I have always been a hard worker. Ever since I was a kid, it was the only script I had in my head. You work hard, you live well, you go to sleep. A lot of German American families are like this apparently. Irish Americans as well. You see, in America, there is this thing called the Protestant Work Ethic. However, there is also The Catholic Will To Succeed. I was raised a Catholic. I am shame and goal oriented to a fault.
Kicking the Catholic shame and goal orientation is like kicking a heroin habit. You make plans to stop but you just can’t. Even if you get out, the scars from the track marks you once had stay on your arms. Some consider it a brutal lot. Others claim it makes them who they are. I, however, feel a mixture of feelings from both camps. People say recovering drug addict and recovering Catholic, like you never quite escape. No, you don’t escape.
Growing up, to be called lazy in my home was a worse insult than stupid. Stupid people could not help themselves, but could serve as delightful cautionary tales. Yes, just like my cousin who had been struck by lightning three times and survived. He reminded us that once we heard thunder, it was time to go inside. No, we could not all be Benjamin Franklin. Ben Franklin was also bright and discovered electricity and was done running in the rain. My idiot cousin, he had to do it two more times. He even has fern marks on his arms. You should see it. No, this is not a bit I am trying out on my internet audience.
Lazy people on the other hand were the lowest of the low, worse than the Untouchables in the Indian caste system. Lazy people swam in shit, created messes, and expected other people to clean it up. They expected others to do the work for them. I remember once we met the significant other of a female relative of mine. Allergic to work, this man wore alligator skin shoes and expected women to bank roll him. Ne’er-do-well would have been a compliment to describe this leach who somehow obtained the ability to walk upright and speak. I still remember afterwards my disgusted mother said to my sister Skipper and I, “Never marry a man like that girls. See how tired she is.”
To which my dad piped in, “Never be like that either.”
Growing up in the ivy covered house on Foxtail Lane, you studied. That way, you could get into a an Ivy League, or a college with ivy on the front which meant it had roots that went way back. To us, hard work was everything. My parents were in the older half of a litter of a bunch of kids. To them, college was not an assumed right. Rather, it was something one had to earn with blood, sweat, and tears. There were no college funds for them.
My dad especially. You see, my grandfather, who I never met because he died before I was born, worked as a master machinist in the mills of Pittsburgh. While a skilled tradesman who was especially good with detail, he worked in an environment where many like him got cancer or other health issues of some sort. A Depression kid, he dropped out of high school so he could work to support his family. It’s just the way it was. When my dad was a kid, he worked night turn, sleeping during the day. Because he was a naturally brilliant tradesman, he was up for promotion at the mill. By this time he worked day turn, which was a coveted prize. At night he went to school, working to earn his diploma. He and my dad graduated from high school.
Jeff Foxworthy tells a joke, “You know you’re a redneck when you and your dad walk to school together because you are in the same grade.” For the record, it’s just a joke and my dad laughed when it heard it. Still, there is probably also a little bit of sting in those words for some blue collar families. Nonetheless, my dad went to college and worked his way through with little or no familial support. His old man died his sophomore year, and as an added bonus he became a father figure to his younger siblings. However, he earned his MBA and later went to law school. My father was the first in his family to go to college let alone obtain an advanced degree. His siblings would later follow suite.
So in my house you worked. You didn’t complain about it. You just did it. My brother Wendell labored at football practice. Caked and covered in mud, he would shove some high protein meal in his mouth and get cracking on the Honors/AP course load he took. Often, like one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, he worked into the night. Skipper excelled in soccer and track, but then had a gifted project she had to do. My father was usually never home, because he was working seven days a week himself. And then my mom was helping and assisting as a chauffeur to activities, and as a proofreader/study buddy.
