When Work is the Prize

Procrastination, Take Two: Yes, it’s that time of year in academia. The spring semester is almost over, except, of course for the grading. The papers straggle in or languish in incompletion. I always start to complain about grading―how time consuming, how disappointing, and how irritating (the students mostly don’t bother to pick up the papers constellated with our brilliant comments). I start complaining but in fact final papers have an innately positive function for me: they forestall the confrontation of the summer break. What, if anything, will I write? As long as I don’t know, I can enjoy a kind of anxious liminality: I’m between things, on the threshold of something, I just don’t know what. I drag out reading the papers as long as possible in order to prolong that deferral.

But if I were more truthful, I’d have to admit that grading papers has more value than providing a legitimate postponement of embarking on the next project. It proves to me that I have work to do, that quite simply I still work.

The need to work―beyond the need to earn my living, of course―is turning out in late life to be my supreme value. Work is what I most like to do. Without love and friendship I’d be miserable; but without work I’d be lost. Many of my friends have retired, or look forward to retiring soon. I don’t. I more than don’t. I dread the moment that I will have to close my office door, throw away my hundreds of file folders, donate all my books to the library; the moment when because of illness, severe memory loss, or lack of interest on the part of students, I will be forced to acknowledge that I should stop.  And then I won’t linger.

I’m not a workaholic, I’m quite a laggard, a slugabed, in fact. But there’s joy in knowing that I have something to do that other people―in this case, students―also (for now) need me to do. I like the burden.


image from Wikipedia

I was touched by a recent interview with Tyne Daly (I used to love Tyne Daly when she co-starred in Cagney and Lacey―so eighties but so great) in which she discussed the acting business, Oscars, Emmys, nominations, prizes, who gets them, and the usual agenda of show business. At the very end, in response to a question about her place in the galaxy of awards, Daly says, “the real prize is to be working.”

I’ve come to think that now that I’ve stopped talking about my last book, keeping up this blog is at heart a form of labor, and while I have grave doubts about the desirability of all the sharing and oversharing (including my own) in public―or semi-public spaces–it keeps me believing that I’m still hard at work.

Media Manners: Stop Thief: A GPS is tracking you!

Last week I received an email that began: “I am writing to inform you that you are using copyrighted material on your website which appears to be taken directly from the New York Times website.” A shudder went through me. What had I done? I was in the dark about my infringement but my whole body went on fear alert. If the Times was pursuing me, I must have done something truly reprehensible. (The same Times that had had fired Jill Abramson for having asked for pay equal to that of men. She was difficult, it seems, didn’t play well with others.) Suddenly, I was nine years old, or even nineteen, being condemned by my father the lawyer: “Jesus Christ, how stupid could you be?” (You don’t want to know.)

“The New York Times policy,” the sender went on, “as well as the federal copyright laws say you are not allowed to steal intellectual property.” I wracked my brains to figure out what I possibly could have stolen.

It took several emails to determine that the person writing to me was not an “agent” of the Times, but a photographer who free-lanced for the newspaper. He claimed that in a blog post from months ago, I had “stolen” a photograph the paper had published to illustrate an article. Then, having prosecuted me with his evidence (a screen shot), he went on to demand his particular pound of flesh: a dollar amount in exchange for which he would issue a “retro license that would free [me] from legal action.” Legal action!

I said I would remove the offending photograph. But that was not enough. I had to pay.


Reader, what would you have done? My husband and my former publicist both recommended that I apologize and then proceed to ignore him. But I knew from lifelong experience with with male anger that I could not bear to receive more emails threaening future lawsuits. Right or wrong, humiliated and fearful, I caved.

In the end, I sent the man the sum (not inconsiderable) he said he would have charged had I asked permission in the first place. I wrote the check not so much because he had the law on his side, but because I felt threatened to the core and fearful that he would track me relentlessly (thanks to GPS software).

There’s a nice, almost amusing twist, though: after all that, the photographer said that removing the image made the situation even worse! So now that I paid for it, I should put it back up as a credit. As if anyone was paging back through my posts!

Looking back, what continues to bother me is not the issue of image copyright per se. I can imagine defending the principle in other circumstances. What bothers me is that rather than letting me know in a polite manner that I had failed to ask permission to publish his photograph in my diary, and accepting my apology for having done so in error, the photographer felt the right to make me pay for my oversight, not just in money, but in condescending hyperbole.

