Thursday, June 12, 2008


I'm reading a really interesting book called Cut From Whole Cloth by Richard Franke. It's an interesting hybrid of family history, biography, and fiction. The author traces his grandparents' immigration from Germany around the turn of the century and the family experience in later generations. He takes an interesting approach, though. After doing tons of research on his family through oral histories and looking at documents, he takes the facts of their lives and blends them with some creativity and the book literally reads like a novel. It's very well written, but I find myself having trouble maintaining suspension of disbelief--I keep thinking "how could he know what they were thinking", then have to remind myself that he's trying to capture the spirit of their experience.

I'm especially interested in immigrant experiences (being a temporary emigrant myself!), so this book caught my eye. What's really captured my attention while reading it, however, is how the many children in the first generation go about their professional lives. Because I've been struggling so much with my own path and what appear, in retrospect, to be such bad choices*, I'm fascinated by how other people make choices about what to do in their work life.

[*To be fair, my choices weren't really bad in the grander scheme of being able to learn from all experiences. It is true, however, that for the past 5 years I've been in job situations that really don't suit my personality or needs on a day-to-day level.]

The family patriarch started a tailoring business which expanded into dry cleaning (then brand new!) and all the kids (about 8!) in the family eventually wound up working there. What's interesting to me is how clear each person's function seemed. Things along the lines of "Suzy is good at math, so she'll do the books" or "Hank is a whiz with machines, he'll keep the machines running". Those with people skills did customer interfacing or sales. It was all just so clear and easy. But then I have to suspect I'm adding a real patina of nostalgia onto this, and of course I'm totally ignoring the fact that there weren't a lot of options for people (especially women).

It's true that fewer options to choose from does make a decision easier, but it also can leave a person feeling trapped or permanently underemployed. I certainly don't want to return to the days of "pick your career: teacher, nurse, or secretary", but I am struck by the general notion that more is not always better. I've found personally that I enjoy occasional periods without things because it makes me appreciate them that much more when I have them. I learned that lesson about fresh fruit after wintering at the south pole. That first orange I had when the station opened up after 8 months of complete isolation--I can't even describe what that was like it was so divine. To this day, when I'm in a funk I can just look at a banana or an apple and think, "hey, at least I can enjoy this luscious fresh fruit, totally on demand" and that bit of gratitude often lifts my mood.

I guess in a general way I'm speaking to the idea of Lent, or of voluntary simplicity. While these concepts seem obvious to me in regard to stuff, I'm also finding new application in the realm of ideas, and of how I choose to spend my time.

I just ironed my shirt and pants for my defense tomorrow. My grandma would be proud. Well, she'd be proud that I ironed at all, but maybe not so proud of the results! I iron in as many creases as I remove, but things still look better since the majority of the tiny wrinkles are gone!

I've been a bit, erm, hysterical this week, going from imagining I'll win the ETH medal to rewriting my resume in my head to cover my tracks here when I fail the exam. Heh. I've finally gotten my talk to a good place (after having lost my mojo for a few days--that was scary!). I'm normally a good speaker (loud, clear, funny, and extremely enthusiastic) so I was pretty disoriented when I couldn't seem to get my talk together last week. I have just 20 minutes to present 3 years of work--luckily I'm also one of the fastest talkers I know....



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