Following Directions: Stories about improvising

This week, we're presenting stories about the difficulties of following instructions -- whether it's medical advice or a recipe. 

Part 1: Comedian Joseph Scrimshaw is terrified of messing up when his new museum job requires him to bake.

Joseph Scrimshaw is a comedian, writer, and host based in Los Angeles, as well as a Story Collider producer. As a comedian, he’s appeared at SF SketchFest, Chicago Improv Festival, Dragon Con, headlined on Jonathan Coulton’s JoCoCruise, appeared on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop, and more. Joseph has written for Adult Swim,  the movie riffing group, RiffTrax, Screen Junkies, and was a writer/performer on Wits, where he wrote sketches for Paul F. Tompkins, Dave Foley, Neil Gaiman, and more. Joseph’s plays Adventures in Mating, An Inconvenient Squirrel, and My Monster (written with Bill Corbett) have been performed all over the US, the UK, and strangely Bulgaria. His popular comedy podcast Obsessed is part of the Feral Audio podcast network and has been listed as a Staff Favorite on iTunes multiple times. Joseph also co-hosts the Star Wars podcast feed, ForceCenter. Joseph has released multiple comedy albums including 2015’s Rebel Scum and 2013’s Flaw Fest. John Hodgman said of the album, “I am glad Joseph Scrimshaw has the power of thought and audible speech, or else this very funny album would not exist.”

Part 2: Science writer Cassandra WIllyard is frustrated by the restrictions put on her during her pregnancy.

Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist who likes long walks, international travel, and infectious diseases, the more neglected the better. She earned a BS in Biological Aspects of Conservation (and a certificate in drinking) from the University of Wisconsin and an MA in Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She also served as Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. You can read her work in Discover, Popular Science, and Nature. She also blogs regularly for The Last Word on Nothing. After spending several years in New York City, Cassandra moved back to Midwest. She now lives in Madison with her husband and daughter. But she still enjoys sarcasm and wearing black.   


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Joseph Scrimshaw

I think it probably tells a lot about my relationship with science that I want to begin my story by saying something about Star Wars.  In the most recent film, The Last Jedi, there is a scene towards the end where our triumphant heroes, the Resistance, are making their desperate, final stand on this exotic, alien world called Crait. 

They are dug into trenches and one brave Resistance fighter, whose name is Sergeant Sharp, he reaches out his finger, he runs it across this weird, white substance that’s covering the planet and reveals the red earth below.  Then he takes that white substance on his finger, he brings his finger to his mouth, he tastes and then he says, “Salt.” 

I loved that moment because it is bizarre and stupid.  Because as soon as I saw that I said, “Why?”  Why did he do that?  Why did he pause the action of this epic space fantasy to just taste some dirt?  And then I realized, oh, well.  It’s probably just to make sure that the basic facts are clear, to make sure that the audience knows that white stuff isn’t snow, it’s salt, and this is why there's cool, red ground underneath.  He really just wants to make it clear to people who have not read the entry for the planet Crait on Wookieepedia. 

If you're not familiar with Wookieepedia, it is Wikipedia but just for Star Wars.  And I am absolutely certain that it is far more accurate than actual Wikipedia by like a lot.  I am dead certain of that. 

So this scene really stuck with me because it is a good snapshot of my relationship with science.  It is a fantasy that is briefly interrupted by basic facts.  A basic fact about me is that I love Star Wars, I love Star Trek, I love Doctor Who, I love Moonraker, the James Bond film where he goes to space.  It’s terrible, but he goes to space.  So I love all of these things and I always have.  Things that make me very, very interested in science but also make me too distracted to actually learn science. 

Since I was a very young kid, I remember being in classes and the science teacher would be telling me something very interesting about the dirt on Mars.  And I would just be imagining space wizards cutting each others’ limbs off with laser swords, on Mars.  It made me develop a bad habit where I always focus on the romantic and the narrative and have a hard time focusing on scientific precision and the basic facts. 

Well, I got a job a while back where I had no choice but to face this bad habit of mine.  I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the time and I got a job at a place called Mill City Museum.  This is a brand new building that is built inside the ruins of the Washburn-Crosby A Mill, which is this old flour mill that was built in the late 1800s.  This building had exploded once and burned down twice, so it was a very exciting place to work. 

