I want something else

Lately, I have become slightly (more than slightly) obsessed with Manoush Zomorodi’s podcast “Note to Self” (“the tech show about being human”). I am catching up on everything I missed from late 2015 onward (I’m mid-2016 now, which becomes occasionally heartbreaking when Hillary Clinton and/or the upcoming election is mentioned). I highly recommend the episode entitled “What Happens to the Videos No One Watches,” which is exactly what it sounds like and features (as its total highlight) a video of a guy doing a karaoke version of “Semi-Charmed Life,” while his family in the background are having a party and completely ignoring him. Really, what’s best about this show is Manoush herself who is so down-to-earth and funny and never minds digging deeper into anything.

Which is why I was particularly struck by her four-part episode “Taking the Lead,” in which she follows two women as they try to create a start-up company that is a kind of Uber for working parents. Here’s the thing: the topic is fantastic and important (how technology might be able to help working mothers – and fathers – make their lives easier), but the part that struck me the most was that Manoush actually confronted the women about a mistake they had made. This was genuinely thrilling to me, very much like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen brings out Marshall McLuhan to point out that the guy talking about Marshall McLuhan knows nothing about him, and I stopped whatever I was doing (driving?) to listen to the conclusion. This is the sort of thing I dream of doing, confronting someone for being wrong, and then having them say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! Surely, this would happen to Manoush, right? I couldn’t wait.

Basically, here’s the gist of what happened: the two women had created this app and then joined a startup accelerator (yes, I had to look that up) to compete for a cash prize to help their app get, er, started. Manoush was all about the social implications of this app (finally a way to use technology to help working women with babysitters and deliveries and such!), so she was stunned to see that in their pitch all they talked about was the money they would make. One of the women (who’d been in advertising) kept saying that as women they had to prove their startup would make money, period. Manoush didn’t think so. So before the prizes were awarded she went to some of the judges and asked them what they thought of the two women. Most were vague. When Manoush pointed out that there were great social implications to this app, the judges said that the two women hadn’t made this point at all. Manoush asked the judges if they had made this point would it have made a difference. The judges said yes. Manoush was right!

When the prizes were finally awarded, the two women came in 9th out of 12 and got, comparatively, very little money. A product that worked as both a cellphone cover and something that would roll joints actually did better than their app. Manoush decided to, at a later date, play for them what the judges had said. (I was, at this point, totally riveted. This is the thing I dream of doing. She was going to pull out Marshall McLuhan!) It might seem like she was being smug, but she really just wanted to show them that they had possibly presented the wrong angle and that maybe they should make a note of this for the future (to her credit, Manoush never uses the phrase “note to self,” even though I am certain the temptation is strong).

Because they were so busy (working moms!), Manoush had to meet with them separately to play them what the judges had said. One of the women (who had decided to become more of a consultant because as a working mother she was unable to commit entirely to the project) (oh the irony!) said that yes, she always thought it was about the social cause. O..kay. Then, Manoush talked to the other woman, the now-CEO, the one who was more insistent on the fact that they needed to pitch the money-making angle. Manoush told this woman that the judges had said that actually investors would be more interested in the social cause angle. But the woman responded that she really didn’t agree. And went on to defend her position in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Should I have been surprised? Did I really expect her to say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! I did. I honestly did. Or I hoped she would. She was smart, right? She could see the error of her ways. And yet, of course, what is obvious, what is so obvious that I hardly need to say it, but I do need to say it, is that if you have an opinion about something, you have come to that opinion for a reason. Perhaps you really did tons of research. Or perhaps you really cannot see another side because you have done no research at all. Both of these starting places seem to lead to the same conclusion: generally, people are not going to change their opinions even in the face of evidence. That isn’t to say that people don’t change their opinions, because there are many examples of just the opposite happening. But in the most basic of ways, we are committed to our opinions on things because they are what make us who we are.

Maybe this is because of evolution (I won’t eat that plant because I got sick the last time I did) or because humans need routine and security in their lives (I have never eaten that plant so I never will) and therefore not too many people are willing to take risks (if I just cut off those poisonous leaves could I eat this plant?). It’s rare in people, rarer still in politicians, but sometimes people and politicians do change their minds in the face of evidence. We often hear about it because (like child abductions and plane crashes) this is a rare instance. I wish it weren’t so rare. Note to self: do something about this. It’s rare, not impossible.

