In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Popularity is poisonous, Dad says, encouraging his son not to place too much worth in the admiration of people his own age. Instead, focus on earning the attention and approval of older men and women — especially older women.
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on October 30, 1937
Dear Son: Of course I am pleased that you have become so popular, but I don’t know whether I am more pleased than worried. Popularity can be a subtle poison, especially the kind you are getting your first taste of now. It is so easy for a young fellow with personality to gather admirers. From that to the establishment of a little private court which he can lord over is the next step — and that step is down, not up.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I want you to be popular with your fellow workers. I want you to share their interests and take pleasure in their divertissements. But that is only a small part of your curriculum. You have more serious work ahead. This may run counter to the popular notion of how to achieve success, but popular notions on most subjects are wrong. Savages are not the only ones who are surrounded and submerged by superstitions. For every superstition you can show me in a savage village I can show you 10 in a so-called civilized suburb. And probably no superstition is more popular than the one which says, in effect, that one must conform in order to succeed — that to dare to be different is to court disaster.
Now take your present situation. You are a salesman. You are told on every hand you must be a good fellow; that you must pal around with your contemporaries, make their pleasures your pleasures, their interests your interests, and that to indicate in the slightest way you have ambitions for other things is to be a stuffed shirt and a snob. My boy, that is just a popular song which might be called The Ballad of the Easy Way. Don’t fall for it. The Hard Way is better. Not easier, but better. It is too easy to cultivate your contemporaries, to bask in their smiles, to warm yourself in their approval, to butter yourself with their flattery. They know little if anything more than you do, usually not as much. They can teach you nothing. But they can waste your time. Don’t let them do it.
Don’t waste your time with people who have nothing to contribute to your growth, when you can have just as much pleasure and infinitely more profit out of associating with people who can teach you something. Seek out older men for friends and preferably men who are not in the same line of business you are pursuing. Collect grizzled old doctors, hard-bitten lawyers, skeptical scientists. Enlarge your circle to include artists and musicians and writers. You will learn to be a better salesman by observing how a veteran trial lawyer handles a jury; an old family doctor has forgotten more about the psychology of the human critter than most sales managers will ever know. From artists you will learn how to observe, from scientists you will learn how to question, from writers you will learn how to listen, and from everybody you will learn how to enrich your own life with new and varied interests.
Older men. Wiser men. Let the young fellows you know play around like puppies on a rug if they want to. You trail along with the wise old hunting dogs. “There’s tricks to all trades but mine.” Learn them.
If you wanted to fight you would ask a Dempsey how. If you wanted to dance you would look for an Astaire to coach you. There are masters all around you. You have only to seek them out and tap their resources. Do it and you will have no time to waste holding petty court and impressing shallow admirers with your equally shallow attainments. Cultivate friends who can and will criticize you, shrewdly, mercilessly, and constructively. Young admirers who think you are a devil of a fellow can do you a lot of harm — old critics who know you are a hell of a mess will do you a world of good.
When you are impressionable you are eager to impress. More often than not this eagerness will defeat you. When you meet new people, relax. Be at ease. Make yourself a center of calm, a little pool of reserve. Let them be mirrored in it. Observe quietly, listen attentively. Study the game that’s going on and find out if you know anything about it before you decide to rush in and take part. Scouting the other team is sound practice and good sense. It’s done best from the sidelines, and quietly. If you don’t understand the game, try to learn about it. If you know the game and you want to play, choose your own position before you run out on the field. I am quite sure no one ever told you this in school, and I am equally sure it will save you a lot of grief if you learn it now. Otherwise you may blunder along for years under the delusion that in order to dominate a discussion you must lead it, and to impress a gathering you must impose your opinions on it.
One more small paragraph on this subject before I leave it. The most interesting, the most valuable people in a gathering are not always the most vivid. Learn to seek out the quiet ones, force yourself to cultivate those who seem, at first blush, to be the least interesting. More often than not, as they unfold their personalities, they prove to be deeper and richer than you could have ever suspected, and to the gratifying joy of friendship you will add the satisfying thrill of discovery.
Older men. And older women. When you go to a party don’t make the mistake that most callow youths make — don’t make a beeline for the prettiest girl in the room. She is used to it. She expects it. She won’t be grateful. Bow, and pass on — to an older woman. The older woman won’t expect it — she will be intrigued by your good taste, charmed by your good manners and, likely as not, she will turn out to be the pretty girl’s mother, or her rich aunt from Australia. Now you have a friend at court and the pretty girl’s interest in you as well, for behold, you, a handsome young man, have shown no interest in her!
Or better yet, the elderly lady to whom you have been so polite, so attentive, probably will be the wife of the most influential citizen in the community. Her husband has long depended on her instinct for sizing up people. Someday he may look you over, and her good opinion may be the difference between success and failure for you. It’s a man’s world, to be sure, but behind every important man there usually stands a woman who influences his judgment and helps him to make decisions. The man may not remember your achievements, but the woman will not forget your good manners.
In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
Dad’s “far-flung network of inscrutable spies” has reported that his son is, in short, a lazy slob, so Dad feels obligated to explain how to be a civilized adult.
Professionalism and Appearances
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on July 17, 1937
Dear son: My far-flung network of inscrutable spies has been reporting on you. They tell me that the boss likes you, that you get along fine with your fellow salesmen, and your selling record is improving all the time. And I hear, too, that you are a hard worker, but the minority report says you work hard only in fits and starts, and that you are inclined to be sloppy about your appearance and slovenly about your speech.
I can hear you say, “So what? Does the firm want a salesman or a movie hero? Am I supposed to deliver sales or speeches? And how can a fellow be expected to work at top speed all the time?”
Let’s take the last thing first. No one is going to expect you to work at top speed all the time. No one does it, no one can, no one should try. A career is a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash, and the technique for getting there is pretty much the same. A man who tried to win a marathon in successive 100-yard dashes would never even finish the distance, much less place. A steady, relentless dogtrot does the trick. A race horse can beat a man around a one-mile track, but a man can run a race horse to death by just keeping after him and never letting up.
And now about your appearance. I know you have never given it much thought, so you probably feel that because you don’t think of it, no one else does. When you were a small cub, no one cared very much whether your ears were polished or your pants were pressed. In college, you considered a sweater the height of elegance, and you went around in a raccoon coat that a raccoon wouldn’t have dared come down to dinner in. Occasionally you gave a pretty fair imitation of how a civilized man should look and act, but these inspirations usually faded out as soon as the young lady transferred her attentions elsewhere. Now you complain that your fiancée is always after you to buy some new clothes. She thinks your ties are fierce and your shirts are a horror. I suspect she is right. I am not touched by your complaint that if you listen to her, she will have you all powdered and perfumed like a Persian kitty.
Probably the worst that will happen to you is that your suits will be pressed, your shoes will be shined, your hair will be cut, your fingernails manicured, and your haberdashery will not be fighting a continuous guerrilla warfare with the rest of your attire.
