Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Psychophant:
by: Schvach Yid


I last worked as a laboratory technician in a University-based academic biomedical core laboratory. Core labs function to provide lab resources, such as cell lines, to the research labs of other faculty members , as well as to carry out various aspects of projects on behalf of those research labs. My former boss’ lab was changed several times as the infantile faculty members engaged in an ongoing dispute about space allocation, and so the department heads chose to play musical labs with the combatants until they fatigued and fell silent. Anyway, one of the labs assigned to my former boss was taken over in part by another faculty member- the space was to be shared. The door locks were changed. I, as a technician, was granted access. My boss evidently was not. One fine day he demanded I leave my keys with him overnight so he could enter the newly shared lab, stating he needed to stay late and do some bench work, and that he hadn’t bothered to pick up his newly assigned keys from the campus police office. He hadn’t the time, he added. Two years later, he still hadn’t acquired his own set of keys, he said (having never been asked). In the six years I knew him he advanced from a newly hired assistant professor to a fully tenured full professor. During that time, it seemed as though everyone around him met with disaster. His post-doctoral fellows had to rely on other faculty members to acquire the necessary recommendations for new positions elsewhere. During this time he dated and married a fellow faculty member located half a hallway away (his first marriage – he was in his upper 50’s; never mind the history he flaunted in the lab, personal JPEG’s included). Her Ph.D. student , a graduate of Harvard (this institution is no Harvard) flunked her dissertation defense, and had to start her degree from scratch in another department. They dropped like flies while he blossomed. Everyone except his Ph.D. student, a middle aged adult and career officer in the military, long out of school, who accomplished the fabulous feat of successfully completing a Ph.D in one of the biomedical sciences in 4 years (a time limitation imposed by the military, or so he said). I knew of no other graduate student in that institution who did the same, except for one student in the combined MD/PhD program, and he was exceptional. My former boss’ student was no wunderkind of academia. He used to come to me, a lab tech, for help with solving cell dilution calculations – a high school biology problem that uses junior high school level math – and he accomplished what a Harvard grad could not! During this time, while his colleagues and employees were meeting with disaster, our boss managed to become wealthy, in a research faculty sort of way; he had been awarded grants galore, and he now held sway. My boss wanted to expand his lab space. Abracadabra, hocus pocus the faculty researcher next door lost her faculty position (he, in clairvoyant fashion, had earlier predicted she would in what seem to me to have been a boastful manner), and wound up elsewhere in the world. She was, without a doubt, the brightest of the departmental members, having earned her undergraduate degree from an ivy league university as a math major and having served on the editorial board of a professional peer reviewed journal (a major one). Of all the professors of every rank, it was she who got the boot. My former boss thereupon took over her lab space, an entire lab adjoined to his via a connecting door. How lucky; I should have such mazel. He borrows my keys once, and thereafter never asked for them again, while piping up unsolicited remarks that he still had not picked up his set of keys from the campus police office. A keyless faculty member who made a point of saying so. Lamah? Perhaps because each departmental faculty member was provided with a pass key to all the labs (not to each others’ offices) so that any of them could access any lab in case of an emergency – a fact, not speculation, this was established procedure. I never checked if any of my assigned keys functioned as a pass key, but my former boss’ prediction about his lab neighbor’s demise, together with his version of a conquest of space, has left me paranoid, as has the letter of receipt I received from the department’s administrator when I resigned my job and surrendered those keys – she recorded the wrong key numbers on the receipt. Please don’t tell me she’s dyslectic. Lot’s of losers, both faculty and staff, and he a first class winner, as was his student - a street thug of a person, a class A refugee from the school yard. Everyone feared him, including the boss. A rather beefy looking graduate student once delivered a package to him, a simple crossing of the hallway. This other student approached with fear and trepidation, his voice cracking and torso arched backward to place added distance between his head and the thug-student. Other than studenthood they had tattoos in common – my boss’ student had the first upper case Greek letter of his fraternity branded into his upper arm and also tattooed onto his leg; the fearful one had a tattoo very much like the insignia worn on the tunics of German solders of the second world war, an eagle with its wings spread straight to its sides and a knob beneath, where the German insignia had displayed a swatstiker. The tattoo was displayed above one of his ankles.

My former boss’ student never missed a chance to display to one and all just who was the real boss in the lab. He would charge up to the professor in the hallway in a threatening way and with raised voice for all to see and hear assert ‘I thought I told you this won’t do; if I wanted you to change my evaluation I would have told you to’ – the student shouting at his dissertation advisor over the student’s first evaluation. My old boss was accommodating and apologetic, in the hallway, in front of others: ‘Now, now, now’ he choked in clichéd response, ‘it has to be done this way’, and the student led the way into the professor’s office, like sequential volumes of 'Sociopathy for Dummies'. Or on a second occasion, while my former boss was in conference in his office with a visiting faculty member, this same student stormed into his mentor’s office and ordered our mutual boss to solve for him – yup, that’s right – a cell dilution calculation (in fact earlier that same day, he had demanded and received help from me for the same purpose). The boss answered that he was having a conference, and so the student shouted ‘never mind – do it now, and mean now!’, slamming a paper in his hand onto the boss’ desk. In response, the boss slowly swiveled his chair away from his guest so as to position himself squarely with his desk, then slowly reached for his reading glasses, placed them on his face, and silently obliged the student. The visiting faculty person sat petrified. I was passing by my boss’ office and just caught the scene, the door held ajar, the student holding it open with one leg as he berated our boss, as though this bit of theater were staged. The next morning I reported to the boss in his office, as was my established routine. He looked up at me, silent and pathetic, reading glasses perched above his nose, both lenses of which now bore innumerable scratches running in multiple directions. Not a word was spoken. My former boss was no wimp. He’s an androgen-drenched macho man, built like a walking side of beef, with hands the size of racquetball rackets and arms as thick as my neck, chest hairs exposed for the world to view and jeans so tightly fitted that in order to sit he had to open the button and let down the fly (for real) - his standard habitus while in his office. For him to have picked up the phone and requested help would have been laughable. And so there he sat, humbled and humiliated by his academically-dependent student, a worm squashed between boot and pavement, and probably deservedly so in light of my paranoid suspicions.

