Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Big Difference


Throughout the summer, Columbia University paid Zach his full salary. Officially, he was adjusting  the syllabus. Dorothy Zimmerman, however, told him this was pro forma: his courses were thorough and up-to-date. His apartment, his office, and parking space remained his own until September. The University of Nebraska had hired him, retroactively, as both dean and administrator of their Poli-sci department. Combined, this influx of money boosted his confidence and his bank account enough to inspire generosity.

   (Click here for the first episode; here for the previous one.)


On most weekends, he visited UNO or Vida, who had hired a nanny and already bought an estate in Maryland so that when baby Alice and Corrine were older, they could have ponies. Zach put the legally decreed child support into trust funds.

The twins were six weeks old when they, Vida, and the nanny moved into a home with separate wings and cottages. Also included in their household were: a groundskeeper and his wife, who worked as Vida’s housekeeper; a full-time cook who tended a vegetable garden; and Vida’s gentleman-friend, a Republican state senator named Henry. The property included a huge, sparkling swimming pool and pristine tennis courts canopied by leafy trees. Vida and Henry entertained friends and benefactors almost continuously and Zach really was welcome any time. So while Vida and her coterie lounged by the pool or played leisurely tennis games, Zach walked around carrying Alice and Corrine, sometimes one in each arm, sometimes cuddling them one at a time. He sang them songs he remembered Beth singing to Rosalind and Matt, while he was busy earning his Ph.D. Although in those days, his perception of himself as an Eagle—an outdoorsman, academic, and ambitious provider—prohibited singing to babies, his own, or anyone else’s. A lot had changed in twenty years.

As for Rosalind and Matt, after the divorce became final and Beth resumed speaking to him, they grew more open and fond of their father than ever before. Matt followed his inclination to please his mother—and his father, providing he wasn’t hurting Beth.

In contrast, Rosalind maintained a chilly silence for weeks while her mother strongly suggested she start showing Zach some respect and appreciation.

Reluctantly, she agreed to write him an email once a week but “neither should hold his or her breath for phone calls.”

“Tell her,” Zach told Beth, “that I’m glad she wrote ‘his or her’ and not ‘their’—since as she knows, ‘neither should hold their breath’ is common usage but incorrect.”

“Wait a second,” Beth said. “I better write that down.”

He had laughed. “Tell her I’m pleased she’s such a little stickler.”

In the same email, Rosalind had reported: “Mom says I must write you ‘a nice, long,’ letter or stay home, like, indefinitely. I have my own life, Dad, and it doesn’t exist within the confines of this house. But thanks very much for giving Mom the house and paying off the mortgage. She says that if you hadn’t done that, she would need to sell it. And we would live in a cramped apartment like the one Ellen from the food co-op has.

“I grew up believing you and Mom had principles. But when I became a teenager, you got greedy and blew them off. You had a long-term affair. Mom pretended you weren’t because you both wanted everyone to think we were the real deal—one happy little family. But that meant you had to live a lie rather than simply telling an occasional white lie, which (I don’t know about you) doesn’t go against Mom’s principles.

“Anyway, you both went against most of your principles most of the time, lying, cheating, and being self-indulgent assholes. (Pardon me. Or pardon my ‘French,’ whichever’s easier.) You screamed and yelled and stuffed your faces until you looked like balloon people. And you’re still going against everything you taught me: You bribed Mom with enough money to maintain her lifestyle. Since she took the bribe, she’s threatening to punish Matt and me unless we give you proper gratitude. So consider me—gratefully yours, Rosalind.”

Zach stopped by the house later that week. He and Matt reviewed their canoe trip, planned their meals, and composed a checklist of camping equipment. Rosalind ran from the front door as Zach was pulling out of the driveway. “I wrote you another email, Dad, apologizing.” She kissed his cheek. “If I’m a stickler, I inherited the tendency from you.”

He opened Rosalind’s new email when he reached his office.

Her mother had pointed out stuff that Rosalind should have figured out on her own. “After all, why spell out every tawdry detail? Such as, if we moved to a cramped apartment and Mom had to work as a receptionist all the hours she could get, Matt and I would have to do the grocery shopping. We’d have to cook and do the dishes and all the other errands and housework. We wouldn’t have time for parties and friends. We wouldn’t be buying the latest electronics and we certainly wouldn’t have our own credit cards. We wouldn’t have a cheerful mother who was glad to arrange things so we were free to study hard and play hard. If she couldn’t afford to pursue her artistically satisfying but non-lucrative pottery-making, and take fitness classes and get massages from Leon, she’d be irritable even if we did all the housework including the laundry. Not only would Matt and I not have friends but she wouldn’t either. She’d feel sorry for herself until she was so depressed she lost her health. Then Matt and I would have to take care of her the rest of our lives! So Mom said to think about the difference between a bribe and generosity.

“Here’s my new way of thinking: A bribe is when you pay someone to cover up your wrong-doings or even to look the other way. It has nothing to do with being a loving father and ex-husband. Thank you for giving us whatever we want. (I know the legal requirement wouldn’t make a dent.)

“You’re extremely generous and I’m sorry for being a spoiled brat. Love, Rosalind.
P.S. Any time you feel like taking me to the Four Seasons, I’d love to go.”

(click here for the last episode.)

2 comments:

Dan Leo said...

Hmm, so giving people money does work!

kathleenmaher said...

The difference is etiquette: how we describe the transaction defines giver and receiver. Better to give, I've heard.