Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Dude!

A few months ago Clara shouted from the back seat of the car, "That's that guy from Sesame Street!" "Where?" I asked. "Right there!" I had to tip the rear view mirror to see where she was pointing, then looked in that direction, expecting to see Guy Smiley. Instead I saw this:

"Oh yeah. He is from Sesame Street." Great. My daughter, who wasn't four yet, was already associating commercials with the programs she saw them on. McCarthy is one of the biggest building companies in St. Louis, and sponsor Sesame Street here. Their commercial comes on before and after every episode. Every time we approached that same spot, the location of their headquarters, Clara wanted to see "that guy from Sesame Street."

Not long after, Megan and I were at a party with a friend who works for McCarthy, and conveyed our daughter's enthusiasm with his mascot. "You mean the dude?" he asked. The dude? "I don't know if everyone calls him that," he said, "but everyone in our office does." It turns out his kids love the dude as well.

The next time we drove past the headquarters, we explained to Clara that the Sesame Street man is actually called "the dude." Her eyes lit up, as if she learned a secret no one else knew. All the next month she asked if she could see "the dude." Then, on one outing, she noticed the dude on the top of a construction crane, then on the side of a construction trailer, then on a truck. "The dude, daddy! The dude!" It was as if the whole city was becoming a giant scavenger hunt, leaving images of the dude all over for her to find. If she sees a crane in the distance, she asks, "is that a dude crane?"

Then, this summer, while driving down I-80 in Sacramento, I pulled up behind a McCarthy truck. I didn't know they were in California, and Clara had yet to notice the truck. I counted down in my head: 5...4...3...2...1. Finally, from the back seat, "THE DUDE!!!!"

I "borrowed" that picture above from McCarthy's web site. The title of the picture file? "dude_home"

In our house at least, "the dude" no longer refers to the guy from The Big Lebowski.

Friday, September 05, 2008

What "Service" Means to Me

As I settled in to watch the first night of the Republican convention I saw hundreds waving signs with the word “Service,” and for a while I thought things had changed for the better. Here is what went through my head: Pundits had been saying that John McCain was going to try to appeal to the religious right. Many in the religious right, center, and left have over the past several years started to question the Republican Party’s commitment to fighting poverty and other social justice issues. In an attempt to connect his own military service, as well as the service of those who fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the community service that is necessary to fight poverty and injustice in the United States, McCain could package them both under the term “service” and be seen as a President who expects much from Americans, both overseas and at home. That is a message that would resound with people all over the political spectrum.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my thoughts were wishful thinking. The first part of the fantasy, the focus on military service, was rightfully used, though instead of having each speaker repeat the same story, I might have split McCain’s POW story into four or five parts, with each successive speaker telling a new chapter – it would have weaved a single narrative through all three nights of the convention and McCain could have ended it with himself as President of the United States. But the second part of the fantasy, “service” as community service, wasn’t even mentioned on the first night. On the second night I saw how wrong I was. Community service was not only absent from the Republican narrative, it was a punch line. Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer – to roaring applause and laughter. I sat there watching them both sneer at something that should be a virtue, and as I thought about the times that I had given of my time to help those in my community, I wondered how many who had done the same, religious or not, thought themselves the butt of the joke. I’m going to go out on the limb and say that is not the way to court religious voters.

“Service” to me has two meanings. My father served in Vietnam and returned to become a school teacher, fighting here in America for fair pay for teachers. My mother is a teacher for special needs children – she is one of the people that Sarah Palin praised early in her speech. My brother is a Sheriff’s Deputy, my sister is a nurse, and I was a high school teacher before deciding to stay home to raise my daughters. Service, to us, is service to country and community.

As a product of Jesuit education, I was taught that service was as vital a part of being a man or woman as knowing how to read or write. Two phrases, twin mottoes that adorn the walls of my memory, “For the Greater Glory of God” and “Men and Women for Others,” are so linked that I have a hard time believing the first can be achieved without the second. Community service was a part of each year’s curriculum, and we quickly learned why. Our eyes were opened to our world’s realities, not just the comforts of our friends and families. We could no longer hide behind that lie, that these impoverished “others” simply didn’t work as hard as our parents did.

I am not one of the many who have committed their lives to service. But I have, on many occasions, served food in inner city shelters, I have served the poorest of the poor in forgotten towns in Mexico, I have collected and distributed backpacks and school supplies to children, I have worked with special needs children and adults, and when the Mississippi River overflowed this year I hired a babysitter so I could go fill sandbags for my neighbors. My wife, the vice president of a company in Missouri, spends much of her time at our local Children’s Home, where staff and volunteers seek to make the lives of special needs children a little better. These people – and my mother – must have been confused at Sarah Palin’s speech. They were both praised and mocked.

Now none of this necessarily qualifies me, my wife, or those who work for the betterment of their community for President of the United States. But these people deserve better than the derision of those who seek to lead. They deserve respect, praise, and perhaps even the knowledge that their President has walked in their shoes for a year or three.