11 December 2020


Please note that this is work in progress. Consequently, not all chapters are available at all times.

[link] The Magnificent Bastard Project
[link] Four quotes regarding memoirs


[link] Where it began ...
[link] Where it began ... (Part 2)
[link] Between a rock and a hard place since 1965
[link] Paradise
[link] Paradise (Part 2)
[link] Pig at the party


[link] First schooldays
[link] First schooldays (Part 2)
[link] My accident
[link] My accident (Part 2)


[link] Strange love
[link] Strange love (Part 2)
[link] The vicious beating of Bernhard Ö.


[link] Rebels
[link] My friend Tommy
[link] My friend Tommy (Part 2)
[link] My friend Tommy (Part 3)


[link] The suitcase and The Rat
[link] Yugoslavia
[link] Yugoslavia (Part 2)
[link] Yugoslavia (Part 3)
[link] Yugoslavia (Part 4)
Adventures on the Reeperbahn


[link] The battle of the halfwits
[link] The battle of the halfwits (Part 2)
[link] The battle of the halfwits (Part 3)
[link] "It's entirely your own fault ..."
[link] "It's entirely your own fault ..." (Part 2)


[link] The fish that weren't there
[link] The fish that weren't there (Part 2)
Letter to a president


The good employee's dilemma
The devil's advocate's rebellion
[link] Budget day or The tale of the villagers and the pie
Retreat of clowns
The Senate Budget Comedy
The day I got sacked


03 December 2020

The Magnificent Bastard Project

About four years ago I started writing a memoir titled Memoirs of a Magnificent Bastard. The title was meant ironically, of course.

The idea was to write up the strange things that happened in my life, and there were many indeed. Good things. Bad things. Things that made me laugh. Sad things. Things that made me think. ... That was the idea. The problem was and is, of course, who would read such a book? And if nobody would read it, who would publish it?

(I did have an alternative title in mind -- The Life and Times of an Inconsequential Man -- which would have drawn even less attention.)

To be sure, I once did have great ambition. But it didn't work out.

I am not gifted, nor am I extraordinarily smart. I wasn't studious, nor hard-working. I did not write a great novel, not compose a great song, not paint a great work of art. I did not discover anything of importance, not invent something extraordinary. I did not save anybody's life, nor lead a revolution. I was not born into Royal entitlement, I cannot hit or kick or throw a ball particularly far, and I do not give make-up tips on YouTube. I did not live through great adventures, nor through great hardships.

Nothing ever became of me, and I was lucky. If I had achieved something, I may have never met my lovely wife.

Figure: The happy bridal couple, San Francisco, 30 Dec 2009. Photo: Eliot Khuner (2009)

Besides, the problem never was that I did not make it in the Academy. The problem was who made it and why. The stakes were against me.

(You see, I come from a country where failure to speak up for fellow citizens has led to unspeakable tragedy. Consequently, early in my life I decided that whenever I run into injustice, corruption, stupidity, or mere indifference, I shall speak up. And so I did give it a good fight, and so I do, and I do have the scars to prove it. But that is all right, because along the way I have learned a few things.)

In the end, who cares? Who cares if my stories will never find a publishing house? In fact, who cares about the lives and times of the people whose memoirs fill a whole bookshelf in our home? ... Well, we do.

And so I will write up the stories for nobody else but us. And if you happen to like a few, all the better.

Michael Baumann, December 2020


Four quotes regarding memoirs

"All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."
Ernest Hemingway (1964), A Moveable Feast

"It's the inescapable problem of the autobiography: how much is left out, how much has been genuinely forgotten, and how much has been touched up to throw the subject into striking relief?"
Robertson Davies (1975), World of Wonders

"Readers of biographies like their meat rare."
Robertson Davies (1988), The Lyre of Orpheus

"He who speaks the truth will need a fast horse."


09 March 2017

Budget day or The tale of the villagers and the pie

Figure: The proverbial pie. Image: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/dining/marian-burros-plum-torte-recipe.html (Accessed: 2 Jan 2021)

I wrote this short short story in 2017 after another "budget day" at the University of the Fraser Valley.

What usually happened on budget day was that Chief Financial Officer Hogan would present next year's budget to the administration, faculty, and staff. Of course, few faculty ever showed up to this. Mid-level bureaucrats, on the other hand, were not only required to show up but also to appear supportive of Hogan.

To be sure, the budget at any large organization is finicky work, and no blame for the circus should go to the operational specialists. Furthermore, most of the budget goes into salaries and benefits, which both are tightly controlled by contracts and the collective agreement.

Where the whole thing becomes ridiculous is around discretionary budgets, the money that can be spent according to whims and fancies of administrators. For example: In 2017, the History department at U.F.V. had no money to pay for a hot-dog lunch for their History majors, about a hundred students in number, with a maximum estimated cost of $1,000. The same year, U.F.V. spent $34,576 on retreats for senior administrators at Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa(1).

Anyway here is ...


Every year on her birthday, the queen would send a royal pie to every village in the country. It wasn't a big pie. It wasn't a fancy pie. And it didn't even look royal.

Every year the villagers would gather on the village green, and every year the mayor cut the royal pie so that everyone could enjoy their fair piece.

And so she proceeded to hand a piece to the baker.

"Hold on," said the baker. "That's a rather small piece. I am the baker. I bake bread for the village. And without bread the villagers would all starve. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the cobbler.

"Hold on," said the cobbler. "That's a rather small piece. I am the cobbler. I make the shoes for the village. And without shoes the villagers could not go about their business. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

"You're right," said the mayor again. And she proceeded to hand the piece to the doctor.

"Hold on," said the doctor. "That's a rather small piece. I am the doctor. I take care of the sick in the village. And without my care the sick would die. I deserve a bigger piece of pie."

And on and on it went. The butcher, the grocer, the blacksmith, the farmer, the teacher, the barber, the soldier, the tailor, the lawyer, the sailor, the banker, the builder, nobody wanted to take the piece.

"That's enough!" cried the mayor. "Everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie. But if any one of you gets a bigger piece that means that somebody else must get a smaller one."

"Mayor!!" the villagers cried in unison. "You should have gotten us a bigger pie. And since you didn't do your job, you should get the smaller piece."

"Hold on," interrupted the bookkeeper. "We had the same situation last year."

"Aha!!" the villagers cried again in unison. "And then what did we do?"

The bookkeeper studied his notes and said: "The philosopher told us that we are all selfish, and that the mayor's job is to distribute the pie fairly amongst the villagers, just as it is the queen's job is to distribute the pies fairly amongst the mayors."

"It all doesn't look fair to me!!" cried the villagers a third time in unison. "Let's ask the philosopher again."

"The philosopher?" said the mayor. "We cut his piece of pie last year. He doesn't live here anymore."


(1) https://www.ufv.ca/media/assets/finance/UFV-SOFI-17_Final-Report_Ministry.pdf (Accessed: 17 Dec 2020)


22 July 2015

"It's entirely your own fault ..." (Part 2)

I still had some time before my meeting and wondered whether Carl was still around. The Fisheries Centre was now housed in a building called the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratory, a new charmless concrete-and-steel block between BioSciences and the Biodiversity Museum.

I found his name on the directory and walked up to the third floor. Room 325 was located at the end of the hallway, but the office was dark. Still through the glass insert I could see that Carl had managed to secure a good office again. Good for him.

As I walked along the gallery to the other side of the building, I looked down at the interior courtyard and into the laboratories across. That's why I spotted Professor Pauly only at the last moment.

"Daniel," I said, standing in front of him. "Hi."

He smiled, but it was obvious he didn't recognize me.

"I am sorry," he said. "I --"

"I am Michael Baumann."

It was as if he had bitten into a lemon. A rotten lemon. A rotten lemon dunked in cowshit. He didn't return my greeting, just turned his back on me and disappeared into his office.

When I reached the far end of the gallery, I found that the door there was an emergency exit only. Turning around and passing the offices, Pauly called out to me.

"Dr. Baumann!"

I turned around and stopped in his doorway. Pauly's office was a rather small affair and packed with books. I thought that it really must burn Pauly that even in retirement Carl still held an office that was larger than his and in a better location.

"Whatever became of you, Dr. Baumann?" he asked. He waited for a couple of moments and then gestured towards a chair in front of his desk. "Please, have a seat."

"Not much," I said, sitting down. "I am a bureaucrat now at Podunk University out in the Fraser Valley."

"There is a university in the Fraser Valley?"

I spread my arms and shrugged my shoulders. "Not really."

We both sat in silence.

Pauly looked as smug as he ever did, his eyes judging me, his mouth sharp, his spectacles dangling from his neck on a little chain, his tall body in a deliberately upright posture. He looked older though, wearier, which was no surprise.

About ten years earlier Pauly, in his mid-fifties then, had suffered a stroke. And shortly after somebody had told me about it, I saw him limping, and badly so, across the square in front of the Student Union Building. I remember thinking that you must never wish your nemeses ill, because decency demands that you do not fight a person who is weakened by anything other than the fight.

Pauly showed no remaining signs of the stroke and was obviously back in fighting form. I was glad for both of us.

He seemed to remember something.

"You know, over the years I have come to realize that I myself am only a footnote in the history of Science."

"Okay," I said, unsure where this was going.