Almost 200 years ago, Lord Chesterfield, writing to his son, said, “Dress well, but not too well. Be neither negligent nor stiff. As you must attend to your manners, so you must not neglect your person.” And then he added, “My Lord Bacon says that a pleasing figure is a perpetual letter of recommendation. It is certainly an agreeable forerunner of merit and smooths the way for you.” You may recall, I gave you a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters a few years ago, hoping you would read them all and profit by most of them. I marked a number of passages for your special attention, but the following rated three stars, or maybe it was four. “Dress is one of the various ingredients that contribute to the art of pleasing; it pleases the eyes at least, and more especially of women. Address yourself to the senses if you would please; dazzle the eyes, soothe and flatter the ears of mankind; engage their hearts and let their reason do its worst against you. … Whenever you find yourself engaged insensibly in favor of anybody of no superior merit or distinguished talent, examine and see what it is that has made those impressions upon you; you will find it to be that douceur, that gentleness of manners, that air and address which I have so often recommended to you; and from thence draw this obvious conclusion, that what pleases you in them, will please others in you; for we are all made of the same clay, though some of the lumps are a little finer, and some a little coarser; but in general the surest way to judge of others is to examine and analyze oneself thoroughly.”
Incidentally, I note in one of your recent letters that you have started to make friends with the dealers in your territory by doing little favors for them whenever possible. This is a good plan, but not the best. One thing wrong with it is that it is too obvious. Another, that it is not nearly so effective as the reverse method. If you really want to make an impression on people, if you want to make them feel friendly toward you, if you want them to remember you gratefully, let them do something for you. When you do something for someone, whether it’s to lend him money or tell him about a good place to eat, you have done him a favor, to be sure, but you have also put him under obligations to you, and he is bound to resent it just a little, even if he isn’t conscious of this resentment. Let him tell you about a good place to eat. It will make him feel superior. It will give him a glow. It will give you an opportunity, the next time you see him, to tell him how smart he was. That will build him up. He will always remember that he recommended a restaurant to you. He will soon forget that you ever recommended one to him.
Did I say something about lending money? Let me add a word. Don’t! If a friend wants to borrow money from you, ask yourself if you can afford to lose it. If you can afford to lose it, give it to him, don’t lend it. Tell him to forget it. And see that you forget it too. If you can’t afford to lose it, hang on to it. Now that you have started out to make friends, remember there is nothing so painful as having a friend who owes you money and who can’t repay you. It hurts him worse than it hurts you, and it hurts you plenty. You don’t make friends or keep them by lending them money. Polonius was an old bore, but one of his nifties is worth pasting in your hat:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend.
Previous: Separated from Love
Coming soon: The Difficulty of Marriage
In 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
While his son suffers under the terrible taskmaster that is his new supervisor, Dad reveals the two words that can win almost any argument with one’s boss.
Father Meets Son: Separated from Love
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on June 26, 1937
Dear Son: Of course you are depressed that her father should separate you from your loved one by many miles of cruel distance and many weeks of cruel, cruel time. And why should it be necessary to start you at the bottom, with only a drawing account so small that it barely supplies you with the necessities of life? And why add insult to injury by putting you under a branch manager who is the legendary slave driver and man-killer of the entire sales force — an ogre who has never been known to say a kind word or do a good deed?
Well, I can’t do anything about your heartaches over your girl, but I can save you a lot of headaches over your boss — this one or any other one. For, rest assured, you will always have a boss over you, just as your boss will always have a boss over him, whether it is the president or the directors or the bankers. And that is the secret of getting along fine with him. Realizing that he has a boss who is probably riding him just as hard as he is riding you.
When your new hard-boiled bass is trying to get more sales out of you, just imagine you are sitting behind the desk and he is standing in front of it. The home office is hammering you for results and you can’t deliver them unless this fellow on the other side of the desk brings in his share. Get that picture in your mind and it will do you and the boss and the company a lot more good than grousing. There are at least two sides to every question. There are certainly two sides to every desk — your side and the boss.
When the boss jumps all over you with his boots on, you can be sure there is nothing personal in it. He isn’t doing it because he dislikes your taste in ties or because your hair is curly. And instead of thinking up snappy comebacks, say something to this effect: “You’re right. I haven’t come up to your expectations, but I have tried. I am going to keep on trying. I want to help you. You have a much harder job than I have. I appreciate the good advice you have given me, and I hope you will not become too discouraged to continue it.”
You can’t talk like that to your boss? Well, maybe you can’t at first, but think it, anyway. Let whatever you have to say come from that kind of thinking. It will govern what you say, it will mold it and give it the right tone. Later you will be able to say it simply, easily, naturally — and mean it. Note that the little speech started off with just two words: “You’re right.” Believe me, son, you can win more arguments with any kind of a boss by admitting, right off the bat that he’s right. Once you have taken the wind out of his sails, you can bring him about and steer him almost anywhere you like. Start right off and say, “You’re right.” Then you may go on and say, “But don’t you think that —” Not, “I think that —” Always “You.” Never “I.” All of us are egocentric, bosses nothing but. They think “ I, I, I.” They are not interested in you. But if you, too, think “I, I,” you’ll never get together.
Give your boss a lot of thought. Try to understand what makes him act that way. Is he grouchy? It may be a weak stomach or a strong wife. Does he fly off the handle and go into rages? His boss may be on his neck. Give your boss a break. He may not show his appreciation to you, but he can’t help but feel it. I have been on both sides of many desks and my experience has been that the boss is like the village maiden in the old song: “More to be pitied than censured, more to be helped than despised.”
Meanwhile, her father is giving you the chance to make good for him while you are making good for her. Learning to sell his customers will teach you to sell him. And you will discover no better way to learn what your fellow men are like than by trying to sell them something they don’t want. Which means trying to sell them almost anything, for people really don’t crave anything so much as to be let alone.
Fortunately, your father-in-law-elect is in a business that is rooted in a fundamental hunger. We are told that self-preservation and reproduction of our kind are the two basic instincts, but, surely, the deep desire for change is basic too. The peat migrations of history are too easily explained as quests for happier hunting grounds or greener pastures. It is just as likely the Huns were bored stiff with the same old scenery, and the Gauls were only trying to “get away from it all.” So your father-in-law-elect hitched a new wagon to an old star when he went into the business of building and selling trailers.
As a junior salesman in this field, you certainly have two strikes on most of the lads who roam the world trying to sell people ideas they heartily dislike. You’ll be paid to convince people that hills look green far away. They know it! That people who have to stay in one place are to be pitied, while people who are free to follow the sun are envied. They know that too. You have to bait them with the lure of the open road. They’ll take the bait, and the rod and the reel, too, if you don’t hang on.
Our country was settled by people who couldn’t stay at home. It was settled in the East by people who couldn’t stay put in Europe — and settled in the West by their children who couldn’t stay put in the East. It was no chore to sell covered wagons to our forefathers; it should be much simpler to sell trailers to their descendants.