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Writer-parent

Five years ago, in the summer of 2011, when my girls were 7 and 10 years old, I answered these questions about being a writer-parent. It was for a blog that now seems to be defunct. We no longer have hamsters, but much of this still applies.

How do you balance your time between parenting and writing?

I like to think I do this simultaneously. As someone who for years managed to read The New Yorker while pushing a stroller, I find that I am actually good at this sort of thing. There is nothing separate about the two really at home as my “office” is in my bedroom and gets a whole lot of traffic. While I was writing that sentence, in fact, I was interrupted a number of times by my older daughter asking if I thought it would be easier if she put her sleeping bag into her backpack first before the other stuff, or on second thought, maybe the sleeping bag shouldn’t even go in the backpack at all? Or maybe she could try it both ways? And thus my thoughts went here and then there and then back to here again. And I can often manage this. On the other hand, sometimes I have to say, Can you just wait a few minutes until I finish this? Oh yes, yes, my daughters will say. And then, What are you writing anyway? Do you have to get it done today? Are you going to be working on it later too? One time it occurred to me to tell them that I actually like writing, which I was afraid they didn’t actually pick up on, seeing me as they sometimes do pacing around or saying, Man, I just hate this. But I think the most important thing comes down to the kind of parent you are and I confess to being sort of a relaxed parent in that I am thrilled to have my children go off on their own and then come back and tell me what they’ve done. Eventually they will write these things down.

What is the best piece of advice about being a parent and a writer?

Despite what you think, you will always find time to write. You will write while your child lies asleep across your lap for hours. You will write while your child plays for a few blissful minutes with your old Fisher Price barn. You will probably end up writing whenever your child is napping, which you think you could never do, exhausted as you are, but the ability to write and write with no interruptions at all will lure you from sleep. Also, later on, if your children want to find something to watch on Netflix while you are writing, let them. (This, by the way, is how my children discovered the Jonas Brothers all on their own.) You will also find that if you don’t write, that if your time is better spent dancing with your kids on your bed, well, that’s just fine.

I think the very best piece of advice that applies to being both a parent and a writer is: pay attention. Both occupations make you very watchful, which is actually something that comes naturally to me, but there is that second step of paying attention, which is a little more challenging. I tend to notice the light a lot more now.

How has your writing changed since becoming a parent?

I’d like to say that I can only write in short blocks of time now due to being a parent, but the truth is I always wrote like that. I find though that now the late late night has become my preferred time to write, not because I am a night owl particularly, but because I can count on the fact that someone won’t be walking up to me when I am so clearly in the middle of something and asking if I would like to pet her hamster. (I’ll admit that I have actually said no to this on occasion, but then felt bad and gave in. Turns out hamsters are always worth petting.) Sometimes I will pretend to write while my younger daughter sits on my lap just so that I can listen to her make the binder clips and staple remover talk to each other. Are you listening to me? she will demand. No, I’m just writing, I will say.

Tell us something we don’t know about you and being a writer-slash-parent.

I tend not to like to write about my children all that much. When I was growing up, my mother always stole stories from me, so I feel like I need to let my children have their own. And I expect they will sometime. To be honest, I am always encouraging them to draw and write comics, something that I have wanted to do my whole life, but I completely lack the artistic skills for it.

My younger daughter has asked me a couple times what I want to be when I grow up. I always answer: a writer.

 

I could just read instead

“The differences between a personal essay and a confessional essay can be tricky to spot.  The personal essay — the more exalted form of the two — can be as dense and layered as a short story; it fancies itself a prism and uses the personal to shed light on the communal. . . .The telltale signs of the confessional essay include a warm, pseudo-confiding tone and a penchant for lists and adverbs like ‘humiliatingly’ and ‘embarrassingly.’” This was part of a N.Y. Times review by Sloane Crosley (who happens to be a pretty good personal essayist, in my opinion) about a book of confessional essays, one whose author I no longer recall. Crosley goes on to say that one is not a higher art than the other, etc. etc. but I think what she means is that one totally is, but she’s going to try to be fair in her review. If she didn’t really mean that, well, I mean it.