"It might interest you that you are a footnote to me. ... A footnote to a footnote."

He seemed amused by his bon mot.

"Do you still keep up with the literature?" he asked.

"Sure," I said without conviction.

He got up from his chair and began rearranging some boxes, rummaging through some of them. He finally seemed to have found what he was looking for. He turned to me.

"Here. This is for you."

He handed me a book titled 5 Easy Pieces, a title undoubtedly chosen in jest.

"It's a book I wrote about my five Nature and Science publications," he said. "That and the professional reactions to them. You will find yourself in Chapter One."

"Thank you," I said, leaving through the book casually. "I will read it later."

Again, there was an awkward silence between us. Luckily, I do enjoy awkward moments and the tension they create.

"You know, Dr. Baumann," he broke the silence. "It's entirely your own fault that nothing ever became of you."

I didn't know whether I was supposed to be offended.

"Well, we all make mistakes," I finally said. "That's just the way life is. I am sure you have made your fair share too. Some mistakes are accidental, of course, and some circumstantial. Few are by choice. And at the time you never know how things will turn out. And you know it could have turned out quite differently. For me. For you."

Pauly didn't say anything, but I don't think he appreciated my philosophy.

"Well," he said, "it was good seeing you after all these years."

He got up from his chair, and so did I, and we shook hands.

"Hang on a second," he said. "Let me quickly ..."

He took the book from my hands and put his reading glasses way down his nose, the little chain now dangling from his temples. He handed the book back to me.

The dedication read: To Michael Baumann with my compliments. Vancouver, July 22, 2015. Daniel Pauly.

Figure: Daniel Pauly's dedication to me in his book "5 Easy Pieces". Image: Michael Baumann (2020)

"Thank you," I said, because that is what you do, although I must admit that the "Daniel Pauly" was illegible and may as well have been an abstract "Fuck You".

As I made my way to my meeting, I thought about Pauly. I hadn't seen him in fifteen years, and he still held the grudge against me from the time his Nature paper came out in 1995.

Here was a smart man, a cultured man, a successful man, and yet he seemed unable to enjoy any of it. He was one of those people who saw his self-worth determined by external validation. I suffered from the exact opposite problem, and so I pitied him. He, a well-regarded full professor at one of the top universities in the world, I, a bureaucrat of no consequence at Podunk University in the Valley of the Deaf and Dumb.

The strange thing was, of course, that Pauly was right: It was all my own fault that nothing ever became of me. But then he seemed offended when I agreed with him.


"It's entirely your own fault ..."

"You know, Dr. Baumann," he broke the silence. "It's entirely your own fault that nothing ever became of you."

I didn't know whether I was supposed to be offended. That was in 2015.

It had been exactly seven years since I last visited my alma mater. A lot had happened since then -- a nasty divorce, nastier court battles, a new love, a new job, a new, a happy marriage, a new home. And because the University of British Columbia was so far away now, in space and in time, I thought I really should take the opportunity to walk down memory lane.

And so I found myself standing in front of the redbrick townhouse that my two daughters called their first home. It wasn't a true redbrick, of course, just a redbrick first floor and aluminium sidings above that. The house still looked inviting, and so did the playground in front it, and so did the whole neighbourhood.

I remembered Tim -- good-natured, well-tempered Tim -- climbing up the little red treehouse asking some eight-year-old boy if he had gone "fucking insane" for trying to push his daughter off the platform. And I remembered the hammer murder in the nearby forest that had happened just a few weeks after we moved in and that caused me a couple of nights of bad sleep, until they found out that it had not been a random attack. And I remembered the manhole cover, a two-foot by three-foot serrated steel plate, that was the principal offender of Phoebe's Summer of Bloody Knees. Yes, it was still there.

I walked a few blocks south, past the place where we lived when I was a Schrödinger Fellow, to the field where Maia had learned to ride her bike. The field was gone now, replaced by a new, a pretty school building, and so was the lonely tree that stood in the middle of the field. It was the tree Maia inevitably crashed into every time she tried so hard not to. Like a marble in a funnel, round and round, until ... well.

I continued around Osoyoos Crescent where buildings were being demolished by heavy equipment. It was high time. Those shabby buildings used to be rented mostly to graduate students from China and the Middle East. This was not the only injustice they had to suffer. But I was sure nothing had changed or would change.

Across Wesbrook Mall I saw the rugby fields where we had flown kites and where one day the cheap red kite with the Home Hardware logo had taken the whole string and was flying so high that I had to sit down because of a feeling of vertigo. I traced back a few blocks to visit the Commonsblock where students hold their semesterly communal garage sale, "the garbage sale", as I called it.

Back past the old townhouse, past the apartment we rented when I worked in the Psych Department, through the Village, past the bookstore. North on East Mall, left at the Law School, and left again on Main Mall. I remembered my first jog around campus in August 1993 and the pride I felt being a student at another venerable university. Michael Smith's Nobel Prize was only two months away.

I stopped at the BioSciences building and tried to find a way down into the old Oceanography department. In vain as it turned out. The space had been appropriated by microbiology labs, and the main entrance was locked and secured by a swipe card reader. I tried the back entrance, then the hidden side entrance, but to no avail. Oh, well.

If not the old Oceanography department, then maybe the old Fisheries Centre huts. But they were gone too.

To be sure, the old huts were terrible, one step below tarpaper army barracks and one step above an abandoned mining camp in the North. Rotting wood underneath reddish-brown paint, ramshackle offices with single pane sliding windows, the smell of mildew in the hallways, brown stains like contour maps on the ceiling tiles from past leaks, every step on the linoleum floors a worry that at last you might break through.

But as I stood there in front of the oversized glass-and-concrete monstrosity that was the Biodiversity Museum, I missed those old shoddy huts, missed the simpler times, really missed the professors -- Carl Walters, Charley Krebs, Tony Sinclair, Dennis Chitty, .... I missed their erudite voices in the windowless lecture room that was named after Ralf Yorque, who was not a person but rather the sound of a neophyte throwing up over the stern railing on an oceanographic vessel. The beauty of irreverence.

I remembered Dale, now in Tasmania, or the Seychelles, or somewhere in the South Pacific. And Leonardo, who was from Mexico and who annotated his computer code in Spanish. And Kathy, who together with her husband Lance had run a couple of lighthouses up on the North coast. And Trevor, who was from South Africa and who knew that as a white man he would never get a job in his home country. And Bea, who worked hard for five years to find out that water column perturbations in a lake decrease the number of zooplankton species from 13 to 11, or did the opposite, I can't remember.

Figure: Carl Walters. Image: https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/carl-walters/ (Accessed 10 Jan 2021)

A particular day came to my mind. I had run into a problem with my research, and because Carl was on my Ph.D. committee, I thought that he would be able to point me in the right direction. As I walked from my office over to the old huts, I tried to gage whether Carl was in. Smoking inside buildings was prohibited by then, but predictably several times a day you could find Carl standing at the open window of his office enjoying a cigarette. I didn't see him.

Carl's office was in the north-east corner of the north-eastern hut. He occupied the largest office in the complex, larger than the office of the director of the Fisheries Centre. (The founding director was an unlikeable bloke from England who once offered me a job with the words: "Of course, the expectation is that you work more hours than we are actually paying you for." I declined but thanked him for his generosity.)

Carl was not a believer in an open-door policy, and the best you could hope for was that the door stood ajar, which was rare, and really only happened when he was on his way out soon again. So it came as no surprise that the door was closed. Standing in the too narrow, too dark hallway in front of his office, I hesitated.

I leaned forward and listened. Carl's workstation was located close to the door, and I could hear him typing. When Carl was busy, Carl was busy. But I needed help, and so I reluctantly I knocked.

Nothing. Nothing, apart from a brief break in the typing. Then the typing resumed.

Should I try again? I waited for half a minute. Even more reluctantly I knocked again.

I heard a chair slide back, a stumble, some swearing, a couple of footsteps.

The door opened about two fingers wide. I could see Carl's face as he eyed me through the gap.

"Fuck off, Michael," he said. He said it without menace, more like a piece of advice.

Then the door shut quietly.

Apparently, Carl was busy.

Thinking back, I had to smile. I took it as a badge of honour. If the world's leading population ecologist told you to fuck off, you just did that, you fucked off.

It had been fifteen years since I had last seen Carl. No wait, a couple of years ago I ran into him on 8th Avenue on my way to see my dermatologist.

I recognized him from far away -- the slender figure, the weary walk, the clothes that always seemed one size too big, his steel-rim glasses, the beard he always scratched when a problem became too difficult to explain to someone he considered "a clown".

We walked towards each other, and he seemed lost in thought. I hoped he would look up, but he didn't. We were about to pass each other without a word.

"Carl," I said, "I don't know if you remember me. I am ..."

He looked up and smiled.

"Michael," he said, putting me at ease. "Of course, I remember you."

We exchanged pleasantries. He told me that he is thinking of retirement. I told him that I now was a bureaucrat at Podunk University. He told me that he is spending a lot of time in Florida. I told him that I had remarried. He told me that he is still trying to put students out into the world that do things competently. I asked him how that was working out.

He laughed. We laughed. We shook hands. We parted our ways.

