Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Dad! Oh. Happy Father's Day Too!

My father was a Texan, although you'd never know it to speak to him. A Californian as well. He moved all over the country in his childhood and youth. Granddad was a college tennis coach, then became a civil engineer. A Navy lieutenant during WWII. After the war, when Granddad moved up into high-level defense construction as a civilian, they did some more moving around.

But when Dad was a little boy, they stayed put long enough in Texas that he kept a pet spider for quite some time. It wasn't in a container; it was free. It had spun a web between his bed's headboard and the wall. He feels this was very effective for keeping his mother out of his room. Hey. Kids need their privacy.

That spider was a black widow. Now you know one reason I've loved black widows all my life.

Dad's mother, my Helen, was an artist. Oh, she was a pistol, Grandma was. Outspoken and funny, intelligent and flirtatious, intimidating as all get out. She could charm the eyes off a snake, and had a pilot's license too. A true Texas woman. Besides all their family dogs, she tolerated Dad's many personal pets, his scorpions and spiders and I don't know what-all. Well, she better; she kept pet rats as a girl, herself.

One day the movers came, packing the family up for yet another relocation, and they went by a little box Dad had put on the dining room table. The lid of the box opened up. Out came his collection of pet tarantulas, crawling over the dining room table, escapees.

That was one of their more interesting household moving experiences.

A lover of science and medicine and biology all his life, Dad went on to medical school, became a doctor, helped deliver his own kids, then went into pure microbiological research - his lifelong dream. It's been an interesting ride ever since.

It's perfectly common now to see extraordinary things; we take them for granted, watching the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. But when I was small, viewing any microbial life was an unusual privilege for adults, not to mention kids.

Dad the Scientist had access to one of those rarities called an electron microscope in the early 1960's. Looking through those eyepieces, seeing things so small that almost nobody in the world had even dreamed of them - that fascination has never left me. They were black and white images, not color. But for the first time in history, with an electron microscope you could see certain internal structures in very small microbes. Particles of minuscule life that had only been theorized until then were actually being viewed. And as a small child I got to see some of those first-ever sights.

Our parents used to take us up to Mt. Baldy when we were kids. We'd get pond samples and bring them home to look at all the pond life through the microscope. Oh, it was beautiful! Diatoms and paramecia and amoebas and protozoa and I don't know what all, swimming around doing their bit. You could watch them move, propelling themselves about with their little flagella or whatever their usual means, eating, engulfing fellow denizens in great maws. They blithely went about their business of life in the tiny universe they dwelled in - a partial drop of water on a slide.

Dad's done a lot of tissue culture, meaning he grows tissue cells, human, mice, rat, whatever the need. The containers the tissue cells live in are kept in an incubator at just the right temperature, and fed just the right medium to grow and reproduce as fast and healthy as they can.

They need some TLC from time to time. For example, the containers may need periodic rotating to bathe all the cells in the medium. These days that's automated, using roller bottles. You can see how well they're doing by simply counting a sample, to see how their numbers increase over time. Perhaps adjustments in temperature or food are called for. So the ritual of counting cells by putting a sample, or the whole bottle, under the microscope is a familiar one. A nurturing activity, checking the little ones to see how they do.

So is mixing medium. Like most foods, it's a lot cheaper and better if you make it yourself. Dad gets the ingredients and mixes up big batches, often in a 5-gallon water jug. Different foods have different mixing procedures. Generally, though, they take several steps that include putting a big bottle of stuff on an electromagnet plate. Inside the bottle is a piece of steel. Turn on the electromagnet, and the steel inside the bottle rotates fast, mixing the medium.

Add some more stuff and mix again. That step may involve a more gentle mixing procedure: rolling the big bottle across the floor. I've had the pleasure of helping in that one. Dad stands across the room, puts the big bottle on the ground, shoves it over to me with his foot, and I send it rolling back to him. Ah, fun! We roll it back and forth until he deems it Mixed Enough.

The incubator temperature can be tricky. No matter how much care is taken with the incubator room, with its thermostat, its HVAC system, it can still be just a tiny bit off. That tiny bit can mean days of delay in cell reproduction, and thus in production of whatever he's after. Sometimes the solution is a wonderfully simple one: add a light bulb. The tiny increase in heat by turning on, say, a 40-watt bulb can keep the temperature exactly right.

Dad has accomplished great things in his life. If I gave you his name to google, you'd find some of them. Part of why he was able to do these things is because he's always been a person to think *outside the box,* as they say. He took great care, raising us kids, to teach us to follow this approach as well. To think for ourselves, no matter what others say. To be truly independent, and true to ourselves. It's why he mixes his own medium. Why he rolls the bottle across the floor. Why he added a light bulb in the incubator. Why he had a pet black widow spider.

This is creativity, invention, independence, individualism. I feel all this when I walk into his home turf - his lab.

I want you readers to have some idea of what that home turf looks like. To see, perhaps, some of why I love the place, and love to see my father in it, doing his work. So I'm publishing some pix from the very many I took when I visited the lab last year.

I really don't know what would have happened to me without my father's teachings. Did we butt heads? Oh, you bet. At times, very badly. But the older I get, the more I realize how much both my parents gave us kids, gave me. And how difficult I must have been to raise. There are no parents in the world who can raise children without ever making a single mistake, without ever doing their kids some wrong, large or small. If we had it to do over again, I'd do certain things very differently, and I've no doubt my parents would too.

It takes a special father to raise a *gifted* child. Dad...In those long ago days, lashing out in anger, I told you plenty about the negative parts. I think, I'm pretty sure, I left out thanking you for the good things you gave me, for the strength to deal with the unusual brain and heart I was born with. And for the wonderful times not just out in the world but also in your lab, that place of peace. I want to thank you for all of that now, and to tell you how sorry I am for how very long it took me to say so.

Today is Father's Day. My father was, and is, an unusual dad. Lucky for me, an unusual dad is exactly the kind I need. I would not exist without him, of course. But you know I mean that in more ways than just me being born - with Doctor Dad helping.

His own birthday is very close to Father's Day. This tends to confuse me. Dad, once again this errant daughter, despite carefully watching the calendar, neglected to call you on the Actual Day. Probably, in fact, slept right through it. So I hope you'll accept this as a Double Happy Day, and forgive me my transgression there.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father's Day to you. And happy birthday, too.


pepektheassassin said...

Loved this tribute! No wonder you're so SMART--it's in your genes!

~Jack~ said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Granny J said...

What a remarkable family! I am reminded of my LH, who kept his mother out of his basement lab with bare copper wiring, his mom being terrified by electricity getting loose.

k said...

Pepek, it sure is. I get it from both sides: my mother and father are perfect peers, IQ-wise.

That's why I say I can't take any credit for it. An accident of fate is all that is.

Jack, you're a great dad. I haven't been by your place (or anyone else's) nearly as much as I want to, lately. So I don't know how your Father's Day went, if you posted about it, or before it.

What I can say for sure is that your kids are also very lucky in their choice of dads. Your love and care for them are clear and transcendent. That will make their whole lives, their entire futures, better for them.

Granny J, long ago I mentioned somewhere, in your comments I think, that you're one of the fellow bloggers I feel so many parallels with it's uncanny. That's not just because of the places we've lived.

You and your LH both make me think of my own family, and often. That bare copper wiring thing is priceless!

I bet it was effective, too.