Wiper Madness


My father-in-law’s name is Carl. He says that he rarely sees a TV or film character named Carl, and, when he does see one, it’s usually the butler.

My husband has made a similar observation about his own name. Whenever you see a Craig character, he is usually (a) nerdy (b) fairly annoying or (c) a back-stabbing preppy jerk.

Watching the movie Flash of Genius, a movie based on the true story of Bob Kearns, the Michigan engineering professor who spent years of his life alleging that the automobile industry stole his original design for the intermittent wiper, I wondered whether one can say something similar about film portrayals of scientists and engineers: the stereotype seems to be that sure, they’re clever and all, but there’s a point at which one’s techno IQ climbs just a little too high for social acceptability.

In the movie, Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear, comes off as cute, then compulsive, then kind of cuckoo as he experiences the highs of discovery and invention, then the lows of betrayal and disillusionment with an industry who capitalizes without compensation on the industriousness of the little guy. It’s hard to believe that someone went through all Kearns experienced, and even harder to believe that Kearns himself may have been a more intense individual than Kinnear’s portrayal suggests.

Watching the film, I had several questions. First, why isn’t Greg Kinnear in every movie? Second, was the circuit design for the original intermittent wiper so complicated that it really stumped the entire car industry? Third, where else besides the film Real Genius is a scientist or engineer portrayed as remotely cool (maybe in October Sky, Apollo 13, or much of space cinema?) and not crazy (as in A Beautiful Mind)? Related to that, what other example of onscreen soldering can you think of? Finally, if my brother-in-law right, that wiper speed directly correlates with driver stress, how stressed out would Americans be without good old intermittent wipers?

Whether or not you’re a scientist (or a scientist-lover), you’ll probably find the movie’s “at what price” questions compelling. Is financial compensation worth more than credit for one’s idea? Is it better to have one’s day in court than to have a good relationship with one’s family? Is a one-man fight against corporate greed so hopeless and overwhelming that it may not be worth fighting?

Whatever your answers, next time you use those intermittent wipers, remember: you have Robert Kearns, however tech-headed, hyper-focused, and flawed an individual he may have been, to thank.


Thankful that stickers still do the trick


Last week I received my umpteenth correspondence from Highlights for Children, and in it I found the key to my start of the school year success: stickers. My children, despite being ages 11 and 9, think that stickers are corny and dorky, but they’re still accepting them as a reward for a pleasant morning going “to” and a pleasant afternoon coming “from” school. They rolled their eyes at me when I held out the sheet and told them each to pick one…but pick they did, and they’re sticking them on notebooks, box lids, electronics—you name it (just not shirts or skin—gosh, Mom, so gauche).

The way I figure it, one sheet of multicolored funny faces should last us about two weeks. That’s sure more economical than giving them money, more healthy than giving them cookies, and less demanding than any other rewards system I could think of.

Perhaps I should start rewarding myself in stickers. Crazy enough to work.

Project Journalism


Watching the movie Julie & Julia over the weekend, I was reminded of one of my favorite literary genres: the project book. Choose a task (like making all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al), give yourself a year to do it, write about all your experiences related to it, and voila! you’ve got yourself a book.

It’s almost certainly not as easy as it sounds. I mean, one must certainly clear the schedule, make some serious (and pricey) reservations, and, oh mercy, pack thoughtfully for something like a three week trip around the world (see Nicholas Sparks’ project book/memoir Three Weeks with my Brother). And there’s some serious research to be done before embarking on a year of eating only things grown locally or, better yet, in one’s own backyard (see Barbara Kingsolver’s family’s food diary, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle).

It may all be worth it, though. Think of the years (months? seconds?) that a plunge in Siberia’s icy Lake Baikal might add to your life (perhaps enough to balance the years’ lost from the vodka Peter Thomson had to drink riding the Trans-Siberian railway for his book Sacred Sea). Imagine the hoot your children will have someday over Dad’s ridiculous but Torah-mandated beard (see AJ Jacobs’ facial hair progress in The Year of Living Biblically). And think how much fun you’ll be at parties when you tell people that you travelled cross country with Einstein’s brain (yes, it’s true—see Michael Paterniti’s Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain).