"I don't know if it interests you, Michael," he called after me a couple of moments later. "But I think you may have been right after all."

He must have sensed my perplexity.

"Your thesis ... I think you may have been right that fish production in the Northeast Pacific is bottom-up controlled after all."

(Imagine a pasture with cows on it. Is the number of cows determined by the amount of grass growing on the pasture or the number of wolves in the surrounding forest? If it is the former, the cows are said to be bottom-up controlled.)

The details are not important. What was important is that the world's leading population ecologist changed his mind and now agreed with my analysis. I had been right to persevere against the strong opinions of the population school. My intellectual battles had not been in vain. Maybe I had it never in me to be a great scientist, but at least I knew that I would have made a good one.

Unfortunately, it also meant that my fall from grace had not been completely justified, that I could have had a good career, and that the mindless existence as a bureaucrat at a fourth-rate university had not been inevitable.

I smiled. It was too late now. Once they show you the door, they never ask you back in. And that was what was painful.


04 April 2002

The fish that weren't there

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

Phoebe was in Grade 3 or 4 at the time, in one of those split classes.

They were a fad back then. Children from two different grade levels were put into the same class, with idea that the younger children would learn from the older ones, and the older ones would learn some social responsibility -- justice, equality, leadership, that kind of thing.

It is a good hypothesis, although I don't know whether it has been properly tested. I also don't know if split classes did not put an additional burden on the shoulders of teachers, even the few good ones. Every teacher already had to deal with a handful of medicated children, a child with autism or Down syndrome, and an ever-changing education assistant. Not to mention some overinvolved parents, often medicated themselves, who considered public education a private service.

That was the reality then. It probably still is.

In any case, Phoebe's class collaborated with a Grade 7 class on a project called Salmonids in the Classroom(1). The idea behind it was that raising salmon in the classroom would teach students a little bit about taking care of living things, a little bit about science, about environmental stewardship, about collaboration, and record keeping, and cleaning, and following instructions. All good.

In late autumn the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had sent a Salmonid kit to Phoebe's school, and in early January the Grade 7ers had set up the tank. This is not as simple as it sounds. It involves covering the bottom with gravel and rocks, installing the aerator and cooler, wrapping insulation around the tank, conditioning the water, a hundred little things.

Shortly after the set-up was completed D.F.O. delivered fifty or so chum salmon eggs. (There is a good reason why it's chum and not coho salmon, but that's not the point of the story.) They were about the size of a pea and orange, and you could see the eyes of the embryo inside. Unfortunately, they had to be kept in the dark.

In late February the alevins hatched from the eggs. They look like little fish already, but they do still have a yolk sack attacked to their bellies. It is their nature to hide between small rocks, which didn't matter much because they still had to be kept in the dark.

By late March, the yolk sacs were completely absorbed, and the little fish swam up to the surface to gulp air into their swim bladders. The swim-up is an exciting phase in the salmon life cycle. That's when the front cover can be removed from the tank, and the children can finally watch them. Free-swimming fry must be fed, and so the children fed them.

Every morning a few Grade 3ers/4ers would walk over to the Grade 7ers and do their share of the work.

One day when I brought Phoebe to school it was Phoebe's turn. And since I had finished my own salmon experiments a year earlier, I asked Trish whether I could accompany Phoebe and her three classmates.

So we walked over to the Grade 7 classroom -- the three girls, Phoebe, Geneva, and Jenny, the boy Jesse, and I. The children knew what to do, and I watched them.

First, they had to record the date. There was a calendar on the wall next to the tank, and Phoebe looked up the date and told everybody what it was. Next the four stuck their heads together to read the thermometer inside the tank. There was a brief discussion after which they entered the water temperature on their sheets. From that they had to calculate what is called Accumulated Thermal Units -- never mind what that is, but they all did it and compared the values, and all of them had done well.

Next they had to determine the pH of the water. Of course, none of them, nor the Grade 7ers for that matter, knew what exactly a pH was, but they had learned how to use pH test strips and how to compare them to the colour chart, and they knew that the pH had to be between 6 and 7.5 or they would have to change the water. And they did it. No water change necessary.

Last they sat down in front of the fish tank and continued their assignment, which was this: In the space below, draw what you see in the tank. So, the three girls and one boy began to draw the little fish swimming in the water column.

Except there was not a single fish in the tank(2).

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"We are drawing fish," Phoebe answered without looking up.

"But you are supposed to draw what you see."

"We know."

"But there are no fish in the tank."

"Believe me," Phoebe said. "We are supposed to draw little fish, and that's what we are doing."

"Aren't we supposed to draw fish?" Jesse asked me.

Jesse had red hair and white, freckled skin, and he was shorter than the three girls, which leads me to believe that he was in Grade 3. But you never know with boys and girls at that age. From the stories Phoebe had told me about Jesse, I concluded that he was a little bit of a stinker, which immediately made me like him.

"No. Here," I said, pointing my finger at the instructions. "It says you are supposed to draw what you see. Do you see any fish?"

Jesse only shrugged his shoulders.

After ten minutes or so they had finished drawing little fishes, and we returned to the Grade 3/4 classroom. The children handed their assignments to Trish, and that was it.

Except that it wasn't.

I had said goodbye to Phoebe, had abstained from the kiss that would just have embarrassed her, and was waving to Trish on my way out. I noticed Jesse was standing at the teacher's desk.

"You didn't complete your assignment," Trish said in a semi-loud voice.

Jesse said nothing, he just stood there and stared into the floor.

"We have talked about this, Jesse. Remember what I said?"

Jesse nodded.

"Can you please look at me, when I talk to you," Trish admonished him.

Jesse briefly turned his head to Trish.

"And can you answer me?"

That's when I walked over to Trish and explained that there had been no fish in the tank, and that consequently I had advised them not to draw anything, because after all they were supposed to draw what they saw, and all they could have drawn was an empty fish tank.

"Is that so?" Trish said, although with an undertone.

She looked at the three girls in the back of the room who were staring at her(3).

"I hope that was all right," I added.

Trish smiled and sent Jesse back to his chair.

I waved goodbye and left.

I was walking down Chancellor Boulevard to my office, which was a half-hour walk, and it was a beautiful spring day, and my birthday was just ahead or had just passed. But I was unsettled as I always was when I ran into difficult questions.

Why did the girls draw fish that weren't there? Why did the girls not listen to me? Why did the boy believe me? Why did Trish jump to conclusions? Why did Jesse not defend himself? Why did the girls not defend Jesse? Why did Trish not reprimand the girls for failing to complete the task correctly? Had my interference upset the order of things?

But these were not the questions that troubled me much? What troubled me was this: How often did I draw fish that weren't there?


(1) http://www.salmonidsintheclassroom.ca/index.html (Accessed: 23 Mar 2017)
(2) Later I learned that the fish had been released two days earlier and nobody had bothered to inform Phoebe's class.
(3) When I wrote this, I realized how much I resent the fact that it was the boy who was disobedient and not one of the girls.


25 October 2001

The fish that weren't there (Part 2)

Image: Michael Baumann (2017)

As I said I had finished my own salmon experiments a year earlier, in 2001.

It was a simple idea, really.

Rather than fishing for salmon and losing a large portion to pesky Mother Nature -- the other fish, the larger fish, the seals and bears and sports fishermen -- why not grow salmon in large tanks. We do the same with beef and pork and poultry. It's a natural extension.

But self-contained tanks are expensive and difficult to maintain, so why not put the whole operation into the ocean and close the area off with netting. Tides and currents will renew the water and remove waste products and will do it for free. Sure, some fish will escape, but the numbers will be small. And while we are at it, let's use not a Pacific species but Atlantic salmon, which grow faster and handle more easily.

I had been hired as a postdoc under AquaNet(1), a national industry-university consortium devoted to improving Canada's aquaculture industry. Their mission was to advance Atlantic salmon fish farms on the British Columbia coast, and their dogma was that Atlantic salmon will do no harm. Should Atlantics escape, they will enter an environment foreign to them. Prey organisms will escape them, competitors will outcompete them, and predators will eat them. And some way or another they will just die. All that was left was to prove that this was true.

Professor Mike Healey was my boss, and he oversaw three research groups.

The first group investigated competition for food. They put one juvenile Pacific salmon and one juvenile Atlantic into a jar, added a food item, and looked who got to the food first.

The second group looked at competition for spawning ground. They placed six spawners into a river section, three Pacifics and three Atlantics, and watched them thrashing it out on the spawning grounds. (It was strange though. Although this was an industry-university consortium we had to use public money to buy the adult Atlantics from a fish farm that was part of the consortium. Price per live fish: $750. Market price for a dead fish, $75. That's how people are.)

Then there was me.

My project was to see whether predators would fancy Atlantics over Pacifics. Since the predation pressure is highest for young fish, I would focus on their early life history, a stage call parr, fish the size of your little finger.

I arrived at the South Campus Research Station in late March. The whole area wasn't a pretty place then, and the Research Station was the worst. A rickety electric gate secured the entrance, a rusty barbed-wire fence secured the perimeter, and the weirdly angled security cameras would only have deterred a spy that was also an idiot.

Inside the restricted area a couple of swimming-pool-sized ponds were set up. They had been used for fertilization experiments, but nobody had used them in years, and bushes were overgrowing the ponds and green muck was floating on the surface. There was the stench of decaying algae in the air when you were foolish enough to come too close.

