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.
On this Mother’s Day, 2018, I have a true story of a true heroism on the part of one mother..my mom, whom I sadly lost in 2007. This is not a sob story. It’s kind of hilarious.
Growing up in New York City in the ’60’s I was a devoted follower of Sandy Becker. He hosted a kid’s morning show for years on then WNEW, Channel 5. Live, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Two of his most popular characters were puppets Marvin the Mouse and Sir Clyve Clyde, which were voiced and operated by Becker. A daily feature was for Sir Clyve to place a phone call to a lucky kid whom he interview on the air. The kid’s reward was a Marvin the Mouse puppet.
My mother, who once had aspirations of a singing and acting career, was a typical stage mother. I..at the tender age of 6, was so shy, I hid in my room when we had visitors. Nevertheless, she sent in my name and I was chosen as the next day’s lucky kid. The producer said we’d get a call about 5 minutes to air and that we should just stand by until we hear Sir Clyve/Sandy’s voice begin the short interview.
Sure enough, the next day our phone rang and the producer gave us the five minute warning. I hung onto the phone until I heard Sir Clyve say in his British accent, “Well good morning 6 year old Edward Garsten from Bellerose, Queens. How are you?” I froze. Thrusted the phone into my horrified mother’s hands. For that split second there was dead air until my mother gamely got on the phone and put on her most childish voice. She was in her mid-30’s at the time. “HI!” she replied emphatically.” “I’m good!” Sensing something was up, Sandy/Sir Clyve reacted with, “My, my Edward. You have a strong voice for 6!” “Thank you,” my mother replied. “What grade are you in, Edward,” Sir Clyve asked. Shit. My mother momentarily forgot, but the trouper she was, came up with the correct answer. “Well….,” she stalled. “I guess, first grade.” Sure, now Edward was a fraud and employing an understudy, Sandy/Sir Clyve wrapped up the interview. “I say! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Edward. Thanks for watching our show!”
Before we could hang up the producer came back on the line sounding a little confused, saying, “uh, pretty good interview. Thanks a lot. We’ll send you the Marvin the Mouse puppet. Just need your address.”
After we hung up, my mother looked at me with that, “what the hell just happened?” face. But she knew her youngest son. So shy. Such a loser. Well, she tried. It was OK. Mom got some free air time, playing a 6-year old.
A few days later the envelope arrived. In it was the Marvin the Mouse puppet. I tore it open and stuck my hand up Marvin’s back and showed my mother. She smiled as she said, “I think that’s mine.” Then we both had a pretty good laugh. Miss her.
On this Mother’s Day, 2017 I’m reflecting back on how my late, wonderful mother affected me in my work life.
It started in the 1960’s when I had my first job folding laundry at Mel’s Laundromat on Union Turnpike in Queens, NY. It was in a strip of stores that ranged from Glen Oaks Pharmacy where Richie the owner and pharmacist kept the store guarded by a massive German Shepherd who would sometimes snuggle up to your crotch while you were shopping….to Sol and Lefty’s candy store/luncheonette that served as a lunch counter, candy stand, place to get your school supplies and bookie joint. Yes..it was always safe to shop at Sol and Lefty’s because there was always one of NYPD’s finest on site…to place a bet. In between there was Ray’s Anchorage/old man’s bar, the Cracker Barrel supermarket a dry cleaner and deli. Mel’s was closer to the north end of the strip where Sol and Lefty’s was located.
Mel was a crappy boss. He was crazy and yelled a lot and made sure half the machines didn’t work right so customers would have to toss in extra quarters. I was 8 years old and even so, the 25 cents a day he paid me seemed like a screw job. My mother gave me my first workplace advice at that point. “Edward,” she said, “try not to work for assholes.” But I was young and impetuous and I didn’t obey that sage advice, for more than 40 years.
Later, as a teenager, I worked at a day camp in tony Great Neck, Long Island where the skinflint owner paid us 25 bucks a summer plus tips, but you had to pool your tips. Mom advice number two. “Pool your tips? What? So the lazy schlemiels can get some of your money? Screw ‘em! Toss in five bucks and pocket the rest. You earned it.” Smart mommy.
When I started my career as a broadcaster it was at a truly crappy station in Fulton, New York. Fulton is about a half hour north of Syracuse, which puts it squarely in the area commonly known as “Nowhere.” The station was located in a field in a concrete block building next to the transmission tower. Occasionally, the St. Bernard that lived in the farm that surrounded the station would walk up to the door, bang it with his massive head and wait for belly rubs. We always complied. When I brought my parents to see where I worked, my mother offered work advice number 3. “Edward, make sure your next job isn’t in such a shithole.” I dutifully obeyed and moved on to another station, in Auburn, N.Y. which was located in the top floor of an office building and had the best studios and equipment.
