Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves

I recall my mom once using the term “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in the three generations” to describe some ne’er to well scion of some rich family who had ended up squandering that last remnants of his family’s fortune. The idea, I guess, is that grandfather, a working man, gets rich due to hard work and persistence, then turns the family business over to his son, who, wearing a suit and tie, I suppose, expands the business precipitously; the third generation then squanders what remains of the fortune, leaving his children with no choice but to go back to working class life all over again.

I gather it’s a pretty common phenomenon in family businesses, especially; I sometimes fantasize what my life would be like had my grandfather been more ambitious and my dad more traditional. Grandpa’s family-owned dry goods store on Staten Island could have become a giant big-box Shap-Mart; my dad could have expanded it and overreached; and I could have finalized the enterprise’s demise through high living and substance abuse, and then my daughter would end up working as a clerk at, no doubt, Wal-Mart.

It seems to me that something similar to this happens with intellectual ambitions, too. My grandfather, Samuel Shapiro was, I’m told, a kind of amateur philosopher; my Aunt Harriet once told me that he liked nothing better than to hang out in his store chatting about big ideas when he should have been hawking shirts and underwear. My dad, however, was true intellectual: a medical doctor, full professor at a major research one university, who wrote dozens of scholarly papers for peer-reviewed journals. Me, I’m a kind of wannabe: community college teacher, writer of popular self-help books, a guy who would rather read James M. Cain novels than the serious philosophical works he ought to be.

And then there’s my kid: like my grandfather, she’s all about hanging out and chatting; although for her, it’s online, not in a store.


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