Friday, January 12, 2007

The Favor Bank

Who's on your case load these days? And whose case load are you on?

If the answers are no one and no one, you're probably holed up in a cave somewhere. Because unless you live in total seclusion, you're bound to get asked to lend a hand sometimes -- to write a recommendation, advise on a consumer purchase, pass along the name of a good doctor, suggest a great restaurant, console a lovelorn friend, read a manuscript, and so on. And then sometimes you're the one in need of a favor. That is when you mentally review your friends and acquaintances and decide who's the right one to ask. Since each of us has our own needs and our special areas of competence, the help you give may not resemble the help you get.

It doesn't matter. It's all part of the same karmic Favor Bank. One year someone advises your child on the process of applying for college; the next year you do the same for someone else's kid. Occasionally total strangers get in touch because they've figured out that you have information they need. I once wrote an article about having a rare pregnancy complication and years later I still heard from women in a similar situation. I was happy to take their calls, because someone had done it for me. And my husband regularly counsels Italian-citizenship-seekers, who've heard through the grapevine that he surmounted the hurdles involved. Such favors help make the world a gentler place, so you make time for them even when your taxes are late or you're about to leave for a trip or your kitchen’s being remodeled.

Last week my case load consisted of: a college friend of my daughter's who's working on a book and wants advice about agents; a friend of a friend who's celebrating a big birthday in New Orleans and asks for a list of the best places to hear music; a work acquaintance needing a doctor for her son, who is a student here in New York.

I didn't include relatives in the above list because family exists outside the Favor Bank. But my biggest recent assist was helping get my 17-year-old niece out of Africa. She'd gone to Guyana with a group to study drumming and when it came time to leave, they discovered that four of the return tickets had been stolen, including hers. After many phone calls from my sister in Indiana to Royal Air Maroc, the kids were no closer to having their tickets replaced. My sister's next idea was that I should visit the airline’s office in New York and plead the case in person, preferably at gunpoint. That's when I had a brainstorm: they should get their congressman involved. I suggested calling the Washington office and asking to speak to the staff person who handles constituent services. Next thing we knew, Julia and her fellow drummers were issued their tickets home.

My sister was gratifyingly full of praise for my red tape-wrangling counsel. “You're so smart and you always know what to do,” she told me, and since she's my sister I asked her to say it again.

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