Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are always a little tough because I lost both my parents nine months apart back in 2007. But what gets me through it many times is the fact they were both brilliant and hilarious and taught me many of life’s lessons. Since this will also show up on Linkedin, I thought I’d relate some of the valuable lessons they imparted to me about getting along at work. Hint: they vary between serious and, well, satisfyingly snarky.
From my Father: If your boss requires everyone to wear a tie, do so, but feign shortness of breath a few times a day to let the boss know the health risks involved in working all day with your neck in a noose.
From my Mother: Always look your best on the job. She always did, even when she volunteered as a lunch lady in our grade school. The payoff was an 8-year old gushing, “Mrs. Garsten, you look beautiful today!” The other lunch ladies would suddenly find an excuse to refill the napkin dispensers.
From my Father: If someone acts like a jerk, try to ignore it. But if they persist, you have to act. My father was a chemical engineer. Back in his day engineers worked in rows of drafting tables, and so, in close quarters with each other. He didn’t like it when one of the other engineers was disruptive, so he learned how to shoot rubberbands accurately at long distances. Many a workplace jerk suffered a welt from my father scoring a bullseye on the back of his head. Indeed, my father passed on to my brother and me his secret which I have used sparingly, but effectively, especially in movie theaters to neutralize a loudmouth in the audience.
From my Mother: Don’t be lazy! Early in her career my mother was a buyer at a big New York City department store. A high-pressure job. She despaired when she saw a co-worker just sitting around yakking or otherwise goldbricking. When I started my work life at age 9 at the local laundramat, I hated folding people’s underwear and other unmentionables, but my mother scolded me about being lazy and that no matter what a job entailed, you needed to do it because that’s why you were being paid. Considering I earned exactly one shiny quarter each day I worked, this turned out to be a motivational challenge, but the lesson always stayed with me because I worked in broadcasting which has roughly the same pay scale.
From my Father: If your boss is a moron…DO NOT SAY SO to his or her face. I worked for several morons over the years and never broke my father’s rule. Instead, I ignored idiotic directives and went about my business in what I thought were more sensible directions. The corollary to the rule was: don’t let the boss take credit for your good ideas! This may seem counter-intuitive to some who believe in the concept of “managing up.” However, if everyone else in the office knows the boss is a moron, they also know he/she could never have come up with a good idea and would know the boss attempted to steal the credit and you would look like a hapless doormat.
From my Mother: One of my mother’s favorite phrases when discussing a person attempting to stick you with a thankless task was “tell him to go shit in his hat!” She used an endearing baby voice when saying this, which took away some of its sting but still made its point. The one time I tried that my target kinda stammered before saying, “Um, I’m not wearing a hat.” That caused me to do a quick pivot to “Right. Then go fuck yourself.” The twin burns impressed my co-workers which came in handy when I was made the boss. But lesson learned from my mother, don’t let someone stick you with a crappy task.
From my Father: If you become the boss don’t be a wimp. He had been a boss on several jobs and his underlings feared him. In fact, when I worked a summer job at an engineering firm where many of my father’s former underlings were employed, I could hear whispers of “Be nice to the kid. He’s Dick Garsten’s kid and you don’t want him ratting on you.” At the same time, my father was much beloved because he was also respected for fairness, sense of humor and how much he truly cared for those who worked for him. I was never a tough guy boss. Just not in me, but I did use my father’s lessons in empathy and respect to win loyalty during the times I led a job or department.
I don’t know how either of my parents would have reacted to the social distancing we’re stuck with during his pandemic because they were both social, fun people who enjoyed close, interpersonal relationships. Besides, if someone acts like a jerk on Zoom, it’s damn near impossible to hit him with a rubber band.
Before I sort of retired five years ago I had a great career in news and PR and am enjoying a scaled back version of both in my semi-retirement. I have my parents to thank for setting great examples of how to survive and thrive in the workplace through a combination of hard work, humor and a little bit of recalcitrance.