I was no exception. During the week, I was an honors/AP student at my high school. Additionally, I filmed a TV show at the local access station once a month. When I wasn’t doing that, I was penning my monthly column for the local paper. And when that wasn’t happening, I was performing ventriloquism for small children and old people, or rehearsing for a local play. Hours not spent in action were spent in training, community classes in acting and dance at Point Park College on Saturdays and then voice with Jean Beiswenger. My schedule wasn’t free and clear just yet. Aside from having a lead in our spring musical at my school, I also was editor of the literary magazine. Oh, and I was active in National Honor Society. And then when I had free time I worked as a babysitter, bagger at the supermarket, and lifeguard. Rest was for the weary. Did I get tired studying late into the night? You bet. We all did. But we kept going. There was no other choice.
However, both my brother and sister ended up attending Brown, and I ended up at NYU. My book is currently in both of their collections.
I remember arriving in New York, and getting the guts to perform in the comedy clubs. It was scary, but I killed during the first set I ever did and was hooked. I was twenty years old and knew no one. There were nights that were so terrible because I bombed worse than any daily action in Baghdad. And then there were people who spoke down to me because they could. Add in the male headliners and bookers who would try to get me to perform sexual favors for stage time. I never did, but it made me ill that they were coercing me. Everything seemed like a dark maze. I didn’t look like a Playboy model. I wasn’t a man in a profession dominated by them. I wasn’t a whiny woman who constantly spoke about her period. And my family wasn’t in the industry. However, I was going to do what I had always done, and that was to do what was necessary.
I wrote jokes, and had notebooks full. During the day I went to school, and at night I performed. I didn’t complain even though sometimes I felt I was never going to get where I wanted to go. There were those who were kind to me and noticed how hard I was working. Some gave me cab money, and put me in a taxi so I could safely get home. Others bought me food. Then there were those who served as surrogate aunt and uncle figures, giving me moral support when I wanted to throw in the towel and quit.
I never gave much thought to this until I went on a site where they were saying terrible things about me. I still remember the sting, because I had viewed many of these dissenters as friends once upon a time. Then someone on the thread remarked that they had followed me, and they said they had never seen someone who worked harder. It was a surprise to me. Up to that point, I had given no thought to my work ethic whatsoever. It was amazing how no one on the page dissented that observation of me, and it almost shut them up.
It was also a lesson in why so many don’t get ahead in this world. It is a thing called entitlement. These people thought they were owed the things I was getting although they were doing nothing to get them. It was much easier for them to sit on their asses and call me names rather than focus on their own goals. It was much easier to accuse me of being “succeed at all costs” and being stealthy rather than chase their own dreams. It was a sad and jarring lesson about how entitlement warps people. And then they whine about how they don’t get what they want and it’s everyone else’s fault. And it was a relief to lose them as friends, entitled people are annoying.
I wanted to write a book, I got off my ass and I did it. I wanted to have a career as a ventriloquist, I got off my ass and I did it. I support myself in entertainment, I continue to get off my ass and make that happen. Someone recently told me my work ethic was “legendary.” While I appreciated the compliment, again, I never gave it much thought. If that was the case, both my great-grandfather and my grandfather who slaved in the mills of Pittsburgh had a legendary work ethic as well. As did my Pop Pop, who ran a life insurance business and coached each of his children in swimming. And let’s rank my father who still works seven days a week there too.
No, I just do what I have to do and don’t whine about it.
Last week, I made a highly trafficked ventriloquist site. Apparently I am a “Ventriloquist of Note.” I was featured next to a beauty queen and a young man lighting up Britain’s Got Talent. It was a pleasant surprise. And then my show got featured on a cabaret directory that is hard to get on to. Oh, then there are the folks who never gave me much thought before and now are knocking on my door. I told my mom this, because it was a surprise I considered lucky. To which my mom said, “Yes Sweetie, but you also worked very hard and earned these things.”
As I forge new frontier in my career, there are things I have to do. The tasks seem never ending, and the mountains seem like insurmountable foes. Additionally, the competition is intense in a way it never was before, and lots of people want to see me fail. I will do what I have always done. I will shut the fuck up and do the work. It’s the only answer I know, and it’s the only thing that is constant. No one, dissenter or decision maker, can deny that.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “It is no use to say we are doing our best. We must do what is necessary.”