If I were to write a project book, I wonder, what task would I undertake? Certainly I could remove something from my life: TV, automobiles, electricity, frozen food, purchases of anything new, my hair, hand sanitizer, cardboard. I could add something to my life: a part-time job…training animals…at the circus. I could go somewhere: does the laundramat count?

So I guess I’ll just throw it out there. Ideas, anyone?

Architectural In-Digest-ion

ArchitecturalDigest_150Sadly, a favorite magazine of mine called Domino dissolved a couple of months ago. Subscribers like me were offered other magazines from the publisher’s stable. My poor sister-in-law, for whom I had purchased a gift subscription, ended up with Glamour (which she promptly cancelled, understandably), and I started receiving Architectural Digest.

You probably could have guessed this, but I didn’t peg myself as an AD kind of girl. Domino worked for me because it had rooms painted entirely in chalkboard paint and lots of children’s pictures framed as art. AD is for a different sort of crowd—the crowd whose reflecting pools should not be confused with their swimming pools, who would take a copper sculpture and paint it entirely black because copper is so sort of shiny and vulgar, who could fit four (or more) of my house inside theirs and still have room left over for a high end steam room and Godiva chocolate facial center.

If you’re the kind of person who prefers her water in a water glass, then let me tell you, AD is the magazine for you.

Yesterday, thankfully, I was able to find the funny in a publication that could otherwise be known as Wealthy Pretensions Monthly (No offense, anyone, but wouldn’t your hard-earned money be better spent on an endowed scholarship or arts sponsorship? Isn’t there some welfare-to-work program calling out for funds? Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t there still starving people pretty much all over the world? Wouldn’t you rather change lives than buy a new lamp that costs more than my home, car, and wedding ring combined?). Ah, yes, the funny. It’s there; just look past the pictures and start reading the articles.

Here are some choice quotes from the July 2009 edition:

On page 80, about an eager, design-oriented couple furnishing their LA apartment: “To wit: when Allardyce [the designer] found some dining table candidates in San Francisco, they were ready to hop on the first plane to take a look.” (Hang on, I’m feeling like French toast this morning. Paris, anyone?)

On page 74, architect Lars Bohlander on his purchase of a French chateau: “…we went to speak to the architect in charge of it. He was Turkish but spoke fluent Swedish. So that was it. It had to be. We bought it. Of course we never lived in it.” (Can you say ‘shoddy paint job’ in Swedish?)

On page 66, designer Thad Hayes on his client’s storm cloud color palette: “It’s a blue green that’s not very happy.” (I prefer suicidally depressed pomegranate myself—does Benjamin Moore carry that one, Thad?)

On page 115, describing a painfully distilled Miami Beach residence: “A pair of custom-designed silk rugs are the exact shade of turquoise to be found in the shallows near the shore; the blue of a headboard, the color of the deeper water just beyond.” (“The murky brown of the Jersey shore on a particularly bad day; the completely unnecessary use of a semi-colon before a dependent clause; breathtaking.”)

And, my favorite, on page 33, the caption below a 24” statuette belonging to Yves Saint Laurent, which was recently sold at auction: “Probably Italian: $47,698.” ($47,698?!?!?!! Must remember that when the college bills roll around. Tragically deflated college fund? No go. Romanesque statue of dubious origin? Score!!)

For me, who yearns for honorary membership in the post-irony, enviro-conscious, genuinely bohemian thirty-something crowd, it’s hard to believe that such pomposity exists for real in this world. More my speed? Artist Stephen Huneck’s chapel for dogs, featured on page 14. So out there. So genuine. So ridiculous it’s loveable on the scale of a wet dog shaking itself down…except not in the home of anyone featured anywhere else in the pages of AD—just imagine the cleaning bill for that one.

