My buddy Sharfman could run 20 miles the way most people open their refrigerators, effortlessly and without talking about it a whole bunch. Scharfman and I ran an ultra marathon together in Connecticut. Thirty miles in, he asked me how I was doing. "I could use a little lie down," I replied, "and a bottle of Advil, maybe two. How about you?" Dan replied sheepishly, "I could run another 19 miles."
Of course he could.
But as a child Scharfman was not an athlete. "I was picked on, picked last, and worse," he told me once at Mile 35. I had stopped to walk for a bit, so we were chatting.
"What could be worse?" I asked.
"By the standards of today, I was bullied," he went on. "There were three groups in physical education in the 60s. We were assigned gym shorts by color: gold, silver, and blue. In tenth grade, kids in gold gym shorts were driving, dating, and shaving. Kids in silver gym shorts were hitting the ball pretty good. Everybody knew that the kids in blue gym shorts could not do any pull ups, could not run 600 yards without stopping, could not hit a ball out of the infield. It was terrible. A good day in junior high was only having my lunch money stolen without also getting beaten up."
Four decades after being picked last, picked on, and beaten up, Sharfman was an accomplished distance athlete: he qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon; he finished a 50-mile ultra marathon effortlessly; he could do anything. His blue gym shorts days were behind him.
Revenge, it is said, is a dish that people of taste prefer to eat cold. That is to say Sharfman's exuberant pleasure in his extraordinary ultra-accomplishments may have had something to do with the misery associated with physical activity forty years earlier. I can't speak for every person who wore gold gym shorts, but I feel confident that Sharfman could beat them all. Any distance. Any day. Any time.
But my musing today is not about gloating--something Scharfman never did--but about waiting. Another one of my heroes--my dad--grew up poor. (How poor were they, Johnny? My grandmother was so poor she put a happy meal on layaway! My grandmother was so poor, she couldn't afford to pay attention! My grandmother was so poor, the ducks threw bread at her!) His father was murdered when my dad was not yet six. It wasn't until I was an adult that I put the two dates together in a historical context: "Dad," I said. "The stock market crashed in October, 1929 and your dad was killed in November. Your mom had little education and fewer skills. How did the family survive?"
"Yeah, we had a bad year," he explained.
And then the situation got worse. My dad worked full time at the post office. While going to school full time. While supporting his family, full time. He could "see" Scharfman's bullying of the previous generation and "raise" getting physically threatened and maltreated. Today there are counselors in some schools who run groups in which kids talk about their feelings. Not so in depression-era Philadelphia. The best my dad could hope for was that the violent kids would get arrested.
One of the worse offenders was an enormous kid whom my dad described as "dumb as a box of hammers. And equally empathetic." This kid used to beat up my dad on a regular basis. Some years after high school, my dad was walking home from the graveyard shift at the post office. Having worked from 11:00 pm until 7:00 a.m., getting ready to sleep for a few hours before attending college classes then going back to work, he was beyond tired as he plodded through the snow. There, across a railway yard was the kid who had terrorized him. The kid was working outdoors in the blizzard, shoveling coal. My dad and the bully exchanged a nod. They hadn't seen or spoken to one another for some time, but the relative positions of their lives was clear: my dad might be exhausted but there was every likelihood that he wouldn't have to work so hard forever. If he could finish law school, no matter how tired he was, he'd be okay. Whereas the bully was going to be holding a shovel in that miserable weather probably forever.
I'm not saying that my dad is a happy man today because the kid who used to terrorize him turned out miserable. I'm suggesting that my dad is happy now because as an adult, he is doing better than he was as a child. My dad no longer lives in a three-room apartment with eight relatives; he owns a home. With indoor plumbing! As an adult, he no longer had to work every minute of every day; he had some choices. Rather than living in a home without a father, he was able to have a stable marriage-62 years and counting!-and children of his own.
To suggest the essay this week is recommending that you allow your child to be bullied, orphaned, or abused is to brutally miss the point. I'm only suggesting that giving your children everything from an early age can backfire. "Waiting is" suggested Robert Heinlein. But consenting for your second-grade child to attend a birthday party in a limousine is invariably a bad plan. What will your kid have to look forward to? And don't get me started about parents who buy an expensive late-model car for a 16-year-old. Kids have to have buy-in, skin in the game. They have to contribute to the purchase from monies they earned from working. The percentages contributed are immaterial. Fifty percent is the number that works in my family, but 90% or 20% will work fine as well. Only zero makes no sense.
Hiking to the top of the mountain is a completely different experience than driving to the same spot. Allowing our children to learn how to wait is a powerful gift.