A few nights later I woke up at 2a.m. and thought about how I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. I decided I could just read instead. This started out extremely well, but ended extremely badly, when at around 5a.m. I decided that I actually should try sleeping but couldn’t. And then it was morning and I had to go to work. But between 2 and 5a.m. I came across this great personal essay in The New Yorker by Emily Raboteau, who I had never read before, but immediately became smitten with. Her writing falls into the personal but not confessional category. Joan Didion is probably the best example of that kind of writing, in that she is both there and not there, and Raboteau kept that same kind of distance from her readers, maybe even a mildly amused disregard for them, and a kind of delightful wickedness at times that reminded me of Shirley Jackson, whose fiction and nonfiction is some of my favorite writing ever.

I’m not quite sure if my writing is confessional, I confess, but I do know that I generally don’t like reading that kind of writing and that sometimes when I read confessional essays it makes me never want to write again. This is how I’ve been feeling lately. You know: what’s the point? But then I read some wonderful personal essay and I realize that I am just ending up in the wrong places sometimes.

This is not really an explanation of anything; perhaps it’s only a reminder to myself to stop being discouraged. And to write the things I most want to read, which is “so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it” (I know I’ve mentioned that Seymour Glass quote from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters a dozen times already, but it is so worth remembering).

Reading good writing always encourages me. It always makes me feel like, All right, things are getting done! And sometimes it even makes me think, Good, that was written, so now I don’t have to write about it. Because, you know, it’s always nice to pass the work off to someone who does it better. But sometimes I have to do the work too, even if my natural impulse is to shrink from it, is to think that there’s no real reason to keep writing (I mean, there isn’t really, except the compulsion, which has been lifelong).

All of this is to say that I am at the start of something. And hopefully, eventually, I will get to the end of it. And perhaps shed light on the communal, etc. etc. I’ll let you know.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners

It was six months since I had spent basically half a day at the ophthalmologist only to find out that all those tests I took were merely establishing a baseline for what my optic nerves looked like. Now, it was time to compare, and this meant hours of horrible tests again (one of which involved a woman photographing my optic nerves, which means you are doing the exact opposite of what your instincts tell you to do when a blazingly bright light is repeatedly flashing in your eyes). But before this, it meant having my eyes dilated as much as they possibly could be, and they ended up nearly black and much like a cartoon character’s eyes. I was told I needed to wait around 10 minutes (it was much longer) before they’d come get me for the next round of tests.

I was led into the darkened waiting room, which is somewhere within the maze of examining rooms. It was completely full of other people staring into space or at the television that was blasting out at us. Every now and then someone’s name would be called and then another person would stagger into the room to wait. The lights were dim, but not totally dark, and I found that without my glasses and my book held pretty close to my face I could read (a book of John Cheever stories, as it happened). Oh, this is fine, I thought at first, but then noticed that over time my vision got slowly blurrier and blurrier. This fascinated me, but then kind of panicked me. It was like I was getting older before my own eyes, as though time had sped up and soon I would look in the mirror and see that my face had deeply wrinkled to match my much older, much weaker eyes. This is what happens, I thought, terrified, just not so quickly. And for the first time I wondered, What would happen if I couldn’t read?

From the time I first started figuring out how to put words together (which I am told was when I was three and a half) nothing has ever made as much sense to me as reading. And when I started to write a few years after that, it was mostly so that I would have more to read. If I really think about it, I’m probably better at reading than I am at anything else, though it’s such a personal and pretty much hidden skill. So what would happen, if, as I saw in that waiting room, my eyes began to fail me and no special glasses or operation could help?

My uncle, who was once a terrible reader, is now a prolific listener of (to?) audio books. He can’t get enough of them. And it thrills him that something that was once so impossible for him to do (apparently he read so slowly that it frustrated him too much to continue) is now part of his daily life. He listens on the subway, on his bike rides, everywhere he can. And, he calls this reading, which I have to say it really is. So there is no reason I couldn’t simply start listening to books, right?  I think about how you end up asking yourself, at some point or another, If I had to choose, would I rather lose my sight or my hearing? And I always pick sight because I think I would die without being able to listen to music (which I recall becoming important to me around three and a half as well), but what about all the things I’d miss seeing? And what about reading? And then I just get sad.

Eventually my name was called and I got to have the flashing light tests, etc. When it was all over, they told me to wait in the regular waiting room, though I couldn’t figure out why. I had already paid the copay. I just wanted to go home. And as I sat there, feeling exhausted and battered, I suddenly noticed that on the radio (was there a radio on all this time?) Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” had just come on. Hadn’t I heard this song enough in my life? In fact, wasn’t this one time too many to be hearing this song, a song I had heard, on and off, for the past 39 years of my life? I stood up. There was a man at the desk (born in 1947 I could not help but overhearing) happily discussing his copay with the receptionist like he had all the time in the world. I did not. I put my sunglasses on on top of my glasses (which naturally made me feel like this guy) and headed out into the most blinding sun I had ever seen.