Further in the back were the research buildings, three of them, all dilapidated. Building C was the most ramshackle. This is where I was to set up my experiments.

Building C was divided into four quadrants, each the size of a tennis court, and each cluttered with old tanks and netting and scientific equipment left over from previous experiments.

The small office at the entrance was occupied by Professor Jones. Jones ran experiments on oxygen consumption in diving birds and mammals. He suffered from emphysema or C.O.P.D. and was forced to carry a small oxygen tank at all times, so his scientific interest was either no coincidence or nature's irony. He was often irritable, Jones was, but he was a good man.

Jones held two harbour seals in a huge tank in the very back. I visited the two buggers every once in a while, but looking at them gave me the willies. They seemed fine and were friendly, but they had neoprene patches glued to the top of their heads to protect the holes that had been drilled into their skulls and where electrodes could be inserted.

Between the office and the seal tanks was my research space. It was open to the courtyard on one side, and years ago they had kept bears and wolves there. But then they had taken out the cages and replaced them with a wet lab, fat water pipes running overhead and broad drain channels underneath.

I needed space and the tanks were large and heavy and I prefer to work alone, so setting things up was exhausting. At one point my arms gave out and one of the holding tanks rolled right into an overhead main line and water came gushing out for one-and-a-half days.

On another day I found a little goldfish. He had been left behind and now tried to carve out a living in a spittle of water at the bottom of an abandoned tank. He was small, the size of a thumb, but when I put him in the holding tank with hundreds of parr he looked like an orange giant.

For my experiments I had to simulate a small creek in the laboratory.

I set up three experimental arenas, large oval channels, about five metres long, filled with water about knee-deep, pumps pushing the water around and around. I covered the bottom with gravel and rocks to give the little fish some place to hide. Then I stocked each tank with twenty juvenile Pacifics and twenty juvenile Atlantics. Pacific and Atlantic parr are easy to distinguish, the Atlantics have a row of red dots along their lateral line.

The next question was which predator to use?

Jones owned some cormorants, and he agreed that I can use them, so I started with them. Cormorants have sharp bills and are nasty when cornered, and working with them without injury is difficult. I did a preliminary trial with four cormorants and ten Pacifics in a large tank two metres deep. From their perch high in the enclosure the cormorants dove into the tanks like aerial torpedoes. Within ten seconds there was not a single fish left. Clearly cormorants were too fast for my purpose. They would eat any fish, and eat them quickly.

There were some discussions which other birds we could use, but in the end we decided to stock two of the arenas with two adult rainbow trout each, each about half-a-metre long. The third arena contained no predators and was the control for both survival and growth. Large fish are difficult animals too, but in the opposite sense of the birds: They don't eat much, nor do they eat often.

Three times a week I went into the lab, fished out all the juveniles from the experimental arenas, measured their length, weighed them, put them back, and restocked those juveniles that had been eaten by the rainbows or gone otherwise missing. Although the experimental arenas had glass walls, catching all of the juveniles was difficult. Often enough, one of the them went missing, and I was happy to replace it in good confidence that a rainbow trout had eaten it, only to find a few days later that it had miraculously returned.

Measuring them was tricky too. They were small and slippery and wiggly. In the beginning, I anaesthetized them in a clove oil solution, but one time I lost three or four to an overdose, and I felt bad, and I soon began to do the measurements without putting them under.

Measuring them was also mind-numbing. There were one hundred and twenty of them each time. But I got better at it, and when the summer came, I was spending my afternoons in the tree-shaded courtyard, reading and thinking. Often enough the heat and the sound of running water would conspire and lull me to sleep, which was fine because I was alone.

The experiments did not go well to say the least. Each of the rainbows ate one or two juvenile salmon per week, and not always, and while they ate Atlantics slightly more frequently than Pacifics, they didn't eat them frequently enough to infer a statistically significant difference. I had failed to get the predation experiments going, and I expected some chiding from Healey. Instead he was quite sympathetic, regaling me with stories from his younger years, how difficult it is to keep juvenile wild fish alive in a laboratory.

By mid-July I abandoned the experiments and focused on some policy questions around aquaculture. I left the experimental arenas intact, however, and informed the laboratory staff to feel free and help themselves to the rainbows.

I didn't return to South Campus until October. To be sure I had planned to clear the experimental arenas earlier, but then September 11 happened, and everything seemed meaningless for a while.

It was overcast and cold that day, and I could see my breath when I entered the building. Inside, it was all very peaceful, and I was very quiet. Two of the three experimental arenas were still working. The pumps were off but there were some fish swimming in them. The rainbows were gone though, victims probably to a staff barbeque.

Some noise was coming from the back, and I went there to say hello to Jones, but it wasn't him. It was John, one of the maintenance workers, and he was standing in the empty seal tank, cleaning it with a high-pressure hose. He saw me and waved and went over to turn the compressor off. He was the one who had fixed the broken pipe, and we shook hands, and he told me that the seals had been put down.

I returned to my lab and went over to the holding tanks where I kept the Pacifics. Hundreds of fish swimming in blissful ignorance. They had grown but were still only the size of a little finger. It is standard procedure to destroy all experimental animals after experimentation, but I don't like killing things, so I bent down and opened the drain valve and watched the fish go down the drain channels and into the gutter, some struggling against the flow, most going with it. At least the Pacifics I would let go.

When all the water was gone, I noticed the little goldfish lying in the drain channel and when I came nearer to save his life again, I noticed that he had not grown at all. I squatted down to pick him up and horror struck me: He had no eyes, and all his fins were gone, even his tail fin, and there were bite marks all over his little body. He flapped his gills frantically, but he was no more than a living orange splotch, unable to see, unable to move, the living feast of hundreds of hungry salmon mouths.

Half a year earlier I had saved the little goldfish, now I ended his life under my boot.

I lit a cigarette.

I felt awful about the suffering my thoughtlessness had caused the little goldfish. Sitting there on a rickety wooden chair, I could hear water running into the tanks, I could hear the sea turtles in the west wing, their flippers thumping against the tank walls. Looking over through the glass-wall of the experimental arena I could see a few of the juvenile salmon moving up and down.

Over the summer they had grown and were the size of a good cigar now. The rainbows must after all have started picking them off one by one because there were not many left. I got up and leaned over the experimental arena. There were eleven of them, nine of them were Pacifics, two had red dots along their lateral line.

Huh. Nine Pacifics, two Atlantics. That's when it struck me.

I called out to John that I will be back later, hopped into my old Volvo, and headed straight for Healey's office.

"We have looked at the problem in a completely wrong way," I almost shouted in excitement at Healey. "If we want to know if escaped Atlantics could be harmful to Pacifics, we must not compare the performance of average individuals of Atlantics and Pacifics, we must look at survival of the fittest, not ... not the survival of the average."

(It's like a footrace between boys and girls. Sure, the average boy will outrun the average girl, but there are many girls who will outrun the average boy, and there may be the odd girl that will outrun even the fastest boy.)

"But it's even worse. If the fittest Atlantics manage to survive and spawn in the local environment, they will produce baby Atlantics with traits similar to what made their parents survive. You see, the problem of invasive species is really not an ecological problem, it's an evolutionary problem."

Healey showed no reaction, but he was listening.

"Look, Mike," I said. "AquaNet's annual general meeting is only a few weeks away, and I would be glad if you let me present my ideas to them. What do you think?"

He looked at me for a while. Then he leaned forward his elbows on his desk.

"Michael," he said without menace. "We will have to give a progress report at that meeting, yes. But what you have to understand is that nobody on the Scientific Advisory Board wants to hear any ideas that could shed a bad light on the aquaculture industry(2)."


"AquaNet's mission is to grow Canada's aquaculture industry. They want to report good news."

"But the facts?"

"Two surviving Atlantics? Come on, Michael, that's not convincing evidence."

"It may be flimsy, but it means that two Atlantics outlived eleven of the original Pacifics."

"I think you should go and clean up the lab, don't you think?"

"Two Atlantics, Mike."

"I think you should go and clean up the lab. Do you understand?"

I did understand.

I went back to the lab. It was dark now, and there were no cars left in the small parking area. I sat down on my chair again. The cold neon tubes were flickering overhead, and the rain was coming down in sheets in the courtyard. I sat for a while and watched the two Atlantics swim around. I had become oddly fond of them.

Something else was killed with them that evening.


(1) AquaNet ran from 1999 to 2006. It is interesting that although at the time AquaNet was quite a prestigious project, some fifteen years later it is hard to find any detailed information about it: http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/Index_eng.asp (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017), http://www.nce-rce.gc.ca/_docs/reports/annual-annuel/Annual_Report_02-03_Rapport_Annuel-e.pdf (Accessed: 30 Mar 2017)
(2) To my knowledge there is no evidence that suggests the establishment of a viable Atlantic salmon population on the Pacific coast. But that does not mean that one day life will not find a way.

Thursday, 6 Apr 2017

An update to note (2).

In the meantime I have spoken to John Volpe from the University of Victoria(1). John is a specialist in Invasion Ecology. He and I first met during my time with AquaNet.

