Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The American Man. Or so I thought.

I grew up right smack in the suburbs of America, and in the central south. A town called Brentwood, right outside of Nashville. It was if Normal Rockwell had taken a large tube out, and unrolled and tacked down a beautifully painted canvas flat to the ground. It was full of soft rolling hills and private collections and communities of nice one-acred picket fence home sites where you could raise your families, and feel proud of what you had made of your life. The southern accents were perfect, a little southern drawl, but not too redneck, or harsh, or uncomprehendable. The tea was sweet, and so was the charm of the place. Business was also bustling with eight story office buildings filled with white collar workers.

Like bees coming in and out of their buildings in suits and ties.

I don’t know how it worked, but the concrete never grew weeds, or cracks, or collected dirt. It seemed always fresh, and gray like the day it was poured. Even the grass that lined the homes, and the streets was so green, and watered, it looked more like soft carpet you could sleep on. There were not trailer homes, or trailer parks, or busted and broken down vehicles cruising the streets. The land was too valuable for that, and the Police would pull over a car with any sign it did not belong. Open land in Brentwood was scarce too, limited to the wilderness that we called golf courses. Impeccably manicured and exclusive to mostly men who could afford their membership.

And the churches, and God, that seemed the best part. We had the greatest places, almost like great plantation mansions that lined the roads, and swallowed the entire town on Sunday mornings into rows of pews from churches of every kind. God was doing quite well in Brentwood. The men were well-dressed. Polite. Behaved. Well-to-do. Courteous. Successful. And while busy at work, always showed up for Sundays.

You might say I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I would say I was given the life that most all parents were hoping for their children, and sons. A good education, even private. Didn’t have to quit school, or earn income to help pay bills for the family. Or even worry about paying for college. It was provided for me, as part of being in the family. I didn’t have many expenses. Food, and shelter, and all the bills just seemed a parent’s responsibility. Health insurance, car insurance, those were somehow all covered as being a son, and having a father who wanted to make sure all that was provided for his sons. They did their job, as I understood mine. To study, and have time to study, so I could get the best education. And find a good job, and have a good life for my kids. And repeat it all.

In a town with a whole lot of money and success, came a whole lot of expectations, spoken and unspoken on the children who came from it. Social status and income was very important, and you got the idea that if you did not match your families place, you hadn’t really made it in life. No one ever said it, it was just assumed. Many of the kids, like me, were sent to the best prep schools in high school to prepare them for the big college schools around, and to be launched in their careers. You just kinda were expected to take your degree, and move into a similar life—do a little more than the family. Serve God, and live well.

The way of Brentwood, like the way of white collar was “you work smarter, not harder.” Education and getting on track of how you could use it, was the key to becoming that man. All my friends headed in line, and before long we were prepared, and ready to launch out into the world of white collar, business, and success.

I had entrepreneur in my blood. Mowed a few yards a week so I could make big cash.

As my friends went to work for construction companies over the summer, or busing tables at a restaurant, I stayed on my lawns. 5 yards a week, about 8 hours total, could bring in about 225 bucks. About the same they were making for a full week. My dad would always want me to go work forty hours a week in the summers at construction sites. But I never saw the reason. I had enough money, more than even them, and I could work in 2/3 less the time. I was smart, white collar smart. And convinced I was on the track for great things. Even at 16, I had outsmarted the system.

When it came to Jesus, and God, it was about studying and knowing the word and scripture. For a few years of college, I devoted myself to it. Reading it on my own, being at many ministry nights, of worship, and study. Memorizing scripture. Learning the attributes of God.

Academics were stressed in Brentwood, and at college. You didn’t make something of yourself by sitting around. You had to work. Make grades, to get into a good college. So you could have a good major, and find a good job. The pressure was in your studies. Everything hinged on this year. This report card. This class. It was the key to the future, which involved studying. Listening. Taking notes. Parents said it. Teachers repeated it. I had done all that, listened to them.

I did not see it, but I was born as a young man of privilege, and class. Given things at a young age that most people up to this point in the history of the world, had to work for themselves. I had worked out a system to have my parents pay me a stipend while in college. If I worked, it would hurt my grades, I explained.

Through my father’s hard work, and his growing business, he was able to afford a private education, and pay my way through Brentwood and school. I never thought too much about it, but there wasn’t really ever a question that the kids from Brentwood would move into something great, and into a large home, and into a similar life, it was just a matter of time. We came from these families, and we were to become much like them one day.

Business parks rose up, new banks, and new churches grew with the sprawl of the town. Men wore suits to work, and to church. White collar was king around our parts. And people were driven. They knew what they wanted, and they pursued it. With that, came a sense of security and confidence in the place. People were doing well, and had made it. Churches were big, and on the mega side. Brentwood was the place to be, and where people settled down who were successful, had done something, often in music or in business.

Those who didn’t have the luxury of living in Brentwood, came in to Brentwood to landscape our yards, work in our restaurants, and clean the homes, and streets.

I just assumed with so much effort put into an education, and college that these men had missed something. Not quite made it. Lost out on America’s dream. Maybe through their own shortcomings, or to no fault of their own. Maybe a bad background. Problems in school. Not given many opportunities. From what I could tell there were two worlds, and two tiers, and two color choices before me. The path of education, and then the laborers that fit into blue collar work. A life of Brentwood, or a life working for people who lived in Brentwood. The white collar world of business suits, and making big deals in the corporate offices which I grew up around. Or a world outside of building homes, and putting in a good days sweat through labor and moving dirt.

I was a natural for the white collar world. I was a son of it.

I could tell my dad was struggling with it. He wanted me to work. As a boy he was forced to work hard jobs in the steel mills of Ohio, on his father’s demands. He responded by being obedient. But when it came to him asking me to work 40 hours a week in the summer, I asked why?

Why go through that? Why when you can make 10x that in my own private business. I don’t think my dad was able to answer that question, he never asked, just obeyed.

It wasn’t enough for me. I needed to know why?

The way I saw it, we had come a long way since then. Technology. Internet. Machines to do the sweat for you. Thanks, Dad. But no thanks. I will work my job on the side, and play in the summers. I had all the money I needed, working part time.

If I looked at where most of my days were spent, it was surrounded by white blocks, and chalk boards, and books.There was plenty of life and sports outside of that, but most of my days were around teachers. My learning came through studying. Knowledge was passed by learning through a book and a chalkboard. Mostly Sitting. I didn’t fight it. Or ask too many questions. I just trusted this system. Kept progressing.

And moving up.

It all came together to be well, in rather perfect harmony.

One day my parents brought over a photographer. I had always seen the pictures up at malls and places. Southerners love to capture their family in a picture. Take a shot of the family, and dog in the yard, and display it over the fireplace as a lasting memorial to the family in a large golden ornate frame. And that is what you did in Brentwood. You took a family picture by a photographer, and took that large picture and hung it on the wall in your house. Every house in Brentwood has one of the family.

And without even knowing it, we were sort of one of the pictures of the Brentwood family success story. After getting the photo taken from our pool deck, the photographer hung it in the glass window of his studio in Brentwood. Little families, and nice cars drove by each day in Brentwood, as they busily were in search of doing the same thing with their families. Repeating the cycle, and having their family hung up in the picture too.

Without really knowing it, we had become the American dream, and I figured that I was well on the path to becoming the American man.