In Praise of the Astrophysicist

My husband turns 40 this weekend, and we are celebrating. When asked what he wanted to do for his birthday, he said he wanted a party, just like the ones we have for the kids on their birthdays - lots of food, lots of friends, very casual. We've managed to collect 40-50 friends and family together, and are going to eat a lot of lasagna and strawberry shortcake, watch the kids play with the animals and in the creek, drink beer and maybe make some music.

Despite our intention (and we still intend) to do more work together on this blog, Eric still mostly exists for the purposes of this discussion as a comic presence. He's the one who doesn't feel a need to try eating only what we produce for three months, or stick thermometers in the compost. He's the one who doesn't like lots of new ideas, radical change or too much excitement. Essentially, Eric-as-character-on-my-blog is a tall, bearded hobbit who thinks that my adventures are nasty, messy and make him late for dinner - and wonders where this crazy woman came from.


(Elongated Hobbit-Astrophysicist. The little parasite that has attached itself to his ears is Asher, our youngest.)

But literary construction necessarily leads to caricature. Eric is that person, and he does have an inner hobbit, but that's not all he is. Among other things, he is a transcendently good sport, the kind of person who sighs and rolls his eyes as he sets to hard work on the new project. He's the one who encouraged me at every step, and honorably has taken up the burden of doing childcare and farmwork while also keeping up with his job when I'm off giving talks or working on a new book. The fact that our life works at all is due to his tireless investment of energy and time. He may not live to farm the way I do, but he does more than his share, and with a cheerful good humor for which I'm grateful.

This spring, there was a segment of the barn that had to be cleaned out by hand - one literally couldn't get a shovel in there for reasons too boring to report here, so it had to be done by reaching down and scooping up manure and straw together with your bare hands (fortunately it was a very small area). We'd both been avoiding this rather gross chore, and finally, I'd said to him - ok, we're going to do it today. I told him we could get started as soon as I came down from blogging. I came down, only to find that Eric had done the work for me, so that I wouldn't have to dig around the muck - and that, I think is a metaphor for our whole relationship. When we were first together, I sometimes teased him for not being very good at romance. As the years have passed, I've come to be embarassed at my own foolishness - preferring occasional flowers to that kind of hardworking generosity, that failed to recognize the gift in someone who always shoulders the hard burden. I'm grateful I chose better than my younger self deserved.

I once told him that I thought that when my children probably inevitably reproach me for my failings as a parent, my defense of myself will be "but then, I picked your father." I figure that alone is good for a little salvation - he's the most amazing parent you could imagine. Eric thought it was an interesting challenge to go grocery shopping alone with four kids, including an autistic 6 year old, a four year old, a two year old and a four month infant (I thought this was a recipe for Mommy having to be institutionalized). He still waves his hands and says "sure, go away for the weekend for work while I tend all four kids, take them to synagogue, to a friend's party, and then spend a whole day at the farmer's market. (And this was just last weekend). He's a full partner in the very best sense of the term. If anything, I'm the slacker here.

Perhaps best of all, after almost 14 years together, I've never yet been in any room, at any party, been anywhere where Eric wasn't the smartest, the funniest and the most interesting person there. He's quieter than I am, doesn't thrust himself out there or talk as much as I do, but that makes it even more startling when he says something really stunningly funny, or has an insight that everyone else missed. After 14 years together, and often long stretches of being together 24/7, I still never feel like we get enough time together.

I'm proud of what he does - proud of the fact that literally thousands of undergraduates have learned something about the state of our planet in his classes, proud of the fact that he teaches large undergraduate general education classes with verve and passion and makes students who didn't think they'd ever like science care about it. I'm proud of the fact that he's really inventing the pedagogy of a new environmental physics, and that he prefers to teach first generation college students and low income kids rather than rich ones.

And I'm grateful to him for putting up with me - for enduring my moods, following my crazy dreams, for dreaming good stuff along with me, for making proper mock of me when I deserve it and kicking me in the ass when I need it. I don't know that I ever did anything to deserve Eric, I'm just grateful I have him - sometimes luck or the grace of G-d or something smiles upon you, and you get more than you could ever have deserved. Eric is my grace.

A few nights ago, while lying in bed, I asked Eric if there were things he'd like to change about his life. This spring has been heavy on farm infrastructure work, and we've both been working hard, and a lot. I worried that maybe it was too much, or Eric felt like we were devoting all our time to my concerns. I told him that if there was something he wanted to change, to tell me now.

His answer was that forty is as good a time as any to take stock, and that in doing so, he came to the realization that he simply loves his life, and wants it to continue as it is - that that's the best birthday present he could ask for. But I think I was the one who got the gift - I found a partner who was gifted, not just with kindness and intelligence, good humor and generosity, but with the gift of contentment, the ability to find happiness even in the face of a messy adventure that sometimes makes him late for dinner, but never shakes his fundamental aplomb.

Many happy returns, Eric!


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As you said, you are a lucky girl! Happy Birthday to Eric:)

"But I think I was the one who got the gift" As did all of us who enjoy Sharon's books, blogs and classes, thanks, Eric. Happy Birthday!


By Sue in pacNW (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Happy birthday to Eric! Your description reminds me of my own clever, sweet, and devoted hubby (who refused to take care of chickens, but who likes to do the unavoidable yucky jobs so I don't have to). Must go home and give him an extra smoochie now.

Happy Birthday Eric! Thanks from Iowa, for all you do, as Sharon, (and her message,) has literally changed my life.

Aw... Happy Birthday, Eric!

You chose... wisely!

Having met Eric (albeit briefly) I totally concur that you lucked out. A meal with a man who can use "datum" in conversation and not sound stuffy is time very, very well spent :)

Happiest of birthdays, Eric, and may the coming year be rich in joy, health, and blessings.

Time to be grateful for all the Erics we have in our lives.

Happy Birthday Eric!

Getting to be a long-time reader here, but almost never comment... but my astrophysicist husband just turned 40 a week ago, so it was too much of a coincidence not to send in my birthday greetings!

Happy birthday and may your partnership continue for many happy, loving years!

Sharon, why do you use word like "burden of doing childcare" & "tend children" when describing normal fathering activities? Do you use these terms about your mothering too?

ET, sure - and actually I said "the burden of doing childcare and farming" which is somewhat different - trying to take care of kids and also do full scale farming at the same time really can be burdensome. And all I can say is that if you've ever taken one infant, two toddlers and an autistic kindergartner shopping, you know what I mean. I do use that language when I talk about my own parenting (not even sure why you'd object to "tend") - why pretend that every moment of parenthood is unadulterated bliss? Sometimes it is hard work, even if good work.


Just to add - the word burden there referred to doing all that soloing while I am away - job, farm, children. I get the sense you are looking really hard for some kind of gender bias here, to find it in the idea that it is a bit of a burden to carry the whole weight of a life normally carried by two adults by yourself. And yes, I call it worse things than a burden when he goes away and leaves me soloing ;-).