My days have been brightened of late by mentoring a senior from my old high school. Funny how I now look back on my high school with nostalgia, even though I know at the time I was filled with bile toward the whole establishment. But truth be told, I got a great education there. Better than at Brown. And I have a belated appreciation for the unabashed liberalism of the Quakers, and for my teachers who openly wept when the Gulf War was declared.
So Abington Friends School has this program called Senior Independent Project, where the graduating seniors can skip school for 2 1/2 weeks and work independently with a mentor.
When I was a senior, I worked with an adorable molecular biologist in her lab, doing research into the mechanism by which soybeans fix nitrogen. Lots of fun with sequencing gel, pipettes, and little plastic baggies full of germinating soybeans. This made its way into my first novel, where the mom is a "soybeantologist."
My most vivid memory from the time in Becca's lab was when I had to put the seeds in the baggies to germinate using "sterile technique." I did my best to imitate all of Becca's actions, but while her seedlings grew up sterile and perfect, all my baggies were quickly filled with fuzzy mold.
"Did you keep them sterile?" she said.
I hemmed and hawed about how I thought I kind of had.
"You can't be partially pregnant," she snapped.
It was the only time she ever was even the slightest bit impatient with me, despite my myriad fuckups. I also remember how cool it was the first time my little gel electrophoresis worked, and I could see the distinct bands of different substances (soybean DNA, I guess) that had been separated through the electrical current. Labwork was quite a bit like restaurant work.
So now I am all grown up and I'm the one who gets to boss around the talented little mentee. She is writing an essay and a short story and she's reading her choice from a list of books I gave her. It was so fun to pick the books, and I include them here, should you wish to read along with Esther:
"Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino -- A beautiful, fantastical book
about imaginary cities
"Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges -- The master of intellectual fantasy
"The Queen's Gambit" by Water Tevis -- A page-turner about a troubled
female chess champion
"The Hook" by Donald Westlake -- A gruesome thriller about a writer
desperate for a publishing deal
"Dictionary of the Khazars" by Milorad Pavic -- A postmodern novel in
the form of a dictionary about a vanished tribe of dreamers
"for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is
enuf" by ntozake shange -- A heartbreaking play by a radical philly
"The Code of the Woosters" by PG Wodehouse -- my favorite comic writer
"Molloy" by Samuel Beckett -- another very funny book
"Narcissus and Goldmund" by Herman Hesse -- a philosophical novel
about two best friends who make opposite choices
"Birdy" by William Wharton -- one of my favorite novels ever, and it
takes place in suburban philly!
"Autobiography of Red" by Anne Carson -- a novel in poems that
combines Greek myth and modern love
"The Duino Elegies" by Rainer Maria Rilke -- my favorite poems
"Elements of Style" by Strunk and White