John told me that about a decade ago he had evidence "of multiple year classes of wild-reared Atlantics in multiple Van Island rivers. They were competitively equal to or superior to native juvenile salmonids and in some instances very numerous. Adults were prevalent in dozens of rivers."

He also told me that no work has been done since, and nobody really knows what the status quo is.

On the other hand a 2006 Fraser Institute publication, Fraser Alert, states: "Overall, the risk of escaped salmon detrimentally affecting wild stocks in BC is currently low."(2)

Now the question is this: Who do you trust?(3)


(1) http://www.johnvolpe.ca/ (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017)
(2) https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/Escaped_Farmed_Salmon.pdf (Accessed: 6 Apr 2017). The Fraser Institute is a conservative "think tank". Fraser Alert is not a peer-reviewed publication. This paper was penned by a group of scientists from the University of British Columbia, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and the University of Glasgow. One of the authors, Scott McKinley, was the Executive Scientific Director of AquaNet.
(3) The existence of viable Atlantic salmon populations on the Pacific coast is not a trivial matter, both ecologically and economically. It is curious that in a whole decade no work should have been done on this problem. Why would that be?


04 March 1996

The battle of the halfwits (Part 3)

In early 1996, I applied for an instructor position for a summer Oceanography course. As I was a third-year Ph.D. student my chances of getting the job were good, although far from certain. There are always people who are more qualified than you are. Besides, you never know what selection criteria will be applied.

The selection committee consisted of three positions, the course supervisor, the graduate advisor, and the department head. At the time all three positions were held by one person. You guessed it -- Al Lewis. Two years after my Coffee Delivery Boycott and half-a-year after my Open House Impertinence, Lewis felt that time for revenge has finally come.

I don't know whether I was the most qualified candidate, but I was certainly more qualified than the successful candidate, a first-year Master's student. Consequently, I filed a complaint against the decision. As Lewis was the interim department head, and my complaint was against Lewis, a review committee had to be assembled, had to review all the evidence, and had to make a decision. Colleagues investigating colleagues is always a sketchy proposition, and in the judgement of the review committee Lewis's actions were hunky-dory.

There was nothing left for me to do than to write a letter to Nature titled "Academic management"(1). I concluded:

"Academic hiring is already prone to abuse when evaluation procedures of applicants' achievements are clearly outlined. The potential for arbitrariness increases when there are no guidelines for decision-making committees. After questioning the selection process for an instructor position at the department in which I am working, a review committee concluded that: "It is a measure of our informal atmosphere and congeniality that we lack formal criteria ... "."

This was the first publication of the then newly formed Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and it was published in Nature, the world's top-ranking science journal. Needless to say, the newly appointed department head was not happy, although I don't know whether it was my audacity that angered him, or the review committee's stupidity, or Lewis's for that matter.

But, why am I telling you this?

Because when the letter was published, I fully expected that people would see clearly now and therefore be on my side. Instead, I found myself ostracized by about 80% of the Oceanography department members, faculty, staff, and graduate students alike. I even received an anonymous handwritten note in my mailbox urging me to leave U.B.C..

There are only few of us who are willing to go to battle for the greater good. People agree with us in private, but don't want to stick their heads out, because "You never know ..."

It's pathetic really.

Which reminds me ...

There was a study that came out of Duke University in the early 1980s(2). Researchers went into schools and asked children individually to name three children they like most and three children they like least. (Of course, this was all done with the appropriate parental consent and very systematically.) They then analyzed those lists.

Now, what outcomes would you expect?

Obviously, there are those who everybody likes, let's call them the populars. And then there are those who everybody hates, the rejects. Most of us, the neglected, of course, would not make it onto any list, meaning that we are not terribly liked or disliked.

The researchers also looked at the attributes that the children of these group have, and what they found is that those liked most were perceived as being helpful, physically attractive, and leaders, while those liked least were perceived as being disruptive, aggressive, and troublemakers.

But there was another group that emerged, and that is the interesting finding of this study. This group consists of children who were found on both the like-most and the like-least lists. For example, Jack may like A, B, C and dislike X, Y, Z. Jill may like A, B, Z and dislike X, Y, C. A and B are the populars, X and Y are the rejects, most children are neglected, and C and Z are on both lists. This last group is called the controversials.

The controversials combine attributes from both the popular and the rejected children. They range from rebels for the greater good to short-tempered delinquents. Children with these combinations of attributes are always small in numbers, and they give rise to mixed feelings not only amongst their peers but also to mixed feelings within individuals.

Am I a controversial in this sense?

People either love me or hate me, and at least those who love me are unsure whether they shouldn't feel the opposite. So, yes, I am a controversial, by nature, or nurture, or both I don't know.

Now, if the Duke University researchers showed up at your workplace today, would you make one of their two lists? And if so, which one?


(1) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gVOz05e2lD4GnjiVziSjJTHhRNHGhwv8/view?usp=sharing (Accessed: )
(2) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xJ5EvpQK1IcUylxoTa50gOx-fUpX5nO-/view?usp=sharing (Accessed: )


13 October 1995

The battle of the halfwits (Part 2)

In 1995 U.B.C. celebrated its 80th anniversary. For that reason, the university administration urged all departments to come up with ideas for an Open House to be held on campus for three days on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of October.

The person put in charge in the Oceanography department was Al Lewis -- again, the oceanographer, not the actor. This came as no surprise as by that time I had learned that Lewis had a rather uninspiring research record, and if he hadn't been granted tenure sometime in the 1970s, he certainly wouldn't receive it now. Consequently, he collected his brownie points not through scholarship but through student advising and event organization.

Lewis assembled all the graduate students and urged us to come up with some good ideas to showcase the Oceanography department. I suggested that we transform the department lecture room into a plankton wonderland by producing giant papier-mâché replicas of well-known plankton organisms, setting the light low, and having visitors crawl through a substance that mimics a low Reynolds number. (Small-sized plankton organisms experience water the same way a human being would experience swimming in a pool filled with Jell-O.) The idea was to give the public a feel what is going on in a drop of seawater. I still think this was a great idea, and I don't know why it didn't take off, especially given that most of us worked on plankton in one way or another.

In the end nothing came of anything, and Lewis decided to put up some research posters in the hallway, which are notorious for being boring, and park the Oceanography vessel on the Main Mall for visitors to admire. The problem of course was that the Oceanography vessel was nothing but an aluminium-hull workboat small enough to be transported on a trailer behind a van.

Nevertheless, Lewis did remember my Coffee Delivery Boycott from the year before, and the Open House would certainly provide a good opportunity to show Baumann who is the boss and what is what, again. Consequently, he assigned me to boat duty for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

I told him that I was quite happy to do my fair share of duties for the good of the department provided that the professors did the same. Lewis didn't like my "attitude" and bumped me from all responsibilities.

The Open House was a success of sorts.

Michael Smith gave a talk on his Nobel work on site-directed mutagenesis, whatever that was. The talk was good, because Michael was good, although I doubt it was the "serious fun for the entire family" the propaganda department wanted us to believe(1). (Michael and I both had our offices in the Networks of Centres of Excellence building, and I ran into him in the toilet once or twice a week.)

The rain, of course, significantly reduced the number of visitors overall, and certainly the number of people strolling down Main Mall to view a magnificent Oceanography vessel.

And that was the Open House, and I still hadn't learned my lesson.


(1) http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubcreports/UBC_Reports_1995_10_05.pdf (Accessed: 7 Jan 2021)


03 January 1994

The battle of the halfwits

In January 1994, I became the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the course Introduction to Biological Oceanography. I was in my second semester as a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia, and I was proud that I had successfully made it through the first one. Obviously, a lot of work still lay ahead, but still.

The professor for the course was Al Lewis -- not the actor who played Grandpa in the television series The Munsters, the other Al Lewis. Lewis had grown up in southern California and had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. That must have been in the late 1960s. He was tall and in good shape, and he rode his bike to work every day. He also sported a crew cut, which made him look like a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

Lewis was very polite, at least initially. He always reminded us graduate students that it is as important to know the name of the janitor who cleans your office as it is to know the name of the university president. I shared his sentiment, although I wasn't sure if knowing the janitor wasn't more important.

Before the course started, I came to talk to Lewis about his expectations of me. I would be setting up the slide projector, of course, and preparing class demonstrations, and holding office hours to help students with their assignments, and marking of assignments and mid-terms, but was there anything else.

"Yes, there is one more thing," he said. "And that is very important. Before every class I want you to go to the department lunchroom and get me some coffee, which you then bring to the classroom."

He must have misinterpreted my perplexity as being caused by the procedure he had just laid out rather than his show of utter disrespect. This was a university not a coffee house, and I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant not his waiter. Lewis liked to preach the show of respect, but he certainly didn't live by it. Indeed, to clarify the process he felt it necessary to physically walk me through the steps.

"Come on, I'll show you," he said.

So he walked me downstairs into the lunchroom and showed me where his mug was located. (It was a brown mug hanging from a hook behind the sink.) Then he showed me where to find the coffee. (There were always two pots smouldering on a hotplate, one usually empty, often both, as the many seemed to drink the coffee, but only the few seemed to brew it.)

"Make sure to check the coffee situation ahead of time. If there is no coffee left, you will have to brew a fresh pot."