My job title there was ‘Interpreter’, which meant I was literally supposed to interpret the stories that were being told at the museum.  The museum had all of these interesting stories to tell.  It told the story of the Saint Anthony Falls, the only major waterfall on the Mississippi and how the power of that waterfall created this new technology in flour milling, which made the flour milling industry explode which basically created the City of Minneapolis and how then Minneapolis became the Flour Mill Capital of the World. 

And because people kept getting injured in those flour mills, it also became the Artificial Limb Capital of the World at the exact same time.  That fascinated me because of Star Wars and all the lost limbs there so I was really, really engaged with all of these cool stories we got to tell. 

The company that owned this mill, Washburn-Crosby Company, eventually became General Mills.  So we also told the story of Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the science of baking convenience foods.  And the early history of advertising as we know it was partially created there. 

There was an early advertising campaign by a man, and I’m not making this up, an ad man named B.S. Bull.  Actual name of one of the people who gave us modern marketing.  Very, very perfect. 

So I was very engaged by all of the fun, narrative, romantic stories to be told but I was also faced with, to use a technical term, a metric-shit ton of science.  There were a lot of older, I'll just say it, older men.  A lot of older men who really questioned the physics of how the mill actually worked and made flour. 

So on the floor we had this big model of the actual functioning mill and a lot of these men would come up and they'd go like, “Well, I don't know.  I don't think that actually worked.  I don't think that could have worked.  You need like, you know, PSI that’s like a hundred pounds square root to fulminate the chaff.” 

They knew just enough to be dangerous but I had to try to be polite and I'd say, “Well, yeah.  That’s very interesting.  It did work because we’re here.  The City of Minneapolis is here.  This is not a group hallucination or anything.  This is real.”  I try not to say that last part. 

So it was very trying because I had to know the facts rely well because there were all of these older men who felt it was their natural birthright to somehow intrinsically know exactly how flour milling technology from precisely 1887 worked.  And they had to know it better than the employees, so I had to really study up. 

But that was nothing compared to the challenges of working in the baking lab.  So we had this actual functioning kitchen where we were supposed to bake bread and cookies and all sorts of things and then share them with the audience and display our knowledge of the actual science of baking, and this terrified me. 

I grew up very, very nerdy so I was used to being mocked.  But because being verbally mocked is a precursor to actually physically being bullied, being verbally mocked sets off my fight-or-flight response.  The thought of being in this baking lab and having 70- and 80-year-old people who have spent their entire lives baking, staring at me and judging me, made me want to either run away or physically fight them, which is obviously not a good choice for keeping my job. 

So I had to start small and one day I was asked to please just make some brownies.  Not even brownies from scratch, brownies from a box.  I was supposed to just make these and set these out for children to eat and I was truly honestly frightened that I would accidentally poison and murder children because I had no cooking skills whatsoever at that point in my life.  At that point in my life, the only thing I had actually made is a frozen pizza and I had messed that up. 

Photo by Gregg Lawson.

Photo by Gregg Lawson.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “How do you actually mess up a frozen pizza?”  I find it to be very simple.  Be in your 20s and also be drunk.  This is a thing I've been many times and I've messed up frozen pizza many, many times. 

So I was assigned a helper to help me make the simplest thing ever.  My helper had two jobs.  He worked at the museum and then in his other job he was a chemist.  So I would try to ask him questions and he didn’t understand.  The questions were so incredibly dumb and basic he literally could not comprehend what I was asking him, so I was very much left to my own devices.

I did the first step, which is I get this big tub of sugar and pour out two cups and then mix it with the brownie mixture and some eggs.  That’s the first step.  That’s actually pretty much all the steps.  That’s about all there is to it.  Then I started mixing it together.  As soon as I started mixing it all together I realized something was not right.  The mixture began to harden and clump, like concrete.  Like delicious, delicious chocolate concrete. 

I showed it to my helper and he's like, “Yeah.  That is not right.  How did you do that?”  He actually sounded impressed that I managed to screw this up.  “How did you do that?” 

I said, “I have no idea.” 

And he said, “Well, put it in the oven and see what happens.” 

So we put this pan of brownies in the oven and we were treated to an amazing show.  The brownies began to sparkle in the oven.  It looked exactly like the transporter effect from the original Star Trek.  I called my helper friend over again and I asked him to look and he's just like, “Wow!”  He honestly seemed like he was high and literally watching these lights like they were a Pink Floyd laser show as these brownies went off. 

