Friday, February 25, 2011

Reflections on Work Dad

Having a father who worked for the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution offered decent perks for a girl in elementary school. My teachers always had a source for those coveted, mostly-used tubes of industrial newsprint paper for the seemingly infinite varieties of "mural" or "full body tracing" class projects. If my friends' parents did not take the paper—the Journal because it was too conservative, the Constitution because it wasn't liberal enough (this was Decatur, after all)—they could call me to read the movie times over the phone. And on a few special occasions every year, Dad would invite me to lunch at the Blimpie in Woodruff Park and to visit the papers' headquarters on Marietta Street.

I loved those visits. My impression of the newspaper business consisted of one part Dad's work, one part 1930's era newspaper boys yelling on the corner, and one part J. Jonah Jamison from the Spider Man series (but not the comic book version—the Electric Company version. PBS, baby!). Where Dad saw logging my name into the visitors' register in the lobby as a minor hassle, I saw carefully printing out my full name as a significant act of accountability. Now I was officially registered. And in front of a security guard!

We would take the elevator up to the Advertising Department, him nodding at me to push the button on the panel, me pressing my finger against the cold metal with intense concentration. Sometimes other people would step on with us—people in suits. Important people, I would think to myself. My father knew everyone's name, politely and formally introducing me from where I stood slightly behind him.

When the doors slid open into the bright chaos of the ad floor, he would shoot forward out of the elevator like a pinball knocked from its holding pen. Dad never walks anywhere—he strides at top speed. Body slightly bent forward as if against a strong wind, he started out under the glare of florescent lights with me almost jogging in my Keds sandals to keep up. He cut through the cubicle maze, shaking hands with colleagues on left and right, as if paddling through in a sleek canoe to the other side of a choppy lake. I never saw any face long enough to remember it now, decades later, but I remember their sense of humor, the masses of toys and gizmos they had sitting around their desks, the collections of sketches they had pinned to the walls. This seemed like a fun place to work, and my Dad was part of that. This is my daughter, Jessica, Dad would announce as we strode by. Hello Jessica, they would holler at our backs, Are you keeping up? When I looked back over my shoulder at them, they would laugh and wink at me, including me in their circle of knowledge.

Years later, after the two papers folded into one, someone cooked up this crazy idea called the internet, and Dad moved up to Cox Corporate, my interaction with Work Dad moved mostly to email. In his role as a manager-to-managers, he understands how people work, in the literal sense. From time to time I need some help getting people to work the way that most benefits me, and for that, I go to Dad.

My siblings go to Dad as well. In fact, when we each email with some headache or quibble, challenge or conundrum, we expect that what we'll get is a reply from "Work Dad." When together, we'll tease him about whether we're talking to Work Dad or Dad Dad. "Work Dad" speaks a different dialect than Dad Dad. Work Dad negotiates challenges, identifies potential conflicts, and aims to resolve failures of communication. Work Dad speaks in mission statements. Work Dad cuts through the murky waters of human interaction, which is marshy, boggy, sodden stuff, and paddles us to the clear, open, honest waters as efficiently as he can.

It isn't enough to thank one's father, if you have one like mine, for his years of work in general. You must thank him specifically, for the day by day, for the hours that make up a lifelong career, for presenting a spectrum of work life—from the boring afternoons to the weary, long days to the valued contributions to the exhilarating accomplishments that should rightly comprise a successful career. Thanks for wearing the cheapest polyester suits possible during the early years. Thanks for riding Marta, walking in the rain with a newspaper over your head. Thanks for pushing Rich's to buy more ad space. Thanks for the annual employee days at Six Flags. Thanks for enduring the long commute. Thanks for pushing people to work better, to do better, to be better. Thanks for the lessons on work and work ethics, the long email answers to what I thought was an easy question, and the invaluable way you've shown me that individual happiness is intrinsically linked to personal productivity.

Work Dad and Dad Dad are the same man, but today his environment changes. Today Dad retires. Today I'll put on my nice clothes and go meet him at his office, along with the rest of my family, where I'll stand slightly behind him and be introduced to the colleagues. This is my daughter, he'll say. Hello, Jessica, they'll say. But if they ask me if I'm keeping up, I can only answer, I'm still trying.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful tribute to your father. It reminds me of my Uncle Guice who was the principle at my elementary school. Since I was "his" I got to go inside with him everyday. I was special, and I knew it. Uncle Barnard is 88 and still works 4 days a week. I don't know when I will ever get to write a retirement story for him!

    The thing about parents or those who are our pseudo-parents that chose to take care of us is that they love us and make us feel special. You are one lucky, lucky girl.