DRUNKS AND LAMPPOSTS
29 July 2002
I had to smile when I checked out the prompts for Random Acts of Journaling. I
don't know if you've checked this collab, but Elle puts out several choices each month (or
in this case, two months together). There are photo prompts, quotes, a random passage from
a book, a poem, a question, and a new section, "I wish/I want/I would."
She has great choices each month and I usually take time to read them all and then make
my choice of which hit me as a good subject to write on. Sometimes it's a difficult
This time I never got farther than the first quote, which is
A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
I was immediately catapulted back nearly 40 years in time to my days as a secretary in
the Physics Department of the University of California at Berkeley.
The Physics Department was the very last place I expected to work. Physics 10, bonehead
physics, taught by Nobel Laureate Owen Chamberlain, was the first class in my life that I
ever received a D in. Me, an A and B student all of my life got my first D. I just did not
understand physics at all (though after extensive tutoring, I can identify the Doppler
effect when I hear it).
So when the employment office handed me three cards with departments where I was to
interview for my first "real" job, I knew without even applying that I was not
interested in Physics, but I thought I might as well go. The experience of interviewing
would be good for me.
A week later, I was in my very own office in the Physics building, secretary to the
supply department and three professors. Over the four years I worked there, I moved away
from the supply department, and into a new building working just for the three professors.
As the responsibilities of two of them kept them out of the office for weeks or months at
a time, in the end, I was essentially, for all intents and purposes, private secretary to Professor Frederick Reif.
Everybody on the clerical staff was afraid of Fred. A gruff, somewhat cold, somewhat
distant guy who was very exacting, very demanding, with totally illegible handwriting,
which only I could read (when I left, to give birth to Jeri, Fred had to learn to type
because he couldn't find another secretary who could read his handwriting).
We bonded from the first. We actually became such close friends that we are still in
contact today, though he has been on the faculty of Carnegie Melon for a very long time,
so lives on the opposite side of the country. (He's actually retired now; he told me
when I heard from him recently.)
In my last year or so as his secretary, he decided to write The Book: Fundamentals
of Statistical and Thermal Physics. Bear in mind that these were the days before
computers, when everything was done on paper, with carbon copies! I typed the damn
650 page book three times, complete with lots and lots of equations. (I also typed the 180
page companion workbook which was ALL equations!).
The main thing I remember about the book was the "random walk theory," which
says something like an element bouncing around can't be predicted because the probability
of it going in any direction is random. (I'm sure I don't have that right--gimme a
break...it was 37 years since I typed the damn thing!). Anyway, he used as his example a
drunk leaning on a lamppost trying to walk, and how his steps would be totally random, and
you couldn't predict which direction each step would go, and that the probability that he
would go in one direction was just as great as the probability he would go in another
direction at each step.
I typed so much about that drunk and the lamppost that when the book was finished, I
bought Fred a statue of a drunk leaning against a lamp post as a souvenir.
Now you may ask what all of this has to do with the Random Acts prompt. Well, in the
last paragraph of the introduction, Fred says It has been said that "an author
never finishes a book, he abandons it." I have come to appreciate vividly the truth
of this statement and dread to see the day when, looking at the manuscript in print, I am
sure to realize that so many things could have been done better and explained more
clearly. If I abandon the book, nevertheless, it is in the modest hope that it may be
useful to others despite its shortcomings." (No--I don't have total recall; I
have a copy of the book--which, I might add, is still for sale thru Barnes
and Noble for a mere $129.)
I understood the "abandonment" statement in theory, but never really felt it
in my bones until I wrote my own book, The
Lamplighters Story, 1977-1987 (with co-author Allison S. Lewis). We
didn't have McGraw-Hill to publish it, like Fred did, but still it was a book. I still
wrote (most of) it. And there came a day when I had to give it to the people who were
going to get it into print. I swear you had to pry it out of my fingers. I was still
tweaking, changing this and that, trying to make sure I had it all right (not unlike
putting up a journal entry).
Ultimately, I had to "abandon" it. And of course, after it was printed, we
found a bazillion things wrong with it.
But I guess authors, like poets, have to abandon their work sooner or later if they
ever expect it to get into print.