Suddenly, he went, “Wait.  Wait.”  And he went over and he got out that tub of sugar and he ran his finger through that mysterious white substance.  He brought his finger to his mouth, tasted it and said, “Salt!” 

I had made brownies with two full cups of salt.  And this immediately spread through the museum incredibly fast so people came down, like, “How did he do this?  Like literally, physically?  And how can he be that dumb?” 

The big question on everybody’s mind is, “Is it any way that these are possibly edible?” 

And for some reason I felt it was my duty, my penance for my stupidity to eat a salt brownie.  Why not? 

So I carved out a brownie and I took one bite and everybody laughed and was very entertained and all of that.  Then immediately all moisture left my entire body.  I believe the word ‘moisture’ actually disappeared from my vocabulary, sucked out. 

I decided I needed to excuse myself to the bathroom.  So I went to the bathroom and I just started drinking a glass of water, a glass of water, and it was making no effect.  It was like my entire digestive system was now just this sponge and there was just nothing that was going to happen. 

So I kept pounding the water to try to fix it and then suddenly I realized, “Oh, wow.  I might need to vomit up all of this salt-brownie-water that I have created inside my body.”  But I did not vomit.  I contained it. 

Got to the end of the day, destroyed the brownies, just got rid of them.  The legend spread and everybody was happy.  I was very proud of myself.  Overall, like, hey, I think that went okay ultimately.  And then I had the epiphany that if your day at work becomes the proudest thing that you've done is successfully not vomit because of your own stupidity, that is not a great day at work.  That is not a thing to be proud of. 

So I really did buckle down and I got much better at learning the science of baking.  I did actually successfully bake bread in front of people and then serve it to them and they claim to enjoy it.  They did not die so that was a huge success. 

I really carry that story with me not only in working at the museum and not only for science type stuff but just for basic life to remember that it’s great to be connected to the romantic and the exciting and the narrative but to try to have, if not great knowledge of science, to have respect for the most basic part of the scientific process which is just checking the details. Just to always check and to always be that resistant soldier and run your fingers through the white stuff, because it might be salt.


Part 2: Cassandra Willyard

So I’m sitting in the doctor’s office and the nurse is all business.  She prints out this big stack of papers for me and she takes them to her desk and I see her whip out a green highlighter and she marks one line on the page.  Then she brings the papers over to me. 

She says, “I need you to read this,” and taps the page, the part that she's highlighted. 

I look down and I see that what she's given me is a pamphlet that she's printed out from the Centers for Disease Control.  The line that she's highlighted says, “Pregnant women are advised to avoid travel to areas with malaria.” 

I am five months pregnant and I’m about to fly to Mozambique with my husband to visit friends.  I've come there for advice about malaria medication.  It’s my first public health lecture via highlighter. 

There are things that you expect to gain when you get pregnant, like a bunch of weight, a rosy glow, but no one really talks to you about the things that you'll lose.  I realize that the world now sees me as a vessel, like a human packing container whose sole purpose is to protect my cargo.  As the baby who’s growing inside of me becomes more of a person, I somehow become less.  And, ‘better safe than sorry’ becomes my guiding principle.  No alcohol, no deli meats, no soft cheeses, no hot tubs.  It was really hard. 

Back in the nurse’s office, I can feel the disapproval.  I don't even have a baby yet and already I've been deemed an unfit mother.  What kind of person takes their unborn child for a joyride in Africa?  I felt so ashamed.  And then I felt something else.  I felt angry.  This is my body and my baby and my risk to take. 

So I went to Africa and I took my antimalarial pills and I used bug spray and I kept us safe, but I worried too.  I worried that I might slip and fall on a hike, I worried that I might contract something by eating fruit off the street, I worried about the ice in my glass.  Each new adventure came with excitement but also this impossible-to-quantify level of risk.  Like shark-diving was an obvious no, but what about a safari?  I’m not a better-safe-than-sorry kind of person and I didn’t want to become that just because I was pregnant but I couldn’t fully shake the worry either. 

Thirty-six weeks into my pregnancy, a new problem arises.  I find out that my daughter is wedged butt down in the womb, which is not how they're supposed to come out, so I’m likely going to need a C-section.  

This is not the plan.  I do not want to have my belly sliced open like a watermelon.  I have never had surgery.  I have never even had an IV.  So my doctor offers me this small, tiny, silver glimmer of hope.  She says that if I go to the hospital, the OBs there might be able to sort of manhandle the baby into the right position.  It’s an actual procedure.  It’s called a version and it’s supposed to be excruciatingly painful, but I still have this vision of a natural birth.  So I say, “Yes, sign me up.” 

