A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work


One of my favorite things to do (something the internet has made much easier) is to read old newspapers. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting to see that the centuries roll by, but as far as human nature is concerned, nothing much really changes. On any random day, the headlined stories can easily be something that, with hindsight, amounts to nothing; while hidden away on a back page is two blandly-written inches about what turned out to be the pivotal event of the decade.

Just yesterday I read a newspaper from May, 1931, in which a social worker vehemently argues that a program offering free milk at lunch for school-children whose fathers were unemployed constituted an unnecessary burden on the tax-payer.

“There’s plenty of work for those who will work,” asserts the social worker. “Why, at this very moment I could use someone to help me clean out my attic!”

Good to know that in a nation of eight million unemployed, there was a day’s work for one of them somewhere helping a social worker clean out her attic.

In point of fact, the 1930s resemble today in a lot of ways—even beyond the eerie similarities between Herbert Hoover’s campaign speeches and those by certain members of our current Congress. The language Hoover and the congress-people use is different (Herbert Hoover was a scholar whom no one can ever seem to mention without pointing out that he and his wife translated Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica from Latin into English), but the sentiments they express are much the same: For the good of the nation—and all humanity—the poor must be left to rise or sink on their own efforts. To assist the less fortunate is only to teach them dependence, and will ultimately weaken the race.

In other words, the poor should go find an attic of someone better-off that needs cleaning.

In fact, there aren’t enough overstuffed attics in the world to offer all the poor the dignity of gainful employment; or if there were, someone cleverer (and better-funded) than the average attic-cleaner would find it profitable to invent a machine to do the job. Cleaning attics by hand would then become a thing of the past, and attic cleaners would have to move to cleaning basements, thereby throwing basement cleaners out of work, and so on down the line. More automation—and a growing world population—inevitably means that there will be fewer and fewer jobs to go around; and that more and more of the jobs that are left will require considerable skill and education to perform.

If the newspapers tell me anything, they tell me that a lot of people really, really hate the idea of paying people to do nothing. And yet, here we are, running out of untidy attics at an unexampled rate. Letting people who can’t find work starve on the street seems harsh; or at least (for the people who aren’t bothered by harshness) unsanitary; so I have another suggestion.

Let’s pay people for doing things they’re already doing that we want to encourage.

Getting an education is one. Why should college be so expensive when an educated populace is such a boon to the whole nation?

Another is raising children.

We want children; we want those children to be well cared for and nurtured. So why do we have such an inefficient system for producing and caring for them? Modern parents generate them in the time-honored way, then are obliged almost immediately to turn the rearing of their offspring over to someone else in order to return to their job to make money to–  well, for one thing, to pay the child-care provider. Even where money isn’t the primary concern, to leave the job-force makes most people vulnerable to loss of status, seniority, insurance coverage, and retirement benefits. New parents therefore go on working and wishing they could spend more time with the child someone else is raising for them.

This seems like a second-best way of doing things. Somebody is going to get paid money to raise that child. Why shouldn’t it be one or the other of the child’s actual parents? Any parent will tell you that to keep a house suitable for rearing children in, and then to rear children in it, is a job. Why shouldn’t it be a paying one? And since people with jobs pay taxes, including Social Security, the program could even be—not self-supporting. Self-supporting social-welfare programs are a Bigfoot-sized myth—but at least partially self-sustaining.

The result might be happier parents; better-adjusted children; and a better home-life all around for families who chose to take advantage of the program, since having someone in the home whose job is the home ultimately makes more leisure for everyone. No need to come home from a full day at another workplace and then begin on all the duties and errands associated with running a household, too, if most of them were already done in the course of the day by the (adequately compensated) house-person.

Just don’t make the program mandatory; and don’t make it open only to mothers. That would be a giant leap backward.


How My Mother Made Me a Reader


Some people are, unfortunately, born out of their proper time; either too early or two late to live the life that would have fulfilled them. My mother was  one of those people.

She graduated from high school in December of 1929, straight into the Great Depression. This sounds like the worst possible luck; and for my father, who left high school in the same year—without graduating—it probably was. But for my mother, bad times meant good opportunities. She had a high school diploma at a time when most women didn’t; she could type and take shorthand; and best of all—no, really—her home-life wasn’t happy. To what was probably the whole family’s satisfaction, at age eighteen my mother took an apartment in Chicago with some friends who wanted—at least for the time being—to have jobs instead of husbands. One of them worked at Sears, Roebuck, and recommended Mother for a job there.