Above all, what deeply disturbs me now is not so much the money, as the painful knowledge that I accepted my punishment as if I deserved it–and paid for it.

Between Procrastination and Productivity

The semester is almost over. Next week is my last class. Soon, my academic calendar will clear and…And what? Which of the many pieces of unfinished writing will I drag out of my file drawer and set out to finish, finish or, terrible thought, discard as beyond repair. For now I have a delicious feeling of possibility.

One of my side-bar activities for the past couple of years has been graphic cartooning. Or rather, attempts to create graphic representations that others might also enjoy. It’s hard because I have no natural talent. I’m not one of those people who have been drawing since childhood. Because I lack the requisite skills to move past doodling, I’ve worked periodically with a drawing teacher. But this winter, snowed under with work, I stopped lessons and drawing altogether.

To restart my artistic endeavors I went to a show last week with the artist Jen Waters, my most recent teacher, to see the paintings, mainly self-portraits, by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, at PS1.

photoI had been stunned by the self-portrait that appeared in the Times, equally by the fact that I had never heard of her, that she was 94 years old, and, as I felt strongly when I saw the scope of the work, feminist.

As I walked through the rooms of paintings with Jen and her adorable infant daughter in a stroller, we talked about my resuming lessons. We talked about this sense of excitement, between, as she said, procrastination and productivity. I’ve been trying to create order in my study, stem the overflow of shmattes in my closets, cull the multiple hair products in my shower, in a word, make room for the new.

Will I? Will I stop shopping at Muji for more and more ingenious Lucite storage boxes?

What if none of the work that in memory seemed so promising pans out? What if, despite more lessons, my artwork still remains hopelessly primitive? It’s the desire to postpone that disappointment that keeps me finding ever more tasks of preparation before settling down to confront the reality of the pages that fill my drawers. Sometimes I want that moment never to come. It’s so much more enjoyable just to contemplate what I might one day do.

P.S. As I was finishing this post I went to check the article that had alerted me to Lassnig,
only to discover in a new article that she had died a few days before we went to the museum.

I am glad I didn’t know this when I looked at the paintings. But at the same time this reminds me that in life, especially for me at my age, what matters most, I should remember, is the work one has left behind. Maybe all work―though I don’t consider my writing art–a footnote if I’m lucky―is no more than an attempt to cheat death.

There’s still time to see the show.

Looking Jewish

I’ve just returned from a lecture trip to South Carolina. Among other things, I gave a talk called “My Memoirs Made Me Jewish,” a paradox I’ve rehearsed here recently. The visit went well, although I was perplexed when during the Q&A a woman in the audience seemed unclear about what exactly I mean by the conceit (note to self: make this crystal clear in the next iteration).

At La Guardia we caught a cab and headed home. I was exhausted from the visit and the early flight so I huddled in the corner, eyes closed, lips sealed, hoping to nod off, while the driver engaged my husband in conversation. In the past twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Jewish cab driver (as he would prove to be), let alone a driver fluent in English. By this I mean the driver who would immediately start talking the moment you entered the taxi and never stop. He’d be full of opinions and sure he was right on all topics.

But today when the driver, who was from Ukraine, ascertained that my husband had been a professor of literature, and proceeded to engage him on the subject, I knew we had encountered a cultural throwback. The driver held forth on the relative merits of Victor Hugo (whose work he had read at age eleven) and Balzac. And of course War and Peace read in Russian at age twelve. After that our autodidact emigrated to America and reading was replaced by television. Did we remember The Twilight Zone? He was shocked that Sandy (when quizzed) said he had never read Pushkin (though I almost piped up to correct the record: we had seen Eugene Onegin at the opera).

I had also been tempted to ask about Ukraine today, tell him my grandfather had been born there in the nineteenth century, that I had traveled to his country a few years ago on my “roots” journey, but I was afraid to start down that road, even though I had noticed his name on the identification plate, Kirschner, and thought it might be Jewish.

MI0000029004Mercifully, despite the rain and the traffic, the ride finally came to an end in front of our building. As I went to get my bag from the trunk, eager to escape any further attempts at conversation, the driver looked at me and uttered a phrase from Yiddish I hadn’t heard since my father died in 1989: “Zei Gezunt.” I was too stunned to comment.

What had led Mr. Kirschner to bid me stay healthy in Yiddish?

I was forced to conclude that my memoirs had succeeded beyond anything I had dreamt of in “making me” Jewish, as if I didn’t look Jewish already.

Be well!