Especially now that you will be making good not only for yourself but for her, I suspect it will put a new glint in your eye and new power in your elbow. Nothing like girlish cries of encouragement from the stands to rough up the game. History tells us the combats of the gladiators were mild affairs until the vestal virgins were the guests of honor. And we all know the stimulating effect of the dark-eyed senorita in the box on the dark-eyed matador in the bullring.
If men were left to themselves they would go right back to their caves and gnaw bones. It is the little woman who has prodded and goaded them to hunt trophies and gather booty, to fight for a place in the sun when they would rather sleep in the shade. Bringing home a new head from the neighboring tribe or a new icebox from the neighboring store, is equally arduous for the male, and, in his private opinion, equally uncalled for. But the little woman is more acquisitive, more ambitious, more concerned with keeping up with the Joneses in the next cave, or the next bungalow.
And a good thing too. Or is it?
Previous: Being in Love
Coming soon: Professionalism and Appearances
His son’s relationship with the boss’s daughter is getting serious! Dad encourages his son to talk to the boss about turning him into a father-in-law — but to find the emergency exit first.
Father Meets Son: Being in Love
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on June 5, 1937
Dear Son: So you love the boss’s daughter and the boss’s daughter loves you, and where do you go from there? She wants you to go right to the boss and tell him the good news. You are not so sure he will think it is so good. And a lot of other things are worrying you. You have no money, no prospects, and the only job you have is driving the family car — her family. What will the old man say when he learns the family chauffeur wants to marry his daughter? And if he says, “Okay!” won’t people say you married for money, or just to get ahead? Quite a situation, but hardly a novel one. The movies would go out of business without it.
Suppose we sit down together and go over the situation bit by bit, like a couple of inchworms. First, there is this marriage question in general. Boss’s daughter or no boss’s daughter, should you get married at your age and in your economic spot? You are 23, you have no money saved up, you have a college education and a liberal arts diploma, you have had a few months’ experience at making your own living, you are ambitious, healthy, moderately good-looking, and in love. Not an impressive capital with which to start a business as difficult as marriage, unless you plan to put “good will” in at a handsome figure. Which has been done, and many times with great success. The girl is young and beautiful and spoiled, and her father is rich, and she is in love with you. It would take a smarter man than I am to analyze that statement and give you a trustworthy picture of the assets and liabilities in it. As a business proposition, the partnership you propose is not necessarily doomed to succeed. Neither is it bound to fail. A number of factors that do not appear on the balance sheet will decide the issue. Let us take them up, not necessarily in the order of their importance, because we don’t know what that order is.
You. Are you too young? You will have to find that out for yourself. Some boys are men at 18; some men are boys at 80. Do you want to grow up? Do you want to mature? Then you certainly are not too young to start. Holding a job matured you a little, but holding a wife will mature you a lot. If for no other reason, I would be in favor of an early marriage because of that. It’s a hard school, but you can’t go through it without acquiring a lot of valuable knowledge you can never get from books. You will learn patience and tolerance, and patience and cooperation, and patience and more patience.
The girl. You started out thinking she was a spoiled brat. Now you know she is an angel. The chances are she is both. Being a spoiled brat doesn’t mean she hasn’t plenty of good qualities hidden away. Being an angel doesn’t mean she can’t be spoiled again. Her love for you apparently has brought all her best qualities to the surface, where they shine like beaten gold. You say her parents are genuinely surprised by the change that has come over her. She has become serious where before she was giddy; she has become thoughtful where before she was thoughtless. And love has wrought this wondrous miracle! Is it a real miracle or only the appearance of one? Is this new Gloria the substance, and the old Gloria the shadow? Or vice versa? Or are there two inextricably mixed Glorias awaiting your magic to bring out the better one and make it the dominant personality? You’ll never know until you have to work at it.
Her mother. From what you have told me about her, you need expect very little assistance from that quarter. She is and always will be Gloria’s natural ally. Proudly she carries a banner on which you may read this illuminating slogan: “My daughter! May she always be right, but right or wrong, my daughter!”
Her father. He seems to hold the key position just now. You are working for him — and what will he think when you tell him you have nominated him to be your father-in-law? From what I gather so far, he seems to be a pretty reasonable, sensible, practical fellow; so maybe he won’t be so surprised as you think. Whether you work for him or somebody else should make little difference, so long as you do your work well. Why should he care whether you are driving his car or somebody else’s car or your own car, if driving a car is the job? Being sensible, he probably doesn’t care a hoot. He will undoubtedly want to know if you are honest and ambitious and intelligent; if you have a good mind and a sound body; if you are willing to work, and work hard; if you have intestinal fortitude and the yeast of growth in you.
What more can a young man hope to bring to marriage these days? Money? He hasn’t had the time or the opportunity to make it himself, and any other kind comes too easy not to go the same way. Position? The only position that does you any good in the long run is what you make for yourself, and that again takes years of hard work. If a young man needs only capital or an opportunity and has all the other assets, I see no reason why he should not accept, or the prospective father-in-law should not extend, such assistance. There was sound economics in the dot, or dower, system in the older countries. And isn’t it just as sound today in your own land, if the dot takes the shape of opportunity for the young man to marry and get started rather than force him and the girl to wait for years, until the bloom has been taken off their romance?
If I were your prospective father-in-law instead of your father, I would look at it something like this: I have a daughter who is young and attractive and full of beans. She is better off married to someone she loves than batting around hunting for thrills and winding up a few years from now jaded and too hard to please. I have no son, and this young man, if he has the right stuff in him, could be a son to me. Why, then, shouldn’t I give him the chance to work his way up in my business and learn how to handle it, so that eventually I can turn the reins over to a young man who belongs in the family, instead of to some stranger? Why should I expect him to wait until he can support my daughter in the manner to which she is accustomed? That is much too rich for her blood, as it is, and she would be better off starting all over again at the modest scale on which her mother and I started.
At the same time, this may be one of those puppy-love infatuations. How do I know? How will I find out? Time is a subtle ally. Time will tell if they really love each other; time will tell if the young man has the makings in him. I will ask them both to wait one year. In that year I will give the young man every opportunity in my business to show what he can do. If he makes good and proves to me that he has the potential capacity for business and social success, I will give them my blessing and help them on their way. If he doesn’t make good for me or the girl in that time, nobody has lost anything, nobody has been hurt, and we can all sit down together then, discuss the new situation, and come to a reasonable decision based on experience instead of guesswork.
That’s what I would say if I were the girl’s father. I find it even easier to say since I am not her father, but yours. What will he say? Go and ask him. But first look around for the nearest exit, and, in case of emergency, be prepared to run, not walk.
Previous: The Boss’s Daughter
Coming soon: Separated from Love
When his son is in the romantic deep end after becoming the focus of the boss’ daughter, Dad offers little help on how to hold off the girl and hold on to the job.