I miss ’em both every day and honor them regularly by eschewing the wearing of ties and silently instructing those who deserve it to go shit in their hats.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. This is my 36th year as a dad and the 13th year since I lost mine. Oh no, we’re not gonna get maudlin. We’re gonna have some fun, because that’s what my dad was.
Actually, he was sort of sneaky fun. Generally quiet by nature and not nearly as outgoing as my mom who aspired to sing and act on Broadway, but gave it up to raise me and my brother. Some trade, huh? She would have had a shelf full of Tonys.
No, my father was sneaky fun in a few ways. He was a chemical engineer by trade–not a profession generally associated with yukking it up. “Hey Al, hear the one about the constricted pipe nipple?” But he was a master punster who both loved to hear them and let one loose. Whether he was delivering or receiving, at the punchline, he’d grab his throat and make a choking sound. That was sometimes misunderstood by folks out of earshot and at least one time a concerned citizen ran over about to administer the Heimlich Maneuver on my dad thinking he’d swallowed an olive whole. Poor guy. Not only didn’t he save my dad’s life, he ruined his punchline.
What was the pun? Oh, my father’s absolute favorite mocking of country music. The set up was, “Oh, I hate country music!” His victim would always ask, “how come?” The reply/punchline was always, “They have stupid titles like (and he’d sing it like Hank Williams) ‘He fell down the sewer and they called it sewer-cide.” Hand to the throat. Choking sound made. Victim suddenly remembers he’s late for root canal…and looking forward to it.
One think my dad absolutely hated was cigars. Hated how they looked in a guy’s mouth and despise their smell. Back in the 60’s it was OK for folks to smoke in other people’s homes and we had an impressive ashtray collection to facilitate their early grave. Cigarettes? OK. Pipes? OK. Cigars? No OK. One night when the weekly poker game was at our house one of the players decided to fire up a stogie. My dad had laid down the ground rules many times, so he felt no need to repeat them. Instead, he simply whipped out a fat rubberband, made it tight around his fingers, and shot the cheroot right out of the guy’s mouth. The shocked guy knew he done wrong. All he could say was, “shit, I forgot the rule, but you could have just asked me to put it out.” Nope. My dad knew how to make a memorable moment…and his point, without uttering a word.
Speaking of making his point wordlessly, that same guy who broke the no-cigar rule turned out, after awhile, to be quite the asshole and the guys wanted to kick him out of the game. They didn’t relish the confrontation so my father, ever the brilliant one, again came up with a way to send the message without getting into what would likely be an unpleasant verbal exchange.
He shared his plan with the boys, whom he had arrive a little earlier than usual. When the jerk arrived at the usual time, he was greeted just outside the door to our apartment with 7 guys armed with seltzer bottles who drenched him in bubbly water. We never saw him again…and not a word was spoken. Told you. My dad was quiet.
I miss him every day and memorialize him by taking out my gee-tar and singing his “favorite” country song, afterwards reaching for my throat and making that choking sound. Oh, I’d never perform it in public. Would be professional sewer-cide.
On this Father’s Day 2017, I’ve decided to honor my late father for a couple of valuable lessons that contributed to my general delinquency as an adult and ability to ward off jerks.
I’ve previously written about my father as a WWII hero, but once Japan and Germany surrendered he fought another honorable war for the next 65 years…the glorious struggle against assholes.
In the interest of time and space, I call to your attention two specific lessons passed down to my brother and me that we continue to use a decade after our father’s passing.
The first involves office supply warfare. Having earned the Silver Stars and a Marksmanship medal during the war, my father never lost sight of his targets, nor his dead aim. He was able to combine his shooting skills with his post-war career as an engineer to develop a superior method of shooting rubber bands–a method that vastly increased the speed and accuracy at which a rubber band could reach and sting its intended target. You see, engineers juiced up their afternoon coffee breaks by engaging in brutal rubber band battles, often resulting in shredded pocket protectors and red-stained blueprints.
