Pazzatzta! Hebrew acronym meaning Fall-Crawl-Scan Area-Return Fire. It’s hot, hard to breathe in the dry desert air. Fire! Fire! Keep firing, the brambles cutting into my elbows as I wiggle and wriggle through the thorny field, sun beating on my helmet. Fire, fire, my elbows burn and my heart pounds as I crawl for cover behind a rock. Sharp pain stinging my shoulder—I’m hit!
It’s Einat in my ear, poking me in the shoulder again. “Wake up, you’re doing it again.”
Suddenly I am awake and out of breath; I can feel the moisture forming a loose coat on the pillow.
Einat yawns. “Yes, I know.” She rolls over and sighs. A little too loudly. “We can talk in the morning. I need my sleep now.”
I feel a twinge in my abdomen. “I’m sorry, Einat. I really am. You know how much I hate when this happens.”
Muffled through the pillow. “We’ll talk in the morning—I’m tired now.”
But in the morning I had a committee meeting scheduled and a student depending on me.
“Dr. Meyer, do you have a minute?” It was Mina, cornering me before I could retreat to the shadows and navigate past the administrative office to the safety of my own lair.
I had barely extracted myself from the elevator, my backpack swinging round as I turned. “Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven…”
“I get it,” she said laughing. “But I’ve got to update you on a few things before your committee meeting.”
“Sure, how about if I stop by the office in an hour and you can fill me in. I’m sure there’s nothing we can’t handle—or have the students gone on strike and made demands?”
“What would their demands be?” Mina asked.
I put on my serious poker face. “That all faculty are responsible for taking their students out to lunch once a week—to a good restaurant. Now I’ve got to run.”
Into my office, close and lock the door, boot up the computer. Pulse 67. Is there an arrhythmia? Do those defibrillators actually work? Taking stock, slight twinge, right upper quadrant. Bile duct? Pancreatitis? Are my hands jaundiced, or is that just the fluorescent light in this room?
Achoti hayekara—my dear sister
Without Ory I don’t know what I would do. Well actually, I do. I know exactly what I would do—get on the very first plane home—ha baita. First flight to New Jersey, second flight direct to Tel Aviv. And that would be the end of the story. Sof pasuk. Finito. Done.
But I can’t do that to him; he would collapse. But so will I—how much longer can I take it? If I don’t act, I will be the one who will collapse.
Before Ory was born it was never like this. True, there were hints. Some of them you even witnessed, at least in part. A scratch that needed a Tetanus shot urgently on Shabbat when we were still in Jerusalem. A mole that turned out to be an age-old birthmark. A dog who passed by and barely sniffed followed by a rabies shot. But everyone has their shigonot, their craziness. Who am I to judge. But there are gvulot—limits on how much I can take.
You know that I never wanted to come here. I always wanted to stay with you and Abba and Ema—our parents and the rest of the family. My heritage, my language, my culture, my literature—everything left behind. And when we did come here, supposedly temporarily, I always wanted to return home. Eitan always said we would. I don’t blame him, though. Your kids suffer a lot of bullying in the school system at home, and the teachers there do nothing—efes. Ory is so sensitive, I can’t see it. But what choice will I have if this continues? Yesterday Eitan came home from work, hugged Ory, and would barely eat. His lymph nodes were enlarged. So what—Az mah?! Everyone in town has the flu, and he is worrying about cancer because his lymph nodes are enlarged. Did he measure them? Well, worrying is one thing, but he can’t shake it off. Not even for ten minutes. How long will it be until Ory notices, le azalzel—dammit?!
Well, I must be getting back to work. We are submitting a proposal for the new convention center here and it is a big thing for my company. It would be fun to do. But who knows what will be?
Ohevet—with much love,
“Eitan, I’m not a doctor and I’m not a nursemaid. I’ve given up trying to give you advice.” Einat began collecting the plates and scraping the leftovers onto a napkin for disposal.
I sighed and ran my fingers through my hair. “But Einat, I really don’t know what to do. Don’t you think I should see a doctor?”
