Doghouse_200x160When my father, Arthur J. Isaac, Jr., was well established in his career as a stockbroker, he was a beloved and highly respected member of his firm. He’d been there as long as anyone could remember, through all the corporate transitions: at first, Bache & Co., then Bache Halsey Stuart Shields, then Prudential-Bache, then Prudential Securities. His co-workers knew him: Art had performed ethically in a business that tries the soul. Art had risen from cold calls to an enviable book of business. Art had become somewhat quaint and old fashioned as a broker for individuals (while institutions had ever greater assets), but his long-term success inspired others.

At the end of his final day at the brokerage office, the day after the retirement party, as he took the final walk to the door, every member of the firm paused, spontaneously rose at his or her place, and applauded. My father regarded this as among his favorite moments during his 29 years at the firm.

When, barely a year later, my father was eulogized, several dear friends described an aspect of his gentleness. As one put it, “He never said anything mean to anyone, or about anyone.” When I heard that, I agreed. My father thought it impolite, possibly unethical, to sit publicly in judgment of another person. He kept those thoughts to himself. That’s what I remembered.

During a later conversation with some of his workmates, I mentioned those words: “He never said anything mean to anyone, or about anyone.”

“You’re kidding, right?” was the immediate response.

“Your father was the nicest man in the world. We loved him, from daybreak to sunset. But his nickname at the office was ‘Mr. Zing.’ He was so quick. He would sit in his office and, as people would walk by, he would look up and pop out a zinger, firing a quick insult out the door. ‘Nice shoes.’ ‘Call that a hat?’ It was always funny and it was possible only because he was so quick with words and humor. But ‘never said anything mean’? That description simply does not apply to your father.”

My father retired to the advertising agency, but his reputation was strictly “gentle, witty, honest, loving,” not “Mr. Zing.” He wasn’t with us long enough to develop the comfort and ease that unleashed Mr. Zing’s verbal jousting.

I might not have spent much time working with Dad, but I inherited the trait of the fast comment, the zing from afar. It often produces a laugh and has won me a reputation for quick wittedness. Email makes it ever more possible as people electronically amble past my desk. In comes the email, out flies the zinger.

I know my father meant his zinging all in good fun. He wasn’t a bully. He was gentle and respectful. He would never have intended for his arrows to find a true target. If I know his mind from my own experience, he was simply making fun of the world — the world that produced those shoes, that hat — rather than the friend who had worn those shoes, that hat while walking past his door.

Why is this essay called “The Loneliest Moment”?

Because yesterday, I unleashed a zing. It went through email to a beloved role model. By hitting “reply all,” I copied a group of his admirers. He responded simply: “WHAT!!!!!!”

At the end of the day, I re-read my zing. What had started as self-deprecatory had, in the editing, turned foul. However clever, it read like an assault. My intention (humor) doesn’t matter; my words strangled my intention. I sent an apology to my role model that began:

Oh, I apologize for what I meant as amusing. My message now just looks stupid and insulting. I’m sorry.

…and ended:

You are my role model. In respect, I should have responded more thoughtfully. Please forgive my mistake.

Now I’m up in the middle of the night, writing to you about this.

Waiting for forgiveness is the loneliest moment.