Sunday, December 28, 2008

While You Weren't Looking, They Were Working

I forgot to add in the last post that all week long I'll be posting my favorite writing from around the web. Here is a piece I found that was written by Ben Stein for The New York Times in honor of Father's Day.

Take it away, Ben:

When You Weren’t Looking, They Were Working

MOST business journalism is about investments and the people who make them, usually on a large scale. Or else it is about the big dogs who run the mighty earldoms of American business and the agencies that regulate them. This is fair enough. As Calvin Coolidge said, “The business of America is business.”

We all want to read about money and how it’s made and lost. But for young people who might have no idea of what business involves, or even what work beyond flipping burgers or selling DVDs might mean, here is a little primer on what it is and why it means something as Father’s Day approaches.

A few days ago, I came across a draft of a memoir my father was working on before he entered immortality in 1999. After reading it carefully, I realized that I knew almost everything in it except for one huge thing: how hard his work — his “business,” as one might say, for it surely kept him “busy” — had been for a number of years in middle age.

To me, as a child and as a teenager, in Silver Spring, Md., he simply got up in the morning, packed his briefcase and went to a fine office at Connecticut Avenue and K Street in Washington — or, if he had business in New York, he packed his suitcase and went to the train after work. When he came home, he had stories about the elegant restaurants he had tried near his office, maybe Duke Zeibert’s or Harvey’s, or, if he had gone to New York, about his room at the St. Regis at 55th Street and Fifth Avenue and how outrageous it was ($30 a night), and how his sleeper car on the train had not really allowed him much sleep.

He never, and I mean never, talked about making money, and he always seemed to have enough of it for a middle-class or maybe upper-middle-class lifestyle. So, frankly, I just assumed that he was having a good time down at his office and was secure and happy in his work.

His memoir told a different tale. There were arguments and power struggles at the Committee for Economic Development, where he was research director. (It was and is an organization of high-ranking business people who put out papers on social and economic issues. My father, for about 20 years starting in the mid-1940s, was the author of many of these papers.) Yes, my father was able to socialize with the heads of the major corporations in America and live on an expense account the way they did, but it was always clear who was the boss. Yes, he got to fly first class, but it was always a struggle to be shown some respect by certain of his colleagues and he often considered quitting.

He also wondered, if he quit, what he would do next and how he would pay the bills, and he did not want his children to have to worry about money, as he did when he was a child of the Great Depression.

I think of this as I shlep through the airport security line with my heavy bags (Willy Loman style), as crazy people sit in front of me on the plane, trying to break my nose by throwing their seatbacks onto me, and as I wake up early to travel to the next destination. Then, as I look at all the other middle-aged (and sometimes older) road warriors in the security line, on the plane or checking into the hotel, I think of our children in school.

I picture our kids bravely taking moral stands on global warming and the polar bears, refusing to “sell out,” get a job or learn anything useful. I think of what I could write to them about their parents’ work. I would start with a short phrase from Hart Crane, the genius poet.

“O, brilliant kids, I was a fool just like you. I was in my mid-40s before I properly thanked my father for his decades of hard work — paying for me to laze around in the cars he bought me, to get drunk in the frat house whose dues he paid, to spend the afternoons with my girlfriends looking at trees and rivers while Pop worked and got so anxious that he took up smoking three packs of Kents a day.

“O, brilliant kids, you get to put on the garments of the morally righteous and upstanding while your parents work — because mothers work now and always have worked — and your parents must say, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir,’ to those who hire them. O, golden children, you get to talk about how you’ll never ‘sell out,’ and meanwhile your parents stay up late in torment, thinking of how they can pay your tuition. Because, brilliant kids, work (business) involves exhaustion and eating humble pie and going on even when you think you can’t. And you are the beneficiaries of it in your gilded youth.

“Be smarter than Ben Stein ever was. Be a better person than I ever was. Right now, today, thank your parents for working to support you. Don’t act as if it’s the divine right of students. Get right up in their faces and say, ‘Thank you for what you do so I can live like this.’ Say something. Say it, so that when they’re at O’Hare or Dallas-Fort Worth and they’ve just learned that their flight is canceled and they’ll have to stay overnight at the airport, they will know you appreciate them.

“Get it in your heads that if you throw away your moral duties to your parents, you are thieves. You were born on third base and your parents put you there, and you think you hit a triple. It’s not true. It’s time to give back.

“ `Attention must be paid,’ as Arthur Miller said. So start now, and make it a habit to be grateful to your parents. Say you’re grateful and mean it. Do it now, however young or old you are. Do it on Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, every day.”

How I wish I had done more of it. Now it’s too late — but it’s never too early.

1 comment:

  1. This is Great! I'm going to tell my dad thanks tomorrow!

    ReplyDelete