"Get your fucking coffee yourself," is what I should have said but didn't. Instead, I tried to be diplomatic about his gaffe, and making him see the error of his ways. "Class starts at eleven o'clock, and it's just one hour long. Right?"

"Right. That is why it is important that you get the coffee up at five to eleven."

"Are you worried about caffeine deficiency in your bloodstream?" is what I should have said. Instead, I said: "Right. Easy enough."

Needless to say, I had no intention to serve him coffee, not once, not ever.

The semester turned out to be the battle of the halfwits, really. Three times a week for thirteen weeks, I struggled between pretending to have forgotten about Lewis's coffee and the humiliation of serving him. Three times a week for thirteen weeks, he struggled between firmly reminding me of his coffee and just letting it slide, which for some reason he couldn't do.

And so the mutual resentment grew.

Why Lewis never brought his own coffee remains a mystery to me to this day. But I was defending a principle here: This is a university. I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Graduate Teaching Assistants are not waiters.

Was his reasoning the same, and if so, what would the syllogism look like? University professors do not pour their own coffee. I am a university professor. Therefore, I do not pour my own coffee. (Instead, I force some poor schmuck to do it, one that desperately needs money and will therefore not pipe up when I tell him what is what.)


02 July 1989

Yugoslavia (Part 4)

It was the day before we would go home, and Gerold, Werner, and I were cleaning the experimental aquaria we had used over the last two weeks.


I almost jumped out my skin. I hadn't noticed Herr Ott enter the wet lab. He came over and placed himself in front of me.

"We should go out and have a look at the distribution of hermit crabs in the wild. When can you be ready?"

I got up. Behind Herr Ott I could see Gerold and Werner stare at me, and then look at each other, and Werner made a cut-throat gesture.

"You do have your SCUBA gear ready, don't you?"

"Actually, I don't," I said. "But I do have my snorkelling gear ready."

"Well, ..." Herr Ott hesitated.

"If I may, Professor Ott," Werner said. "Michael can borrow my regulator and also my wetsuit."

"Perfect. Thank you, Werner. Shall we say in half an hour?" And with that Herr Ott left.

"Yes, thank you, Werner," I said.

But he didn't hear me because he was laughing so hard.

When I came out into the parking lot Herr Ott was loading the air tanks into the old VW Bus. I put my gear onto the backseat, and off we went. We drove north past Caffe Neptun, where I often stopped when I wanted to have my breakfast in solitude, around the marina on the left, and then on along the seawall. Herr Ott stopped the bus just before the church on the western end of the promontory.

Being alone with Herr Ott I felt it difficult to maintain what he perceived as an inappropriateness, and consequently I avoided calling on him. Wordlessly I got out of the van, went to the back, opened the hatch, and pulled out both air tanks. Then I attached the regulator to my tank and opened the valve.

That is, I tried to open the valve, but it wouldn't budge. So, I twisted hard, I twisted harder, I twisted really really hard, until I felt the hard-plastic cover slip over the underlying metal. That's when I remembered that compressed air tanks open by turning the valve to the right, righty-loosey, opposite to any other screw. Unfortunately, by now my attempts at opening the valve had shut it really, really tight.

"Everything all right, Michael?"

"I can't get the valve open," I said.

Herr Ott came over and looked at my hands suspiciously. Luckily by now I was twisting the valve in the right direction.

"Some idiot must have screwed the valve tight after filling the bottles," he said, shaking his head. "You are not supposed to do that."

"I know," I said, shaking my head at the would-be idiot that was in fact me.

It took us a while, but Herr Ott found a pair wrench pliers in the toolbox, and we were finally able to loosen the valve. Herr Ott had no proof that it had been my fault, but I believe he held a suspicion. Consequently, so as not to cause any further delay, I slipped into Werner's dark grey O'Neil wetsuit quickly.

Unfortunately, Werner was two inches taller than I was and quite a bit heavier. I could see on Herr Ott's face that he was not pleased with his assistant.

The sky was overcast and the sea turbulent, because of the Bora blowing from the North. In full SCUBA gear, masks on our foreheads, flippers in our hands, Herr Ott and I crawled across the boulders towards the waterline. Once we reached the water we put on our flippers and walked backwards out into the deeper water. Walking with flippers looks ridiculous at the best of times, stumbling backwards into the sea looking like a wrinkly baby elephant was something else.

Our purpose was to get a sense of the natural density of hermit crabs in coastal waters. So, we would snorkel out a hundred metres or so until the water was about five to ten metres deep. Then we would randomly drop the one-square-metre sampling square. We would count all the hermit crabs we could find within the square and record the number on the underwater writing board. Drop the frame again, and so on. (It is a procedure called quadrat sampling.)

We did snorkel out, and we did drop the frame, and we did dive down. Except that the wetsuit I was wearing was such a bad fit and had therefore so much air in it that it forced me back to the surface. (Remember the scene in Jaws when they harpooned the shark and attached two barrels to the lines to prevent him from going down, but he still went down. That's how I came up.)

"What's the matter, Michael?" Herr Ott surfaced next to me holding his regulator in his hand.

"Buoyancy," I said. "I don't have enough lead on me."

"You should really be better prepared," Herr Ott said to me.

"No fucking kidding," is what I should have said, but I said nothing.

"Let's try to go deeper," Herr Ott said, referring to fact that the air in my suit will be more compressed at greater depth and therefore provide less buoyancy.

So, I struggled deeper and deeper, and lo and behold all of a sudden, the diving went quite smoothly, with Herr Ott being a couple of metres below me. We dove towards the open sea when suddenly something felt wrong. (Naturally, I was freaked out because I remembered one dive in an Austrian lake when I suddenly heard a clunking noise on my tank, and when I turned around I saw that I was swimming up against the keel of a large sailboat.)

I turned around and realized that I was still at the surface. What had felt wrong was the motion of waves on my head.

Herr Ott resurfaced next to me.

"What's wrong now?" he asked palpably more irritated than five minutes ago.

"It's no use," I said. "I have too much buoyancy."

"All right," he said. "Give me the writing board, I will do the sampling myself."

I handed him the underwater writing board which really wasn't more than a white plastic clipboard that had a long string attached to it which held a stump of a pencil.

I was glad this was over when suddenly I was yanked down. (Again Jaws. Remember the scene at the beginning when the girl is yanked underneath the water by the shark. That's what it must have looked like from the shore.)

Except that it wasn't a shark. It was Herr Ott. When I looked down, I saw Herr Ott at about three metre depth holding the writing board in his hands. The attached pencil had floated up and the string had wrapped around my flipper. He tried to yank the string free, and I tried to kick it free.

I made it back to shore, and twenty minutes later Herr Ott came back as well. In silence we stowed the gear in the back of the VW bus again. Herr Ott checked the recordings he had made on the writing board. He started the motor, and then looked over at me and smiled.

"All good, Michael," he said. "Should we go for lunch now? I know a place where they serve the best Serbian bean soup."

I never understood, Herr Ott, and I believe I always judged him too harshly.

"Don't fuck this up," is what I should have said to myself. But I didn't.


Yugoslavia (Part 3)


I turned around and stood face to face with Herr Ott.

"Good morning, Herr Ott," I said as casual as I could muster, and I never was a casual man.

"Are you staying in this room all by yourself?"

From the tone in his voice I could hear that Herr Ott was not pleased, and it appeared to me that his Fu Manchu was drooping sharper than it usually did.

"This room? Yes," I answered. "Nobody wanted it. Why?" I swallowed.

Herr Ott and three other faculty members had arrived late on Sunday evening and consequently had been settled with the only room left, which was the one next to the kitchen. He was annoyed that the caretaker had given no consideration to the illustrious status of faculty members of the University of Vienna, but he was reluctant to boot a group of four out of their room, lest there would be some loss of face. He would have had no compunction, however, to boot me out of the room if he had known, but now it was too late. And he knew that I knew that he knew, which never makes for a comfortable situation.

He didn't say another word but disappeared around the zigzag chicane. I don't mind if other people make mistakes, I find it unacceptable when I do. And I hadn't paid proper attention.

What I didn't know was that I would be displaced about fifteen minutes later.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and a bowl of cornflakes and joined the other students for breakfast on the terrace. Food and drink was self-provided, of course, but somebody was always nice enough to make a big pot of coffee, and it was idyllic to sit outside in the shade of the cliff in the warm morning air and look out west across the ocean towards Italy.

The group of students was equally divided into boys and girls, idiots and geniuses, good people and douchebags, early risers and late risers. Combinations of these groups had a tendency to find each other in the same guestrooms and around tables of four.

Gerold W. and Werner U. waved me over. The two accepted my preference for solitude, and I paid them back with the amusing situations that my irreverence towards Herr Ott produced. Usually we laughed a lot, but after I had been discovered by Herr Ott, I tried to keep it quiet so as to fly under his radar, at least for the day.

(When I wrote to Gerold and Werner about their place in my memoir, Werner reminded me of a story I had completely forgotten. I had always claimed that any good presentation must include the words "hooker", "banging" and "shit". I told them that I feared that Herr Ott would not share my view and that instead of actually saying the words, I would signal the informed student audience when said the words should have come. Werner told me that he never did look elsewhere so deliberately than during my presentation.)

