In tomorrow's "Questions For" interview in the NYT Magazine, Deborah Solomon tosses Columbia physicist Brian Greene this seeming softball: "What did your dad do for a living?"
A reasonable question, perhaps -- until you remember that this is 2010, and that working mothers have been a prominent presence in American society for longer than the 53-year-old Solomon has been alive.
But over the course of Solomon's decade-long role as the NYT's official weekly interlocutor, she has never -- not once -- asked a subject a direct question about a mother's choice of career.
By contrast, Solomon has on numerous occasions asked people about their fathers' professions, with the unspoken presumption that the mother's occupation is somehow irrelevant to the topic. Beyond that, Solomon's father-oriented questions reveal an almost-obsessive fascination with the role of fathers and fatherhood -- with her questions about mothers often implying a peripheral, nagging role in child development.
For example, in tomorrow's Greene interview, Solomon follows up her straightforward question about his father's career with a flip refererence to mothers' outsize expectations for their children's success:
"And what about your mom? Does she expect you to win a Nobel Prize soon?"
To Greene's credit, he ignores Solomon's snide question, and quickly notes that his mother is "something of a real estate mogul." (He does obediently buy into Solomon's sardonic view of mothers, by noting that his mom wishes he'd become a doctor.)
Typically, Solomon acts as though her interview subjects' mothers don't work, and only function as nagging annoyances. She underscores her obsession with a consistent curiosity about how men see ther own roles as fathers, or what impact fathers' jobs had on the careers of the celebrated people she interviews.
Solomon's questions about mothers tend to go in an edgier direction, sometimes implying that moms didn't know best. Consider this one-two punch from her May 2010 interview with Martha Stewart: "Where does your ambition come from? Did you have a critical mom?"
Ditto this dismissive query from her May 2009 interview with Senator Arlen Specter:
"This article is scheduled to appear on Mother's Day," Solomon noted to the Pennsylvania Republican. "Is there anything to be said about your mother?"
Solomon seems to see mothers as bothers and scolds, rather than role models. Check out this pointed jab from Solomon's September 2010 session with rocker Phil Collins:
"The cover of your new album is a photograph of you as a teenage drummer," Solomon observed, then inquired: "Did your mother tell you when you played the drums that you were giving her a headache?"
Or the time she noted to rocker Eminem that "even your mother sued you for defamation." Or when she asked blogger Mickey Kaus during his his recent campaign for the Senate, "Does your mom approve of your Senate bid?"
Meanwhile, dads continue their noble role in their children's lives -- often presented by Solomon as simple statements of fact. "Your Greek immigrant dad ran an all-night diner in Kearney, Neb.," she reminded financier Peter Peterson. "We should mention that your dad is R. Crumb, a reclusive and revered figure who was a founder of the underground-comics movement in San Francisco in the ’60s," she genuflected at artist Sophie Crumb.
Sometimes, Solomon's fascination with dads sometimes comes off as nothing short of rude. "Where is your dad these days?" she asked basketball star Shaquille O'Neal this past August. No mention of the mom who raised O'Neal, even though she's alive and well, and writing her memoirs.
We've emailed Solomon for comment. But we know, on the face of it, that in a society where women -- like Solomon -- have long held jobs as distinguished and important as men, her failure to ask her subjects about their mothers' careers and influence is narrow-minded and bizarre.
UPDATE: In what turns out to be an bizarre coincidence -- or no coincidence at all -- Solomon herself wrote an essay called "Daddy Dearest" in The New Criterion in 1988, which revealed quite a bit about her own father issues.
"Fathers never know how they'll be remembered by their scribbling children," Solomon wrote at the outset of the piece, ostensibly a review of two memoirs by women artists about their fathers. Solomon wrote in great detail about the effect of their fathers' accomplishments and expectations, and how they played out in their daughters' lives.
In the end, Solomon appears to be troubled by the attacks perpetrated by the two authors -- Musa Mayer and Eleanor Munro -- on their dads. She refers to Mayer's memoir as a "serpent's tooth of a book" devoted to her relationship with her father, the painter Philip Guston.
"[A]ll this becomes mere backdrop to the baroque spectacle of Mayer’s struggle for her father’s approval and affection," Solomon writes. "The point of Night Studio is not to illumine the artist’s achievements but to catalogue the sufferings of Guston fille." Solomon acknowledges that Guston was, as his daughter notes, preoccupied with his work, but then notes, "what artist isn't?"
The Eleanor Munro memoir came in for similar attack by Solomon, who saw it as another example of a daughter unfairly resenting the effect of her father's success on her own creativity. Solomon bristles at the suggestion that Munro's father did anything wrong:
“Our father’s work and taste set us apart,” [Munro] smugly notes, speaking for herself and her siblings. Eleven pages later, she visits the home of a high-school classmate in Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb. The fathers there, com pared to her own, “did not come down hard on ideas they disagreed with, having none of their own.” This is an offensive statement, and it reminded me of something Delmore Schwartz once said: there’s nothing so great about ideas; taxi drivers have them, too.
We're still sorting through our sense of the meaning in all this. It's clear that Solomon has an unusually exalted view of fathers and their importance -- to the point where mothers barely merit a mention. It's also clear that Solomon sees successful fathers as unfairly blamed for their children's problems.
Our problem with all of this isn't, as one commenter suggests, that we want to enforce some politically correct approach to questions in Solomon's column. It's that we believe that mothers -- whatever they do to occupy their time -- merit a mention in her efforts to understand the people she interviews.
Whether it's changing diapers or the world, mothers seem worthier of Solomon's attention than she seems willing to offer -- which is almost no attention at all.