Tuesday, January 31, 2017

One Suitcase

Several years ago my husband hired someone over the phone for a position in his lab. The person had been recommended to him and because he was a resident of India the typical interview process was not going to work in this case. They had a couple of conversations, a visa was issued, Mark found him a furnished apartment near the campus, and we filled a few boxes with pots and cooking utensils and sheets and towels and washcloths. After months of planning his day of arrival came and Mark picked him up at the airport and brought him back to the house for dinner.

He came in, shook my hand and set down his suitcase. One suitcase. I looked at Mark. Was that all he had to start a new life alone thousands of miles from home?  One suitcase?

Through the years of his career there have been many immigrants that have worked for my husband. Russian, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, Iranian. This is his life and through marriage it has become mine. I have eaten foods I couldn't pronounce and toasted with drinks that burned my throat all the way down. I follow Mark's lead and it is generous, deeply generous. When his Japanese student was leaving the Easter dinner we had for a houseful of people, he came to me in the kitchen to thank me and then stood there. There was a long awkward silence between us until he said, "Dr. Fisher said you'd give me some leftovers."

There have been missteps along the way. Sometimes people don't work out for many reasons and that is a heavy burden - being responsible for any employee, and more so when they are far from home. There have also been cultural missteps. When we had a lab party at the house we thought shish kabobs would be a safe bet and the chicken ones were. The beef ones sat untouched. I have nodded and smiled through many conversations because distraction led me to lose pace with an unfamiliar accent. Time after time, though, I have watched my husband throw himself into the world of these students, post-docs, technicians, and colleagues with gusto, and you cannot be around that without wanting to embrace it yourself.

When a visiting professor from India came and worked for six months in Mark's lab we both fell head over heels for him. He was so much fun and when his time was nearing an end his wife and kids arrived for a whirlwind tour of America - New York and Disneyworld and then off to Los Angeles. Before they left they had us over for dinner and his wife said to me, "I want you to know that my family will never forget the kindness of your husband. Never."

Since last fall I have been working at a university and am exposed to international students on a daily basis.  My job is handling the finances for our student organizations - 300 in total that requires a lot of juggling. It also requires me to always be cognizant that for many of our students English is not their first language and conversations and emails have to be thought out carefully in consideration of that.

I recently had a meeting with a Middle Eastern student who was planning a large event for her organization and needed some advice. Event planning is not part of my job but I have done enough of it in my personal life that I was happy to help her and she wrote down everything I said.

Ask around and see where people like to go for happy hour. Narrow it down to three places.
Be aware of your group's ability to get to your event. Should it be within walking distance of the campus? Near a bus line?
Always talk to a manager. Underline that. Always talk to a manager.
Don't be afraid to ask for a discount.
Make sure that the staff knows that nobody can order alcohol unless they are paying for it themselves.
See if they'll give you iced tea and lemonade for free.
Tell them how many people you'll be having, pick a few appetizers, and tell them you need a ballpark figure. After you have that call or email me and we'll see if it will work within your budget.

When I had finished she looked down at her notes and then at me with her big, beautiful, brown eyes and said, "I have a question. What is this thing called ballpark figure?" And I laughed so hard because I thought I was so measured and careful in my explanation and yet....

"It means estimate. Cross that out and put estimate in there."

"No, no, no," she said. "I like this ballpark figure. It's American."

Yes, my dear, it is American, but you are very much like me because I, too, travel through this life with a suitcase of the hopes and dreams my family handed to me to set my course in the world, and were it not for the kindness of others along the way I'm not sure either of us would make it very far.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

If & When

For the duration of our many years together, Mark and I have had conversations that go something like this...

If we ever have kids.
When the baby comes home.
If we decide to get a dog.
When we go to the shelter to look at dogs.
If we replace the car.
When we pick up the new car.
If we bite the bullet and buy a house.
When we close on the house.
If something I write gets published someday.
When my book hits the market.
If this research takes off.
When the Nobel Prize gets awarded.

We're if and wheners from way back but never more so than when it comes to money.  Somewhere, someplace there is a pile of money that has our name on it if only we could find it. Now that the kids are done with college we are thinking about improvements we'd like to make on the house. We added it up one day and Mark says a mere $100K should cover it, give or take a few grand. We consider this number calmly as if it's hidden in the bushes somewhere and when we go out in the spring and poke around we'll uncover it and can start with the contractors and demo. We pretend spend lottery money we've never won because we never play. Publishers Clearing House could pay us $5000 a week. That would work but the trade-off is Family Circle coming every month and that's a commitment that would eventually take up space in our recycling container. I dream that some day some HR department will take a good, hard look at the unjustness of my salary, call me in and cut me a check on the spot for $500,000 to make amends.

If only.

When that happens.

We were driving to the grocery store the other day when Mark was talking about a workplace issue - a state university where the carrying of guns are soon to be allowed on campus. What could possibly go wrong with that idea? This has been vehemently opposed by the faculty with good reason. Failed test? Lemme get my .45 and show Professor Not Grading On A Big Enough Curve a righteous scare. As this has been an ongoing conversation between us for months, I was only half listening when Mark relayed a story on the subject.

"So we're sitting in a meeting when we're going over it again.
"Un huh."
"How many times do you have to say something's a bad idea before anybody listens?"
"I'm thinking four years."
"And there's a few idiots that think it's okay so you know what I said?"
"What did you say?"
"I said what is this place turning into? Gotham University?"
"What? You said that? Gotham University? As in Gotham City? That's hilarious. Was this in a big meeting?"
"Kind of."
"Was everyone laughing? That's a perfect response."
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?'
"Well, that's when I woke up."
"Woke up from what?"
"My dream."
"Your dream???  This whole conversation is about a dream?"
"Yeah. I said that in the beginning."
"You did?"
"Yeah."
"Oh. I might not have been listening to that part."
"I said it was a dream."
"That stinks. Such a great line and it only happened in a dream."
"You're telling me."
"I bet if you stayed asleep the crowd would have gone wild. Like jump to their feet wild."
"If only I didn't wake up."

On the corner of If & When, the accolades, standing ovations and mountains of money are all hidden and just beyond our grasp, but hope springs eternal so by the time April gets here....