Father Meets Son: The Boss’s Daughter
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on May 1, 1937
Dear Son: Your letter received yesterday charmed me and flattered me, disturbed me a little and amused me a lot. It would seem the boss’s daughter is pursuing you and you are giving out delicate cries for help — or are they bids for applause? If you encourage her, her father probably will fire you. If you don’t, the daughter will have you fired anyway. Meanwhile she worries you, you worry her mother, and I am supposed to worry about all of you. Fine chance!
I seem to recall that Gloria has been a problem to you ever since you started driving her father, her mother, and herself. At first she was a spoiled brat — your words — she kept you on the jump, made you fetch and carry, and gave you the business when her friends were around. It was good discipline for you and I am glad you survived it. Now she insists you join up on her parties, even when you know her father would disapprove of your stepping out of character as the family chauffeur; more and more, she monopolizes your time and the family car, putting you in a spot where you have to conspire with her against the wishes of her parents; she expects you to be a good pal with her, but a perfect servant when her mother is around. And the strain is getting you down. Says you.
I suspect you.
I suspect you have forgiven her for the rough handling she gave you at the start. I suspect you rather enjoy your new power over her. I suspect that the spice of adventure and the dash of intrigue she is adding to your job more than compensate for the qualms you profess to have. In short, I suspect you are thinking of yourself as a devil of a fellow in your own way, and you would like for me to know about it.
If this is true, there is little for me to say and less to do. If it isn’t true, it is still your baby. I could point out that your first loyalty is to your employer, but you know that already. I could say, now is the time to be discreet and tactful, and a diplomat with the lady. The last above all, since it amounts to fighting fire with fire, if the classic story is to be believed. You may recall it — the difference between a diplomat and a lady? If a diplomat says “yes,” he means “perhaps”; if he says “perhaps,” he means “no”; if he says “no,” he is no diplomat. While if a lady says “no,” she means “perhaps”; if she says “perhaps,” she means, “yes”; if she says “yes,” she is no lady!
In any case, you are in an adult spot. Your troubles, until now, were mere whooping cough and measles. Come on in, the water’s fine, but it’s way up to here. No use trying to keep your feet on the ground if you are going to swim. And swim you must, because you’ll be out of your depth most of the time. So, learn first to take care of yourself, and second not to fancy yourself a super lifeguard chosen by Providence to rescue all the pretty girls who holler “Help” for, sad but true, they swim better than you.
As a matter of fact, the situation is not nearly so painful as you seem to think. And even if it were, it’s a valuable experience — especially valuable right now when you are starting out. You have stubbed your toe on an old nugget of wisdom. You have learned at a tender age that man is not always the pursuer. That the romantic lead is more likely to be Herbert Marshall than Harpo Marx.
The realization of this profound truth so early in the game will save you a lot of time, money, mental discomfort and spiritual bruises. Men who spend most of their energy on the prowl, trying to impress women, are usually men who are not privately impressed with themselves. They feel unsure about most things that really count, and of women more than anything else. And women are the first to sense this. The aggressive male is always leading with his chin, his guard is down, and he’s as wide open as an oyster on the half shell. Easily lured into a clinch, a quick jolt to the heart does the trick.
But always the champion, in love or war, is quiet because he is sure, and mild in repose because he is deadly in action. He doesn’t need to brag to impress nor bluster to impose, and, above all, he knows he is not compelled to accept every challenge and meet every corner in order to prove how good he is. The prelim’ palooka, on the contrary, meets them all. And because he is always on his toes, he usually winds up on his heels, punch-drunk and slap-happy.
Your problem, to be sure, is different, and more difficult: How to hold off the girl and hold on to the job. I am flattered that you should think I know the formula. Joseph in the house of Potiphar was wiser than all his brethren, and he couldn’t keep out of jail when confronted with a situation somewhat similar. The man who wrote “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” was waxing eloquent about the problem, but was silent about the solution.
But, even if I told you what to do, by the time this letter reaches you, you will have done 18, and the girl 23 new things that will have altered the situation entirely. If you don’t like the girl and show it, you will lose your job. If you don’t like the girl and you can hide it from her, you don’t need to take advice — you can give it. If you like the girl, let her handle the father — she’ll do it, anyway, and do it better. If the father likes you and the girl likes you, you’re tagged. If neither the father nor the mother likes you, but the girl does, remember that Roosevelt didn’t carry Maine and Vermont either, but he did all right for himself.
At this point I review what I have just written to you, and the realization that you won’t pay any attention to it comes to me like an old sweet refrain. In consequence, a great wave of apathy steals over me. You and your troubles with your girl friends recede into a misty distance. I hear your voice, like an echo far away, repeating, “Poor old fellow. What does he know about such things? I’ll handle my own affairs.”
Pardon me, while I totter off the field and climb up to my place in the stand with the old grads. It’s your play and you have the ball. And am I glad!
Previous: The Other Fellow
Coming soon: Being in Love
Now that his son has some money coming in, Dad offers his financial advice: Ignore the recommendations of bankers, the government, and businessmen to save your money. Spend it instead. Spending wisely is more difficult than saving wisely, but its rewards are much greater.
Father Meets Son: Invest in Yourself
Originally published on February 13, 1937
Dear Son: Now that you have started to earn a little money, you are going to be swamped with advice on how to spend it. I hope you won’t mind if I put in my two cents’ worth. I feel unusually qualified to discuss thrift, since I have seldom practiced it. Some people make money by saving it. Others make money by spending it. Fundamentally, this is a matter of temperament. Some people can give till it hurts. Others you have to hurt before they’ll give.
For good or bad, you have inherited or acquired some of my idiosyncrasies. Your complete lack of interest in saving money is one of them. In one way, this distresses me. In another way, it gives me great hopes for you. It distresses me because you are going to run into a lot of trouble that easily could be avoided. It pleases me because too often boys who start out loving money a little grow up to be men who love it too much.
You are going to hear a lot about saving money for a rainy day and investing it for your old age. It may sound like heresy to you, but I don’t believe very much in it. People who worry too much about rainy days can’t enjoy the sunny ones, and people who spend their youth worrying about their old age, wind up spending their old age regretting their youth.
But one should save, you say. Very true. You should save because it is good discipline. You should save in order to acquire a surplus. But what should you do with your surplus? Bankers will tell you to put it in a savings account, where you’ll get 2 percent for it. Businessmen will tell you to put it into a business, where you will get 5 percent with safety and 10 percent with luck. The government will tell you to put it in government bonds. Who am I, to go against all these people?
Not so long ago, I was talking to a friend who is an international authority on finance. I said to him: “Suppose I had $25,0000 to give you to invest for me, and all I wanted to be sure of was that I would get the principal back in 25 years — just my $25,0000, never mind the interest. What would you put it in?” He thought it over for a long time, and then said: “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know.”
