∞ = (Lab Meeting)1/2
By Kally O’Reilly
Every other Tuesday, for what is approximately two hours –two hours that feel like eternity looped back onto itself, two hours that are supposed to be only one hour– we gather to present data.
Well, really we present an idea, which is, of course, a really good idea, but then there is the data, which may or may not fit with the idea, and the data together with the idea leads us down a winding path, an infinitely winding path, to try to tell some kind of story.
There is a general progression to the presentation of the data that we might agree to describe as torturous or numbing or irritating or fatiguing or any number of feelings that would make you wish you could drink poisoned Kool-Aid, or bite off your own tongue, or stab yourself in the eye with a fork, except these are not viable ways to halt the inexorable progress of the data presentation, which typically proceeds as follows:
One (beginning of eternity) – The beginning of eternity has been designated to occur at 10:00 A.M., but really, the beginning of eternity starts at some time between 10:15 and 10:30 A.M. when The Leader arrives. Because of the predictably unpredictable arrival of The Leader, all other participants drip into the meeting location at around 10:15 ± 20 minutes. When enough people have amassed, the presentation starts. If enough people amass prior to the arrival of The Leader, the presentation starts anew once The Leader arrives. People arriving after the start of the presentation will need to ask questions about material that has already been covered, which is to say that people arriving after the start of the presentation will ask questions about material that has already been covered. Thus, the beginning of eternity usually happens very slowly, sometime between 10:00 and 10:45, and begins again with the entrance of each participant.
The presenter of the really good idea and the data that may or may not fit with it introduces herself, though we all know her well enough to have formed prejudices before she starts. She proceeds to unroll the necessary, or unnecessary, background information of the idea, and perhaps even the beginnings of her data’s story.
It is difficult to describe with a single word the introduction of such a loquacious scientist, or rather I have difficulty describing how the scientist’s introduction feels. “Loquacious” does not capture the incredible speed with which she conveys information, though her rate of discourse requires me to reconsider the use of the word “conveys,” as much of what she says cannot be registered at the velocity with which it is delivered. At this point, the beginning of eternity feels like being launched out of a cannon, at least the first time the presenter starts presenting, but with each re-beginning (as described above), that launch feels more like being carried on the back of a giant turtle, but at a really fast turtle pace.
Two (elongation) – Next is the elongation process, during which there is the literal stretching of the allegedly-one-hour meeting to two hours, and the experiential stretching of two hours into an eternal loop.
The Leader is usually the one to initiate and execute elongation, which is also to say that The Leader derives energy from elongation at the audience’s expense. We could suppose, or pretend, that elongation is an attempt to share knowledge or to engage in a pedagogy of sorts, that elongation exists for the sake of enriching us. In fact, the first part of elongation has to do with sharing what The Leader knows, which often involves The Leader believing (or pretending) that we did not know something so that The Leader can tell us what we don’t know or that we know incorrectly. For The Leader, the most important result of elongation is that everyone should know that The Leader already knew.
Although the data belongs to one person, or at first it belongs to one person, after we all submerge ourselves in it and scrutinize it for what will begin to feel like eternity looped back on itself, we all deeply own it, too. Becoming one with the data is impossible to avoid; to see the data is to understand the data, but the need to understand the data means we need to see the data, again and again and then “could you just go back one slide?” Thus, the second component of elongation is the obsessive scrutiny which fosters and perhaps even renders acceptable the elongation period. We simultaneously struggle with whether to ask a question, with full knowledge that the asking further elongates the elongation, or not to ask the question, which due to the merging of self with data makes the question essential. We also simultaneously wish we had Kool-Aid to drink, or a fork with which to pluck our eyes, etc., that is to say that each of us try to determine if we can or should bite our tongues.
The elongation consists of approximately one and a half occasionally almost tolerable hours.
Three (coping, disengagement, and exhaustion) – The experiential stretching of two hours into eternity is the polar opposite of a wormhole. It is, in fact, what you might call a longcut through spacetime. We therefore must disengage from elongation as a coping mechanism, because gouging out our eyes, drinking Kool-Aid, and biting off our tongues are not realistic options.
Disengagement can be an action, perhaps gazing out the window to the street located nine stories below (that would relieve you if you could break through this double-paned escape hatch), or by texting a loved one (whose vapid reply of “bummer” indicates he has not comprehended the sheer torture that is elongation), or even attempting to work on something on our laptops, all of which requires maintaining the façade of continued attendance and participation. The façade makes disengagement somewhat exhausting, somehow contributing to the elongation, or rather, the feeling of elongation elongating, which is to say that disengagement is simultaneously a coping mechanism in that the passage of time becomes less noticeable, and an elongation elongator because the total loss of control has been undeniably realized.
Elongation lasts approximately one half of an hour though it feels like infinity minus approximately one and a half hours.
Three point five (the escape) – It is possible that a fire alarm goes off, or a herd of recently greased pigs stampedes down the hall, allowing for everyone to escape. But it is more likely, and has happened on more than one occasion, that a sneezing fit occurs, an experiment suddenly becomes time sensitive, a forgotten doctor’s appointment is remembered, or someone’s sister’s appendix needs to be removed, which may have happened more than once, and now everyone is keeping track of how many sisters I have and how many appendices have been removed.
Four (endings) – Sometimes the meeting concludes because The Leader has another appointment he must attend, an appointment for which he will inevitably be late. Other times, all the questions have been asked and the presenter has no more information to offer and at this point she stands before all of us in distress because we’ve discovered all the flaws in the data and crushed her spirit. At this point, there’s nothing left to do but wander out and move on to our collecting data that may or may not support our really great ideas.
Suffice it to say, the ending, no matter how eventual or premeditated, is a relief of the vacuum pressure holding us together with presenter and The Leader. The resulting release is not accurately relayed by the popping noise of the vacuum’s release, nor by the residual (invisible) hickey, though were it visible it still could not reflect the agonizing process of how it got there.
Unfortunately, it seems that we learn something during the two hours that should have been one hour but were actually eternity looped back on itself. “Learning something” is addictive, but could also be translated as “we asked a question or contributed in some way that made us feel smart,” and feeling smart means we return more-or-less willingly more-or-less every Tuesday to merge with the data and stretch the two hours until they closely resemble eternity, and we more-or-less never gouge out our eyes or drink the Kool-Aid. And we certainly — never ever — bite our tongues.
Kally O’Reilly (Sparks) is a Research Scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. She landed this position after a five-year stint at New York University, though those five years felt like fifteen years. The first year felt just like a year but the second and fourth years felt like three years and six months each and the third year felt like five years and eight months. The fifth year felt like one year for the first eleven months, but in the eleventh month, Dr. O’Reilly had a baby and the last week of pregnancy felt like two months and the following months were just a haze that she modestly estimates lasted three months.