We were talking about nothing in particular when suddenly one of the balcony doors flew open with a crash and everybody on the terrace fell silent. There was giggling from inside the only co-ed guestroom.

Then slowly two hands appeared on the doorframe, then a ruffled head of red hair, and then the hungover, squinting face of Alex B..

Alex was what we call in Austria a Krispindel, a very slim, very tall man. To be sure, he was likeable enough, even though by my standards he was an idiot. (He now is a professor at Old Dominion University.)

Shielding his eyes from the brightness and moving in a grouched position Alex stumbled out onto the terrace. Then when he was sure that he was the centre of attention, he scratched his chest, and bent backward and stretched, thereby revealing a good-sized morning boner contained in a tiny speedo.

"Good morning," he said, wearing a big fat smile.

When I looked over to the faculty table I was pleased. Herr Ott's mood had just become that much worse. And I had been bumped from the top spot of Herr Ott's shitlist.

Not for long, it turns out.

Her name was Claudia, or Nicole, or Sandra. One of those names that every girl in Austria had then. She walked over to me after lunch.

I didn't like Claudia, or Nicole, or Sandra. She was ditzy, and loud, and an idiot. I also think that she and Alex had something going on, but I am not sure.

The first time I noticed her was in Anatomy lab. The dissection of vertebrates came at the end of the semester -- Fish, Frog, Rat --, and it was Fish week. Claudia had rammed a dissection needle through the body of the fish and into the rubber that formed the bottom of the dissecting pan. Now she was trying to cut the fish open, but the dissection needle had formed an axis, and every time she pushed the scissors up against the fish's belly, the fish was just rotating away.

Professor Splechtna had noticed it from across the room, and I had noticed that he had noticed. It was his habit to walk the aisles between the dissection stations and directly instruct students. As usual he was wearing a suit. He never wore a lab coat, even when demonstrating a difficult dissection, that is a messy one. He was the best anatomist I ever met, Professor Splechtna was. He was also the greatest cynic. Maybe the cutting open of dead things makes you that way.

Photo: Gone but not forgotten, Professor Splechtna. Source: Unknown.

Professor Splechtna walked over to Claudia's station, stopped behind her, and whipped off his glasses to watch her.

"What are you doing?" he asked after a while.

Ahh, you see, I am trying to cut the fish open."

"Yes, I can see that."

Again, she tried to cut into the belly, again the fish slipped away. Again, she tried, again ...

A small crowd of white lab coats was forming.

"Why are you not touching the fish?"

"Ahh, you see, because of the cadaveric poison."

"Cadaveric poison?"

"Ahh, you see, I cut myself this morning." With her left index finger she was pointing at her right index finger. "And I thought that if the cadaveric poison from the fish did get into my wound, that wouldn't be good."

Professor Splechtna nodded.

"Good, it would not be," he said. "But bad it wouldn't be either."

Getting more nervous now, Claudia kept trying.

"What are these?" Professor Splechtna asked, pointing at her latex gloves.

"Ahh, you see, these are latex gloves that would protect me against the cadaveric poison."

"I see," he said. He looked into the crowd and raised one eyebrow.

The fish had again spun away from Claudia, and she used not her hands but the scissors to push it back into the standard position -- head to the left, belly to the dissector, tail to the right.

Professor Splechtna made his way through the crowd for a few stations, but then changed his mind and came back to Claudia.

"You know," he said in a voice beyond hope. "You know, one can also go to Law School."

You know, one can also go to Law School.

This will forever be the greatest insult that you can make to a student of Science.

That was a year ago, and Claudia was still here, and not getting smarter. I was told that just the day before, at dinner, she had identified the oesophagus of a fried squid as its chorda. This may be hilarious only to zoologists, I must admit, but it's worse than expecting to see a fish with feathers.

In any case, Claudia walked over to me after lunch and told me that I owed her fifteen schillings.

"Fifteen shillings for what?" I asked.

"For the spaghetti dinner."

"What spaghetti dinner?"

"Oh, I guess you weren't there yesterday evening. We decided that we will have a spaghetti dinner on Friday, and I volunteered to get food and wine. And everybody's share is fifteen shillings."

"But I don't want to have a spaghetti dinner."

"You don't?"

"No. But thank you."

"But I did the calculation already."

"I understand that, but I still don't want to have spaghetti dinner."

"So, you want to be the only one who is not having spaghetti dinner?"

"No, I don't want to be the only one, but I may just be the only one."

Don't judge me too harshly. I am an introvert. I hate group things. Always did. Always will. Oh, don't get me wrong. I am not shy, nor am I boring, I think. I just hate group things.

But that's not the worst. The worst is the extraverts' audacity to think that extraversion is something to aspire to while introversion is not, the idea that an introvert must be converted, pushed out of their comfort zone, encouraged to come out of their shell, shown how to have some fun. And that this massive misconception has become completely acceptable, that is the worst.

(Like so many things in life, introversion is a preference whose origins remain a mystery. It just happens to you. Maybe we should run around trying to change everybody else and force our own preferences onto them. Go for long walks alone. Quietly read a book over lunchtime. Learn to sing the Russian anthem in Russian but never sing it to anyone. Contemplate a difficult problem without telling anybody. We could tell you all this. But we don't.)

And so, they had their spaghetti dinner that Friday evening. And while I had dinner alone at a lovely little restaurant in the area around Piran's marina, Claudia, or Nicole, or Sandra was able to tell Herr Ott what a bastard I was.

And there was still a week to go.


Yugoslavia (Part 2)

I had left home in Salzburg at eight o'clock in the morning in the hope that because it was a Sunday there would be fewer travellers. But I had been wrong. In fact, all the way through Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia traffic came to a standstill several times, not because of accidents but because it was construction season.

At least I found the Marine Biological Research Station quickly and without help. And when I pulled into the parking lot there was only one other car, a grey Yugo, which naturally didn't have Austrian license plates. I was the first to arrive after all.

I got out of the car and stretched. My T-shirt was clinging to my back and my jeans to my thighs, and I hopped onto one of the large boulders and spread my arms. It felt good to stand in the breeze for a while. For a citizen of a landlocked country there is nothing like the smell of the sea.

The seawall was a strip of large boulders and rocks that protected the shoreline from the winter storms. I climbed down to the waterline and inspected one of the larger tide pools where two prawns were quickly retreating underneath the rocks.

I climbed back up, pulled my duffel bag from the trunk, and went looking for the caretaker. We had been told he would be welcoming us and show us our quarters, and I naturally assumed that the Yugo was his.

I must dispense with any romantic notions here. The Piran Marine Biological Research Station was nothing like Ed Ricketts's Cannery Row lab that I had foolishly envisioned. Instead I stood in front of a four-storey cement block that had all the exterior charm of a communist tractor factory. To make it worse the building stood right against a twelve-storey wall that had been dynamited out of a natural cliff. If John Steinbeck had lived here instead of Monterey, he probably would have gone the way of Ernest Hemingway.

There were three sections to the building, the north section which was a warehouse of sorts and would later be referred to as "the depository", a narrow centre part with mirror windows, and the south part which looked like a warehouse but turned out to hold a classroom and several laboratories. The centre part, which appeared to hold staff offices, had the obvious entrance door. It was locked.

Shielding my eyes I peeked inside, a cold unwelcoming reception area. I rattled the door a few times. Nothing.

"University of Vienna?" The question came from above me.

"Yes, University of Vienna," I said looking up but seeing nothing except the receding facade of the building and the blue sky above.

"Please wait," came the command.

The caretaker introduced himself with a firm and friendly handshake, and I noticed that one of his upper front teeth was missing. He led me up two steep flights of steel stairs that were mounted on the south side of the building and led directly to the fourth floor. Once at the top we entered through a steel door and walked down a dark and narrow corridor.

"Bathroom on the right," the caretaker said, perfunctorily switching on the light, which was a single frosted bulb with a wire guard around it.

I peeked into a depressing room whose floor and walls were covered in brownish tiles and that contained two toilet stalls, a couple of sinks, and a shower cubicle with a flimsy curtain. We would be twenty students. This was bad. But I nodded as if delighted by the luxury.

He turned off the light, and we continued on around a zigzag chicane in the corridor which opened up to a poorly lit hallway that had five or six doors lined up on the left, all closed. A room at the end of the hallway had its door propped open and appeared to be sunlit.

"Guestrooms to the left, kitchen straight ahead," the caretaker said. "You have first choice of guestroom."

Since the kitchen would be the obvious place for social gatherings, I opened the door furthest away from it. It opened not to the inside but out into the hallway as rooms in boarding schools often do.

It was completely dark inside, and I switched on the same frosted bulb with a wire guard around it. To the left and to the right of the entrance stood bunkbeds that reminded me of my boarding school days, and in the small space before the balcony door stood a table with four chairs neatly pushed in.

I pushed my duffel bag on the top bunk and made my way across the room where I pulled the strap that lifted the heavy roller shutters. With the windows facing west merciless brightness began to fill the room, and I stopped the shutters halfway up. Outside I could see a generous terrace that ran along the warehouse portion of the building.

"I show you kitchen." the caretaker said and waved to follow him.

The kitchen was large and clean. It too opened up to the terrace, and the caretaker had taken a couple of tables outside. He sat down and offered me a cigarette.

