A friend of mine is moving into a co-op in New York City and has been asked by the co-op board to provide four letters of recommendation to prove that she is, in fact, a good neighbor. She has asked me to write one of the letters because beyond the fact that we were “neighbors” all during high school—our maiden names both starting with “Sc-“ made it so N, my friend, stared at the back of my head for four years—she moved into our neighborhood ten years ago and stayed here until recently deciding that she and her husband wanted to be back in New York City. I’m biased—she was one of my best friends until our respective paths separated us for many years—so what can I say beyond the fact that she doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or have crazy parties? That she’s the smartest person I know? That she and her husband speak so softly that I can often not hear what they’re saying? That her leisure pursuits consist of running, reading books that require a forklift to get off the bookshelf, and playing with her cats? Or that if you ever find yourself in a real pickle—say with a diagnosis of Stage IV melanoma—she’s the only person you want at your side besides your spouse? All of those things seem irrelevant to what the co-op board may want to know about my friend, but I’ll include most of it anyway. I don’t know how often she takes out her recycling or if she’ll be needing a parking space or even if she cooks curry at weird hours, but I know she’s a good person and someone you’d want living beside you to celebrate the good and weathering the bad.
The requested letter of recommendation got me thinking about recommendations in general. What do we really want to know when we ask for recommendations? Generally, is the person a hard worker? A suitable neighbor? An upstanding citizen? But more to the point, what should we want to know? For instance, when I was looking for a new babysitter, what I should have asked, besides the obvious (have any children died on this person’s watch?), was “will this person clean up after themselves after making a thick ragu of beef, veal, and pork with onions to spare?” Or, will this person say to me, a new mother, that she knows more about childrearing than I do and to learn from her? (Trust me, that’s something you don’t want to hear after commuting two hours and working a ten-hour day.) What about the new marketing manager that you’re hiring? Ask that person, “will you make promises to people that you cannot keep without me pulling every string and three straight all-nighters?” rather than “How many copies of book x did you sell during your tenure at your former company?”
These are the intangibles, the things that I wished I had the foresight to ask. As a closet perfectionist (ok, maybe not so closet), I try to anticipate every last thing in order to be prepared, but what I have found is that I can never anticipate everything, and even if I come close, I’m usually off by a detail or two. So, I’m now just trying to go with the flow, something that doesn’t come naturally to me and that feels like I’m wearing an ill-fitting dress when I try it on for size. I wish my friend’s co-op board was doing the same, but for obvious reasons, I guess we’re glad that we’re not.
What are some of the things you wished you had foreseen, Stiletto Faithful? What is one question you wished you would have asked?