My father loved problems. He looked for them in a good way. He was an organic chemist, doing process research in pharmaceuticals for Merck. He worked on the Sinemet, for Parkinsons, which he later took himself, on some of the chemotherapy treatments he later took, on anti-parasiticals, major antibiotics, on and on. He loved the challenge of his work and the satisfaction of doing good, saving lives, improving the quality of life for people he’d never know.
There was appropriate liquid kept in the lab for celebrating victories. He and his colleagues would fill beakers and toast each other with one of their standards: “Man takes another step out of the primordial slime.” Or: “Science once again triumphs over ignorance and superstition.”
He did a lot of hiring, and looked not only for people with stellar academic careers and superb references, but also those who looked for problems, loved problems. One question he asked (probably not PC these days) was about last names if the man (it was almost always a man in the 50’s to 80’s) had an unusual one. “Tell me about your last name,” he’d say, figuring that if a man wasn’t curious about his own name, he wasn’t curious enough to be a good chemist.
My father liked woodworking, especially making small puzzles out of wood. He’d keep them on his desk during the interview and see what happened. In one successful hire, a candidate was asked to describe his dissertation project, which was in fact brilliant. But in the midst of enthusiastic description, my father saw the candidate’s eye constantly move to the wooden puzzle until, unable to resist, the candidate reached for it, saying, “Excuse me, do you mind—” And he was hired on the spot. It was the appetite for problems, the joy in seeing and confronting them, that sold him.
That appetite for problems came in later, when Parkinsons slowly overtook my father. He confronted the progressive disease with equanimity and courage, breaking down its challenges into problems to be solved. Parkinsons is a moving target, of course, so one month’s solution may not work the next, but as he said, there were no end of problems. When he was more mobile, how to get to the middle school where he donated his time, how to write, how to use the computer, and later, how to get from the wheelchair to the toilet, how to carry plate, how to eat, how to confront death. How to triumph over ignorance and superstition with grace and faith.