Thankful for my digital camera

During a week of galloping insecurity during which I broke the thingie on my van door that allows it to close (while trying to fix said thingie, by the way), I found myself joyfully accepting a vase of sunflowers from friends who love me (they really do love me!!!!) and who don’t care whether I broke the stupid door or sent them a Facebook version of the swine flu or have let my backyard “go” to the point that we are now weeding it by hand.

No, they gave me these fun flowers, and I multiplied the fun by taking this photo—


…and turning it upside down to look like this—

Sunflowers upside down

I think I have a new trademark.

We’ll never know…


It’s ironic, I think, that I recently received a rejection slip for my submission to a magazine’s “Finish Line”-themed September edition, which will feature essays about winning and, yup, losing.

My “Finish Line” piece was about the end of my almost 20-year friendship with a girl from college. I have to admit that as I wrote it, typed it, e-mailed it, and waited for the reply, I had a background sense of dread. It’s better, I now think, not to have published this deathbed tell-all about the hospice period of what was for a long time a pretty solid friendship. And if somehow our relationship ever recovers from the Facebook virus that I inadvertently passed on to my former friend just yesterday, then a published article about all the reasons we came undone is sure to torpedo it again.

The bright side of this particular rejection notice is my optimistic daydream that since the essay was rejected two weeks before the “Finish Line” edition was due to come out, I’m thinking that it came within a whisker’s breadth of making the cut. I’ll never know one way or the other, but it’s better to be half full of baloney then half empty, right?

What’s doubly ironic is that this particular rejection experience has made me realize that, rather than writing a dubiously beneficial libel piece, I probably should have written about another “we’ll never know” episode from my senior year in high school. Seems that back in the ’80’s, USA Today was looking to profile the brightest of America’s graduating seniors, and Mrs. O’Sullivan, our high school guidance counselor, encouraged me and another girl in my class to apply. Long shot? Read on.

Part of the application was a letter of recommendation from a teacher. I asked Mrs. Waite, my “what in the world is she looking for in my writing” English teacher, to write mine. Imitating my own procrastinating practices, Mrs. Waite (who may have been divorcing at the time) kept promising but not actually writing the letter. When the mail-out drop dead date rolled around, Mrs. Waite was MIA. Home sick. Going over the marital cliff. Shopping the outlets. Who knows. She didn’t show up at school, so I missed the deadline despite having the rest of my package neatly pulled together.

When I next saw Mrs. Waite, I was as steamed as a high school honor student can get about being let down by a teacher. Mrs. Waite said, “It was a long shot anyway.”

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you whose picture showed up on the cover of USA Today that spring. Yes, the other girl in my class won the prize, and, perhaps better yet, won a full scholarship to Duke. And yes, I’ve wondered whether Mrs. Waite, in letting me down, actually spared me a much bigger disappointment. I guess we’ll never know.

What I do know is that when I finally accepted Mrs. Waite’s apology, she wrapped her arm around me, hugged me, and spilled coffee down my back with her non-hugging hand. Needless to say, I took not one single English class in college.

How’s that for rejection?



Open Question

time outOpen question: Is it ever OK to punish a kid on her birthday?

Suppose you discover first thing on the big birthday morning that she lied about putting away all her clothes (like you asked her to) the night before. Suppose that even after you ask her again to put away the clothes she just shlumps them into a gigantic pile with all of the other shlumped, not put-away clothes. Suppose that visitors come to drop off birthday gifts and you have to remind her to say “thank you” after which she disappears to the room where the TV and video games are waiting on standby. Suppose that…well, you get the idea.

You don’t want to ruin the birthday for her, but you certainly don’t want her to ruin the birthday for you.

What’s a parent to do? Ideas?

Thankful…but not really sure why

wrongwaygoback0197I’m thankful today for the bizarre brain glitch which on Tuesday caused me to make a wrong turn in familiar territory, sending me 10 miles north on a road from which I had just come 10 miles south, with no opportunities to correct my error until I got to exactly the point from which I’d originally started.

