Barking up the wrong horse In my PhD lab we would have lab meetings twice a week and these meetings could run three hours, have a weekly journal club, and could have any number of departmental activities. To survive the boredom and horrible science my friends and I decided to start playing a game. Let me tell you about it. The PI of the lab would constantly use cliche sayings. Admittedly, he did have a couple nice ones, such as “there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.” More often than not though, he would often horribly mess them up. For example, and I swear to God, he said “you’re barking up the wrong horse.” So my friends and I decided to start making up sayings and using them in our lab presentations to see if we could get him to believe they are real sayings and to start using them, preferably in public. We started modestly. We wanted sayings that sounded like they could be actual sayings, but were still ridiculous enough that most people would think the person is crazy. One of my friends came up with “don’t shake the squirrel’s tail.” He used it several times but it never really elicited any reactions from the PI or caught on. God bless my friends, but this mission was going to need a professional. So I went into the Think Tank. After a stroll through my mind palace I emerged with the gem of “don’t blame the cow for spoiled milk.” It’s great, it kind of sounds like the saying “don’t cry over spilled milk”, so someone might think it’s real. In fact, it’s so good I had to Google it to make sure it’s NOT real. And you can even use it as a template for the farm animal of your liking. For example, “don’t blame the chicken for a cracked egg.” This saying also works perfectly for scientists, because negative results (“spoiled milk”) happen all the time, but you can’t always blame the researcher (“the cow”). All that was left was delivering the trojan horse. So when I prepared for my lab meetings I would find a place in the presentation that was most fitting the saying. Since I knew when I was going to drop the bomb I was able to gather myself and keep my composure, but my friends didn’t have that luxury so the bigger challenge was to have them not burst into laughter in the middle of the talk. Despite multiple attempts, this cow phrase also didn’t catch on, but it did cause the foreign postdocs to wonder what my obsession with cows was. And so it went. Every lab meeting I would either have a new phrase or try to recycle a phrase I used before in an effort to implant it into the PI’s consciousness. Some phrases were more successful than others. One such phrase I stole from the Bachelor (yes, I used to watch the Bachelor, RIP Grantland) on Juan Pablo’s season (he is the man). An Asian contestant on the show said that she wanted to be treated like she was “a panda in a room full of brown bears.” I don’t know if this is an actual saying Asians say, but I’m pretty sure it’s unheard of in America, so I went with it. After getting back from a conference, during my lab meeting I said that at the poster session I wanted to be a panda in a room full of brown bears. And the PI immediately started laughing and said “aww, you weren’t the panda.” Seed planted. Most sayings were not this successful, and in fact usually just resulted in a confused look from the PI. For me the game started to evolve into trying to see how red I could make my friends faces turn with the crazy shit I was saying. When a student rotated in the lab we told him about what we were doing, and he told his friends. One of his friends came up with a completely crazy saying, and wanting to see how far I could take this, I decided to go ahead and use it. So during my presentation I said “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t turn it into a tree.” Just a bunch more red faces and another puzzled look from the PI. So I took another trip to the Think Tank. Our PI has a strange fascination with Southern culture, and I wanted something that sounded like it could be a Southern phrase. My Think Tank did not disappoint. And to top it off, my friend in the lab is from Louisiana, so I gave the saying to him to deliver, and deliver he did. During a lab meeting he said “don’t throw out the corn with the cob.” After thinking about it for a while the PI asked, “Is that a Southern thing.” Yes, yes it is.
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