Einat never stopped cleaning up—not even for a second—and didn’t bother looking up at me. “Enough is enough. It doesn’t matter what I tell you, you need to convince yourself. It was over three weeks ago that you thought you had blood in the stool. What have you done in the meantime except moan and complain about it?”
“I don’t want the doctor to think I’m stupid or childish,” I said. “I don’t want him to ridicule me. I thought it would be best if I gave it some time—to see if it occurs again.”
Einat stopped scraping and put down the knife. “Eitan, I will not enter the bathroom again to peer into the toilet and help you decide whether there’s blood in the stool. If you have any concerns, go see your doctor. There are some pretty easy tests that he can do to check.”
“But what if there really is blood? What if he wants me to do a colonoscopy? I can’t go through with that.”
Einat pulled the garbage bag out of the trash bin and set it down on the kitchen floor, making a loud thump. “You don’t even know if there really is blood in the stool, and already you’re jumping up and down and waving your arms in the air about colonoscopies.” I could see that I wasn’t going to get much in the way of sympathy, but I couldn’t let go.
“Einat, what am I supposed to do?”
This time she looked at me straight in the eyes. “Just grow up.”
I breathe in and breathe out just as Dr. Connor always demonstrated for me in his plant-laden office. One more time. And again. I check my pulse—lo and behold, a stable and encouraging 61. Today is a good day; normal blood pressure in the morning, and now, even with all the tension of writing a grant and teaching, my pulse is still perfectly normal at rest.
Pleased with myself, I move away from my desk and amble down the hallway towards the lab. I glance at the familiar colorful scientific posters hanging on the bulletin boards outside each laboratory as I move down the corridor, stopping to reexamine some of them, as though they had magically changed from the day before. The familiar smell of acetic acid—vinegar on chips—wafts through the air. I breathe in deeply again, savoring the odor of incoming results and the accompanying adrenalin rush, thinking—great, someone must be de-staining an acrylamide protein gel.
As I slide through the open door of my own laboratory, protected from the sight of my laboratory personnel by the large cooled centrifuge to my right, I can hear bits and pieces of conversation. In fact, I hear my own name being invoked several times.
Feeling guilty, I stop in my tracks and shift my weight against the side of the lab refrigerator. Rebecca is there at her bench, with both Dharpana and Jianguo. No one can see me; I am in a lab-blind.
“Write your name with a big black marker on all of your equipment, Jianguo. Make sure you do this for all the pipettes, all your reagents—basically everything you have,” said Rebecca.
“Rebecca, you told me the same thing when I arrived here not too long ago—and of course I did it—but I never thought to ask why it’s so important,” said Dharpana.
Jianguo was already obediently labeling all of his equipment and reagents, cautiously forming each letter with intense patience; it didn’t appear as though he had any concerns as to the reason for this seemingly strange custom.
“First, it’s what Ethan wants,” said Rebecca. “I guess he wants to make sure that no one from outside the lab takes anything of ours. It may be a bit overboard but it does make sense.”
Dharpana pointed at the adjoining laboratories with her pipette. “Have you ever had issues with our neighbors taking reagents? I can’t imagine that any of the students or post-docs on this floor would actually take something that doesn’t belong to them from another lab.”
Rebecca sighed. “Well, as I said, it may be a bit exaggerated. Ethan’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I suspect that the desire to guard and hang onto things may have been something that he picked up from them during his childhood. I don’t really know.”
Feeling my guilt spike by the minute, I quietly slunk back into the hallway and shuffled towards my office. Yes, my grandparents did survive Treblinka—but Rebecca was wrong. My ultra-guarded and “anal” behavior as the students called it—my suspicion of the entire universe—did not derive from my grandparents. It was purely a product of my military service.
The Golan Heights, 1983
Basic training was completed to my overwhelming relief, and I was hoping that my upcoming new posting with an active artillery battalion would give me the opportunity to be with higher-quality soldiers—ones who wouldn’t steal my equipment and come an hour late to replace me on guard duty at 3 a.m. Now I was finally looking forward to being with soldiers with whom I had more in common. Unfortunately, that notion was soon dispelled.