I was in Berlin when I paid a million marks for an umbrella. A few months earlier, this would have been the equivalent of $250,000. A few days later, 5 million marks wouldn’t buy a newspaper. You have lived to see marks and rubles come and go, francs and liras shrink, pounds and dollars act as though they were made of rubber. You have seen stocks vanish, bonds disappear, farms go begging, banks go blooey. All the world over, those who put their faith in money, and money alone, took a terrible beating. Only those who invested their capital in the resources of their minds and the skill of their hands survived with their capital unimpaired.
You will live another 25 years and more, God willing, and you will see a lot of changes over which you will have no control. The only ones you can do anything about are those in yourself. You can control those. You can build up your own capital by investing wisely in your own resources. You can learn trades and skills and professions. You can equip yourself to be of service to your fellow men in a dozen different ways. When a social structure is wrecked, it’s those who have who suffer most, not those who can do. Should that day ever come to you, you will be better off if you have invested your $100 in learning how to lay bricks rather than in stock in a brickyard.
So I say buy stock in yourself. Invest your money in your education. Spend it for culture. Buy knowledge and hope for wisdom. Acquire books, subscribe for magazines. Go to concerts and exhibitions and learn how to hear music and see art. Travel and study the genus homo in all his habitats. One hundred dollars invested in a bond will bring you $3 a year, unless something happens to the bond. But $100 invested in acquiring knowledge or skill will bring you dividends of pleasure and profit as long as you live. Your principal will be invested in a business you control. It will be where you can watch it. Booms can’t inflate it and depressions can’t wipe it out. Thieves can’t steal it. Sharpers can’t snitch it. Relatives can’t borrow it.
What you don’t invest in yourself, invest in others. It sounds cold-blooded, but even from a practical viewpoint, this is the best investment of all. There is no better way to get than to give, especially if you always give with the idea of helping others to help themselves. Give opportunity rather than money. Give money rather than advice. And don’t give advice.
Of course, as far as you and I are concerned, I don’t feel that this is advice. I’m just sort of talking out loud to myself. As I told you before, some people make money by saving it, others by spending it. Learning how to save and learning how to spend are two sides of the same nickel. Learning how to save is again a matter of planning. We talked that over before. How much you should save, or how little, is not nearly so important as saving something — anything — regularly.
You can deliberately acquire the habit of saving, just as you casually acquire the habit of spending, and the one habit can and will displace the other. Learning how to spend is more difficult. There is very little technique involved in deciding whether you should save 10 percent of your salary or 25 percent. But the technique of spending wisely is a lifetime study. You must know standards and appreciate values. You must learn early the difference between spending to acquire and spending to impress. Don’t be like the social climber, who spends money he hasn’t got to buy things he doesn’t need to impress people he doesn’t like.
Previous: Second Job
Coming soon: The Other Fellow
Watching his son grow in his new job as a chauffeur, Dad gives his sage advice on how to study and deal with man’s most important problem: woman.
Father Meets Son: Second Job
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on January 30, 1937
Dear Son: First thing you know, I’m going to be mighty proud of you. Fired and hired again, all within a week. Remember how long it took you to get your first job? You were looking for a position then, remember? This time you started out looking for work, and you got it. Then you complained about being a filling-station attendant. Now you are quite matter-of-fact about being a chauffeur. You are growing up.
I gather the job is easy, but the people are difficult — especially the womenfolks. Well, you are going to hear a lot about how difficult it is to get along with women, and if you were a woman you would hear just as much about how difficult it is to get along with men. There must be something to it; it can’t be just a universal whim.
You don’t mind driving the boss, you tell me, but the boss’ wife is too bossy and the daughter is a spoiled brat. I can sympathize with your feelings about the daughter because I have often felt that way about you. Fortunately, a brat is not like an apple. You can’t do anything about a spoiled apple, but you can unspoil a spoiled brat. What you are learning about unspoiling yourself, you can try out on Gloria. There is no better way of learning something than teaching it. Schonberg’s masterly treatise on harmony opens with this simple statement of a profound truth: “Dieses buch habe ich von meinen schulern gelernt.” (This book I have learned from my pupils.)
I saw an interesting example of this process at work in a little mud village in China last summer. This was Ting Hsien, the center of Jimmy Yen’s famous mass-education movement. I visited one schoolroom full of children from 10 to 14 years of age. They were being taught to read and write Chinese characters. As you probably know, they have no alphabet in Chinese. Every one of these characters that look like firecrackers going off at both ends is really a word, and you have to know at least 5,000 of them before you can read a newspaper, and some 25 or 30 thousand before you can read the classics. When I visited the school, the teacher had six characters on the blackboard, in which she was drilling the children. They were all reciting out loud, the way we used to in the little red schoolhouses in our own country.
As soon as the children had learned the six characters, school was dismissed and each child scurried out and gathered a little class of eight or ten younger children, in an alley or under a mat shed, and proceeded to teach these same six characters to her own little class. Well, you never saw such authority and such dignity in your life as were shown by these little 10- and 12-year-old teachers who, only a few minutes earlier, were pupils. Once they were satisfied that their little classes had learned all they had to teach them, they scurried back to the schoolroom and learned six more characters. We like to think that the Chinese are inscrutable, but that is only because they have so many simple virtues. Patience is one, unfailing courtesy is another, and, best of all, they have what we in the West call the ability to take it and come up smiling.
When you were a filling-station attendant, you had to learn how to be patient with your customers, and courteous and pleasant. Now you can teach Gloria how to be patient with you, and courteous and pleasant. You will get a lot more fun out of changing her than you will out of going around muttering into your whiskers. Being young, she will be easier to change — much easier than her mother. I’m afraid there isn’t much to be done about her. If she is very bossy, just interest yourself in trying to find out why. The chances are that the opportunity to boss people came late in her life and she thinks she must be noisy to be effective. It’s the little boss with half a dozen employees who bustles around and makes all the racket. Henry Ford walks through his plant unseen and unheard. When I see a woman who, obviously, never had anything as a girl, and now has a big house and a few servants, and can’t forget it or let anyone else forget it, I think of a delightful old song my father used to sing about the woman in Ireland who had three cows — two cows more than her neighbors — which made her a tremendous figure, in her own opinion. When the boss’ wife gets on your nerves, just sing to yourself:
“Oh, woman of three cows agra,
Why let your tongue thus rattle?
And don’t be saucy, don’t be stiff,
Because you may have cattle.”
The hardest thing about your job, as I see it, is the fact that your boss is inclined to be easy. As you go along in life, you will learn that it is hard to work for an easy boss, because you have to supply all the initiative. That is why relatives and friends who get in on the ground floor usually wind up in the basement; pull can get jobs, but only push can hold them.