Before the Depression, women at companies like Sears had mostly been confined to the sales floor, and restricted to departments like clothing, where employees were salaried, and not—as in furniture, and appliances—on commission. But as the depression deepened, Sears cut its expenses by hiring women to do what had formerly been strictly men’s jobs. My mother replaced a better-paid man in the accounting department; worked hard; and did well. She even got raises, though her salary never approached those of her male co-workers. She was thrifty, and before long she was able to afford her own apartment. She furnished it with the aid of her Sears Employee Discount; and bought herself an extensive wardrobe. Given what I know of my mother’s execrable tastes, both the furniture and clothing were probably horrible; but she, at least, was happy with her choices.

In later years, she hinted that she’d had a love affair or two during this time; but like most women of the day, what she wanted, ultimately, was to be married. In 1939 a friend at Sears set Mother up with her brother. Three months later, the two were wed; and three months after that, Mom quit work because riding the street-car to her job made her nauseous. My brother was born seven months later.

Even as times changed around her, Mom continued to insist to her own children that “working women” were emotionally stunted, unfulfilled beings who were to be pitied. But in fact, she envied them. A lot. She hated housework and found children and child-care tedious.

Her escape from household monotony was in reading fiction; and this is Rule One in my system for Making Your Children Readers. If you want to make readers, be a reader yourself. Read a lot. Read obsessively. Read so hard that the world recedes into a thing of no importance whatever, and keep it up for hours at a time. You may as well know right now that your children regard most of what you say as no more than an annoying buzz in their ears, but they closely observe what you do. Tell them to read; give them all the excellent reasons that reading is good; and they will not hear you. Swat them away like flies when they disturb your reading, and they will want to discover for themselves the secret joys you find there.

Rule Two of the system is, after your children are four or five years old, read aloud to them; but never as much as they would like. Mom started many books aloud, but I can’t remember her ever reading one through to the end. After a few chapters she’d go dutifully off to stand at the kitchen stove for awhile, her own book propped before her, boiling something she could allege was “dinner,” and leaving the book she’d been reading to us kids lying somewhere, open. It never lay unread for long.

Rule Three is to have a lot of reading material right in your house. People are surprised when I tell them that I never had a library card until I was in college; but honestly, the fact that my mother was too busy reading and boiling dinner and wishing she was Vice President in Charge of Something Big to take her children to get library cards was a big part of why I am a reader today. Our house was full of books, and they stayed around—not for two weeks, as a library book would have—but for my entire childhood, or in other words, until I got around to being interested in them. In the fourth grade, to the shock of my teachers, I read Oliver Twist. I read it because my mother happened to own a copy with interesting wood-cut illustrations. I studied them for a while, trying to figure out what the story was from the pictures; gradually worked my way through the smaller blocks of dialogue; and ended by reading the whole thing just to see how it all came out. I read hundreds of books that way.

But the best, most effective rule of all is Rule Four. Rule Four says, put your kids to bed at a ridiculously early hour (I was ordered to bed at 8:30 until I was in high school) in a room with no source of entertainment save a well-stocked bookshelf; and then supply your children with bedside flashlights.

Then go off and enjoy a quiet evening, reading. Do not ask, next morning or ever, why your children’s flashlight batteries are always dead.

Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist


I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.

[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

A Plug for Ogden Nash


We’re getting ready to redecorate a couple of rooms at my house—new doors, carpet, paint; the lot—and as is usual around here, prepping a room to be carpeted and painted involves much putting of books into boxes. Every room of the house is crammed with books (not excluding the bathrooms), which have to be packed and stowed somewhere before anything else can be done. So far I’ve packed and stored nineteen box-fulls, which only leaves about nineteen more box-fulls to be taken out of the rooms we want to decorate; and about five thousand more books not in boxes spread out over the other rooms of the house, unpacked and readily available to read.

So why is it that every book I need or want right now is in one of those nineteen boxes?

Yesterday I wanted The Collected Works of Ogden Nash.

I’ve always loved Ogden Nash. Most people only know him for his little poems about animals (“Fleas: Adam had’em.”), but he wrote all kinds of poetry. For a week after I turned thirty, I went around muttering “How old is spring, Miranda?” to myself at intervals, which comforted me, but made other people think I might be a dangerous lunatic. And after my daughter was born, I became especially fond of his poems about his own two daughters.

In one, Nash wonders why people condemn adults for a staggering gait and slurred speech, but find the same behavior adorable in a toddler. It’s not his best poem, but I thought it was cute, and I read it to my husband. I expected it to make him laugh.

I forgot he was a scientist. The poem didn’t make him laugh; it made him thoughtful.

