Animal crackers in my purse

MINUTES before the interview was due to begin, I glanced down at my hands - and almost turned the color of the stains on both thumbs. Fingerpaint purple, no doubt about it. ``Shiny purple!'' I could still hear my three-year-old son shouting from the kitchen earlier that morning. He'd just discovered what happens when you mix red and blue fingerpaint with your elbows, and he wanted the immediate neighborhood to share in his excitement. Now the Korean artist I was about to interview would see the results of our cleanup project.

It wasn't the first time I'd shown up at a business appointment sporting some reminder of the haphazard dual existence I lead - as full-time mom and part-time free-lance writer. I'd had other, more embarrassing moments, like the time I'd taken off my raincoat in a fashionable executive suite and discovered I was wearing several of my son's Mickey Mouse stickers. Still, each new faux pas adds to the list of occupational hazards of being self-employed.

When our son was born and I decided to stop working full time and become a free-lancer, it seemed like a fairly un-complicated decision. My husband and I thought we could easily turn the laundry room at home into an office where I'd be able to work for hours on end while the baby slept or played contentedly at my feet.

Three years later, my desk still backs up to a washer and dryer in a basement room off the garage. Several dictionaries and a thesaurus compete for space with fabric softeners on an improvised bookshelf. The baby has grown into an independently minded preschooler who demands equal time on the typewriter - and whose paragraphs often make as much sense as mine.

With no regular office hours, I try to make the most of whatever spare time I have. This means doing my writing after Jonathan goes to bed at night, making phone calls during his afternoon nap, and snatching up every 10-minute distraction I can when he's awake. Let him get launched into a building project with his blocks, and I deftly tear a page from one of his coloring books and start jotting down thoughts for an overdue book review.

When deadlines creep perilously close and I need an extra half-hour or two, I occasionally let him plunder the kitchen cabinets while I try to make sense of my scattered pages. I've even been known to turn him loose in the children's section of our local library while I do a last-minute checking of facts. Actually, we have three nearby libraries to choose from, and so can spread our visits around. Jonathan either gets to climb on top of the dollhouse at the Marshfield library, scatter jigsaw-puzzle pieces at the Hanover library, or bang away on the child-size typewriter at the Norwell branch. The children's librarians love to see us coming.

Although I prefer to do as much work as I can at home, there are times when interviews are unavoidable. Those days I brush the modeling clay off my Sunday shoes, remove the Sesame Street cassette from my tape recorder, and head out into the world beyond the playroom. Unfortunately, I have trouble remembering to tidy up my purse.

As a relatively inexperienced mom, I tend to carry more than the usual complement of toys and distractions. There are always a coloring book or two in my purse, a box of crayons, and equally essential bags of raisins and animal crackers. I also pack along a number of small cars, depending on Jonathan's favorite vocation of the month. When he's into his fireman mode, it's fairly simple to bring a tiny hook and ladder truck. When he tells me he's pretending to be an electric company, it's a bit more challenging to come up with the necessary equipment.

I'm not complaining. It's just that when I slip my hand into my purse in the middle of an interview, searching for a pen, I never know what I'm going to come up with. Sometimes it's Jonathan's bright yellow robot, the one that turns into a monstrous praying mantis with a few flicks of the wrist. Too often, I discover a long-forgotten apple.

When I'm not rummaging through my purse, I often spend a good portion of my interviews trying to decipher the questions I've jotted down ahead of time. Because I use the same notebooks for last-minute grocery lists, I constantly have to guard against posing questions from the wrong page. It's one thing asking a well-known actress about the influence of her childhood pretending on some of her latter-day roles. It's quite another inquiring if she prefers chunky or creamy peanut butter.

Sometimes, however, the most unexpected conversations have resulted from something that's dropped out of my purse. I still remember an interview I had with Matina Horner, the president of Radcliffe College, when Jonathan was only months old - and I was still carrying spare diapers.

For too many years, she said, women have been encouraged to have a career instead of children. ``The big difference now is that the younger women are questioning whether that's right,'' she told me. ``They're getting messages from the generation just before them - the women who are now in their mid-30s, who chose what was essentially the new stereotype of the early '70s. Today that group is beginning to say that it's lonely out there, that the rewards of having a high-paying profession are not as terrific as one might think....''

I'm not much of an authority on high-paying professions, but I do know which rewards mean the most to me. While my work may have its interesting moments, it's the constant interruptions - and the lumps in my purse - that really count.

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