Rather than dwell on the similarity of my mental aptitude to an invertebrate, unicellular creature, I’d rather focus my (apparently) limited intellectual abilities on this Bible verse, from James 4:6–

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Why I stopped reading “Pillars of the Earth”


Delighted was I when I found Pillars of the Earth, my book club’s next selection, at a church yard sale.

If only the church ladies had read it—honestly, I would have appreciated some well-intentioned censoring on this one.

Yesterday, I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth; I was on page three fifty something, in the middle of the scene where (spoiler alert!!!) the former earl’s daughter is unwittingly applying for a position as a prostitute. She does this because she’s anxious to earn the one penny that the jailer demands as a bribe for her to see her father, who is in prison after his plot to overthrow the dubiously appointed king is discovered by an otherwise lovely priest (one of the book’s few bright spots) and foiled by the girl’s very bitter, violent, and misogynistic former suitor.

The earl’s home is brought to ruins, and the girl hides out in the ruins until she is raped by not one, but two men. After she escapes from them, and then escapes one more time from some thug in the forest, she finally finds the jail where her dad is imprisoned and sadly is turned away, but not before she finds out that he’s dying.

Oh, and did I mention the other sunny plotlines about the abandoned newborn, his mother’s death in childbirth, the pig stealing, child clubbing, rampant unemployment, and the woman so ugly that she looks like someone in a painting about the tortures of hell?

If I wanted all that, I would have re-watched Pulp Fiction—at least it’s got some dancing.

What also needled me about Pillars of the Earth was all the profanity. Believe me, I’m under no illusion about the moral standards of the 12th century. Besides the raping, pillaging, drinking, and general thievery and deception, I’m sure there was plenty of bad language. But was it the same bad language that people use today? Was it the kind of the thing that you’d hear streaming out of Joe Pesci‘s mouth in Goodfellas? I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’ll tell you, there’s nothing that will shake me back to the 21st century faster than the careless placement of an overused modern-sounding expletive. And if the profanity in the book was authentic to the period, then all I can say is shame on you 12th century-ers: your mouths need a good washing out.

I closed the book for all of those reasons, and, thinking about it now, I abandoned the story because it was so very hopeless. In this book, you don’t just lose your job. You lose your home, your pig, your wife, your baby, your forest-acquired lover, your clothes, your dignity, and all your tools besides. If you score two horses, then you’d better know that they’ll be stolen away by the next chapter. It was like a fortunately/unfortunately record that skipped eternally on the unfortunately part, until it was so lopsided that it was downright demoralizing.

Part of me wants to finish the book because I want to be able to discuss it at my book club meeting next month. Part of me wants to burn it because I don’t want anyone else to consider prescription medication to chase away her intense reading-induced blues. With 600 pages to go, I guess somebody might suggest that I just hang in there.

Um, no.

Your nest: half empty or half full?

empty nestThis is the second summer running where my children (now age 11 and almost 9) will have spent almost 2 weeks with their grandparents. Much as I’m the envy of many of my peers, I have to admit: I really miss them.

I learned my lesson from last year, though: do NOT clean out the basement while the kids are gone. No wonder I sank into a funk when I should have been twirling gleefully in the joys of temporary kid-free clarity. It’s tedious. It’s damp. It’s dark. After a while it’s kind of like a dungeon down there. As the daytime hours wear on, you start to feel trapped, abandoned, forgotten. You contemplate the trash chute scene from Star Wars, with yourself as Princess Leia, getting that super-white robe-like dress soggy with dingy brown swamp water.

No, I learned my lesson. This time I worked. I shopped. I went to the beach. I read books. I played tennis. I never, NOT ONCE, opened the door to my children’s cluttered rooms, lest I be tempted to do some good in there, only to find myself once again depressed and overwhelmed as a result of my own self-sabotage.

I’m thankful for the lesson, because, in the long-term scheme of things, the children will not live here forever, and I need to be OK with that. I need to structure my life such that I’m not slogging, lonely, from one activity to the next, no matter how full or empty my nest may be. And I figure that it’s a lesson better learned sooner than it is later.

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