Jan 25, 2009

My Background Radiation

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies I was part of a nuclear family. We even had a bomb shelter and a storeroom full of canned goods in the basement. Now, I know that is not what a nuclear family means but it is indicative of our environment. We lived in Anoka, a quintessential progressive suburb of the 1960’s; our home was a small cracker box house with five kids, one bathroom and a life that seemed to be filled with threats. In the summer we had tornados, winter meant blizzards, and always the ever-present possibility of nuclear war. We were taught that we could survive all this, by my Civil Defense Dad. All could be overcome with preparation.

At age seven (1933) my father and his younger sister were adopted, or taken in, by his childless Aunt and Uncle to work on their dairy farm. He went from the chaos of a mentally ill parent in Dallas, Texas to oppressive labor he called “Slavery” in Wyckoff, Minnesota. A birthday bike from his “rich” relatives freed him for a time as he used it to run away at age 14. Finally, World War II emancipated him to the Navy, stability, structure and the South Pacific. Stability and structure became synonymous with his name. It was the cure all to his life’s chaos as far as father was concerned. With that, consensus was not a word familiar to me as a child. That would imply I had a voice, much less an opinion. Hence my view of the world was highly ethnocentric. I had no idea anyone’s life was different from my own. The chaos or issues of the world were not allowed past the threshold of our door. Conversation was limited, controversy was forbidden.

Even with all this watchful preparation, my father could not protect me fully. At age three, in our front yard, I was shot by a neighbor kid playing with his dad’s a 16-gauge shotgun. This one event is my historical mystery. Neither parent talked about it for 40 years. My older brother who carried me into the house says little. It was only at my father’s funeral that a neighbor lady gave a small morsel of my whereabouts prior to the “accident”. She felt guilty sending me home from playing in her yard just minutes before. Over many years pieces of fact came to me, but only if I pressed for information. Both my parents are gone now. Taking with them the story of that day.

Perhaps because of the "oppressive" and strict upbringing, it was not until my late teens that I started to see creative and alternative options for thought, lifestyle and even cuisine. A strict Lutheran upbringing began to make room for other ways of worship outside the Missouri Synod. Even for Baptists and Catholic beliefs. Islam however, was still a religion relegated to social studies books. I was “standard issue” of the northern suburbs with a hint of a latent liberalism.

In 1977 I attended the University of Minnesota, reveling in solitude, independence, and studies.

Cultural Anthropology was my favorite class. Reading of all the far places, cultural rules and customs was fascinating. I studied Art, Advertising, Design, and wrote for hours using long hand in spiral notebooks. Biological sciences had too much math. Mathematics had too much math. I focused on my photography taking collateral courses unrecognized in any degree program. Then in 1979 I was accepted to the Photography Technology program at what is now Ridgewater College. It was my dream come true and I excelled, graduating early to a freelance career.

Twenty-five years, married, two kids, five houses later I am an established advertising photographer returning to the university to study new issues and complete my undergraduate work and a masters degree. Ironically, I have been an adjunct instructor at local colleges teaching photography and academic classes to those whom by now have their own bachelor’s degree.

There are new issues to be considered in our changing world. The list: Global Warming-Climate Change, the Peak Oil Horizon, and Sustainable Agriculture. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Having read Charles C. Mann’s book “1491” I have gained great incite concerning cultures we may have destroyed or ignored and the most likely fate of the people occupying the Americas at that time. Solutions to today’s problem may be locked up in the history of people living thousands of years ago. Presentism, the ultimate myopia, may be the only thing threatening our future. I have read, Native American Gardening, Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to a Traditional Methods from a 1917 U of M Social Sciences Bulletin. In it are guides to farming techniques honed over thousands of years. Reading the oral narrative gives insight to the Hidatsa culture beyond gardening.

I have a bias towards these simple ways and although I use technology excessively, I admire those who disconnect from it. I wish for a small home, like the one I grew up in, but live in a large log home surrounded by wetlands. My life is filled with compromise and contradictions. I attempt to minimize regret as I go. One way to build in change is with new systems to replace old habits. For example, we planted a Hidatsa vegetable garden as told by Buffalobird-Woman, we compost kitchen scraps, and we use pond water to irrigate. This removes “mind set”, and rationale based on historical “facts” I was taught. Thus developing new histories and activities changes my understanding and perspective. This attempt to retrofit or green our lives meets inward and outward conflict at every turn since there is no supporting consensus as to what we should do as a society.

In my childhood consensus was by default. My father’s past drove our future. Now our country’s quest for more in the present seems to be driving our future.

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