Having faith in a roll of the dice
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
On November 23, 1999, I knew what my responsibilities were. I was just 24 hours into my 37th year and was beginning the journey of a lifelong dream. As I puttered my sailboat out of the Ruskin marina to “Out There,” I had no idea what would happen over the six-month window we opened for our adventure sailing into unknown waters. But I knew what I had to do. I was responsible for ensuring the boat systems remained ship-shape, I was responsible for following and understanding the weather to ensure our safety at sea. At the time, those things were two very big responsibilities, but they were clearly defined and I was up to the challenge. For years, I had prepared to be up for it. I was responsible — I certainly didn’t feel as though I could just roll the dice of fate.
Responsibility is a funny thing. Who is responsible for the nation’s financial mess? Some might say the president, others might say the bankers, others still the consumers. Who is responsible for finding a cure for cancer or AIDS? Who is responsible for finding a solution to the health care crisis in this nation? Is anyone really trying to fix anything anymore?
Today I am less certain of my responsibilities than I was 11 years ago. I have a deeply-felt responsibility to the readers of this newspaper and to the community. I have a responsibility to my wife, my employer and even my cat and dogs. I have a responsibility to try to be a decent person and to be honest.
But what can I do about the economic slowdown? What can I do about the unemployment rate? I can prepare a boat for sea, but how can I contribute in even a small way to the nation and the public good?
I envy the 37-year-old me who knew his responsibilities. I envy the ease in which those responsibilities could be so clear and welldefined. And now, as a 47-year-old, I have to weigh my responsibilities and there is nothing clear or well-defined about them. Which, of course, places me with millions of others wondering much the same things — do they pay the mortgage or the electric bill; is it OK to pull a gun on Peter in order to pay Paul?
When I was growing up, I lived next door to the milkman. His job was to deliver milk and other dairy products to little coolers on the front steps of almost every home in town. With that job, he raised four children. I never knew them to lack for food and their house was just as nice as everyone else’s. My mother didn’t work outside of the home in those days, and although she did return to teaching as I got older, it was more out of choice than necessity. We had a color television, a car and then another car and there was never a shortage of food in the cupboard.
My first job was at a Phillips 66 gas station in town. I pumped gas for which most people paid in cash. For the handful of people who had a credit card, I had a little clip board with which I would get a carbon copy imprint of the credit card and the customer’s signature. The receipt would go into the cash register to be sent in and mysteriously processed by Bank Americard or MasterCharge, both entities since renamed as VISA and MasterCard.
In that age, highways were being built, not abandoned. Every town had the faint belief that it, too, could become the next Minneapolis or Chicago. We believed that the American Dream was a work in progress — and there was still a heck of a lot of work to do. I didn’t know anyone who was really rich, although I could tell that some of my friends were better off than me and others. Few people had a lot of money, yet still things were accomplished. Kids were raised, homes and cars were purchased, and a lot of the kids I grew up with went off to college.
Everyone knew who Howard Hughes was. “He is a billionaire,” people would say with reverence. Most people couldn’t imagine a billion dollars. Today, there are no milkmen. No one can make a living delivering dairy products. Highways are being closed for lack of funds to maintain them and the United States has fallen from being number one in the world in college graduates to number 13.
As for Howard Hughes, he would certainly be less well known today. Forbes estimates there are more than a thousand billionaires. Most are living in the U.S., although the number of billionaires from India is rapidly closing in.
What happened? How is it a milkman could raise a family of four yet today no one could live on a milkman’s salary? How could gas stations afford to hire people to pump gas but today there are only self-service pumps? What happened to our priorities? Did our responsibilities change?
Albert Einstein once said that he did not believe that God rolled dice with the universe. Coming from the 20th Century’s greatest mind, that is a comforting thought — there is order and things happen for a reason. My faith is unshakable and so is my belief in the blessing (or curse) instilled in us known as freewill. To which comes another physicist, Werner Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle which states that the only certain outcome is the outcome that has already happened — and even that is based upon the perspective of the observer. Uncertainty has become the hallmark of this time in America and around the world. While we utter our faith that things will all work out, we reach across the table to pick up the dice. Perhaps that is how it should be. Dreams, chances and risks are the foundation of this nation. Picking up the dice and having faith may not be so contradictory after all. It also seems the responsibility is more clear than it may appear. If I throw snake eyes, it is me — not God, not the president, not Einstein — but me, that is responsible for it.
I’m lousy with a hammer and a saw. I can’t build bridges or spaceships. But I can work to promote the good over the bad. I do have the ability to share the otherwise untold stories of dignity and decencey and confidence. Through this newspaper, I not only have the ability, I have the responsibility, regardless of how large or small that may be.
The United States is the only nation to have landed a man on the moon. We completed the Panama Canal when other nations had given up the massive project. We built an Interstate Highway system that, at the time, was the envy of the world. It’s time to build something again. It’s time to have some faith. It’s time to remember that the American Dream is still a work in progress. In order to do all of that, we have to have faith and we have to be willing to roll the dice. But most of all, we have to take some responsibility again.