Waiting

I was in the waiting room of my doctor’s office. My younger daughter had gone in and asked if I’d wait in the waiting room. Sure. Our doctor shares an office building with a bunch of other doctors and soon I noticed a tattooed youngish woman wheeling in an older woman in a wheelchair. The woman in the wheelchair was very pleasant-looking, Grandma-like, in a green shirt and black leggings. She didn’t seem all that old to me, late 60s maybe. The younger woman was clearly her caretaker and was soon filling out a form while patiently answering the older woman’s questions. Their conversation fascinated me.

What am I doing here? asked the older woman, looking around almost casually. You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman. What for? asked the older woman. Just a check-up, she was told. The older woman then asked about her own mother and was told that her mother wasn’t there. My mother was a beautiful woman, she told her caretaker. She was, replied the caretaker. You look just like her. The older woman smiled modestly. Thank you, she said. There was a pause for a minute or two. Then the older woman asked, What am I doing here? You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman. What for? asked the older woman. Just a check-up, she was told. Almost the exact same words. I realized that I had never seen anything like this before in real life. It was like a scene from a play about Alzheimer’s. I caught the older woman’s eye and smiled at her. This felt important. She smiled back at me, quite warmly. I wondered if she wondered if she knew me or not. She then talked to the younger woman about her husband and the younger woman said that she had never met him, he’d passed away years before. Then the older woman began to say a prayer, very quietly, so that I couldn’t hear it entirely, but I did catch the words Jesus Christ a few times. She seemed to be repeating the prayer over and over. Then there was a silence. And then: What am I doing here? You’re here to see the doctor, said the younger woman, still filling out the form. How many times would she have to answer that question? How many times does she have to say the same things again and again? How did she have the patience for it?

Finally, a nurse stepped out and called for Anna. The younger woman went around to the back of the wheelchair, but before the older woman was turned and wheeled into the doctor’s office, she was sitting facing me and I caught her eye again and smiled and she smiled back and waved goodbye to me as her wheelchair was then turned around. I felt my eyes fill with tears.

Who was Anna? What had just happened? In that short time, I felt like I’d finally had an understanding of what Alzheimer’s was like. I had read and heard about it, but I had never witnessed it so clearly before. But now that I knew, I wasn’t sure what to do with this knowledge. There seemed to be so much that I had seen in this tiny scene: fear, despair, impatience, patience. But what was I doing there? Just paying attention, I guess.

 

What I’m listening to

About three years ago, during a routine repair of my car’s computer, the screen that tells you how many miles per gallon you’re using (I have a Prius) got wiped out, along with (and here’s the crucial part) the ability to turn on and off the stereo. So for a while, I simply rode around in silence, which was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Then, a little while after that, I got a job three days a week that involved a 35-minute commute each way. It was then that two things happened: I got a little Bluetooth speaker that works with my phone and I started listening to podcasts. Little did I know I’d been waiting for podcasts all my life. How did I (seriously!) ever live so long without them? And really, if you have spoken to me at all in the past three years, I’ve probably at some point said, I was listening to this podcast and…

So I figured what with all the podcast curating I’ve been doing (okay, seriously, my curating, of any kind, is minimal), I thought I’d share the ones that I listen to regularly, in case you have any interest at all in listening to what I happen to think is really cool. This list is not really in any order.

RadioLab. This is the one I started with and often the episodes are fantastic (I highly recommend the one called “Be Careful What You Plan For” that involves a certain psychological study that took place at Harvard in the 1950s and one particular participant in that study.) (How’s that for cryptic? Believe me, the reveal is totally worth it.). My problem is only with the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, who act as though no one would be interested in a show about science and human nature unless the hosts were yukking it up all the time or acting like total idiots so the audience might feel smart. They are never ever funny.

99% Invisible. This is a podcast about design, sort of. Or perhaps it always is, but in very unexpected and fascinating ways. Lots about cities and signs and architecture, but also technology and history and even sound design. Also furniture, such as Freud’s couch. And, for example, the worst smell in the world (liquid ass!) that is used to train army medics. I am such a fan of the show that I have totally forgiven the host, Roman Mars, for being really excited about a topic I pitched to him and then slowly losing interest as it seemed to be an increasingly difficult show to record. Strangely, he sounds completely different on the phone. I suppose he uses his radio voice only on the air.

