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  • Writer's pictureBill

Character in Characters

It's been weeks and weeks since my last post on this website. When there's a dearth of communication among folks, it may represent a lot of things: disinterest, boredom with the relationship, hospitalization with Covid, a new significant other, a puppy keeping one sleep deprived--I and you could go on.

Do you want to know what happened?

  1. Baby Doe continues to get reparative patches, bandaids, and dusting, nothing major, only one or two major gaffes, easily repaired.

  2. I had my empty suitcases that I planned to fill with the published paperbacks of Baby Doe, my ticket to the States, but then Israel closed the airport for another couple of weeks, so trip postponed for a month or two.

  3. So no deadline, no rush, I can tune and retune Baby Doe until she screams no more (again).

  4. Or start work again on the next novel in the NICU series, with Eli Kurz MD, a minor character in Baby Doe, becoming the main character in the next novel.

And that raised the question of why would anyone be interested in Eli, or for that matter, anyone else? Especially someone else who isn't real, someone made up by someone calling themself an author. A good question. But because of the above mishigas (Yiddish for craziness and such like), I (like many real and wannabe authors), procrastinated.

Until now.

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster, somewhat helpful.

Martin Luther King, eloquent in defining the importance of the '"content of one's character."

Sue Grafton, in M is for Malice, was the most fun when her crotchety, but cute, brave, insecure, and endearing MC, Kinsey Millhone, talks about:

"...why you'd ever take on the aggravation of a relationship. Other human beings have all these hotly held opinions, habits, and mannerisms, bad art and peculiar taste in music, not to mention mood disorders, food preferences, passions, hobbies, allergies, emotional fixations, and attitudes that in no way coincide with the correct ones, namely yours."

So to press on with the question of whether you'd be interested in spending (or wasting) your time with a specific fictional character, here's a test--the opening of the next novel in the NICU series after Baby Doe, Let me know:

"Have you ever seen someone die in front of an audience? Not literally, but figuratively. Someone sounding like Donald Duck with a high-pitched voice that sounds like that someone’s been breathing helium, someone nearly wetting himself, then tripping on microphone cord and falling flat on his face. It happened to me when the research of our small division was one of three being reviewed that day by a blue-ribbon panel of experts that included a Nobel-laureate.

It was 1992. I was well into my thirties and folksy Bill Clinton looked like he had a chance to take down Bush. New taxes, the first Gulf war, and the cold war were behind us and Clinton, that wordy philanderer was the wet dream of us Boston liberals. I worked as a newly recruited assistant professor and division chief at three of the hospitals that cared for newborns all within spitting distance of Harvard medical school. I’d spent most of the past couple of years setting up the administrative and clinical structures of the division, recruiting trainees and starting them off on their research paths and ignoring my own.

With no more than the expected wobble of ingénues in the field, three of my trainees presented their research before the review panel. I was last. I chose to present the research of another one of our post-docs whose results I had reviewed, but her experiments had been done in another lab. In fifteen minutes, I presented a summary of her findings, scanting the methodology and maybe implying I had a bigger role in the project than I had.

During the routine question and answer period, I fielded some friendly comments and was about to leave the podium when the Nobel laureate asked whether the key protein in the experiment was labeled with iodine-125 or iodine-131, a routine methodological question. “I believe it was I-131,” I responded. A woman’s voice from the back whispered loudly, “I-125, a gamma emitter.” It was the post-doc who did the experiments.

“Er. I-125, I think.” Then I thought I heard another voice in back say I-131, so I said, “No it was I-131.”

“Well, godammit, which is it?" my interlocutor huffed. "It could make a major difference in how to interpret the results.”

I stumbled off the stage saying I’d recheck the methods and let him know.

“You do that!”

A day later, I sat in the office of Ellen Larkin, my boss, mentor, and the first woman chair of a clinical department at Harvard Medical School. Ellen held a report from yesterday’s review committee in her hand. She didn’t sugarcoat it. Never did. With a glint in her eye, she said, “You screwed the pooch, Eli.”

No argument there. I looked at my shoes.

“Yes,” she said. “It was work done by someone who worked in your division, so you get a modicum of credit. But here at Harvard, we expect our division chiefs to be directly involved in research of their own."

After a pause while she scowled at a paragraph in the report, she added, unnecessarily, "You didn’t even carry it off.” Was this a statement of fact, a criticism, or even possibly some mild admiration mixed with amusement by Ellen? She herself was a risk taker with her share of gambles in life.

I'd ruminated all night about my gaffe, was exhausted, so all I could muster was, “I should resign?”

“Nothing so draconian,” she threw the report on her desk and smiled. “Just need to bring your research up to speed. A sabbatical in Odininski’s lab should do it.”

A dour Russian, and her friend, he was on the opposite side of the country, in San Francisco. She'd collaborated with Odininski early in her career. He had maintained a monastic devotion to lab research while she had gone on to chair a clinical department, a lone female swimming in a sea of envious male colleagues. As her (up until yesterday) fair-haired boy, albeit an inexperienced youth sent to learn at her knee by my former chief in Cleveland, I had felt the ire of those in her department who hadn’t the nerve to attack her directly.

“Of course,” I said. “Not a problem.” As always, Ellen was the man with the plan. After 24 hours beating myself up, Ellen's plan for my rehabilitation felt like a welcome gulp of strong drink.

“And please,” she said. “Could you discover something important to justify my now somewhat challenged faith in your long-term value to our department? Besides the approval of your new NIH grant, that is. Congratulations.”

That night Ellen called me. “Can you leave in a month?”

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