“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Goethe
It was a sunny afternoon and the mango trees were heavy with fruit. I was in the kitchen making potato salad and looking out the window thinking about how far away from home I was.
Life looked much different for me this year compared to last, moving from Canada to Brazil with my husband.
I walked the few steps from the family home to the family office looking for my husband who had been spending every last minute pouring his energy into a system he was designing for the family business. I walked into the office, a bowl of garlic and knife in hand, with the intention of sitting a minute.
“How are you?” He had a look on his face. His is the kind of face that tells everything. Emotions are worn outward like a flag. At that moment his face was puzzling something out. Not the pausing kind of man, he took pause.
“What now?” I asked with a lot of irritation in my voice. Since being in Brazil the luxury of being private, of living a simple life had vanished and in its place sprang up an ugly monster of imposition, obligation and duty, something I had only moderately become accustomed to. Obligation on top of the sheer joy of living with family.
He said, “Do you want to hear news that is not related to my family?”
“What? News not related to your family. Inconceivable! That would be fabulous. Tell me.”
Still slowly thinking, still puzzling it out, he proceeded.
“I just received a copy of a magazine article from Scientific American. They are talking about our project. You know, the one I told you about, from my university days, in England. This article says we might be looking at next year’s Nobel Prize. At first I thought it was a prank but they sent me the nomination papers.”
Well. Of course my husband has been nominated for a Nobel Prize. He’s just that kind of guy.
He’s odd. He’s absent minded. I mean, he’s smart—not just smart, he has occasional flashes of brilliance. Mostly but he’s the kind of guy that things just happen to. Like arriving in California to learn English right at the same time as a major earthquake. He spent his university years drinking with his fabulous mates, inventing and patenting new computer technology. Then he found out he had a bum liver. Woops! One too many whiskey’s is all the drinks too many. Then there are the other things that just happen. Like, coming up out of a subway station for your job at the New York Stock Exchange, a little late, only to see planes crashing, fires roaring and people running. Or the time he had a tumor that was supposed to be the death of him, and yet death just couldn’t do him in.
My mother used to say of me that I could fall into an outhouse and come out smelling like roses. It’s true. But my husband could fall into an outhouse, come out grinning, smelling like roses, his hand grasping a sack of gold.
So, of course, he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Even Nobel Prize nominees have families, so you can always be assured a certain banality of life, no matter the circumstances. Our excitement was short lived. Some families, like my husband’s family are critical enough to destroy anyone, Nobel Prize or not. When we told his father about the nomination he didn’t so much as look up from his lunch and replied, “Pass the salt”. Later his comments ranged into the “We will believe it when we see it” category.
I know a little bit about this because when I called to tell my mother that I was getting married, she replied “That’s good, you’ve never done that before. I have to go finish mowing the lawn now.” Not that getting engaged is anything like getting nominated for a Nobel Prize.
There were many questions. He tells me about it, carefully, in full detail and we pondered the implications to our privacy, to our lives on a whole. We already lived in a fishbowl, and soon we looked poised to move into the sardine can. We held our breath for months hoping no one would find out. We like a certain amount of privacy and it seems we are just odd enough to be talk of the town quite a bit anyway.
My husband truly is the absent minded professor. Add the effects of chemotherapy to his short term memory and you’ve now got a really absent minded professor. He talks as fast as he can so he can say everything before he forgets. I tell him if he forgets it wasn’t important. He doesn’t agree. He has an office with computers stacked one on top of the other. He hangs things from odd spots, he put labels on everything with his very messy writing. He has several monitors and every cord and cable you can think of. I cannot imagine a gift giving event without me receiving a new piece of technology. He spreads his technology around with pride!
One day when I was exasperated with the electronics mess, his mother told me a story from his childhood. Apparently he had every toy he owned spread out in front of him and becoming tired of cleaning up after him all the time she threatened him with an ultimatum. He was supposed to clean his things up and put them away or all the toys would go to the orphanage. He agreed and went to his room. After some time he emerged and said “I’ve made a decision. You can take all my toys to the orphanage. I am not cleaning them up.” She had to follow through on her threats, but apparently he never missed his toys or showed a sign of regret.
My husband is like that. He still wants everything out in front of him, and when it’s time to let it go there are no regrets, they are just things. He doesn’t mind accolades, airs, brands or labels of any sort.
But this Nobel thing still influenced our lives. The question of ethics, right and wrong and most importantly the commodification of an idea. Barristers calling, companies digging. Betrayal. The worst of the worst. Worries about the consequences of actions taken, dissection of the scientific consequences throughout history. All night meetings, months of secrecy, transatlantic flights. Fights about percentages, fights about intentions. Anxiety over tuxedos and ball gowns and who to invite. Dreams of collaboration with peers and scientific breakthroughs of the brilliant kind. Flights of fancy about what was possible.
At times we laughed about it, and at times we had to pause and think about the magnitude of the situation. We were little and nothing and something big was on the table. We kept it irreverent, and in the end, we learned why it was important not to put scores and faith in something that is only an illusion. It is as corrupt as its players and at its core is a nefarious process. There is nothing innocent or nice or noble about it.
I’ll never forget the devastated look on my husband’s face a few weeks ago when we found out that someone in the group had betrayed them all, resulting in a disqualification. At the end of the day, it’s just money and power. A lobby here, a royal backing there, leaking secrets– it’s all in a day’s work. He was embarrassed and ashamed and I actually had to remind him that most people never get nominated for a Nobel Prize. Then we let out a sigh of relief because our privacy might still remain a little bit intact.
There are things in life you can’t take back. Biting words said at an important moment, things one can never forget. Truth be known, they can’t take back a Nobel Prize nomination. It happened!
The only response I have for my husband is, “Oh well, my little Nobel Prize nominee! Come and have lunch. I made you potato salad.” Between us, there is always potato salad. Nobody can take that moment in time away, where every possibility is still spread out before us. It doesn’t matter what happened after, it never really mattered. Prizes are for people who need to have prizes. It’s good to let go and push beyond the past. It’s good to put more score in living beings, living systems and living things. There are things to be cherished in the life that surrounds us. My husband will tell you that facing death teaches you what is important in life. Right now we have this present moment. He is a person with a long list of moments, one of them was a Nobel Prize nomination. Winning sometimes has a very high price, sometimes it’s better for everyone to be a very good looser.