My father died when I was 15. That shaped the rest of my life and my beliefs. My father was an astute businessman; I became an academic specializing in literary theory and criticism. My father was too poor to go to college; I ended up with two doctorates and two professions (I’m a lawyer now). My father was a pillar of the tiny Jewish community in the small Ohio town where I grew up; I moved on to rootless anonymity in New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley. So did I live my life both for and against him–the life he never got to have, but also the life he rejected? Maybe. But he taught me the three things that are my credo.
First: Get to like black coffee. Why? Because there will be times when you can get coffee, but there’s no cream or sugar. Make sure you can enjoy the basic stuff.
Second: Don’t sleep with a pillow. Why? Because there will be times when there are no pillows, and you won’t be uncomfortable because of that.
Third: Any job worth doing in the first place is worth doing with all of your skill and effort, to attain excellence. Why? If you shovel snow sloppily, or leave a film on the dishes, or don’t get the floor clean when you mop it, you won’t be able to do more demanding things well either. And all work is worth doing, and doing well, for its own sake.
Over the years, I’ve become a bit of an apostate. These days, I drink coffee with milk, or get a cappuccino. And I sleep with a pillow–albeit the very flattest one we have. But there’s been no retreat on number 3. It’s what always I’ve tried to do myself, and teach my children and the up-and-coming young lawyers in my firm. My dad’s clear-eyed pessimism–coffeeless, pillowless, workless times are sure to come, and you need to be prepared–was always tempered by his capacity to embrace and enjoy the coffee, and the bed, and the work, when they were there. That’s what he taught me, and that’s what I believe.
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