Tuesday, February 20, 2024


For most of the seventeen years I lived under my father's roof and under my mother's borderline personality (or whatever the latest DSM calls 'a nasty old hag') my older brother, younger sister and I had to tiptoe around their tilted little house.

First, any noise might set my mother's hair-trigger to 'extra-hairy,' and two, my father almost died of a heart-attack in 1967 and again in 1974, and we, as children were told it was the noise we made which was largely responsible.

I grew up knowing my father could die at any minute and my mother could explode. As I learned about my parents when I left home for good, age 17, no one is entirely useless; they can always serve as a bad example.

Even Joe Louis couldn't take a punch like a time-clock.

One of the examples I learned from was my father's work ethic. Except for his non-stop schtupping of various secretaries, he seldom took a break. There was hardly a moment he didn't have a yellow legal pad and a black Pentel pen.

At an early-age, I vowed I would be more moderate than he. In fact, in an attempt at moderation, I set out for a career in academia. I incorrectly thought the ivied halls of some leafy campus somewhere in say Maine or New Hampshire--somewhere suitably out-of-the-way-and-fray, would be much more benign than my father's martini-fueled Madison Avenue hallways. I quickly learned that the only difference between advertising stiletto knives and professorial stilettos was that at a university the stabbings come fully annotated and with copious footnotes.

So, mostly because I had rent to pay and no visible or invisible means of support and I was tired of getting my furniture from ratty piles on city sidewalks, I went to the School of Visual Arts and after some years of working at it (I think I dropped my portfolio at 41 agencies) I finally started my advertising career. 

I vowed, however, not to cardiac my way to an early death. While I always worked hard, I never got into the practice of staying all hours to show my fervor. I'd get in early, work hard, and go home at a reasonable time. Peer pressure be damned.

When my first ACD (when that was a big title) had a heart-attack virtually right in front of me when he was just 37, I redoubled my efforts not to redouble my efforts. 

In short order, I convinced myself, I was not a hard-worker.

It's now forty years later, and I have two daughters, 36 and 32, who are fast making their ways in their careers. My 36-year-old is a Clinical Psychologist and runs a Harvard-affiliated clinic specializing in helping children and their parents. My 32-year-old is a Marine Biologist and helps run the University of California San Diego's Master's Program in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. It's kind of funny and fascinating to me that in a sense they have the academic careers that I wasn't able to pursue.

The Stakhanovites (стаха́новцы) modeled themselves after Alexei Stakhanov, a coal miner, 

and took pride in their ability to produce more than was required by working harder and more efficiently, thus contributing to the common good and strengthening the socialist state.

My daughters, touch wood, often call me. And, as children do, they excoriate me for having worked so hard. They chastise me for giving them a Stakanovite work ethic.

They tell me about the late nights they work and the 5AM wake-ups. They tell me about the pressures of living in a world where nearly everything that tries to uplift others is under-funded and understaffed and under-pressure. They say, with some anger, "Dad. Why'd you teach us to work so hard?" Their voices are not without rancor in these moments.

I look at them and I have a simple answer.

The same answer Joe Louis, the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, uttered when assessing his twelve years as champion and holder of a fight-all-comers 66-3 record. The same answer Philip Roth quoted when he evaluated his career and more than thirty novels: "I did the best I could with what I had."

In thirty or so years, lord willing, my kids will say the same to their kids.

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