Then there was the mock lab meeting – the first lab meeting I attended in that lab (I would only attend one more, never again to be told about or invited to attend future meetings). An hour or so earlier the student walked up to me, a printout of a journal article in his hand. ‘I’m glad you told me I don’t read enough’ he said to me (not true). He then informed me another lab located at my former graduate school had published ‘his’ dissertation research. ‘Isn’t that a coincidence’ he said to me. The accusation was obvious. The title of the reseach paper was uncomfortably close to the student's dissertation topic, and one of the co-authors, I finally realized, was an investigator some of whose papers I had consulted a few years earlier while working in a different lab and on a completely different topic. I had, on that occasion, e-mailed him with a question. I had a bad habit of holding on to old e-mails, and that author was on the faculty of my former graduate school
to boot. But which of these two scam artists had done it, if anything had in fact been done? Was it the boss who may have sought to unload himself of this domineering and bullying street-savvy hemorrhoid, or was it
the student, in an attempt to pull off a sympathy ploy? The meeting that followed was a sham. The student had a color printout of the ferral research paper; the rest of us, including the boss, had black and white copies. The boss initiated: 'I 'm quite proud' of the student, he said. The student ruled! Surprise!

No information about the substance of the student’s dissertation came forth from either the boss or the student. Just nonspecific yap from the boss: ‘Oh, this has nothing to do with your work’ the boss said as he perused the paper. It was all theater; a fishing outing. I piped in: ‘They used a different cell line’. The student grinned in apparent mock glee, as though conveying a silent approval; speech was evidently beneath him. ‘Nothing to do with it’ was my boss’ reply to me'. 'I haven’t had time to study this paper’ my boss continued; the student jumped in and parroted his statement. More nonspecific musings from the boss, with no specific information about the student's work. The student remained silent. A lot of baloney - they were dealing three card Monte, and I was the designated chump! Did the student’s accusation stick? Probably.

This sycophantic macho man doffed his hat plenty to his lord and master mentioned below in the blog ‘The Sysiphean Existence of Jews’. My old boss was at first sponsored and mentored by his elder Indian colleague (many of my bosses employees were Indian, as is his wife whom he met at work). But something ran afoul. Yes, the stench of something rotten wafted through the lab. At my job interview , years ago, while he was a newly hired associate professor, my former boss told me about a ‘friend of his’. His ‘friend’, a middle aged man like himself, he said, had picked up a young woman in her 20’s and oops! – baby! He carried on, slamming his beefy fist onto the top of the desk: ‘those f***ing women, those goddam f***ing women, all they want to do is f***, and they don’t use anything, and they get pregnant, and they don’t leave you alone, and they want more’ on and on and on. Some job interview! The poor friend of his. 'We can talk about this ', he continued, ‘we’re both men’ (oy!, that word again). I asked him if his ‘friend’ had ever seen the baby. ‘No, who wants to see the baby’ was his answer (mind you, this was my job interview). He continued. He told me how he had to give his house in Hungary to his lord and master, the Indian professor mentioned above and in a previous blog, and how he had to evict his own parents who had occupied the house (his mother was at the time in her 80’s; his father in his early 90’s). Maybe I’m not so paranoid. A couple of years later his diminutively statured lord and master deigned to make an appearance in my former boss’ lab. He addressed me. He bragged about 'his' condominium’ located in a, by then, familiar sounding city in Hungary. 'You wouldn’t believe my condominium in Hungary'. On and on about his condo. My former boss stood there, chin stapled onto his chest, fingers shoved into the corresponding pockets of his tightly molded jeans, wrists flexed so that the back of each hand faced downward. ‘That’s enough’ my boss whispered. ‘Alright, that’s enough, I’m warning you, that’s enough’ - his drooping ego on display. The homunculus beamed. This was my former boss’ first bout of humiliation that I witnessed, a few years before the military student showed up in the lab to pick up and run with that baton. But in between, a few months into my then new job, what should appear in the lab (like the old Soupy Sales gag of opening the door and, each time, catching a pie in the face) but a 20 something year old woman pushing a baby in a stroller and accompanied by a female age peer. ‘Where’s the boss’ (actually, she demanded him by name)?!! I reticently replied ‘not here’, whereupon she stomped her way to the desk, picked up a pen, wrote a note on a yellow post-it, folded it in half, placed it on the desk, and then pushed the baby in the stroller toward the lab’s door, friend in tow. I doltishly asked ‘What’s your name’? She gave me a look! The friend looked livid. Out the troika went. The 20 something year old woman pushing the stroller, the one who demanded the boss and who wrote the note, had light colored hair and light colored eyes, as did the baby. My former boss has jet black hair and dark eyes, so unless his 'friend' is a heterozygous carrier for those two genetically recessive Mendelian traits, or himself is light haired and light eyed, the 'friend' is off the hook, right? My former boss, a Ph.D. bedecked biologist should have known this piece of 9th grade biology and should have properly advised his 'friend' - ergo, pack up the panic and meet the baby (fatherhood, anyone?). Am I paranoid or what? Dessert anyone? Well, not quite. My old boss is on top with position, influence, and cash, albeit at a modestly rated academic institution. Uncle Remus should sing about my former boss. Nothing stops him. Psychophant? Nah!

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