One day my father walked in on my brother and me as we lamely launched rubber bands at each other, barely raising red marks, let alone the desired welts. He patiently let us in on his secret, as I will now do for you. The trick to faster and more accurate rubber band shooting is to place the rubber band around one of your index fingers. Then, -twist it with your thumb such that one side of the band is loose, and the other is taut. It creates increased tension, resulting in whipass speed and accuracy. Try it. If you do it correctly you can shoot holes in targets, and soft flesh. There is little as satisfying as seeing the result of a properly shot rubber band strike an adversary’s ass. It’s really quite exhilarating and gives you a momentary feeling of invulnerability, although you risk getting the crap beat out of you through conventional street warfare methods.
Now, lesson number two, concern my father’s ability to decisively discourage an asshole from a return visit to our home.
My father played in a long-running Friday night poker game with some other engineers and some guys from other professional fields such as journalism, printing and accounting. An erudite bunch for sure. But over time, one of the engineers became very wealthy after going into business for himself and he became rich and obnoxious, partially, by screwing some former friends and associates. That didn’t play well with the poker guys. Oh, they could have simply told the jerk he was out of the game but what fun is that. He’d just argue and call them names and make a scene. My father had a better idea. They would say nothing. When the creep showed up at our apartment for the Friday night game, the boys were fully armed. Not with rubber bands this time, but with full bottles of ice cold, bubbly New York City seltzer…in the kind of bottles with the lever you push to shoot the stuff out with force.
Knock, knock. Open door. “Hi!,” jerk boy said. BLAM!!! SIX BOTTLES OF SELTZER IN HIS FACE. “Bye!” the poker boys said. Not another word was spoken…or at least I didn’t hear any, over the raucous laughter as the loser ran back to his car, sopping wet, and thoroughly carbonated and humiliated. I attempted to used this valuable lesson shortly thereafter on a loser who kept asking me to go to the movies but my mother didn’t want to clean up the carpet a second time so soon. But I will always have that weapon in my arsenal should it be necessary and I can find New York City-type seltzer bottles in Michigan.
So on this Father’s Day, among the many gifts for which I thank my dear father, I fondly thank him for the gift of creative non-lethal retribution, and the lesson that whether it’s with rubber bands or seltzer, to always be a straight shooter.
Do you know what it’s like being the son of an engineer and being crappy at math? My poor father would slog home to Queens from Manhattan, enduring a 90 minute or more commute by bus and subway after working a 10 or 11 hour day only to be greeted with those heartwarming words from my mother, “Mac! Edward needs help with his math homework!”
Let me put this into perspective. Helping me with my math homework was roughly as pleasant as receiving a massage with a backhoe.
But this is what fathers do. I’d patiently wait for him to eat his dinner at 8 p.m. knowing what was to come. Here was a man who could figure logarithms in his head while watching a ballgame and I couldn’t decipher those ghastly word problems that merely asked when the train and car would collide on the Long Island Railroad tracks.
Dog tired from his endless day, my father, at times, grew impatient with my total lack of quantitative abilities, while my mother apologized that I had apparently inherited her gene for that deficiency.
By the time 10 o’clock rolled around and we were both exhausted out of frustration, and in my case, total shame, my father somehow figured out what small phrase of instruction would light my dim bulb brain and allow me to find the solutions.
Oh sure, sometimes voices were raised, and there were tears, but my father never gave up. He wouldn’t let me hand in an incomplete assignment or one with wrong answers.
I’m sure I never had the chance to properly apologize for putting him through that ordeal, but much later in life, when I started producing newscasts and backtiming required the use of math, he would ask me how I could possibly manage. I’d joke, “math? Oh, that’s easy.!” He knew better. With a broad smile and that knowing look only a dad could have he’d ask, “who you bullshitting?” A dad knows. He deserved a medal.