By Mark Spearman
The photo is of a boy of seven, nearly eight, in a freshly pressed white polo and khakis. His haircut looks new. He sits in a high-backed chair before an impossibly shiny and massive mahogany table. Early spring sun filters through a muscular Chicago skyline from a window far behind him.
But it’s his body language and expression that are most remarkable. He’s more slumped than seated. His eyes are heavy, squinting slightly, bringing to mind a long-distance trucker fighting to stay conscious after too many hours on a barren ribbon of interstate.
The picture was taken 14 years ago this April on “Take Your Child to Work Day,” and the boy is my first-born son. Here in the 47th-floor boardroom of a $20 billion marketer of panties and brassieres, shoe polish, air fresheners, and cheesecake, he is watching a succession of awkward phrases, cryptic numbers and brand logos via Microsoft’s PowerPoint.
He’s joined by a dozen other boys and girls—the sons and daughters of the accountants, lawyers, secretaries, HR and marketing types, who toil here each day. The PowerPoint, of course, is meant to convey what mommy and daddy do at work. Slightly out of frame, I stand in the wings with a few of my colleagues and watch the same presentation with the secret hope, perhaps, that it will spark an epiphany of our own to help us divine a larger purpose to our labors.
Years later the boy, now a man old enough to legally drink strong spirits, defend his country, and order premium cable channels, will recall this moment as one of the few times in his life that he experienced boredom so intense that it was more a physical sensation than a state of mind.
In those days, the halls and public areas of this particular company boasted one of the world’s largest private art collections, which underscored its museum-like feel. As my son struggled to stay awake in the boardroom, steps away stood the Henry Moore sculpture, Falling Warrior. One of the most dramatic works of art in the collection, Moore’s faceless Warrior depicts, in a style between figuration and abstraction, a wounded soldier hovering just above the ground, in agony, raging against the darkness.
That PowerPoint show was followed by a presentation on “branding,” for which my son’s will to fight the instinct to nap was simply no match.
I’m really not sure what I’d hoped for. The year before, his older sister had visited me at work. She would later relay to her third-grade classmates that her father spends his days riding the train. He then goes to an office with a view of Lake Michigan. And he answers the phone, if it rings.
Over the years he and his siblings would find other occasions to visit dad at work, but the field of corporate communications and marketing is hard enough to explain to grown-ups, let alone children. It’s one of those pursuits that will undoubtedly leave behind artifacts that future archeologists will be unable to make sense of, like papyrus scrolls from ancient Alexandria that we can only conclude had some vague connection to commerce.
In fact, I’ve come to suspect that my children’s periodic but brief exposures to cubicles and corporate-speak contributed in no small measure to their choosing careers in art, science, and medicine.
Mind you, I’ve always taken my work seriously, and over time I think I’ve become quite good at it. On certain days, it can actually be a lot of fun. And it has caused me to cross paths with many interesting people, a few of whom have become treasured friends. But as a father of four, it has largely been a means to an end, a living to support the massive infrastructure required to deliver a child from infancy into adulthood.
In a letter to one of his sons, John Adams explained that he studied politics and war so that his children, and their children “may have liberty to pursue mathematics and philosophy…paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Maybe the relationship between my career and those my children would pursue is not so unlike the upward trajectory envisioned for the young American republic. Or maybe I just never had the confluence of courage, opportunity, and imagination to pursue, full-time and without qualification, work I truly loved.
In either case, being able to support and encourage my children into the careers they have chosen has given me great satisfaction. And I’m actually okay with the fact that they never quite figured out what I do.
That photo of my son languished in a large Rubbermaid tub of uncategorized family images for many years, but I came across it again recently. He is much the same boy today. Skeptical, a man of facts and few words, not one to suffer fools gladly.
He’s a molecular biologist, and it is no wonder that, in that long-ago boardroom session, his young mind, wired for empirical evidence and cause and effect, bristled at zero-atomic weight concepts like message points and communications platforms.
The other day he was explaining to me some work he’d done related to the genes involved in the anti-oxidant network of the organism Plasmodium berghei. I wasn’t able to follow most of it, but I gathered from his tone that it was a matter of some importance. And I couldn’t help but notice how focused, engaged, and in the moment he was as he spoke about it. And that made me happy.
Photo provided by Mark Spearman.