Your job is easy. You have a lot of time on your hands. While you are sitting in the car waiting for madame who is playing bridge, or Gloria who is sitting under a drier, you can either learn something about the boss’ business or any other business that interests you. One hour a day of intensive study for a year would teach you more bookkeeping than most bookkeepers know, more salesmanship than most salesmen know, more business law than most businessmen know. Three hundred and sixty-five hours of study is twice as much as any college student puts in on any subject, and most of them don’t want to learn it anyway. Only one hour a day sitting in your car and putting your mind to it, and at the end of a year you could juggle, play a saxophone, be the life of the party doing card tricks. Anything that you want to learn will be better than sitting around learning nothing, if only it teaches you the habit of learning.
Then when madame comes out and brusquely orders you to drive her home, or Gloria snippily sends you over to the country club for her racket, it will be easier for you to relax and study man’s most important problem — woman. You will learn that working for a woman doesn’t make it any easier for you to get along with her. It may even come to you as a bolt from the blue that you are going to be working for women all your life. And really it makes very little difference whether you are driving them around and getting a salary for it, or whether they are driving you around and you are getting nothing for it.
Previous: Being Fired
Next: Invest in Yourself
Dad actually agrees with his son for once: Society has changed. However, some things never vary, like how Dad is powerless against his wife and daughter.
Father Meets Son: Times Changing
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on November 14, 1936
Dear Son: Well, I am rather pleased with you this morning. Your letter came, and it fairly sizzled through the envelope. I am mighty glad that finally you got up enough nerve to answer me back. These loquacious fathers get to be something of a pest, and a little mauling from the cubs is good for them.
Allow me, then, to agree with practically everything you say. Things are different now than they were twenty years ago, when I was such a bear cat — to hear me tell it. They were also different twenty years before that — and another twenty, and so on. I vaguely recall that Benjamin Franklin once walked the streets of Philadelphia looking for a job, and there wasn’t a single opening for a crooner, an auto mechanic, a typist, a soda jerker, or even a mother’s helper. It seems that mothers helped themselves in those days or raised their own helpers. And yet there were many more opportunities in Philadelphia in Franklin’s day than there were in 1492, or 1206, or even 500 B.C.
Someday you may get a letter from a young man telling you what a cinch you had in your day and how tough it is for him. “Things were different back there in 1936, dad,” he will say, and you’ll be kind of floored, because you won’t be able to deny it, but you will probably lash out at him and tell him to get busy and go to work at anything he can find—that’s what you did — and keep on working at it — that’s what you’re doing — and stop squawking — which, come to think of it, is good advice.
I’ll grant you there are more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available, but has it ever occurred to you that new jobs are being invented all the time by bright young men and women who realize the hopelessness of looking for jobs, many of which have disappeared forever? The blacksmith’s son is an auto mechanic. If his son discovers there are too many auto mechanics, he should realize that television is around the corner and start doing something about it. If there is one thing that is typically American, it is the desire for change. The paint is hardly dry on a building before we tear it down and put up a bigger one. Most of the time we don’t even stop to raise the mortgage on the first one — we just slip the other one under it. While the workmen are finishing a two-lane road, another gang is at the other end, tearing it up to make a four-lane one. In your own short lifetime you have lived through a complete revolution in transportation, communication, industrial and rural development, city planning, public welfare, medical science, mass entertainment and politics. Perhaps the last two are interchangeable, but there are many others.
Your complaint that you are in a blind alley interests me. You tell me your friends say you are foolish to be working in a filling station, when you were trained to be a lawyer. Their conclusion being, I take it, that a job in oil can never lead to law. The fact is that any kind of job can lead you into a law office these days. Someday as a lawyer you may be glad you know something about oil. It would be the same if you went to work in a real-estate office. In a bank. In a sardine fishery. There is maritime law too. Life is not a collection of air-tight compartments. All the rooms lead into one another, from the attic to the basement. And the whole place is run on the American Plan, which means you have the run of the house.
Start at anything and, while you are learning all about that, be preparing for something else. If the old opportunities are scarce, discover new ones. If you can’t discover any, invent them. Don’t be satisfied to read about the old pioneers. Be a new one. They were hardy; so can you be. They were fearless. And the principal thing they were not afraid of was work, hard work. They could take it. They could give it. So they got it.
Your last sentence, however, was the one which I am sure you felt would finish the old man. “That was all very noble advice on how to handle women,” says you, “and I hope you will pardon me if I wonder why you don’t practice a little of it on our Dorothy. It seems I get all the lectures and she gets all the gravy. Yes, little sister does all right. Three manicures a week, and now she has a new car. It would be just like her to drive up one of these days and give me a lecture on industry while I wipe her windshield.”
Well, you got me there, pal. But you can’t say I haven’t tried to handle your sister. The spirit is willing, but weary. Like most American men, I am the victim of a cunning conspiracy. From babyhood I have been passed on from one feminine hand to the other — all gentle, to be sure, but each a hand of iron in a velvet glove. Mother passed me to teacher, who cowed me so that my first sweetheart had no trouble at all. From her I was batted like a volleyball from one little tyrant to another, until your mother stepped in and took all rights, titles and interests in and to what was left of me. Nominally, I was the party of the second part, but I lost even that favored position when your sister was born. I think she was about five when she took me over from her mother, and she has been taking me over ever since. I am now waiting with complete resignation for the day when what is left of me will be tossed into the nursery for my first granddaughter to play with.
Next: Being Fired
When his son raves about a girl, Dad attempts to explain true love to him, saying it’s like seeing 10-foot-tall daisies, or, even better, like stepping in front of a truck.
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on October 31, 1936
Dear Son: So her name is Betty, is it? And she’s the most wonderful girl in the world, is she? Sounds quite possible, judging by the meager specifications submitted. Her eyes, her hair, her teeth — it all checks up. When I was young and charming, I met Betty too. Same eyes, same hair, same teeth, but a different name. You say in your letter: “Dad, you don’t know what it is to fall in love.” That’s what you think. Only I never waited to fall — I used to jump right in.
However, I won’t try to rationalize the sensation. In a general way, you can get the same result by casually stepping off the curb any day and being hit by a five-ton truck. Three days or three weeks or three months later you wake up surrounded by flowers. An angel in white is holding your hand and you are asking in an eerie voice: “Where am I?” Dimly you piece together impossible experiences — part of a delicious delirium — but as the fog lifts, you realize that the angel in white is a real flesh-and-blood female and you are engaged to be married to her, or, even more astonishing, you are married to her.
I don’t know just where you and Betty are wandering now in this delirium. And if I did, I wouldn’t try to contact you, because long before Griffith discovered the fade-out and the dissolve in motion pictures, lovers were experts at it. However, if you can still hear my voice, I have a few words of wisdom for you, which needn’t disturb you, because you won’t pay any attention to them anyway. If each generation had cared to climb up on the shoulders of the preceding one, we would be up in the heavens now conversing with the angels instead of digging tunnels under each other’s frontiers.
