It is so amazing to me now, how much of what we learn is not in a classroom. I know that there has been a hundred years of studies on how environment, culture, race, religion, sexual orientation and quite possibly whether you got to play with a yo-yo or not have an impact on how and why you end up thinking the way you do…on the equally mundane as well as important amounts of the matter and anti-matter that consumes us.
We seem to get selectively assigned early in life. We either rebel against it, expand on it or heck, just find a different path entirely. This for all intent and purpose works for almost every level of existence however for this sharing I would like to dwell momentarily on a few things that fell into place for my brain to work as it does.
I was not a student of journalism. I tried once but was asked to drop the class as my professor told me that a true journalist could say in two sentences what it took me three pages to explain. The following semester, I wanted to try again. I even wrote him (in my opinion) a wonderful essay…five pages long …telling him what a great teacher he was, how I would work very hard to learn, what virtues and insights that I possessed to add to group discussions and projects, and asking him if I could once again take his class. Two days later the reply in the mail…one page with letterhead, signature and the simple message “NO”.
I was not a student of politics…though I think I was fortunate to have a parent who taught us by his actions as well as his words when I was growing up. He encouraged us to do volunteer work in school and around the community. I went to rallies, even attended a few “sit-ins” but did I really research any of my young votes??…No! I was a democrat from day one and voted that way. I cared deeply about my little piece of the world and the people in it but somehow missed out on the “big picture”…
I didn’t think of myself as student…and yet I did learn….
My Father was quite possibly the most fascinating man I will ever meet. A child of the depression who got most of his formal education in the Army where he rose to the rank of Drill Sergeant during the Korean War, a position that added a deep sadness to him that he would not share with us for many years.
He liked things to have order but more importantly he liked us to understand why he wanted things the way he did and from the second I learned what language was…his major house rules were embedded in my mind:
#”Be respectful of your elders”…they have lived longer and deserved it (until proven otherwise) was always added because Dad firmly believed that age had little to do with stupidity.
#”Don’t lie, cheat or steal”…these all kind of fell into that “be honest” category and breaking any of them usually brought forth the harshest of punishments.
#”No one is always right and no one is always wrong”… My mother disliked this one as she never wanted to have to explain and preferred falling back on that “I’m your mother and I say so” line.
#”Arguing with words…good. Arguing with fists…bad!” I was pretty sure this rule was directed at all the young men that lived in our house though I learned the hard way not to come between two sisters in a heated discussion about almost anything.
# “Have Faith…in yourself and in whatever you chose to believe in.” This one was the hardest to not only understand but to achieve. It was his strongest rule and yet it was the one least discussed.
My father, raised by a fire & brimstone…bible-thumping…church three days a week…”if you don’t do as I say you’ll burn in hell” woman with a husband (my beloved grandfather) who sat quietly in a corner chair smiling and nodding on occasion, did not tell his children who or what to believe in. He had some sort of deal with our mother, who until we reached the age of 13 took us to church every Sunday and made sure we attended a bible study group once a week.
I watched as those ahead of me chose to keep going or stop. We had so many different people as a part of our family. I think my father worked to make sure that we were exposed to as much diversity as he could find for us. We were encouraged to attend other churches…learn other religions.
When my 1st Sunday came, I decided to spend the day with Dad. No one seemed surprised, as I had come to be known as his shadow. After breakfast…. the flying around of schedules…. who’s going with who…what cars are in use…when will everyone be back…the house settled into an eerie quiet.
I could hear the TV from the kitchen and found my father sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee in his hand and the Sunday paper in a sort of neat pile at his feet. Across the room was our modest size one television set. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when families only owned one TV) It was a black and white one as the colored sets were still a bit out of my dad’s budget though we did have this really weird screen cover that if you put it on upside down it made everything on the bottom of the picture blue and some of the people’s faces green. (Sorry, strange flashback)
The TV sat against the back wall of our living room, where surrounding it on the wall and even up onto some of the ceiling was the most elaborate honey comb of no less than 25 wire-coat hangers. They were all stretched out and connected, either by twisted ends or some sort of thin metal-like stuff my mother used for hanging pictures. Most were those metallic colored ones a few those dipped in white paint ones against my mother’s “spring peach” painted walls
I remember watching Dad, as he would occasionally attach new ones to the maze. I remember the day my older brother fell off the chair he was standing on as Dad instructed him how to tack the one he was holding to the ceiling during a football game. I remember my mother’s anger as the wired monstrosity grew up and around her thoughtfully designed modern living room set.
