Day in the life

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Two days ago, I hitched a ride south to Bristol to help my friend, Ed, buy some lumber for a pencil post bed he’s making. He bought more than $500 worth of wood simply to finish the frame for the bed—he’s already made the faceted posts. While he was selecting his long boards, I picked up about $25 worth of scraps, little flat blocks of ash and oak left over from the longer planks someone else had bought. (I’ll use them in small informal still lifes, with a couple objects resting on them, because I want to see what I can make of the raw wood’s texture and grain.) Ed needed a hand because he has a ruptured disk. Surgeons will fuse two of his vertebrae in October and, until then, he has to watch how much he lifts. We talked most of the way down to the little lumber place—it’s a specialty shop located in the Finger Lakes near the Bristol Mountain ski resort. I brought him up to date on the book I’m helping Peter Georgescu put together on income inequality and the need for the private sector to stimulate the economy by raising wages. Peter is a former CEO himself, not an academic. So far, it seems publishers feel more secure if an academic is solving economic issues, rather than someone who actually knew how to make a payroll once upon a time. So we’re involved in—how shall I put it—a gradual process of finding a home for his book.

“That’s what’s wrong with academics,” Ed said, though I hadn’t really offered any criticism of them, per se. I was intrigued by this logical leap, though. He brought it into focus as he talked: when it comes to actual market dynamics, how things get made and bought and sold, in his last job before retirement Ed watched an academic come in and mess with his company, a distributor of electronic components. “Before I retired, a guy took over the company who had never run anything, but he’d been a professor. I had a fantastic group of sales people. They started without much experience but were super smart and full of energy and ideas. This new guy decided that we should get rid of any client who was doing less than a certain level of sales with us. We had hundreds of clients. According to this new rule, we were to say goodbye to all of them but seven. I ended up having more sales people than we had customers. I had to let go of everybody. They were exceptional people. It was unbelievable. I became the only guy on the team because they didn’t need anyone else to handle the customers we had left. You couldn’t tell this CEO anything. He’d made the decision, and that was that. We lost hundreds of customers.”

“Organizational life is always a mess, but that sounds like a sure way to ruin a company,” I said, and then, thinking I was changing the subject, asked, “Why are we going such a long way to get this wood?”

I knew a master carpenter like Ed would be looking for a high-quality and/or rare kind of lumber. Homebuilders might find what they need at Home Depot, but Ed wanted something better, stronger, and more beautiful than the bones inside your walls and mine. There was a place closer to home where he’d taken me for high-quality strips of maple when I made frames for my paintings once, and this Bristol place was in the same league.

“I quit buying from that other place,” he said. “The owner was an asshole. Last time I was there I asked him for help several times, and he blew me off. When I was loading the wood he finally said he’d help and then walked away and never came back. Never going back there again. I bought $600 worth of wood that time, and I asked him if he would cut it, and he said he’d have to charge me $2 per cut.”

It reminded me of Peter’s view: the customer is all that matters now. Lose a customer, and you’re on the way to losing your business. Pay your employees more, you’ll be more likely to keep the customers you have, with more down the road. Plus, you’ll be resuscitating the economy. So, after all this grousing about how not to run a business, I was happy when we arrived at the lumber place, with its Adirondack chairs for sale out front, and inside the scent of singed wood, fresh from a smoking saw blade. (Almost as good as the aroma of baking bread.) The first fellow who helped us was taciturn but obliging, quietly helpful even if he was a little short on warmth. Then the fellow Ed knew arrived and the conversation picked up. The shop manager had lost a couple fingertips to a saw not too long ago and Ed asked how his hand was doing.

“Got any feeling in those fingertips yet?”

“Not yet.”

“That’s the way it was with my knee. Took forever.”

“I’m not complaining. Won’t do any good. Nobody cares,” he said, but he pronounced it with finality, cheerfully, as if he were reminding us of a cardinal rule for peace of mind and happiness from, say, Epictetus. As the Stoic philosopher might have put it: “Whatever it is, bitching about it won’t make you any happier.”

It put into perspective, just a bit, all of our grumbling about the business world on the way down to Bristol. On the way home, Ed took me to the house in Fairport where his son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Christina, live, with their two kids, Jack and Julia. It’s a modest house on a street that curves past plenty of larger ones, but it has a huge back yard. That was the selling point. Essentially, they bought their kids a big back yard with an attached house. Every winter now, Chris builds an ice rink for little Jack to skate on with his puck and hockey stick. The rink fills their entire back lot with about five feet to spare around the edge. In our Rochester climate that’s enough time to get some skills with a hockey stick even before you’re in grade school. Ed’s wife, Nancy, showed up—they’re both retired now, and she works almost every day helping her kids improve the house or the yard—and they showed me how Chris and Christina want to expand the kitchen and replace a porch with an office. As I walked into the little family room, I was startled to see two drawings I did, portraits of the kids. I’d completely forgotten those portraits, and it was gratifying to see that they still had them up.

As we got back into Ed’s truck and headed to his place to unload, looking around that neighborhood, I felt autumn coming on. For the first time, I wondered how many more years my wife and I will continue to be suburbanites, at least in this kind of neighborhood. Their street was very much like Split Rock Road, where we live in Pittsford. Here, the children are either grown or a bit older than in the Fairport tract, and we’re one of the older couples on Split Rock Road. It struck me that Chris and Christina are probably in the demographic sweet spot for their street, a place for raising kids from grade school through high school, homes for families with parents in their thirties and forties. As we passed the other houses, each with its own complex mix of grown-ups and kids, happiness and troubles, invisible family dramas all in media res, I thought, “Do any of them know that these years, right now, good or bad, when your kids are growing up, when you’re in your thirties and forties, are when you’re really most alive?” You aren’t just you at that age, but you’re three or four or five people all at once, if you’re the sort of parents we’ve been, the sort of parents Ed and Nancy and Chris and Christina are, so devoted to your children that they’re more of an energy source than a responsibility. I have more time now to devote to my deepest personal hopes, the things that mean most to me, like painting, but nothing is more meaningful than raising kids you love. Come to think of it, our own children are entering those years right now, out in Los Angeles. If only they could afford a house like the ones younger couples can afford to buy here . . . and now, alas, we’re back to the economy. But I’m not bitching. Because, you know, it wouldn’t do any good.

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