Today's Reading

Stanley worked hard and was promoted, again and again, and eventually ran the factory. He was smart and good at strategic thinking. But his core management ability was that he was tough. He saw a factory floor as a machine and each man (it was almost entirely men) as a cog in that machinery. They could be annoying cogs, always complaining about this or that, but a strong manager knew how to shut their complaining down and get them back to work.

Did Stanley love ball bearings? Did he have a particular passion about them? No, he most certainly did not. He got the job because his father-in-law knew a guy, and he stayed in the job because that's what you did when you had a job: you stayed and tried to get promoted. He retired after fifty-four years, having worked at the same company his entire adult life.

Every moment of his life reinforced the same lesson: hard work is how people take care of their loved ones, how countries stay free, how life improves for everybody. Stop working, even for a moment, and everything will fall apart. He worked. His wife took care of the kids. And those kids barely knew the man who was rarely at home and, when there, was often angry and impatient. My dad says he had no idea what Stanley did for a living, only that whatever it was seemed awful.

From an early age, my dad had passions. He loved telling stories; he loved making people laugh; he loved daydreaming about a life much more fun and expansive than the grim, plodding one of his father. In the Worcester of the 1940s, a boy like Jack—a bright but indifferent student who cracked jokes and hung out with friends instead of working—could be assessed only one way: he was trouble. He would either be tamed or become a lifelong loser: broke, drunk, maybe in prison. My father internalized this view. He drank and smoked and got into fights and was suspended a dozen times before the principal expelled him. When Stanley learned of the expulsion, he told my dad that he could no longer live at home. He washed his hands of him.

My dad was on his own, working at a shoe factory, at sixteen. It was miserably boring work, nailing heels onto shoes one after the other, all day long. He can remember saying to himself, "My life is over. Already." His father, it seemed, had been right. Men who follow their passions go nowhere. My dad certainly couldn't think of any grown man he had met who had successfully built a life of fun and personal expression. That was for wealthy people and drunks.

Over the next several years, my dad had a series of unlikely experiences that led to precisely the life he wanted. He joined the marines, thinking it would transform him into the man his father wanted him to be. After his discharge, he managed to get into the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He didn't do well and was about to flunk out when a friend asked for a favor. The friend was putting on a play in the school's theater department, and one of the actors had pulled out at the last minute. Could Jack, please, fill in? It was an easy role: my dad just needed to act like he was drunk and lurch across the stage. His first step in front of the curtain drew a huge laugh from the audience, and that was that. My dad had found his life's work. He would be an actor. He had never met a professional actor. He had never seen a play. But he transferred to Boston University and entered the theater school.

For Stanley, the announcement of this career was absurd, enraging. Why not be a butterfly chaser or a unicorn rider? An actor? You're going to pretend that you are someone else for a living? You're going to play dress-up as a job? That is not what a man does. A man works, for money, and then uses that money to pay for a home for his wife and children. Who ever told you work was supposed to be fun? Who is going to pay you? Actors make no money. They don't get regular paychecks. They are not men.

My dad nonetheless pursued his dream and has been a working actor for almost sixty years. We were never rich, and there were some worrisome months here and there, but for the most part, he made enough of a living to raise two children in New York City. We understood—because he told us all the time—that he had made a conscious choice to pursue his passion, his dream, instead of pursuing money. And he would say he did that to be a good father, to be a model for his children, to show them that they, too, could pursue their passions and their dreams, even if they were never going to get rich or, at times, maintain financial stability at all.

We lived in Westbeth Artists Housing, a building in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. It was created in 1970, the year of my birth, by a group of philanthropists and the federal government to offer subsidized housing for artists. It's still there—my dad lives in the same apartment I grew up in—and houses about one thousand people: painters and dancers and poets and musicians and actors, other artists and their families who pay rent far below the market rate. It is a special place, a community of people doing, roughly, the very opposite of what Stanley believed was right.


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