One paragraph in your letter made me stop short and read it again. You tell me that Betty doesn’t approve of your admitting that you are only a filling station attendant. She is telling her friends that you are “connected with the sales organization,” leading them to believe, if they are saps enough, that you are at least first vice-president in charge of all the territory between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Well, that’s quite a bill of goods, and if you can sell that, you ought to be made head of the sales organization. But the fact is that you can’t sell it and make it stay sold. A lie has the habit of bouncing back and socking you right in the middle of your ecstasy.
You don’t need to tell a lie or try to live a lie just because Betty wants you to. It’s hard for you to say “no” to her now, but it won’t get any easier. You won’t lose her respect by showing character. If she has any to spare, she’ll lavish all the more on you. If she hasn’t any respect for you now, she won’t have any more for you later. A woman’s respect is not based on what you have, but on what you are. Someday you will have a wife, and if she doesn’t respect you in a cottage, she won’t respect you later in a mansion. And if she doesn’t respect you, your children won’t respect you. And when they go out into the world, they won’t respect anybody or anything, and the things that will happen to them will break your heart, if you have any left by that time.
Of course, you want Betty’s respect, don’t you? Then earn it. “None but the brave deserves the fair.” Like all old saws, this has teeth in it. Listen to what she has to say, weigh it carefully, then make up your own mind. Then stick to it. If she coaxes, be charmed but unyielding. If she pouts, be amused but firm. If she cries, don’t get frightened. This, too, will pass. Console her — but stick! If she gets angry, admire her spirit. Tell her she was never so attractive. She’ll hate you, but not for long. The compliment will remain in her mind long after the reason for it is forgotten. But if she dissolves and yields, then you are really in danger. Be alert. Stick. She will come back to the attack again as soon as your guard is down. If you are still at your guns, she will realize you are no ordinary adversary. Now she will turn on everything. She will smother you with charm. She will dazzle you with smiles. She will drown you with tears. Where are you, son? Courage! Stick! Hang on! Ah-h-h, the sun is breaking through. Look! A rainbow. Hark, the lark! The battle is over. You have fought the good fight and victory is yours. And what is the reward? Respect. The girl realizes for the first time that you mean what you say and stick to it.
Of course, in your present condition such fortitude would be nothing short of heroic. But punch-drunk as you are, you might just as well try to clear a little of this rose-colored fog out of your head and stop leading with your chin. Get your guard up or you won’t last out the first round. You’re seeing a lot of pretty stars now and hearing a lot of birds that never sang on land or sea. I close my eyes and recall it all. Butterflies as big as eagles. Daisies ten feet tall. And floating through this supernatural landscape like a cloud shadow on a summer day, a heavenly creature made of swan’s-down and peach fuzz. What a girl!
“Betty,” I hear you murmur. Perhaps! The most wonderful girl in the world is immortal. She comes back in every generation. But even if your Betty is not the most wonderful girl in the world, you can make her so if you wish. Girls are what men make them. Silly with stupid men, frivolous with playboys, extravagant with spendthrifts, frugal with the thrifty, lazy with the loafer, industrious with the worker. If — and that’s the point of this letter — if she loves the man, believes in him, trusts him, and respects him.
In this world of uncertainties there are two things you can bet on: A woman will fly to a man, and flee from a mouse.
Previous: A Disappointing Job, Part Two
Coming soon: Times Changing
Dad hopes to inspire his son to view his lowly new job as a life lesson in human nature that will teach him the most effective ways to undermine his superiors.
Father Meets Son: A Disappointing Job, Part One
By J.P. McEvoy
Originally published on September 5, 1936
Dear Son: So you were afraid that I would be mortified because you had to take such a lowly job. On the contrary, let me be the first to congratulate you. There are no lowly jobs. There are only lowly jobholders. The lower down you start the better chance you have to undermine the job above. You are a filling-station attendant. That means you are practically a termite in the great oil industry. You are invisible, and, if you are smart, you can work silently and bore your way right to the top.
There is no better place than a filling station to learn about oil. Or human nature. And though your next job may have nothing to do with oil you are going to be dealing with human nature all your life. You might just as well start now taking it seriously. You can’t laugh it off. You can’t growl it away. All your life you are going to have to live with people, work with them, sell them your ideas, convince them if possible, relax pleasantly if you can’t, plan what to do about them, persist with your own plan, and finally — the neatest trick of all — don’t push.
People don’t like to be pushed. You can always start a fight with a perfect stranger who has nothing against you just by walking up and pushing him. He’ll push you right back. You can always get the same place either by walking around him or waiting until he moves away. If he doesn’t move fast enough, lure him, coax him, convince him he’d be better off somewhere else — anything but shove him.
Don’t push into the job above you. Study it. Learn all about it. Plan how you would do it better and, incidentally, the job above that one too. Don’t just wish for it — want it. Persist in wanting it. Want it more than going to the movies, more than sleeping late, more than taking your girl out dancing. If she’s the right kind she’ll encourage you to spend more time on your future and less on her. Any job you want as bad as that you’ll get — there’ll be nobody in your way, at least until you get away up there in the peaks where the eagles nest. Then you’ll need a different technique. Let me illustrate:
Once at an Olympic meet I saw a champion win the two-hundred-and-twenty-yard dash against the world. “How do you go about winning two-hundred-and-twenty-yard dashes?” I asked him, because if you want to know how things are done, always ask the champion, whether it’s running a race or a filling station.
“It’s very simple,” replied the young man. “I run as fast as I can for two hundred yards, and then I sprint.”
Learn to plan. You have just spent four years in college where everything was planned for you. When you got up, when you ate, when you studied, what you studied. Then you graduated and hollered: “Yippee, I’m free.” Well, you’re free all right, and you have the very best kind of freedom. The freedom to do your own planning. If you wanted to build a house you would first draw a plan. If you wanted to drive from New York to Los Angeles, you would get a map. If you started for China, you would expect the captain to have a chart and know how to follow it. It happens now that you’re paddling your own canoe, and you are your own captain and your own crew, and, if you want to get some place, you must first decide where you want to go, second, that you really want to get there, third, that you’re going to lay out a course, fourth, that you’re going to follow it and fifth, that you’re going to determine your position every once in a while and find out whether you’re on the course or headed somewhere else. Every day at noon a captain takes his position, or tries to. He may have been blown off his course, he may have been lost in a fog, but he doesn’t sit down and weep into his whiskers about his bad luck. He gets busy about getting back on the course. Nobody is going to hold him responsible for being blown out of his way by a typhoon or being held up by a fog, but everybody would be pretty sore if they bought a ticket to Shanghai and wound up in Alaska, and the only satisfaction they could get out of him was that the breaks were against him.
You’ll hear a lot about getting the breaks, and the element that luck plays in success or failure. You have seen football games won by what was called a lucky break. A long pass down the field intercepted by the other fullback, caught and returned for a touchdown.