The next day, the nurse calls to sort of give me general information about where to park at the hospital and how to get in.  And she also reminds me that I cannot eat or drink after midnight.  This is not welcome news.  I am thirty-six weeks pregnant and basically ravenous all the time.  I’m also just not the kind of person who does well without food.  I get hangry, like really, really hangry. 

My husband once tried to take a half a sandwich from me in a train station and I growled at him.  That’s not a figure of speech.  Literally I growled at him and I wasn’t even pregnant. 

But I decide I’m going to follow the rules because I rolled the dice already with Africa and I should be obedient. 

So I fast and I go to the hospital.  They do all the normal hospital stuff.  They put me in a gown, they put me in a hospital bed, they do the IV, they put gel all over my belly so they can do an ultrasound.  But when it comes time to actually do the version, they cannot find an OB to do it.  The OBs come into the room and explain what’s going to happen and then their pager buzzes and they're out again and I never see them.  It’s like a very Grey’s Anatomy day at the hospital. 

So we arrive at 8:30 a.m. and four hours later I’m still sitting in the same hospital bed, my daughter is still breech, and no one has laid a hand on my belly.  They finally tell me you can go home and come back tomorrow.  And so I send my husband like we’re going straight to the donut shop. 

So we do that.  Then I go home but it’s hours later and I cannot shake the annoyance.  I don't understand the rationale.  I don't understand why I had to fast in the first place.  I’m a science journalist so I channel my annoyance into research.  I sit on my couch with my laptop sort of wedged below my belly and I Google. 

Cassandra Willyard 2.jpg

I realize that the reason that they don’t want you to eat is that there's a very slim chance that when they're doing the version, it could go wrong and then they would have to do an emergency C-section.  If they had to do that, they might have to put you under.  If that happens then it’s possible, there's a slim chance that I might vomit, and then there's an even slimmer chance that I might aspirate some of that vomit, which would be really bad. 

But the chance of this is so miniscule.  It’s like one in a million.  I ran the numbers.  And the really infuriating thing about this is that this rule, this ‘no eating or drinking after midnight’, this isn’t even a rule anymore.  The American Society of Anesthesiologists adopted looser guidelines two decades ago but many medical professionals are just like, “No, we’re going to follow the standard thing that’s from ancient times.” 

Actually, when I was doing this research I stumbled across this online forum for nurses, like a nurse chat room, and one nurse was like, “So the rule about no eating or drinking after midnight, is that really necessary?”  This other nurse responds, “It may seem like overkill but better safe than sorry.” 

I just want to scream. 

So the next day we have to go to the hospital again, first I tell my husband that I want to stop at the bakery.  I get a chocolate croissant and I really want to eat it, and I know there's not like a real risk but I don't want to have to lie to the nurse when we get there so I just sort of cradle it in my lap and stroke it like a cat. 

We go to the hospital and it’s the same sort of deal as the day before where we’re just sitting there waiting.  An hour goes by, two hours go by and then finally an OB comes in and pulls up a chair next to the bed.  She says she's looked at my scans and noticed my strange two-lobed placenta. 

This is not news to me.  I know that I have a weird placenta.  I actually brought it up the day before with the resident and said, “Hey, you know my weird placenta?  Like that’s not going to make it hard for you guys to do the version, is it?” 

And the resident was like, “No, that’s going to make it easier.” 

And now the OB is saying, “It’s too risky.  We can’t do it.” 

She tells me that the place where they need to put pressure to somersault my daughter is also the place where there's some vessels connecting the two lobes of my placenta.  If they put too much pressure, she's worried that the vessel might rupture and it could create, in her words, “a silent catastrophe”. 

I don’t even let her finish talking before I turn to my husband and say, “Hand me that goddamn croissant.” 

I have fasted for two days in the hopes of having a procedure that she is now telling me would have been impossible all along.  Like even a cursory glance at my scans might have revealed that I was not a candidate for this procedure.  I am furious and I decide I’m not going to follow their rules anymore. 

Seven days later, my water breaks.  I know that I’m going to need to have a C-section in the next twenty-four hours.  And I also know that as soon as I call my doctor, she's going to tell me that I can’t eat.  So before I pick up the phone, I make myself a plate of eggs, I fix myself some toast, and then I dial her number.  Thank you.