Monthly Archives: September 2010

To my father and father-in-law, with all due respect

My sisters and I have never been particularly kind to our father. One would scold him for his lack of interest in all things sartorial. The other would gasp if he called a cashier “honey,” as he thanked her, and accepted his change. And we all agreed that it was not acceptable to cross his ankles over the corner of the table, with, or without socks, at any time. It mattered to us not one whit that our father was a doctor of Internal Medicine, a smart, clever man who seemed to know something about everything, and who taught himself how to play the violin so he could recreate the music of his beloved Beethoven. None of that could compensate for the fact that he was raising three girls, whose experiences were as different from his, as his was from his Russian immigrant father.

While I was not vastly more tolerant of my father than my sisters were, I had a greater appreciation of his place in the world than they did. One summer, I worked in his office, helping his secretaries create bills and file insurance paperwork. I observed the deferential way the women spoke to him. I saw the way his patients thanked him on their way out. And I listened to their stories about how wonderful he was when I was introduced as, “the Doctor’s daughter.” After that summer, I couldn’t be quite as critical as my sisters.

In my husband’s family, everyone treats my father-in-law with great respect, except me. My husband gasps audibly if I chastise my father-in-law for using his fingers to rearrange the roast on the platter, or doing something I consider equally unacceptable. My father-in-law is also sartorially-challenged, and he shares traits of men of my father’s generation, that make women of mine bristle. There is a major difference in how my husband and I were raised, that informs how we treat our fathers.

My father-in-law is a physics professor of some renown. If you travel in scientific circles, with an interest in ultra-cold atoms, he’s a rock star. It was rare that a week went by in my husband’s childhood, that there wasn’t a visiting professor, a grad student, or an international luminary at the dinner table, all treating my father-in-law with the utmost respect, if not adulation. I, however, was not at those dinners. I was at my home, reminding my father that it wasn’t sanitary to open the milk carton by putting his finger inside the carton and pulling out.

This past weekend, my father-in-law received a Bicentennial Medal from his alma mater, Williams College. He also delivered the annual Fall Convocation Address, which this year coincided with the induction of Williams’ seventeenth president. Listening to him speak, I was reminded of what an amazing man he is, one of a rare breed of theoretical physicists who pursue their work for the sheer thrill of the intellectual chase, and whose success impacts our lives in ways they never even dreamed of. Surrounded by the faculty of Williams, the class of 2011, and the delegates sent from colleges and universities around the country to welcome the new president, I resolved to treat my father-in-law with more respect from now on. At least until I catch him using his fingers to serve the pie.

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The soothing effect of money

A few days ago marked one year since I was shown the door at my last ‘real’ job. At the time, I went through the traditional stages of grief; anger, disgust, disdain, and fury, with a brief stop at homicidal mania. It didn’t take me long to get past all that, however, and settle into my new life as an aspiring novelist. I wasn’t particularly lonely, my days didn’t drag. I was productive and had results to show for my efforts. I probably even lowered my blood pressure. What I did miss, was having an income.

It’s been well over thirty years since I went a year without a ‘real’ job. I had my first office job the summer I was thirteen. The man who hired me could not remember how old I was and occasionally suggested I take his car to run an errand. I’d remind him that I was only thirteen and he’d look at me for a minute like we’d just met, and then shake his head and say, “Right, right,” and wave his hand, indicating no matter, he’d handle that chore himself.

I liked making money. With money came unbelievable freedom. If I wanted something my parents weren’t willing to spring for, no problem, I bought it myself. If I wanted something they wouldn’t approve of, they didn’t need to know about it. But it turned out that I wasn’t a terribly acquisitive teenager. The things most girls spent money on, clothes and makeup, didn’t interest me at all, so my bank account grew and grew.

As an adult, I took great pride in being financially self-sufficient. Single, I bought my first house right before I turned thirty, proving that ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ And when I met and married my husband, I insisted we keep our money separate until a few years in when a lawyer told us that, at that point in the marriage, there was no more mine vs. his. If we broke up, the state would look at our assets as one big pot to be split. I gave in and our money began mingling. Even so, I was acutely aware of my contributions to the family coffers, and the financial freedom I continued to cherish.

