When I was 20-something, I truly didn’t have a care in the world. I was easygoing to a fault. I didn’t care if people cut me off in traffic; I didn’t care if I waited in line for 15 minutes at the grocery store. In fact, I was so easygoing, and by easygoing I mean devoid of both self-esteem and important things to do, I didn’t even care if a boy forgot to tell me he had another girlfriend. And when he finally did get around to telling me, I still didn’t seem to care.
Another thing I also couldn’t be bothered to care about a few (okay, three) decades ago: quitting a job when it was no longer a good fit and finding another one. I know, this drives those of you raised by Depression era-parents absolutely bonkers, which includes people I’m related to who are probably reading this right now and saying things like, “Oh brother!” In my defense, this was the amazing ‘80s I’m referring to. The economy was riding high, and jobs for 20-year old piss-ants were a dime a dozen. It was also my gap year(s) and I was a hot mess of indecision, insecurity (see “boyfriend” section above) and reluctance to stay in one place for too long.
But things have changed. Now, I’m a mother, and like most moms, my middle name is “That really bothers me!” But more germane to this discussion is that I’m also a writer and an editor, and my job is to nitpick details. In other words, details matter, and by details, I mean words. In fact, words make all the difference. I’ve had long conversations with people, defending either a word choice I’ve made, or a word in someone else’s writing that I’ve changed. Most of the time, I get my way. Other times, I give up. Everyone has a right to be wrong, as my granny used to say. Just kidding; that’s not what she said. What she said was, “I’m starting my diet tomorrow!”
So I’ve noticed something as I’ve aged: It really bothers me when people don’t pay attention to the words they are using, or the words I’m using. In fact, it’s driving me a little crazy.
For example, it steams my peas when people don’t answer questions, especially important ones. One morning recently, I was trying to touch base with a client. After exchanging a handful of emails about connecting for a conversation about what he needed for his website, he wrote, “I’m looking at my schedule. What time are you free for a call?” I immediately replied, “Does 4 p.m. work?” And then, no reply. At 3 p.m., I still didn’t know if I’d be getting a call at 4, which meant I couldn’t go for a walk, or stray too far from my computer. Did he not see the question mark at the end of my sentence? In the world I inhabit, a sentence that ends with a question mark implies an unknown, and therefore requires a response, unless it’s an obviously rhetorical question like, “How about this weather?” or “How are you?”
My poor husband. As a math teacher and coach, he has a similar disease, but his involves numbers. Whether it’s looking back at what’s already happened (the final score, for example) and adding it all up a hundred times in his mind, typically at 3 a.m., or calculating what might happen next week, at 4 a.m., he’s definitely looking at the details. I, on the other hand can’t be bothered with silly numbers. Just like he can’t be bothered with pronouncing words correctly or employing the traditional arc of storytelling, which requires a beginning, middle and end, in that order, with transitions.
Just this morning, I took a break from writing this column and we happened to meet in the kitchen. In the middle of a lovely, philosophical conversation about our individual obsessions, one of our kids came into the kitchen, bringing her passion for the subject to the moment.
Husband: You know, I noticed this morning while I was making sandwiches that I’ve always loved numbers, but they can also be a burden; I’m constantly looking backward or forward, figuring things in my head.
Me: For sure. That’s a lot of energy, all that calculating. I do the same thing with words. I drive myself crazy trying to find exactly the right word. I love words, but they’re a lot of work.
Husband: Yeah, I love numbers, but they’re also a curse.
[Daughter enters the room]
Husband: It’s so weird, isn’t it? I mean, why is my life so filled with numbers?
Daughter: Shut up Dad.
I guess she’s not much for details either. But she does have her mother’s way with words.