Mystery Show. Honestly, this is everything I could ever want in a podcast. I might even call it perfect, but you should probably decide for yourself. Let’s just say that it is storytelling at its very best. Each episode, the adorable, hilarious (never irritating!) host, Starlee Kine, solves mysteries that cannot be solved by the usual methods. No Google, for example. So she might try to figure out what happened to a video store that seemed to disappear without a trace overnight. Or she might try to figure out what exactly was going on in a specific scene on a Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox. For me, without question, the very best episode was “The Belt Buckle,” in which a belt buckle that her friend found as a child (like, at least 20 years ago) on the side of the road was amazingly returned to its rightful owner. It is so delightful and so unexpectedly moving you will probably cry. I cannot wait for the new season to start. Come on, Starlee.

Serial. Yeah, we all know this one. I was just as caught up in season one as everyone else was, though it eventually felt too creepily sensational to me. By the end, all of Sarah Koenig’s updates on Adnan’s case were practically giddy. I loved the second season, however, which was the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban for five years. Sarah Koenig explores every angle of his story and I found every single episode riveting. There is so much to think about with this one and, just like with the first season, you are left not quite knowing what to believe. Which is totally fine.

More Perfect. This is the newest one and it’s a spinoff of RadioLab, which means more Jad (but, thankfully, less yukking it up). This podcast explores cases and issues involving the Supreme Court, and even if you think this is not quite your thing (even though it is so totally my thing), trust me, it’s worth your time. My favorite one so far (there have only been three) is called “The Political Thicket,” in which a Supreme Court case in 1962 (Baker v. Carr) caused one justice to have a nervous breakdown, another to have a stroke, and basically changed the way the Supreme Court dealt with politics forever.

Invisibilia. This is another RadioLab spinoff, but it’s like if RadioLab did the same stories (perhaps more focused on the human nature and psychology angle) but with entirely likable hosts. I happen to love Lulu Miller (not entirely because of her name, but maybe a tiny bit) and the entire first season of the show was terrific. The titles of the episodes should give you a good indication of what they’re about; for example, “The Secret History of Thoughts,” “Fearless,” “The Power of Categories.” The new season just started and I am saving the first episode for us all to listen to on our upcoming trip to Portland, Maine. I am ridiculously excited.

Embedded. This is a newish podcast from NPR in which reporters, and host Kelly McEvers, take a story from the news and “go deep.” So, for example, in one episode reporters follow police officers in L.A.’s “Skid Row” to see what really goes on after hours. In another, a reporter goes to Greenland to spend time there figuring out why it has the highest suicide rate in the world. Some episodes are better than others, but even the ones I didn’t love (what happens to basketball players who don’t get picked during the draft?) were still quite good.

The Canon. In this one, your cohosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, both movie critics, pick a movie each week and decide if it belongs in “the canon” of great films. Devin is somewhat of a jackass and Amy is much smarter and more interesting, but there are times when Devin gets it just right and Amy is completely off base. Their banter is usually fun, although there are episodes (see: Goodfellas) where there is so much animosity I kind of can’t take it and have to stop listening (this probably only happened once). Sometimes they will pick two movies and pit them against each other, which is usually a lot of fun (the most recent example being “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes vs. Some Like It Hot”). Their love of Steven Spielberg is curious, but mostly the movies they choose to debate are really good ones. Without meaning to, I’ve become totally addicted to this podcast.

Surprisingly Awesome. This one is hosted by Adam Davidson and Adam McKay, but sometimes (if you’re lucky) John Hodgman steps in as host (the most recent one “Extinct Hockey” that he hosted is my absolute favorite). I don’t always love it but I have learned some interesting things (especially about concrete and broccoli). The premise is roughly to take a seemingly boring topic and to show how surprisingly awesome it is. But it has kind of devolved into just things they want to talk about (yo mama jokes, why “I told you so” is always a disappointing and awful feeling). I always think I might stop listening but I am still listening.