Now I know that some of you are scratching your heads and thinking…What the hell do wire-coat hangers and an old black & white TV have to do with a political education?? Trust me…I will get there. For those of you, who understand the reasons behind the wire-coat hangers…I thank-you because I worry that my grey hair is sometimes interfering with my grey matter.
In an ancient time of no cable and the city I grew up in, Chicago, living up to it’s nickname the “Windy City”, our antenna never seemed to be able to stay up on our roof. Hence the wire-coat hangers! Starting with a large set of rabbit ears ( please, any children present, just ask someone old) sitting on top of the TV, the coat hangers were attached to the tips and fanned out in all directions to be able to pick up more stations and get a better picture.
No wire adjustments needed that Sunday so long ago as I watched the screen…a very smart looking man with thick glasses was questioning a very smart but different looking lady. I started to ask my father who they were but his finger went to his lips letting me know to be quiet at the same time pointing to the screen. Another house rule…
#”Learn to listen.”
Her name I found was Golda Meir. The man’s name was Lawrence Spivak and the program was “Meet the Press”. It wasn’t like the evening news. It had people asking questions and people giving answers that to a young mind held a wonderment of clarity.
Even though I got wrapped up in being a teenager and becoming a young adult…no matter where I was…if only for that brief 30 minute window…I watched. Learning more as I went along. Mr. Spivak was known for his tough questioning. When asked about them he said “Since I wasn’t beholden to anyone, I just felt that the question had to asked. It just had to be fair and informative and accurate.”
Bill Monroe took me through my first voting years…and I will admit now and deny it later that it was Garrick Utley’s cool sounding name and dimples that held my glancing interest while I tried to be a single working mom in the late 80’s. This was also during a “maybe someone else can explain to me” period when Lesley Stahl could pull my attention to “Face the Nation” now and then.
Politics was getting increasing more complicated and everyone seemed to start having hidden agendas. I could watch one show and get an answer to something…switch to another show…same question totally different answer. I was starting to think that maybe I was just too dumb to understand the mess.
Than December 1991…turned on Meet the Press and a smiling man with the kindest eyes I had ever seen was on…My concern that Mr. Utley and his dimples had been replaced faded very quickly and right from the start…Mr. Tim Russert had my heart and my mind.
For the next 16 years he helped me to understand what the hell was going on. He did it in ways that left you wanting more not feeling stupid. His political coverage of elections and debates were matched by none.
I stayed up all night in 2000 and got to witness first hand what was marked as one of the 100 greatest moments in TV history. “Florida, Florida,Florida” on his white board with that grin on his face.
But it wasn’t just the way he did his job…it was the way he made me feel a part of his job and his life. He shared so many glimpses of his family, his humor,his love of sports. As a life-long fan of the Bears..I still couldn’t help but smile when he would cheer for his Buffalo Bills.
A father’s lessons and wire-coat hangers gave me “Meet the Press”…Years of insightful moderators gave me my education but I will always believe that it was Mr. Russert would made me feel like a participant and not a spectator in our nation’s politics.His passing left an unfillable hole in my heart.
Today, I still see too many people with agendas and preaching to me instead of informing me. There is hope though a few new voices being heard and a few more seasoned ones getting the recognition they deserve. I have watched the start of a new horizon at Current TV, that I know will help us get our voices heard, bring more truth to the forefront and perhaps even re-educate those whose brains have been turned to mud by the extreme right media.
The era of wire-coat hangers is over but the purpose behind them…to find and hold a better picture of the world will hopefully never end.