Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Scientific Dinner Guests

During an email reminiscing about childhood with my writing partner, we decided to try to write a short screenplay based on our family dynamics. My writing partner was a well-loved and wanted child. I was supposed to be a boy. My writing partner’s family understood that she wanted privacy. Mine felt free to come into the bedroom I shared with my sister any time they pleased, and order me to clean it up, or punish me for some other imagined faults.. My writing partner’s parents were thrilled that she was smart. For my father, the only smart people were men who had Nobel Prizes.

To my father, Nobel Prizes were not just a fantasy. We had Nobel Prize winners at the dinner table. Watson and Crick, who got the Nobel Prize for figuring out the structure of DNA, ate at our table. Watson even flirted with my blue-eyed sister. (Neither of my parents are blue-eyed, so my sister must have been a double-recessive, and since one parent had green eyes and the other brown, I must be heterozygous. Polysyllabic words like these were common place at our dinner table. But when I used them at school, the other kids (some of whose parents had Nobel Prizes) thought I was showing off.

When my father considered taking a job at Caltech, we stayed in the home of James Holmes Sturdivant. This home had a real skeleton in one of the closets and a turret that we weren’t allowed to go in (said my mother.) When the Sturdivants came home from their trip they were amazed that none of us kids had gone into the turret. Mrs. Sturdivant had no such rule and took us up there right away.

This house was near the Caltech swimming pool. My mother had believed that you could get polio if you went swimming, but the vaccine had been invented, and we kids got the first shots available in the 1950's. I’d had a few swimming lessons in Iowa, but they were mainly safety lessons on how to float. Here I learned real swimming, and started a lifetime habit of hamstring stretching. To this day, I admire a well-formed swimming stroke far more than a Nobel Prize. To me Nobel Prizes are awarded randomly, and people spend far too much time wanting them. If you want an effective swimming stroke, all you need to do is take lessons and practice. Once you master a stroke, you can enjoy it for the rest of your life. A Nobel Prize is a headline and then a line in your resume. In my opinion, that’s not enough fun to be worth thinking about, let alone wishing for.

My mother hosted parties with kid-type games for the adults: scrambled words and scavenger hunts. And we kids listened in on the gossip about which professor was having an affair with which lab assistant, and which professors had open marriages. California has always been California. I wanted to go back to Iowa where people seemed happier with their lives.

My father wanted that Nobel Prize, and he thought he might be more likely to get it in California, but he never got one. He also tried having an affair with his lab technician. At that he was successful.

My favorite scientific dinner guest was Paul Doty, because his last name was pronounced dodie (which was the family euphemism for gluteus maximus) and he didn’t mind that I laughed at his name.

1 comment:

  1. I love the part about Paul Doty! And Watson & Crick! Turrets!
    Thanks for this interesting look at a childhood.

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