There's an anecdote I like to tell about my grandpa, to demonstrate how hardworking my family is: "We Novaks are roofers," I say, "It's one of the hardest jobs there is. You're up on the roof working all day, tearing off the shingles, cleaning up the roof, preparing it with ice guard and tar paper, laying down a new layer of shingles, and then picking up the ground below. It's hard work. My grandpa was a roofer. All his sons were roofers, at least for a while. And at some point nearly every single one of his grandkids helped shingle a house, and some of them have taken up the profession too. It's a lot of work, and it's hot up on the roof, with the sun beating down on you. Growing up, I always thought my grandpa might be black, or some other minority (though I never gave much thought to which); he was just so dark-skinned that it never even crossed my mind that he was white. And then one day I saw him at the beach. He peeled back his shirt and his chest was the palest thing you've ever seen. It was like looking at an Oreo. Turns out his skin was just really really tan from working so hard out in the sun every day."
I shingled houses with my grandpa for three summers. I can tell you, I never got nearly as dark as he did. That's because his was a lifetime of exposure, not just a few summer breaks. His entire life was spent working hard. Honest work. Difficult work. Hot, dirty, grimy work. Real work.
I write about this now because the other day I was cleaning my garage. It had gone too long without being cleaned, and putting things in shape took a bit of work, using tools to hang things, moving things around and into the right places, cleaning things up. I don't do enough of that kind of real work. Sure, I work hard at my job, but I'm an attorney and the work I do is, for the most part, intellectual. My job is to persuade people. There are days when that can be the most difficult task in the world. But there's never a day where I think my hard work can hold a candle to the work my grandpa did. Cleaning my garage is about as close as I get these days, and that's like comparing a puddle to the Pacific.
It's always struck me funny when people imply that the hedge fund managers and investment bankers making millions of dollars have earned that money because they work hard. Sure, they put in long hours, but you'll never convince me that they're working harder than the guy on a construction site. If you're going to rationalize the pay disparity, come up with something else, because "they work hard" doesn't fly here. I've been on both sides of the line. I've got an intellectual job and yes, it can be tough. But I've also seen what hard work really looks like: it looks like my grandpa.
I wonder sometimes about the way they show grandfathers in the movies. More often than not they seem to be gentle, with glasses, maybe a bit absentminded, usually intellectual, always loving and kind. That's not how I see grandfathers. My grandpa was loving alright, but that meant being firm. When I worked with my grandpa I worked. When I made a mistake, he made me fix it. When I was fooling around on the job I got in trouble. When things needed to get done he let me know it. Perhaps this sounds harsh next to the doting movie grandfather, but removed from the Disney-machine, it seems to me that this is what grandfatherly love is really all about. It's about example and direction, constancy and character.
I know I wasn't alone in my experiences. I've seen the work ethic in every single one of my grandfather's children (and to give credit where credit is due here, my grandmother is probably the only person I know with greater character than my grandfather. There's a reason she's the head of the family.). I know it's in my cousins and my siblings. I'm giving my grandfather credit here, but every single one of these things could be said about my dad too; he is also a steadfast, efficient, hard worker, unparalleled but for his flesh and blood.
And for all their hard work - my grandpa, my dad, everyone else - they never want for time to give to others. Growing up I always heard stories about how my grandpa would wake in the morning, handle chores on the farm, drive to the job site (sometimes an hour or more), work a full day or more, drive home, finish more chores, and then play ball with his kids. I know I'll be telling the same stories to my kids with my dad. To be perfectly honest, I don't know where they found the time, much less the energy. I hope I figure it out, because I want my kids to pass on the same stories about me.
That's what it is to be a Novak. You work harder than anyone reasonably should and then you play with your kids. That's how my grandpa was. That's how my dad was. That's how I want to be. It's what I hope I pass on to my kids. It makes me wonder, how far back does the chain go? How was my grandpa's dad? How was his? Where did it all begin? How far will it go?
There's something to be said for taking a generational view. In the Bible, God sometimes rewards or punishes people generations after the fact, making a child suffer or rejoice for the sins or faithfulness of the parent. It's a view that I can't help but be acutely aware of, as the attorney son of generations of laborers. I went to good schools, built my reputation, earned my position, not on the sweat of my own effort, but on that of the generations that preceded me. Sometimes it seems like the American dream is to work hard so that your kids don't have to. And sometimes I wonder if maybe that's not where I am today. My grandpa did real, hard work. My dad does real, hard work. Me? I just sit around thinking all day, doing my best to persuade others to see things my way.
So I try to be aware, because I'm one of the lucky ones. I try to realize that most people don't have the opportunities that I have, and that's because most people don't have the relatives that I have. I try to work hard, because of my good fortune, cognizant all the time that it's not as hard as the work that came in the generations before me. I stand on their shoulders.
I am my father's son. I am my grandfather's grandson. Because of them, I am blessed.
And he'd sit in the shade and watch the chickens peck
And his teeth were gone, but what the heck