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Life as Performance Art

Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe wrote about work, “What’s happening now in this country that scares me to the core fundamentally is we have never had so much unrealized opportunity and little enthusiasm for it.”
Since before European settlement America has been seen as a land of opportunity, new beginning, where people could work to create a better life for the next generation. 
It was a land of freedom from political and religious tyrants, where people could petition leaders to make changes without reprisal.
My great-grandparents were dumb enough to buy it. Even when Minnesota topsoil was not six feet deep, nor did warm January zephyrs permeate the prairie like pamphlets promised.
They had dreamt about coming to a New World they could make into a reality. Others did too, then and now.
They worked, saved money, invested in their land and ventures, and kept working. They lived in shod shanties on prairies and log cabins elsewhere. Some lived “above the shop” in apartments, worked in stores below.
They taxed themselves to pay schools, one-room at first, built and brought coal and wood to heat them. Teachers did not get big salaries but had a sense of calling. If the job meant boarding with families, moving every few weeks from one building to another, fine. Physicians put patients ahead of themselves as did others, trading services for food.
Eager immigrants took any chance for work, took pride in being steady and accomplished. By example they taught that to their children:
“Don’t forget where you came from. Make something of yourself. Don’t bring shame to our family name, bring honor.”
One farmer years ago told economists he knows he will never get rich financially working the land or raising livestock. At best his loved ones can make a go of it to get through another year.  
They work to hold onto the land so their children can inherit the farm and perhaps look after them, as there were no pension programs nor Social Security.
Kids didn’t want the farm, they could sell the land, move into town and live at least modestly until they died. It was always about building for the future. Unrealized opportunity? We’re all in.
H.L. Mencken is a classic example for journalists. He worked in his immigrant dad’s cigar factory, hated it, wanted to write but honored his father’s wishes. 
The day after Dad’s funeral, young Mencken spiffed up and knocked on the door of the editor of the Baltimore Sun, looking for a job. He was turned down but came back daily more than a month.
Worn down, the editor hired him to write two short articles. Mencken, off and writing, at 23 was named Sun editor, wrote a nationally-syndicated column, two or three books yearly and edited the American Mercury as well.
Persevere? He did all on manual typewriters, clattering out words, almost a type of music.
What happened to that “can do” ethos? Scapegoats abound: politicians took it, we got lost after Vietnam or because of Watergate or, more recently, sundry economic downturns, pandemic layoffs …
Whatever, it must be somebody else’s fault. Why, we had no choice. Never mind who or where we came from.
Rowe was right: resign our fates, forfeit enthusiasm and with it will pass unrealized opportunity. We have lost the plot, forgotten how to dream of a better future, blamed it on someone else.
Not that young people still don’t have it. A friend and I wandered through Allegan County Fair livestock barnswhere youths worked to prepare their animals for judging. Cages and pens displayed ribbons proudly, colored cloths that meant nothing to inhabitants enough to inspire youths to aspire to still more next year.
Viewers gaped at giant watermelons and pumpkins that could feed a party. We saw art quilts, sewing and baking projects expressing enthusiasm of their creators too.
Rowe sounded a warning. Mencken’s example shows how enthusiasm, dedication and energy inspires hope for better days ahead.

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