So here I am, ‘working’ at home, and not earning money. I hope that won’t be a permanent state of affairs. With a little luck, I’ll sell my book and look back on this year as the year I worked on spec. And if I can do it once, maybe I can do it twice, and then I’ll be contributing financially again.

Meanwhile, I’m the only one in the family having a problem with this situation. My wildly supportive husband is perfectly content to be the sole wage earner, as long as I’m happily pursuing my new career. So I’ll try to stay upbeat. After all, I have enjoyed this past year. But I now know that even if money can’t buy happiness, it sure can stave off anxiety.

Slush piles

To the average person, the term ‘slush pile’ brings to mind a mound of wet, mushy snow. Aspiring novelists know it as the place where unsolicited manuscripts are tossed to languish, until their pages yellow and turn brittle. There are, however, people in publishing, or so I’m told, who peruse the slush pile, driven by the desire to be there at the start of something wonderful.

I’ve never worked, in an editorial capacity, with a slush pile of manuscripts, but I have had to work through daunting piles of things at various times in my career. I’ve gone through hundreds of resumes to find candidates worthy of deeper scrutiny; I’ve listened to oodles of songs to divine the ones the public would embrace, to play on the radio; and I’ve sifted through piles of books, looking for the ones that interested me enough to invite the author to appear on my fledgling cable television show.

To prepare for that show, I would read the book and research the author. The more I knew going into the interview, the more fluid the conversation would be. I made up more questions than I could possibly hope to use in half an hour, even if every answer was mono-syllabic. In the end, if the author seemed to enjoy themselves, I considered the show a success.

The other day, I watched the movie, The Soloist. It’s about an LA Times columnist, Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.), and the homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) that he befriends. I was moved by the movie and went on to watch the extras on the DVD. One of them was an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers. All of a sudden a light bulb went off, and I thought, “Steve Lopez? I know that name.” I rushed to my bookcase and there it was, Third and Indiana, by Steve Lopez. A quick check of the author’s bio confirmed that it was the same man, and the inscription on the title page indicated that he’d enjoyed the time he’d spent with me on my talk show.

Now, I am not claiming that that interview, aired on a local cable access channel many years ago, helped Steve Lopez sell any books. Nonetheless, in that moment, I felt inordinately proud of him. As if, by picking Third and Indiana out of my own ‘slush pile,’ I had discovered someone talented and destined for success.

For the sake of my own future success, I hope the desire for that feeling of pride will continue to compel even the most jaded editors to slog through their slush piles, and one day discover me.

I’ll put it on my list

If I want to remember to do something, I write it down. Yup, I use a pen, and a piece of paper. I keep a pad of paper next to the refrigerator for the never-ending list of things we need at the supermarket. When the time is right, I interrupt that list to take it to the market with me, but it starts all over again the minute I get home.

On a typical day, I may consult several lists; things I need to do, people to buy birthday cards for, phone calls I need to make. Heading into the weekend, I usually rewrite several lists onto a single piece of paper, for more efficient processing. I carry a little notebook in my purse to jot down book titles and authors I want to check out. I also use that notebook when I’m out of the house to jot down appointments I make that I want to remember to transfer to the calendar at home. My fear of forgetting to do that compels me to rip out the page with the appointment and put it somewhere obvious, like the passenger seat of my car, until I get home and can transfer it to its final destination.

I keep a little notebook on my desk with ideas for blog posts. If I have an idea when I’m out and about, I put it in the notebook in my purse. You know what happens then.

If my daughter says, “Mom, can you do x for me?” I say, “Write it down.” If my husband says, “Can you remember to do y?” I say, “Write it down.”

If I put laundry in the washing machine in the basement, I put a post-it note on the kitchen table that says “laundry,” so I’ll remember to move it into the dryer. I leave that note on the table until the dryer is done, and the laundry, in its basket on the kitchen floor, negates the need for a written reminder. My daughter uses that same post-it. I wrote a note on a post-it months ago, “kitties fed,” that I put on the counter above their bowls to alert the rest of the house not to feed them again. We all use that one.

My husband sneers at my lists. He thinks I could be a poster child for PDAs. He urges me to use his old iPhone, so I can put all my lists on it and carry them with me everywhere I go. I’ve tried, really. The iPhone that does everything except make phone calls is in my purse, along with my own cell phone. I haven’t made a note on it yet. I keep meaning to. I guess I better put it on my list.