Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Moishe Pipik, Philip Roth, and The Critical Mom

In her spare time, the critical mom pretends to be an academic the way Miranda Hobbes pretends to be a lawyer when baby Brady is keeping her up all night.  The critical mom teaches four courses a semester, squeezing them plus her office hours into Monday and Tuesday mornings, then runs to pick the youngest child up from school, or buys groceries.  Wednesdays are devoted to mountains of laundry.  She manages to write maybe one academic essay per year.  She does have a study that her husband intended to be all her own, but the last essay was written while her daughter sat at her feet, periodically yanking her ankle and asking to be handed a yellow crayon, Mommy, not another blue one.  Which necessitated going downstairs to grab one and returning before being allowed to finish typing a sentence.  On a normal teaching day, the critical mom need only exit the university and start heading toward the tram in order for her mind to lose all grip on why women were not admitted to the Cambridge examinations before 1885, why the Salem witch trials seem to have inaugurated cycles of mass hysteria, like the current animus toward Arab-Americans in the U.S., or why Fanny Burney sympathized with her doctor after her  non-anesthetized mastectomy--and whether all this will be on the final exam.  By the time the critical mom is halfway to the tram, her mind has emptied itself and filled up again with "Should I stop to buy sushi rice and Chinese vegetables?  But then I'll be late to pick up my daughter, and I think we do still have some chicken and bulgar." I come home, promise to wash the fourteen-year-old's Nantucket reds, and forget all about it, since lost fencing foils, shin guards, and water bottles are simultaneously demanded by the boys, who need them "right now, Mommy" just when Mommy needs to take daughter to ballet.  And then stay for her own ballet or tap class.  The critical Mom is in a tap dance troupe that does nursing homes and local dance festivals.  She comes home after ballet, cooks dinner for her husband and oldest son, puts those Nantucket reds in the washer, and gets yelled at when they are not dry by the next morning.

The e-mail comes out of the blue.  Moishe Pipik would very much like to invite me to contribute to a new volume on Philip Roth that will be published by SuperHotAcademic Press and that already has "a star-studded cast of many well respected scholars in the field of American literature."  She provides a list and offers a flattering aside:  She appreciates my expertise in both psychoanalytic theory and literature, whereas some of the others are only grounded in literature.   Would I write a "psychoanalytically themed" essay?  Yes indeedy.  I feel moderately surprised, since I've never written a word on Roth, although I've enjoyed his novels and even taught a course called "The Writings of Philip Roth."  I have however written a couple of psychoanalytic books.  Which is probably how Moishe found me, I tell myself.  Instead of surfing the net for anyone with any vague connection to Philip Roth.
Moishe would like an abstract ASAP! She bubbles over with enthusiasm and hopes to meet me soon.  Could I send my cell phone number?
I had always thought it would be interesting to write a paper on Philip Roth and now I had a reason to do so.  I write my abstract after an evening of red wine but Moishe writes back that she finds it "breathtakingly good! Very, very good!"  This is music to my sleep-deprived menopausal ears, although some tiny voice of reason is reminding me that the abstract is hardly trailing clouds of glory, and that nobody requests academic essays by advertising a "star-studded" group of contributors.  But I am basking in praise, and besides, Moishe has after all written a book on Philip Roth.
I write the essay.  Googling Portnoy, I discover that my former psychoanalyst went to high school with Philip Roth.  I call the analyst, tell him about the paper I am writing.  Does he have any reminiscences of Roth other than those I've read on the net?  No, alas.  But my ideas interest him and he could give "Phil" a call, and by the way, who is this paper for? I ask whether "Phil" knows Moishe.  An analytic silence descends.  But the analyst volunteers that "Phil" would like my ideas.
Emboldened, I send the essay off to Moishe Pipik and hear nothing.  I write; she writes back, "Thanks for your very exciting contribution to this volume!"  She finds my ideas "very subtle," which is a dubious distinction since I don't.  I find some of them unclear, and I've disagreed more than exuberantly with someone whose face may pop up at a conference some day, but Moishe is eager for me to produce these thoughts of mine that she seems to cherish, so I pump them out like a good student.
I send Moishe another e-mail:  is my essay accepted?  Yes, Moishe assures, and it is even now, now, very now "in the hands of the publisher's editing staff" and "we are certainly making progress!"  Moishe is nothing if not upbeat. 
A month goes by.  Meanwhile, Philip Roth announces his retirement, and this seems like a good time to add that to my essay and say something about it.  I send Moishe a link about Roth's decision to quit writing, and she writes that she has been "meaning to write to you.  The editing staff says that your essay is not clearly written.  Can you re-write it quickly?"
I phone Moishe.  What exactly do they want?  Well, it's just unclear, and please re-write it soon.  ASAP!
So I do.  I take a few weeks and my husband takes the kids until finally I read it over and decide it's good to go.  I send it to Moishe, who writes that I have "missed the deadline" and that the book is "in galleys." 
 I then do what common sense--always in short supply and anything but common--should have urged in the beginning.  I write the press and ask if Moishe actually has a contract for a book on Philip Roth.  She does not, nor has she ever, had any such contract. 
Is there a moral?  Answer a fool according to her folly, and she will write you an essay.
P.S. Philip Roth, can't you do something with this?  Call your 32nd novel "Moishe Pipik and the Golem Go to The 80th Birthday Party."  Set it in Newark.  Make sure to include a "star-studded" cast of academics who all love to write about you.  Build some tension, so that we wonder whether the Golem will eat Moishe or Moishe will trick the Golem.
And in the novel, please turn the tap-dancing amateur into a professional tapper who studied with Gregory Hines, is twenty years younger than I am, and has written at least five books about you on the side.


  1. But you see, you have something that you did not have before: a good essay on Philip Roth. The charlatan motivated you to write something, which you probably would not have done without the spur of that request.

    Love this post, though. I know exactly what you mean about the slide between academic thoughts and domestic ones. Every academic woman who has raised or is raising kids will recognize that mind shift.

    Keep on writing!

  2. There once was a gullible mom
    Whose life is as loud as a bomb
    A nut paid attention
    And now I should mention
    The Critical Mom is not calm