A few days later, Husband announced that since hearing Nash’s poem, he had been closely observing our own and other peoples’ babies, and become convinced that infants are not, as Nash suggested, milk-drunk. Rather, Hubby said, they’re stoned out of their little minds. Demonstrating a worrying level of expertise about the subtle differences between alcoholic inebriation and drug-induced delirium*, Hubby said it was now clear to him that all babies are born completely zonked, their brains awash in psychotropic substances which gradually wear off as they mature, allowing them to engage more and more rationally with their environment. Puberty, with all its agonies, should therefore be regarded as a side-effect of drug-withdrawal, and be treated as such, including at least a short period of in-patient care.

He wasn’t joking.

And now it turns out that Hubby was absolutely correct. Recent studies confirm that the brain-scan of your average toddler closely resembles that of an adult tripping on LSD.

And that’s why I wanted my volume of Ogden Nash: To re-read it and see what other scientific discoveries he anticipated. Only now I’ll have to wait until the rooms are painted and re-carpeted, and all the books are back on the shelves. No point in attempting to find what I want now, in one of those boxes. I’ve tried that before. The volume I’m looking for is always in the very last box, on the bottom.

*Come to think of it, I’ve been meaning to ask him about that. For thirty years.


Giving Evil a Toe-hold


My parents were middle-aged when I was born, and interestingly, their parents were middle-aged when they were born, too—although the middle of life came a little earlier in those days than it does now. In fact, all of my relatives were old. (Most children think all their relatives are old, but in my case, I have the dates—many of them beginning with an 18—to confirm my impression.) While this meant that I didn’t have any grandparents alive to spoil me when I was growing up—which I regretted—the situation also had its positive aspects. My friends’ parents looked at the manners, music, fashion, and morality of the Younger (i.e., my) Generation and saw the decline of Western Civilization. Mine saw—more of the same things they’d seen before. Short skirts? My mother had worn them in the twenties. Long hair on men? My dad had long hair in the thirties. Rock ‘n’ roll? In her youth, my mother had ditched choir practice to sneak off to a concert of what was known as “race music”; a euphemism for jazz before white men started playing it.

Mom got caught because she fell down a flight of stairs as she was leaving the performance, and her mother (who was the first married woman in the neighborhood to bob her hair, by the way) told her it was God’s judgment on her for lying. But my grandmother didn’t object to the music itself. Her three brothers were all musicians, and they liked all kinds of music. In fact, her youngest brother, who played the oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, even liked that awful Stravinsky fellow, whose “Rite of Spring”, when the orchestra played it, caused half the audience to walk out in disgust. When Uncle Oboist heard about the concert he thought he saw a kindred soul in my mother, and for a time, they became quite close.

My mother never traveled much herself, but her uncle opened her eyes to the world beyond the Chicago suburbs. The orchestra went to Europe, of course; and European symphony orchestras came to America, too. Musicians are a tight group, and my mother’s uncle knew hundreds of them—especially the ones from Germany, since the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time was Frederick Stock, who was originally from Germany himself.

In the nineteen-thirties, long before she heard it anywhere else, her uncle told my mother that there was going to be another war in Europe, probably very soon. His German musician friends had told him that the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, wanted war; and the mood in Germany was such that what he wanted, he would probably get.

Some of the musicians actually supported Hitler; but many more (at least, many more of the ones who shared their thoughts with Uncle Oboist) were simply resigned to putting up with him for a while. They thought Hitler himself was a very bad man, with pernicious ideas; and that he was supported by the worst kind of people. But the Bolsheviks, they assured my mother’s uncle, were the real threat; and the Nazis were taking a hard line against the Bolsheviks. They said that once the Nazis had taken care of the Communist menace, the “better sort” of people in Germany would in turn “take care” of Hitler.

Of course, there was that distasteful National Socialist anti-semitism thing; but there had always been anti-semitism in Germany. When the Bolsheviks were gone, Uncle Oboist’s friends said, National Socialism would blow over, and things would get back to normal. Even some of the Jewish musicians agreed with this. They thought that it might be worth putting up with Hitler for awhile, too—but just until he’d cleaned out the Bolshevik nest, of course.

Some of the other Jewish musicians weren’t so sure. The first thing they asked when they saw my uncle was whether the Chicago Symphony had any open positions, and how they could get an audition. I don’t know if the orchestra acquired any new players this way, but they certainly could have.

My great-uncle wasn’t so sure, either. He told my mother that he didn’t think one evil could be used to cure another evil. Once a weed has taken root in a garden, he said, getting rid of it usually involves the death of every growing thing around it, including the rose you’d rather nurture, and keep.

As we all know, Uncle Oboist was absolutely right about this. In support of what many people thought was a noble goal—thwarting communism—evil was given a place to grow in Germany; and millions of roses had to be sacrificed to root it out.

—And if anybody thinks they see any modern-day parallels with this story… Well, so do I.

Science as a Plot


I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!

* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.

Image source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG



Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue


We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.