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 If you were to somehow appoint an independent, impartial committee, a gathering of the country’s greatest minds and deepest thinkers, in order to determine who, in fact, was the hardest working human being in the United States, I think my father would probably win - followed closely by James Brown, of course.

In the movies, twentysomethings in the 1970s were snorting coke, dancing to Gloria Gaynor and rooting on the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series, but in Mattoon, Illinois, they were getting married and having families, just like their parents did in the 1950s. And my father, married shortly after he was legal to drink, in order to support his even younger wife and prepare for a upcoming child with an oddly shaped head and unmistakable odor, went to work.

These were not fun jobs. He worked at factories and lumber yards and asphalt installers (well, I guess you don’t install asphalt; I’m not sure what exactly it is you do with asphalt. Lay it, maybe?) The earth-shattering transition from anything-goes youth to the sobering responsibility of adulthood was not something that occupied much of my father’s mind. He had a family to support, and after giving college a brief try while stationed at an Air Force base in Virginia, he headed out and pounded the pavement, busting his ass and making some money. And that he did; before long, he was running work crews at the local electric public service company.

My father’s work ethic has only grown more intense as the years have gone by. He has worked at CIPS (Central Illinois Public Service Company, recently bought by the conglomerate Ameren, based in St. Louis) for almost 25 years now, and his co-workers, whenever I run into them, speak in revered, hushed tones about how many situations he’s bailed them out of, about how he is an inspiration to them, a throwback to a time when people took pride in their jobs. And if that wasn’t enough, when my father is off the clock, he’s just working on his own time. In the past two years, my father has completely remodeled my grandmother’s home, adding a deck and a whole other wing to the house, and when he was done with that, he cleared the sweat from his brow and started work on a new empty-nester house for my mother and him. In about nine months, my dad, almost single-handedly, while working nine hours a day at the CIPS job, built a beautiful new home about 50 feet from the old house he raised a family in, having constructed that one 20 years earlier.

Of course, this is all fine and good, but it leaves a son quite a bit to live up to. If you ask me and catch me in a self-promoting mood, I’ll extol the values of a solid work ethic and how my blue-collar roots have instilled in me an incorrigible desire to bust my butt at all times, regardless of whatever job I might be doing. And, all things considered, that’s at least partly true. Every job I’ve had, I’ve tried to do to the best of my abilities, blah, blah, blah. But sometimes ...

My friend Mike loves to tell a fun story about me in college. We both worked for the college newspaper, 50-some odd hours a week, and we were both journalism majors at the University of Illinois. Being a public school, the U. of I. made us take a few of those general-interest courses so they could continue to receive public funds. One of these was economics, a subject I couldn’t care about less if it were the study of peat moss. We were in Econ 104 together, and it was the end of the semester, right before finals. The class held about 60, maybe 70 students, and Mike and I took it together. Mike was diligent, never missing class, taking copious notes, while I, well, I wasn’t.

The night before the final, there was one of those all-encompassing study sessions where TAs and the professor would answer questions about possible questions that would be on the test and give subtle clues as to what was important to study. Mike and I showed up a few minutes early and settled in. Right about when the session was set to begin, a gray-haired man, about 50, walked through the back doors, glanced around with a confused look on his face and sat down right next to me.

“I’m sorry, but is this the study session for the Econ 104 final?” he asked me.

“Uh, sure, yeah, it is. Should be a good one.”

“Hey, thanks.”

He sat there for about 45 seconds while Mike, to my perplexity, giggled hysterically. I, typically desperate for conversation, leaned over to the man and said, “This test should be a tough one, I think. Are you ready?” He smiled widely. “Yeah, I think I’m ready. The professor’s a hardass though.”

He then stood up and walked to the front of the room as the eager students promptly filed into note-taking mode. That’s right, folks; the man who sat next to me was in fact the professor who had taught Econ 104 all semester, a fact I would have known, had I showed up for even one lecture. But, hey, the class was at 9 a.m., and, jeez, that’s early. The sonuvabitch saw me, realized he didn’t recognize me, put two and two together and decided to have a little fun. Mike finally stopped tittering about this story in early 1999.

That said,I did have the last laugh, because, thanks to the notes I took from the session (and a healthy helping of Mike’s notes throughout the semester), I ended up “earning” a C on the test and a B for the class. Hardly the definition of excellence, I admit, but pretty impressive for a guy who didn’t attend one class an entire semester. And that’s kind of the general problem; the college-learned skill of being able to skid idly by with as little effort as possible - thanks mostly to writing-intensive courses where I simply wrote wacky, change-of-pace term papers that had nothing to do with the topic at hand but at least gave teachers something different to read, always good enough for a C - tends to manifest itself in detrimental ways in the grownup world.

As long as I’m constantly provoked, external factors forcing me to continue to work hard, I’m fine, no problems. But throw any sort of wrench into the machinery - say, being laid off from a job and having to adjust to something vaguely resembling, lord no, adversity - and I spin recklessly into unmotivated chaos. Realize, readers, I have been unemployed for almost two months now. Do you realize how many days of sleeping until noon that is? A lot.

Is this a generational thing? We’ll work hard if we have to, but, all in all, we’d just as soon merely kind of mill around aimlessly, musing on existence, love and chicken broth? Or am I simply a candy-ass loser, unwilling to go out and earn a living the way you’re supposed to? Heck, I even tried to do a Dad-worthy manual labor job right after all of us Ironminds people were fired by Novix Media (which, I take devilish yet depressed glee in reporting, has since melted down and closed its doors), where I hauled T-shirts around Manhattan on handtrucks for $6.50 an hour. I lasted three hours. Man, that job was hard

This might sound like an odd reference, but I’m reminded of the silly 1999 teen schlock comedy/horror flick Idle Hands. In it, a stoner suburban kid, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Seth Green - who also, I feel obliged to add, played the young Woody Allen in Radio Days - is murdered by his best friend. The friend buries him, but Green digs his way out and revisits his pal. The friend, understandably disturbed that he’s being paid a social call by the undead, asks him how he came back to life. “Well,” Green affably chuckles, “there was this light and this tunnel, and there were all these ladies saying, ‘Come to the light, come to the light’ and shit, right? But, I was like, I don’t know, man. I mean, it was a really long walk. It was really far. Fuck that, you know?”

What will be the next move for our hero? Will he rediscover the joys of work and rekindle the blue-collar roots supposedly instilled in him by his father? Or will he continue to be an aimless, depressed piece of crap, cursing the gods of circumstance rather than rising from his duff and rejoining the working world?

I don’t know, man. I mean, it’s a really long walk. It’s really far. I mean, fuck that, you know?

Somewhere, my professor is laughing.



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