Monday, September 01, 2008

A Real Labor Day

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the birth of my son. While we are struggling to keep the house cool tonight, the day we brought our new little 7 lb. bundle of joy home from the hospital it was so cold we had to turn on the heat. New parent jitters, probably.

Now he's taller than I am by a full five or six inches, sports a deeper voice, and has begun "the maturation process" as I'll call it. But inside he's still a fairly magical little guy driven by an incredibly active imagination, always creating, always wondering, asking questions. During a trip over the weekend he acquired another morphing lego-type creature, and even I shared his delight in seeing how many iterations it could take. It was a good prelude to two days in Dearborn, Michigan meandering through The Henry Ford and what amounts to Ford's personal playground, Greenfield Village, where Ford himself assembled a collection of friends and their memorabilia -- like, the original courthouse where Abe Lincoln practiced law, the chair in which he was sitting when he was shot at Ford's Theatre, one of the 30 remaining handwritten copies of the Declaration of Independence, the car in which Kennedy was shot, the home of his favorite childhood teacher, the seat in which Rosa Parks sat and changed the nation's relationship with race forever, the original Fort Myers workshop of his good friend Thomas Edison. (Edison was alive and well. Ford brought the old workshop up to Greenfield, and built Edison a better workshop in its place in Florida. After all, what are friends for?)

At one point over the weekend I looked at my son and said, "You know that game where people ask each other which ten famous people they'd have over for dinner? It's like Ford played the game for real." All of these monuments -- right down to the oldest remaining Windmill in America -- are literally yards from his childhood home.

The museum is also a wonder, a collection of unimaginable breadth and scope in its eclectic-ness. The camper Ford built for Charles Lindberg, the picnic table used by "The Vagabonds" during their not-so-roughing-it camping trips, a model of one of those crazy round metal houses that was sure to be a hit (at 1096 square feet, even my house is bigger, although, we don't refresh the air every six minutes through the handy top-vent or have cool revolving shelves). The collection both in the Village and the Museum just goes on and on -- after two days we still had not seen everything, it would have been impossible.

On the ride home, coming over I-75 I spotted the Libby Glass Company in Toledo. What crystallized for me in that moment was how the Museum and the Village and their contents were not so much Ford's toybox as his way of bringing together in one place all the best things he could find about America and Americans. The museum was a real tribute to innovation and courage. The Village really memorializes Americans who made a significant contribution to culture, politics, or the development of our economy.

As we traveled further East, I thought how alike these two Great Lake communities continue to be. Cleveland was once a center of industry, like Dearborn and Detroit were the seat of what at one time was a ginormous and overpopulated automotive industry. Today both are near ghostowns. Where did it all go, and why? Are people less inspired? Less innovative? What's taken the place of these iconic leaders? Some of it probably has to do with the fact that once cars and trains started to advance in their technology, everything changed rapidly compared to the first 1800 years AD. So the innovations are so numerous that there is no way to keep up. And so much of industry is automated these days that a revolution in technology is not going to necessarily translate into hundreds of thousands of new skilled-labor jobs.

One of the stops on our journey was the property belonging at one time to the Amos Mattox family of Georgia, a slice of an America to which most of us have never been introduced. The Mattoxes were a black family of little means. Amos Mattox worked several jobs to take care of his wife and family. The little tin-roof porched home had newsprint on the walls and cardboard on the ceiling (which Mr. Mattox innovated because its insulating properties kept things incredibly cool in the summertime). Out back there was a little yard with a chicken coop and a grape arbor, and in front a small garden with not a lot of grass out front so as to keep the mosquito count down. Mrs. Mattox took care of the garden and the animals and canned much of what was grown. Not far from there was a replica of the home of Ford's good friend George Washington Carver, a naturalist and agricultural scientist who transformed the agronomy of the post-Reconstruction South with his discoveries in sustainable agriculture.

My son is at heart a discoverer, a connector, and at times an inventor. The spirit of that place has a good shot at living on as long as kids like mine are supported in their endeavors to continue to examine the past, consider the present, and imagine the impact of ideas -- quite possibly their own ideas -- on the future. We all need to let our own imaginations soar more often, and try not to squelch those we witness unfolding. If you see a kid obsessed with taking apart a new flying toy, let it go. He or she will not only likely put it back together no worse for wear but may already be on to something else.

And don't worry if your kid isn't first in line for everything, head of class, fastest on the track team. If he or she is inquisitive, creative, eager, there will be a way to put smarts to work. Remember, the early bird may catch the worm, but it's the second mouse that gets the cheese.

The Second Mouse


At September 02, 2008 9:31 AM, Blogger Blueberry said...

Makes you wonder what places and people from today will be commemorated in the future, and visited on holidays. Happy Belated 14th Birthday to the young man! That's a magical age, transitional.

At September 02, 2008 12:02 PM, Blogger DrDon said...

Sounds like a good time Mando. I haven't been there since elementary of junior high, whenever it was we took that class trip. The world's a smaller plave now and Americans became consumers instead of builders. Maybe people like your son can bring some of that spirit back some day.

At September 02, 2008 8:49 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hey y'all,
Blueberry, I think about that a lot. When I think about the huge leaps in technology, transportation, etc. that our parents all saw in their lifetimes -- 1920ish to present (my folks were old when I came along), it makes it hard to compare with what we have already seen in ours. I think it's just that I don't know about a lot of the advances. One Friday evening, geeky family that we are, my son and I watched some show that described in detail how HIV multiplies. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park, only for real. That researchers have figured this out and can deftly illustrate it amazes me. But it still kills people so it's not perfect.

"...Americans became consumers instead of builders." That's true. We don't fend very well, are not all that inventive, because we can buy just about damn near anything. I picked up a couple of loaves of "hobo bread" -- kind of an insulting name but it's basically bread that started out in a tin can with nuts, raisins, molasses, and flour. Too bad the hobos who came up with that idea don't get a cut of the proceeds. They're ridin' the rails now.


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