Thursday, July 15, 2004

Somewhere in America there's a Street Named after My Dad

Service is my raison d'etre. It was something I was born into, raised with, and is what I am held accountable for. My parents were activists, not in the sense of burning flags and bombing buildings, but in the sense that they quietly tried to un-wrong what they understood to be wrong. It was demonstrated to me through my mother who had me, well all of us kids, march across Milwaukee's 16th Street viaduct in support of Fr. Groppi's attempts at racial unification in Milwaukee. It was presented to me when my father would pull to the side of the road and offer assistance to strangers who appeared disoriented, or perhaps in need of assistance. Service was presented to me as my father, an independent contractor, would often underbid his work in order to help others in the repairs of their homes. Because of this, and the best advertising being word of mouth, the clientele my father worked with were often on a lower economic rung of the American social ladder. Ironically this is a struggle my father still has: trying to heed the American dream of becoming "rich" while feeling the personal obligation to assist in others in their dream. My mother left me with her legacy of critical thinking and open-mindedness.

Mom was a vibrant woman, liberal in her ideals and philosophy. I remember this one occasion as I came bolting through the front porch door. I must have been five years of age because this story concerns my mother and she was dead by the time I was seven. My mother was in the living room doing the ironing in front of the black and white Philco. The television set sat on that 1960's semblance of innovation and elegance of living room furniture that was comprised of simple brass tubes and wires. Mom was ironing in front of the TV as was the method of women in her day, and on the television was one of those serial westerns that were inundating the broadcast airwaves in the 1960s. I glanced at the television and watched as an "Indian" was shot from his horse by a cowboy. See, this fit my perception, my white, male, American media "Ovaltine" lens: everything I knew. Cowboys shoot Indians –that is what they do. And Indians get shot by Cowboys: that is what Indians do. Being the swaggering all American cowboy that I was I cheered this shooting. But even before I could relish in my mind what it must have felt like to be that courageous, daring gunslinger slinging his six-shooter from the leather holster, before I could even digest the imaginary gunpowder shot mixed with the dry breeze of the prairie west, before I could even squint down the site on my right hand thumb and forefinger and squeeze off that wondrous shot… my mother stopped me cold, dead, admonishing. Her eyes welled with tears in her anger, fear, hatred, remorse that swelled into her as she saw her son, her baby, perversed in the world of media fed racism. She looked hard at me and my gun hand felt limp, her words penetrated deeply "The Indian was the good guy, the cowboy killed them and took their land, the Indians were the good guys…" 'The Indians were the good guys?' I looked up at my mother, "but…" 'The Indians? were the good guys? But the cowboy wore a white hat. And we all know that the cowboy in white was the good guy, bad guys wore black. How could the white hat cowboy be the bad guy? And we all know the Indians are bad so bad in fact that we called them 'injuns' - they weren't even real people…'

At that moment I realized I had done something wrong, something monumental, and for the first time in my short life my brain started to trigger differently - things are not always the way they seem. This lesson in many ways haunts me throughout my life. I say haunt, because while thinking differently, outside of the box, shifting one's paradigms and all is good -- it is also very painful. Thinking against the norm, the media fed populace, the status quo often leaves one cold embittered and alone, (Faludi, 1999; Havel, 1986). Needless to say something of their service nature affected me.

"The world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred."
Harry S. Truman

Who or what have you sacrificed?

During my own personal search for America, (Berrigan, 1972), I found myself snowed in at a commune in the mountains east of San Bernardino. There a young leader of the group mentioned to me during a breakfast how she was fasting, or providing a service to the hungry by giving up some of her daily food. I remarked that she should not give up breakfast as this was the most important part of the meal for her personal survival. She replied, "... eating a meal because I need it and skipping the one I do not is not the essence of sacrifice. Sacrifice means giving of yourself." I questioned that statement then as I do now. I asked, "But how much do you sacrifice? And why should your sacrifice come as a cost to yourself? My father had this thing. He would give people a penny, tell them to put it into their pocket, to forget about it ... not to spend it. That way you could give people money if they needed it but you would always have some metal worth on you." She said, "It's not the same thing, to give means to sacrifice and sacrifice means it has to hurt." The debate may have continued but my mission at the time as a young adolescent male had more to do with my perceptions of what a California commune was all about, rather than the fundamental principles of why it existed.

But service for me would fall under the guise of activism. Even though my ethics may have been questionable. For example I was a strong voice in the Seattle area in the early 1980s as a supporter of the since defeated Equal Rights Amendment. Not so much that I believed in it but because this was where all the assertive, independent and liberated women were. From there I would begin to believe in the causes I was active about. We unsuccessfully tried to stop the "Death Trains." (These were the trains that carried the nuclear warheads across the country to the Bangor, Washington shipyard.) We did this, rather I did this, by driving my VW camper on the tracks of the oncoming trains. (People had tried to sit on the tracks and this worked for awhile until a Brian Wilson of California was run over, by the train conductor refusing to stop.) When the trains did not stop I joined with Fr. Berrigan's cause of breaking into the missile silos and pouring red paint on the missiles to protest their development.

'How do ye call ye a man if ye have no metal?'

Sacrifice v. service are they one and the same? John Locke is known to have inspired Thomas Jefferson in his idealism and ideology concerning the premise of free citizenry. Locke, (2004), claimed that freedom existed only in the complete rebellion and reformation of the next generation from the previous one. And this is where my personal dilemma of service v. sacrifice comes about. With my undoubted cynicism of the "fading away" of important issues, combined with my gathering of my own metal, of dividing my time with volunteer organizations, being part of a familial network, continuing my education, and doing things in order to provide a sustainable life: shelter, food, clothing, etcetera. I feel that what I would like to accomplish and what I will actually be able to do are, at times, diametrically opposed ideals.

The education 'fade away'

My work is concerned with education and primarily the education of our youth. I strongly believe in the concept that we are borrowing our earth from our children. And we need to assist in the preparation of our children to fix the mess we have left them. But is it appropriate for me to call what I do for a living as a service? Like my father, I am in conflict about the "profit" of working a job which I work in order to service others. I question though what is it I can do that I am not already doing? Besides more? I am concerned because I believe that our society is losing the importance of making sure that our youth become successful in their own right – and not as little clones. I fear, historically, that we lose this "clone war." My concern is that our schools which are supposed to provide a safe environment often provide this at the expense of our children.

Somebody should do something! I am somebody but what can I do? I am unsure of what I can do. I learned at a young age that leadership is not necessarily the first one out of the gate leading the charge as it were. But rather, to borrow from another metaphor, it is leaving no brother behind. It is making sure needs are met, wishes are made and that there exists a hope that these wishes even may come true. The problem here lies in that the activism we tried to do faded away, I am reminded of that Neil Young song, "It's better to burn out, than to fade away ... my my, hey hey." I think I was caught up in the fervor of what the 1960s had wrought only to be standing there at the end of the day wondering where the charge was. This is when I moved my activism inward, spiritually. Gandhi stated "You must first become the change you seek in others." With this I realized I need to live my life as a model of what I thought was important and how I thought we all should live. I realized I could not change the world but I could touch the lives of others. How they interpret that touch would be up to them. And I realized I would need to start in my own back yard.


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