For the benefit of time and space I’ll skip ahead to when I eventually landed a job at CNN in Atlanta. My parents were duly impressed but were not familiar with either Atlanta or Georgia. This precipitated mom job advice number 4. “Edward,” she intoned, “this is a big deal. Do whatever they say, try your hardest, show them what you’ve got and whatever you do, do NOT start saying ‘y’all.’” I did everything she said and lasted two decades at the most manic place I had ever worked.
My last fulltime job was a Chrysler. I was hired to manage and ghost write a blog on behalf of the head of PR. This was 2005. My parents just could not fathom exactly what it is I was hired to do. Despite many explanations, blogging and social media did not compute with them. They attempted to send emails via the ghastly WebTV service, which was so slow, snail mail would arrive faster. It only frustrated my father who received a lot of useless “forwards” from other alta cockers at their Florida condo community. My father would respond to each and every one with “please don’t send any more of this stupid shit.” It got him elected to the condo board of directors and captain of the shuffleboard team.
It also led to my mother’s final work advice: “Edward,” she said patiently. “I really don’t know what the hell you do or why you do it but if it pays better than the laundramat I’m happy for you.” It did, indeed, pay much better than the laundramat, and led to a nice management job, an office and free coffee…which only proves, you should always listen to your mother.
In honor of my late mother, Gertrude Garsten, I am posting the eulogy I gave at her funeral December 26, 2007.
What a great Mom! fashion maven, social director, one-time buyer at a NY department store chain, mah jong mentor, a little bit of yenta, (who isn’t?), political animal, admired school lunch lady, and probably the only one on Earth who could day in and day out, put together an outfit my Dad would agree to wear.
My mother had impeccable taste for almost everything…whether it was fashion, furniture, restaurants, music and theatre , and man, could she smoke out a deal. But most of all, she simply loved people, and wasn’t shy about interacting with them.
It wasn’t unusual to see her try on a top or a skirt and then run an instant “Gert Poll” among unsuspecting fellow shoppers asking their opinion of how the garment looked on her. Invariably, folks who didn’t know better patronized her fawning over how nicely it looked. Mom knew what worked and what didn’t. She quickly cast aside the questionable concensus of her new acolytes, telling them, in her little baby voice….”nooooooooo…that’s not right. OK. Thanks.” …and head for a new fashion gene pool to play in.
Indeed, our Mom was whipsmart who knew what worked and what didn’t in almost every aspect of her long, wonderful life.
Her sense of fashion, trend and design turned our small 2-bedroom garden apartment in New York into something some makeover maven on HGTV would kvell from, pointing out new materials, window treatments, new ideas for the same old rooms.
She loved working with kids. Early in her career as a sometimes, but mostly not paid, aide, Mom served with honor as a lunch lady. But not just a lunch lady. She came in dolled up with her hair freshly set, perfect accessories and makeup applied just so. When me and my brother Joel’s lunches would accidentally get swapped, Mom swept into the lunchroom, looking luminous. Kids would say “woo hooo…who’s the hot one?” It was our mom…the damn greatest looking lunch lady in NY or anywhere else in the tristate area. After retiring to Florida in 1988, she quickly caught on at a local grade school where she patiently gave her time to help children with tough family lives, catch up to their classmates. She would get so excited and proud when one of the kids she helped got a good grade on a test or assignment.
Above all, she and my dad made a dream team—opposites complementing each other to form a perfect match. He was introverted with a great sense of humor, she was extroverted, quick with a laugh, reeling in new friends with the ease of someone who just loved to connect with people. Didn’t take but a few minutes before Mom became your best friend—or at least made you feel that way. That’s why they were never at a loss to find travel companions, canasta partners, or just wonderful friends with whom they could share a relaxing meal at a great restaurant or coffee and cake at home.
Our Mom was, as was my dad, unselfish with her time and her attention, especially for her grandchildren and great grandson, David. Their wish was her command. When she found out my daughter, about 8 at the time, was interested in this crazy toy from Japan called a Tamagatchi she ran all over town looking for the egg-shaped virtual pet—did she succeed?Of course.
She loved to sing…loudly…around the house in her operatic voice. Mostly show tunes, some standards. Didn’t matter that she didn’t know any of the words. But we knew when she was singing, she was happy. We kind of enjoyed her take on improv.
Even as her health began to fail precipitiously after my did passed away in March, Mom never lost her sense of who she was or the pride she took when the hair, the makeup, the outfit just worked. So a few weeks ago, during a quick visit, her wonderful aide, Violet let me know Mom needed a little pampering to build back some of her self-esteem. Over the course of four hours, Mom was the center of attention at the salon—a manicure, a pedicure, a hair styling and a little makeup, the works. She was that hot lunch lady all over again. It was a wonderful day. It turned out to be the last day I had with her..and what a great day it was—my sweet little Mommy with her freshly coiffed hair, just –so makeup and really bright pink nails. Was pretty perfect. Just like her.