On the first day with this active battalion, we new artillery recruits lined up outside the dining hall before lunch. After the traditional fifty push-ups and washing our hands, we were admitted to the building and squashed onto benches—with four soldiers per bench and eight at each table.
Coming just after basic training, this was the first time in months that we did not have a finite seven minutes to finish our lunch. Actually, I had learned to appreciate that seven full and uninterrupted minutes were loads of time to eat. The problem was that during basic training, the dining room Master Sergeant would not allow a single noise in the dining hall during meals. Worse, the sadistic bastard would frequently invent a noise that someone had purportedly made to torture us, just as the steaming hot food arrived. As punishment, he would make us stand at attention on our benches as the smells from the food danced mischievously under our noses. Sometimes, he would make us stand for a full five minutes, with our stomachs growling and the hunger making us dizzy. Occasionally there would be a “thump” as a soldier fell off the bench and collapsed from fatigue and hunger. I would frequently leave the dining hall with my combat fatigue pockets crammed with bread, rice or even mashed potatoes.
Seated in the dining hall of our new base, I was in a good mood as the soldier on kitchen duty deposited a metal tray on our table containing some oily rice and eight small pieces of even greasier chicken—some of the pieces with feathers still attached. The soldier opposite me on the other side of the table grabbed the tray, dumped a piece of chicken and a generous amount of the rice onto his plate and passed the tray clockwise to the soldier on his left. As the tray arrived in the hands of the seventh soldier, the one immediately to my right, he dumped the little remaining rice onto his own plate along with the last two pieces of chicken that were left on the tray—either ignoring my existence or making the incorrect assumption that I was a vegetarian with no interest in the chicken.
Having learned my lesson over and over in basic training, I took my fork and speared the larger of the two pieces on his plate, dumping the chicken on my own plate and guarding my lunch with my right elbow. So much for the brotherhood of soldiers on this new base and my good mood.
I hit the garage door opener and could immediately feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I longed to see Ory, and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to see Einat. I longed to be with her, too—but I knew that her cold silences could drive me to despair. Was it my fault? I didn’t doubt it—but how could I get off the treadmill of hypochondria and make her happy to be with me again?
I opened the door, and before I could even take in the surroundings, I was hit by a resounding “ABBA!” Ory came charging down the hall and I lifted him high in the air, tickling him under his arms as I did so. I twisted to set him down and he bounced his feet on the floor and said “More!”
I looked over at Einat leaning on the counter and said, “If only you greeted me with half as much enthusiasm.”
Einat almost smiled—I could see that faint twitch of her lips—as she continued peeling the cucumber. “You have a nasty habit of dampening my enthusiasm just minutes later. What was it yesterday? Inflammatory Bowel Disease? Or was it Myasthenia Gravis? No, let’s see, that was Monday.”
“I get it,” I said and hung up my jacket.
“That’s the thing, Eitan, you just don’t get it. Everything is fine as long as you don’t start up. Like these few minutes. But when your imagination kicks into overdrive, I can’t hack it any more.”
The centrifuge was humming as I leaned back against the bench and squinted at the sun peeking through the blinds. It was close to 6 p.m., and I had stopped by the lab one more time before heading home. It was quiet in the department, and the connected laboratories next door to mine were mostly deserted. This was not the famous NIH—the National Institutes of Health, where the laboratories were buzzing 24/7. On the other hand, my own students and post-doctoral fellows were still avidly carrying out experiments and tapping away on the keyboards of their computers.
I liked to come by the lab before leaving the building just to make sure that there weren’t any sudden urgent issues or fabulous exciting results that warranted my immediate attention. In addition, I was certain that these little visits had a motivational effect on my personnel—a principal investigator who didn’t show enough interest in the work that went on in his own laboratory could hardly expect his own people to become excited about what they were doing. But today, I had an ulterior reason for stopping by; I had a specific message to pass on to my charges.
“I want you guys to try and think about any additional small equipment or expensive reagents that might be useful to the lab,” I said.
Rebecca, Dharpana, Brian and a few others were clustered around in a semicircle. “I thought that you didn’t get funded on that grant you were telling us about,” Brian said. “How is it then that we suddenly have money to spare?”
I shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s a very funny system. It’s not like putting money away and saving for retirement or a rainy day—we need to spend every last cent of the money that we have during the current fiscal year.” I spread my hands in front of me. “Ironically, even if we have no new money coming in for the upcoming year, I can’t save a dime of this year’s money. It’s ‘use it or lose it’—so we need to stock up on anything that might be useful for the coming year.”
Rebecca looked at me in disbelief. “But isn’t that—well—just wasteful?”
I sighed audibly, nodding my head slightly. “Let’s put it this way, I don’t think we waste any money, but I’d much prefer to be able to save some of the money so that we could use it for sudden, unexpected or important purchases in the future.” I picked up a pipette off the bench and placed it carefully in its holder. “As for waste, I can tell you that when I was at NIH—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Brian said. “When you were at NIH—I think we’ve heard that one before.”
“I have not,” Dharpana said. “I would like to hear about waste at NIH.”
Brian walked determinedly into the next room. “No offense, but some of us have work to do.”
“Go ahead Brian,” I said, waving him off. “You know me—I’m certainly not going to keep you from your work.” I turned to Dharpana. “It’s a rather amusing story, if one can get over the waste.”
I explained that when I had been a post-doctoral fellow at the NIH, I had once placed an order for fourteen millicurries of radioactive material. All orders for radioactive material had to be sent by the NIH purchasing agents to the radiation safety unit for approval and processing. In addition, since the NIH was very concerned about the possibility of radioactive materials falling into the hands of terrorists, there was a rule that only one order could be processed per person, per day.
I told my crew that this wasn’t a problematic issue for me because fourteen millicurries was a considerable amount. If more material was needed, then two different post-docs could place the same order and pool the material for an experiment using twenty-eight millicurries. If a single post-doc were to place more than a single order on one day, the order would usually go through, but the material would be received on consecutive days and not on the same day.
“Quite ridiculous, wasn’t it?” I could see everyone nodding. After all, a patient terrorist could acquire hundreds of millicurries within a few weeks, if he or she desired.
“Anyway,” I continued, “I placed my order and as usual the purchasing agent was busy polishing her nails. These agents couldn’t have cared less about the work that we were doing.”
“Then why didn’t your boss fire them or at least complain?”
“Good question, Richard,” I said to my student. “The NIH had two parallel tracks—one was research, while the other was purely administrative. The head of my department—or branch as they call it at NIH—had absolutely no authority over the purchasing agents.” I shrugged my shoulders. “These agents were entirely under the domain of the administrative sector. Basically, they were more or less immune to any criticism from the scientists.”
“Wow, that’s so different from the way it is here,” said Rebecca. “That doesn’t sound very efficient.”
I looked around at my captive audience. “Wait,” I said, “I didn’t even get to the fun part yet.” I continued. “Anyway, somehow the brilliant procurement agent—in between polishing her nails and brushing her hair—managed to put the order through and send a request for fourteen sets of fourteen millicurries of radioactive material—that’s one hundred and ninety six millicurries for those of you who are math-challenged.”
Rebecca was astonished. “And that order actually went through?”
“It sure did,” I nodded. “But it took me three or four days to realize what had happened—only after I kept receiving a new vial of fourteen additional millicurries everyday. But by that time, when I went to ask what was going on at the procurement office and then tried to stop the order from continuing, it was too late.” I picked up a sheaf of papers from the bench. “As soon as the paperwork had been done, it couldn’t be reversed.”
“So what did you do?” Dharpana asked.
“What could I do?” I shrugged. “Each vial of radioactive material cost about five hundred dollars, so you can figure out how much money was wasted. In the end, the whole lab was writing e-mails to the entire NIH community to try and find someone—anyone—who might be able to use the material. After all, it had a half-life of about eighty days.”
“Unbelievable,” Rebecca said. “That must be one of the biggest wastes in scientific history.”
As wasteful as it was, I thought to myself, it was nothing compared to one of the bureaucratic wastes that I witnessed while serving in the military.