"Thanks," I said. "May I use the bathroom first?"

But before he could answer there was honking in the parking lot below, and he leaned over the bannister.

"Your friends," he said pointing down.

"Hardly," I answered.

When I came out of the bathroom, just before I turned off the light, I noticed on the opposite side of the corridor two doors the caretaker had not mentioned. I tried the first one which was locked. Then I tried the one to the right.

The room was smaller than the other guestroom but also contained two bunkbeds. It had only a small window, which was not connected to the terrace. Looking down onto the parking lot I saw small groups of students walking towards the building. Then I heard them nosily clunking up the steel stairs. I knew I had to be quick.

"Bathroom on the right," the caretaker said, and I could hear the click the light switch made.

And when the caravan moved on I was standing on the other side of the closed door, still holding my breath.

Then I sat down and opened my duffel bag.

Nobody found my room that day. And nobody found out about it even on Monday or Tuesday. Secrecy is a habit of the introvert. And it was only because I didn't pay proper attention that on Wednesday morning I ran into Herr Ott.

By that time I had already developed a routine. I would get up at six o'clock, brush my teeth, do my morning callisthenics. Then I would quickly dress, slip down the steel stairs as quietly as I could, and walk over to the Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel not grand. It was a twelve-storey cement block also built against the cliff, weird angles and terraces posing as modern architecture. It was about a foot-minute south of the Research Station. It wasn't a bad hotel, especially not by Eastern Bloc standards.

I don't remember in details of what the hotel looked like on the inside, just that the floors had ornamented tiles, and that there were large sofas and armchairs, dark-brown and arranged in islands, where sunburnt guests could rest and talk. As most hotels built into a cliff the Grand Hotel had its reception desk at the top, which meant that I could sneak in at sea-level. There was no personnel in the hallways at this time of the day, and just in case I walked confidently so that I would be taken for a guest returning from an early morning stroll.

Consequently, I made my way to the toilet facilities unhindered. They were modern and clean and most importantly gave me the privacy which the stalls at the Research Station lacked. (Yes, I do have a toilet problem.)

When I came back that Wednesday morning, I was just about to disappear into my room when I heard somebody behind me.



Photo: A serious man, Professor Ott. Which reminds me of General Golz from Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls: "I joke if I want. I am so serious is why I can joke." Source: https://www.zobodat.at/personen.php?id=1199 (Accessed: 20 Jan 2021)

Herr Ott didn't like me, and the reason for that was that I called him Herr Ott.

This may seem strange to non-Austrians, so let me explain.

In 1919 the Austrian Constitutional Assembly passed two important pieces of legislation. One was the Habsburg Law, which dethroned the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and confiscated their property. The second was the Law on the Abolition of Nobility, which, you guessed it, abolished nobility. Austria was to be a true meritocracy. Such was the theory.

The abolition was not much of a concern to the Austrian higher nobility. Yes, they lost their titles and privileges, but they kept their property, social networks, and standing. Or as Princess Fanny von Starhemberg expressed it: "To us, the official abolition is quite irrelevant, because with or without the titles, we will always remain the Starhembergs." Although, it would have been funnier if she had said "the von Starhembergs".

That said, the abolition was a harsh blow for the lower nobility, especially civil servants. They found it degrading and humiliating. They had worked hard earning their noble titles and now all was lost. Consequently, noble titles were quickly replaced by academic titles or professional titles, and one of them was the title of Professor. Austrians were and still are addicted to titles, and the full title of Herr Ott was "Doz. tit. ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Joerg Ott", don't ask.

Herr Ott was a child of the hippie generation, and at almost fifty he still wore his hair long, and sported a Fu Manchu, and thought cowboy boots were the proper footwear to go with a suit. His hair was really a wreath surrounding an expanding cue ball and his moustache gave him a look not just of eternal surliness but of erupting anger. That said, Herr Ott surrounded himself with an air of carefreeness, relating stories of political protest, and civil obedience, and sit-ins, from his younger years, and playing guitar, smoking hashish, and listening to recordings of humpback whale songs.

The problem wasn't that Herr Ott saw his students as inferior, any professor of rank would naturally do that. The problem was that he failed to pretend that he didn't. Consequently, no matter how long he had supervised a student, and some of us had seen through their undergraduate and graduate years, they still addressed him, or had to address him, as Professor Ott and used the formal manner of speech, third person plural not first person singular. He on the other hand called us by our first names. To be fair, when he spoke to us, he used the formal manner of speech, which presented itself as a golden compromise.

Still, the inequality bothered me.

That's when I first switched from Professor Ott to Doctor Ott and then, a few months later, to Herr Ott. I knew it was a thorn in his side, or his ears rather, but there was little he could do without looking ridiculous. And so his dislike for me simmered under his Fu Manchu.

As an experiment I did the same to Professor Splechtna and suddenly called him Herr Splechtna. He just laughed it off as one of my idiosyncrasies. Today, my ranking is more complicated, I reserve the title "Doctor" for close friends or for people of whom I think very little.

In any case, it was mid-afternoon when I arrived in Piran, Slovenia.


24 December 1988

The suitcase and The Rat

I got married the first time in 1988. The marriage lasted 17 years. I remember in all those years my in-laws gave me a present only twice. One Christmas they gave me a suitcase. Another Christmas they gave me a novel by Guenter Grass titled "The Rat". I don't think they liked me much.


13 September 1982

My friend Tommy (Part 3)

Circumstances change, as they always do, and when Michaela and I broke up in the fall of 1982, so did my friendship with Tommy. Sure, I saw him every once in a while at this bar and that, but he always seemed to be avoiding me and was always on his way somewhere else.

The next time I spoke to Tommy was five years later. I was studying in Vienna, and he had just finished his grammar school diploma through second chance education. He wanted to study Art History. We went for drinks a couple of times, and one time he and a girl we knew, Andrea P., made plans how they would alternate going to classes and share their notes with each other. I told him that that may not be the best way to go about his studies, and after that he disappeared from my radar.

But why I am telling all this?

Because for that one year in my life Tommy was my best friend, and I knew him so well.

Except that I didn't.

Years later I learned the truth about Tommy.

I learned that he was gay and had been gay all along. That he had been expelled from the boarding school in Vienna not for truancy, but for a gay relationship with a journalist and an escalating cocaine habit. That while he was working at the candle shop one evening he had jumped a guy in one of the toilet stalls. That all those nights he disappeared without telling anybody, who knows what he really did.

How terrible.

Ten years later I ran into Michaela at a grocery store. We went for a coffee and she told me about her life, and I told her about mine. (I had just won a Schrödinger Fellowship and was about to move back to Vancouver.)

I looked at her, and she looked happy, and I knew she would be all right.

Then I asked her about Tommy, and she told me that he had a boyfriend and that they moved to Bali, of all places, and then came back again, and had to move in with his parents. Later that year he tried to kill himself with sleeping pills, and he was committed to the same closed psychiatric ward, where Michaela now worked as a nurse. She told me that he was fat now and unkempt and dirty and didn't talk any longer. She tried to break through to him, but he only grunted and hissed.

I told Michaela that I always suspected some craziness in Tommy, but that as a friend you sometimes look away.

She smiled and then told me about the tape.

When they were 14 or 15 years old, one afternoon when his parents were away, Tommy invited Michaela over. He made her a glass of cold Ovaltine, as he always did for friends, and they went to his room, which was at the end of the hallway. They chatted about school and listened to music. When it was getting late, Michaela said she had to leave, and Tommy asked her to stay a little longer, but she wanted to go.

She got up, and Tommy got up too, and then he suddenly locked the door of his room. She protested half-jokingly, because she didn't know him that way, and when she tried to get to the door, he pushed her back, and every time she tried to get to the door again he pushed her back again. At last he pulled the key from the door and put it in the pocket of his jeans.

Michaela thought it was a joke at first and was telling Tommy that she had to go because she had promised her mother to do the laundry. But Tommy called her lie. Then Michaela started swearing at him and threatening to tell his parents, but as the minutes became an hour, she became frightened and started imploring him to let her go, and that she wouldn't tell anybody.

But he was just sitting there in front of her watching her, laughing at her.

And then he suddenly unlocked the door. But before he let her go he told her that he had taped her pleading, but that he wasn't going to play it to anyone. Michaela wanted the tape, but Tommy only laughed, and so she stormed out of his room and didn't talk to him for a couple of days after that. But in the end, she forgave him and doubted that the tape even existed.

It did exist.

I know because Tommy had played it to me, not once but on several occasions. He had laughed at the fear in her voice and her pleading, and I had laughed with him, and I had been in love with Michaela.

And Michaela had known me so well.

As for Michaela?

When she was eighteen, she was knocked up by a guy ten years older than she was. She dropped out of school, and he left for Berlin. A couple of years later she got married to a drunkard. Their wedding invitations were Garfield postcards. She got knocked up again, got divorced. Then she met another guy, and got knocked up again. At the age of thirty she had three daughters by three different men. Michaela's parents became grandparents when they were not even forty. They became great-grandparents before they were sixty.

Over all these years Michaela was also in a relationship with a woman she knew from grammar school. She was the twin sister of the girl who wanted to kill Armin at the New Year's Eve party in 1981.

We knew each other so well. We really thought we did.