have done better to hire a student helper for.  While I still enjoyed working and hanging out with my PIs, I came to resent the middle and upper management who were, in my view, making bad decisions, ruining my job for me and diminishing the research enterprise at our university.  So, two months ago, I quit my job.

For the first time in a while, I feel a tremendous sense of freedom.  I still treat patients, but now I have some free time to fuck around!  The place I do it is in my lab.  When I left my university job, my PIs gave me a beautiful apparatus for extracting the active constituents from medicinal herbs.  I set it up in my garage this summer, and have really been enjoying experimenting with it.  I should clarify right away that would I actually do in my lab is quite different from what my scientist friends do.  They seek to find out new things: the application of nanomaterials to the detection of cancer, for instance, or figuring out how tRNAs move on the ribosome during protein synthesis.  I am interested in very old things: medicinal herbs and fungi that were first described a couple thousand years ago. My PIs use very expensive cutting-edge technology to arrive at their results, whereas my equipment is very low-tech, consisting of glass columns, jars, grinder, recycled pressure cooker, and coils of copper tubing.  And, they are way smarter than me, have tons of education, and are eminent in their respective fields.  (I myself am something of a hermit and an unknown).  And, my lab is far dirtier than any of theirs (Environmental Health and Safety would probably frown at my spiders-to-wall-space ratio).

Nonetheless, the spirit of fucking around is the same.  Will the MAO inhibition caused by the beta-carbolines in passionflower increase the antidepressant or sleep-inducing effects of some of the other herbs in this formula?  Should I change the ratio of ethanol to water in the solvent to better extract the active polysaccharides from the ganoderma fungus I just harvested?  Or would it be better to do two separate extractions, one in boiling water and one in pure ethanol, and combine them later?  Should I add some fennel seed extract to the absinthe after distillation, to soften and sweeten the final product, or some fresh melissa? How will it affect the final product if I don’t first decarboxylate the herb with heat prior to extracting it?  These are the kinds of questions that occupy me, and that I can play around with on my equipment.  There is also a more sensual aspect to this fucking around.  Tasting my herbal extracts, combining them, mixing them until they taste right to me and make me feel good, this is also an essential part of the process.

There is a sign that hangs over the door that leads from my office to my lab.  The sign says LABOR.  On the one hand, “labor” is the German word for laboratory.  But there is a double and even a triple meaning.  Labor, of course, also means “work.”  And labor is also a special kind of work – the hard work that leads to birth.  I like to think of my laboratory as the place where I do my “real work.”  It’s not that I don’t consider treating patients to be real work, or unimportant work.  But it’s a very different kind of work, so much so that it doesn’t feel like work to me.  I am fortunate in that I have wonderful patients who are more like old friends.  When I see them, we get to catch up on each other’s lives, chat and hang out while I am cupping their backs, sticking them with needles, or what have you.  My work in the lab is different.  There is a certain rhythm that I get into when I am measuring out herbs, grinding them up, mixing them, packing them in the percolation column, mixing solvents, controlling levels of heat and rates of drip.  There is something ritualistic about it that speaks to me at a very deep level.  I am doing real, time-consuming, physical work, work that takes preparation and clarity and an unhurried sense of purpose.  Making a formula is an all-day, or even a multiple-day affair.  At the end there is a final product – an amber-colored or deep green elixir that, when imbibed, has some sort of predictable effect on one’s body and mind.  I think of myself as an essentially creative person, and when I have created a medicine, it feels like a kind of a birth to me.  The labor has produced something unique, and useful, which then goes out into the world, into my community, where it can do good.

All this talk of labor may seem odd for someone who professes to embrace an easygoing kiraku life philosophy.  But, in fact, I am not opposed to working hard.  It’s just that there has to be a balance.  The kind of work that many jobs entail – forty or more hours a week of brain-frying stress while sitting in front of a keyboard processing tasks with little or no relevance to your day-to-day life aside from the fact that they put a roof over your head and food on the table – is just not healthy.  But to do work that you enjoy is a good thing.  My goal is to work hard in the lab to produce herbal medicines for my patients and friends, continue treating patients in a leisurely and enjoyable way, and have time left over for gardening, hiking, and other fun things. 

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