Reply All. This is, as the name implies, a podcast about the internet. That seems to be the only requirement, which means that the episodes are as varied as you can imagine. And they are usually pretty great. Recently, there was a four-part episode about a guy who managed to start a blog from prison, but then suddenly (in a very Serial-like turn of events) it followed the case that got him into prison in the first place. One episode detailed the guy who inadvertently invented pop-up ads and has felt guilty about it ever since. A couple of episodes have dealt with online dating, and all of its strange and mysterious secrets. My only problem with the show (which is the problem I have every single episode) is that one of the hosts, P.J. Vogt, has such an awful laugh that I cringe every time he laughs. Sometimes even his voice makes me cringe. I eventually realized that his voice and his laugh (and even, to be honest, his personality) reminded me of someone I used to date. This does not make things any easier.

The Loh Life. If you don’t love Sandra Tsing Loh, this is not for you. In fact, if you do not love her, you will hate this podcast. Just imagine three minutes of Sandra Tsing Loh talking about whatever topic she’s come up with for the week, which I almost always find endearing and funny, but which someone else might find unbearable. It’s your call.

Lunch hour

I once worked with a woman who was originally from Montserrat, and probably the best way to describe her would be to say she was both entertainingly cruel (when looking at a coworker’s high school yearbook picture: “Wow! You weren’t so fat then!”) and a total idiot (when O.J. Simpson was found innocent: “I knew it!”). But the one thing I found actually interesting about her was what she brought for lunch each day. If you work in an office for any amount of time, you definitely notice other people’s lunches; that’s just the way it goes. I certainly try not to judge (once at a temp job, I saw a coworker put an entire rotisserie chicken into a microwave, which was totally fine), but I can’t help noticing things.

First of all, there are always those people heating up frozen diet entrées. Could they be happy with that crap? I have no idea. Then there are the people who buy their lunch and bring it back to their desk, and it sometimes smells so good you want to kill them, or so mysteriously unappealing you feel the same way. And then you have those people just bringing in sandwiches or leftovers. Sometimes people will heat up the tiniest container of leftovers and I can’t imagine that that could be all they are eating for lunch. But then again, there is a candy dish at the table of one of my coworkers, which everyone dips into when they walk by. It’s a terrible thing.

Usually I bring in leftovers and when I heat them up I sometimes get to hear, Wow, what’s that? That smells great! But sometimes I hear, Wow, it smells really garlicky in here, and this statement can either be approval or total lack of approval. I’m not always sure which it is.

In any case, my Montserrat coworker used to bring an entire dinner with her for lunch. A dinner is different than leftovers, trust me. She explained once that where she came from, they ate their largest meal in the middle of the day, and there was no reason she was going to stop doing that now. I found it sad but also fascinating that she was eating her dinner every day in a conference room with people she barely liked who barely liked her.

She would sit at the conference table with a delicious-smelling plate of stew made of fish or meat and vegetables and wonderful spices and often look out the window wistfully, possibly thinking of afternoon meals she had once enjoyed not in a conference room, and it was in those moments (when she wasn’t speaking) that I actually liked her. Her lunches made me like her.

This is basically how I’ve always been. A person can be awful or unbearable, but sometimes they can make one small gesture, or do one unexpected and interesting thing, and then I have to like them. You know how in The Catcher in the Rye Holden goes on about how much he loved (probably it knocked him out) how his friend Jane Gallagher always kept her kings in the back row when she played checkers? It’s kind of like that. But in his case, Jane was someone he already liked. I can truly dislike someone but then be unexpectedly delighted by something small.

I once had a 400-pound coworker who was mostly a jerk and smashed his chair to pieces out of frustration one day, but he did tell us that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” had thrown a ball at his head when he was a kid, which led to his “difficult” personality and subsequent weight gain. This didn’t exactly make me like him, but it was the thing I liked most about him, strange as this sounds.

That’s all it takes: one interesting detail. Which probably makes it sound like it is very difficult for me to truly dislike people, and in a way, that’s correct. There are plenty of people I despise from a distance (some Republican senators and presidential candidates come to mind), but it’s harder for me when I actually know someone in person. I’m not even sure this is a good thing. I love people’s quirks so much that I would probably let anyone get away with anything. I mean, it kind of depressed me to see George W. Bush’s paintings because they were really pretty good.

But anyway, all I’m saying is that the next time you look at your annoying coworker eating a huge plate of garlicky lunch, just remember: he might have played the oboe as a child, or has a brother who’s a clown, or even once lived in Canada! These are some things that might make him seem not as entirely awful, just a little more human.