Well, maybe it was luck that the fullback was on the right spot to intercept the pass, but it wasn’t luck that he caught it. He had practiced a lot of hours catching forward passes. And it wasn’t luck that he ran it back successfully. He had spent many more hours learning how to run with a ball without getting thrown on his face. You will live a long time, God willing, and a lot of passes meant for the other fellow will come your way. If you’ve learned how to catch them and hold on to them you’re bound to make a touchdown. The law of averages will take care of that.
Does planning your whole life frighten you? Then plan a year. If you can’t plan a year, plan a month, or a week, or a day. Plan one day and carry it through. Take the next one and do the same. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
“All very noble,” says you, “but what has that got to do with me? Here I am a college graduate, filling gas tanks and cleaning windshields for sixteen dollars a week.”
Not a bad salary, my son, for learning how to clean windshields and how to please customers. Not a bad salary for the opportunity to learn about oil and gasoline and motors and maps and roads. And even from a dollars-and-cents point of view I am not complaining. Although I never kept books on it, I surmise your education cost me around two thousand a year for the four years you were in college, and maybe as much more before that. Call it sixteen thousand dollars. Well, sixteen dollars a week is 5 percent return on sixteen thousand dollars. Anything more you get will be that much velvet.
Glancing over this letter, I find too much emphasis perhaps on getting along. Perhaps I am over-anxious. Perhaps I underestimate your latent ability. Oldsters are always saying: “ Don’t do as I do. Do as I tell you.” It is only because I am fond of you that I pester you. Youth is forever blowing bubbles. Also nursing bruises. I’d like to save you from a few wounds, or perhaps show you how to turn them into honorable scars. I want you to remember to plan, to persist, and not to push. It may sound like heresy, but I don’t want you to be a go-getter. Everything comes to him who waits — watchfully. Maybe some day I’ll write you a whole letter on this subject. It may surprise you. Meanwhile, I would like to leave a little thought with you. Paste it in your hat. It was written by Epictetus nearly two thousand years ago, but don’t let that bore you. All the good things aren’t new.
Remember that you must behave as at a banquet. Is anything brought round to you, put out your hand, and take a moderate share. Does it pass by you, do not stop it. Is it not yet come, do not yearn in desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. So with regard to children, wife, office, riches; and you will some time or other be worthy to feast with the gods.
Previous: On Commencement
In the 1930s, humorist J.P. McEvoy wrote the Post column “Father Meets Son” presented to readers in the form of letters filled with advice for navigating life’s rocky road. Employing a mix of wry humor and tough love, Dad doled out life lessons on everything from work to women. Readers loved it.
McEvoy starts his series at the beginning of his son’s adult life: college graduation. As his son enters the real world, Dad doesn’t so much let him fly free as kick him out of the nest.
Father Meets Son: On Commencement
Originally published on June 27, 1936
By J.P. McEvoy
Dear Son: This is your Commencement Day. That means your troubles are beginning and mine are ending. College is pushing you out of the nest and I’m pushing you off the limb. Down below you, pussycats are prowling, licking their chops. Above you, hawks are circling, ready to pounce on you. I hope college taught you how to cope with all this, because, if not, it is going to be just too bad for you.
You have been told the world is waiting for you. Boy, and how! The world has got a left hook like Joe Louis. The world has got a short inside right like Jack Dempsey in his prime. It will be all over you like Jumping Joe Savoldi. It will fall on you harder than Man Mountain Dean. Son, I could weep for what is going to happen to you.
I feel especially bad about it because somehow I can’t help thinking I am a little responsible for your present condition. I didn’t give you much thought when you were going through school, except when you wrote for money. It seems that when you could just about walk I rushed you out of the house into eight years of grade school, which prepared you for four years of high school, which prepared you for four years of college, which prepared you for nothing.
Some fellow—I think it was Shaw—said schools were invented by parents to get children out of the house. Well, thanks to the system, I’ve kept you out of the house up to date. The trick now, as I see it, is to keep you out.
“I am coming home in June, dad,” you say in your most recent letter. My reply is: “That’s what you think.” The world is waiting for you, son. You’ve had four years shadowboxing. Now you’re going to get right in the middle of it, where they hit you with everything, including the water bucket. I suppose I should have toughened you up with a little hard work, but it’s too late to worry about that now. I mean it’s too late for me to worry. You can start worrying.
I can’t help thinking how different things are today than they were when I was young and charming like you. I was brought up on a farm, where I learned how to reason with a mule. Son, if you can reason with a mule when you’re young, the world of men has no surprises for you when you grow up. I learned that you could eat a good apple in a minute, but it takes you all year to raise it. And you don’t sit around all that year singing, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” without ever lifting a hand. All winter you’re fighting the cold, and all spring you’re fighting the bugs; all summer you’re fighting the heat, and fall you’re fighting the slick buyers from the city. By the time I was fourteen I had some mighty fine back muscles, and I didn’t know as many things as you do, but they were all so.
I wish now you could have spent more time on a farm and less in a fraternity, but you didn’t, and that’s not your fault. I could have done something about it, I suppose, if I hadn’t been too busy with my own affairs to worry about yours. I hope you will forgive me on this bright June morning.
And I hope you don’t get the impression from this letter that I’m knocking college education. I think it is mighty fine for some boys. A lot of others it doesn’t do anything for at all, and certainly it ruins a lot more. I can’t help thinking you belong in that big middle group. You spent four years in a hotbed of knowledge and I had hoped you would become infected and come down with a fever. But knowledge is like good health; it’s not contagious. For four years you have been exposed to it, and judging from the results, I would say you are practically immune.
I can hear you say, “Whose fault is that?” and I reply after a certain amount of painful thinking: “Not yours, not mine, but ours.” I don’t think we have been as co-operative as we might have been. I should have taken more interest in your special problems and you could have taken a little more interest in mine. Together we might have got somewhere.
Perhaps it isn’t too late. Perhaps I won’t push you off the limb, after all. I think I’ll come out of my nest and try to teach you the first rudiments of flying. Eventually you will have to do your own flying—make no mistake about that—but school hasn’t taught you how to do it unless you call riding on my back flying.
This is your Commencement Day. I’m going to make it mine too. I take back what I said at the start of this letter—that your troubles are beginning and mine are ending. We’ll call them our troubles and face them together. The past is past. Let us salvage what we can and cut our losses. You have some mighty good assets to put in the pool. Youth, enthusiasm, health, and I hope you haven’t squandered all your curiosity.
For my part, I can contribute timing where you have speed, leverage where you have strength, and all the tricks of blocking and ducking which will keep you going long after the ability to take it has passed.
Yes, I have decided that I am going to reform. I am going to climb up into the corner with you, but you’ll have to listen to me between rounds. You have the idea now that the old man doesn’t know anything. He certainly doesn’t know as much as he has pretended to know. But he would be under the daisies long ago if he didn’t know something.
It won’t do you any harm to reform too. Stick out your ears instead of your chin. Remember, when you talk you only repeat what you already know, but if you listen, you may learn something.