Ethan Casey gave the following talk on April 25, 2016, at the annual luncheon for National Honor Society students from Oconomowoc High School, sponsored by Oconomowoc Rotary in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
It’s probably safe to say that all of you in this room today, as National Honor Society students, are college-bound. That’s as it should be. You should go to college. College is good for you. I’m sure your parents want you to go to college, and I agree with them.
And you’ll no doubt be relieved to know that that’s the sum total of the actual advice that I’m going to offer you today. I’m sure you’re already aware that free advice from older people is of very limited usefulness. You will have your own body of experience, and that will unfold for you only over the course of your own life, as you go about living it. No one else can tell you either how to acquire your own experience, or how to understand it.
I’m assuming that, in addition to being college-bound, all of you are also intelligent as well as self-directed. So what I’m going to give you, instead of any further advice, is an introduction to my own story as a kid who grew up in Oconomowoc, belonged to National Honor Society, graduated from Cooney High, and went on to do the things that I’ve done. Hopefully you’ll find my story useful, or at least interesting. In any case, being intelligent and self-directed, you’ll make of it whatever you will.
I lived in Oconomowoc from 1974 until 1983, when I graduated from high school and went off to Madison and the wider world beyond. Those were the most formative years of my life. I’m always proud and happy to tell anyone I meet, anywhere in the world, that I grew up in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. This is a very special town, beginning with its famously funny name, but for other reasons too. And I’m not saying that to flatter you. I’m sure that, as college-bound National Honor Society members in an affluent town, you have plenty of self-esteem already. I’m saying that in order to stipulate it as given, so that I can move on to challenging you instead.
Hopefully you’re already used to being challenged, and you enjoy it. So here’s a challenge for you: As fond of Oconomowoc, and even sentimental about it, as I’ve always been, I’ve never felt fully at home here – not even during that formative decade when I was growing up here. Part of the reason for that is contingently biographical: unlike most of my peers and their families, my family was not from here. My parents had escaped from Dallas, Texas, which is very different – but not so very different – and ended up here. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, even as I grew into feeling very much as if I belonged here in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, my parents were communicating to me, by their tone of voice and body language, the message that we – our family – had come from somewhere else, and that we would end up somewhere else again. Oconomowoc was not a destination, but a stop along the road.
That sense of being an outsider in my own hometown was reinforced by a couple of other factors. One was the fact that most of my friends and classmates seemed to have German or Polish last names and families who had been in Wisconsin for generations. This was their town, not our town. But I learned later that this was deceptive. In 2012, when I asked him, my fellow OHS Class of ’83 grad and lifelong friend Bill Henning told me that he felt a distinction between “town” kids and “country” kids. I was “town,” he told me, whereas he was “country.” Bill is as Wisconsin German as anyone I’ve known; his family farmed the same land out by Ixonia for several generations. And he felt that I belonged in Oconomowoc more than he did. My other friend Jerry Burhop, who graduated a year ahead of me and Bill, felt a difference in social class. Jerry’s father had a blue-collar job, doing general maintenance at the Carnation plant. Other kids, Jerry told me, “had a boat and they could go water skiing every weekend. I had to ride my bike down to the lake to go swimming.”
The other factor that reinforced my feeling of being an outsider was that my mother was Director of Reading for the Oconomowoc Public Schools, and my father was the vicar at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dousman. To hold either of those jobs you have to be educated, but they’re not especially well paying. My father once told me, not bitterly but candidly and truly, that in an affluent community, clergy are “the help.” And that’s an honorable and useful role – though how honorable and useful depends on the attitude that all parties bring to the relationship. Even affluent people – especially affluent people – need the kind of help that clergy are trained and called to give. And helping other people is a good thing to do. So both of my parents modeled for me and my brother an approach to living in any community that still stands me in good stead, that guides me in the very uncertain times we’re now living through. My parents taught me by their example that the first obligation of each of us is to make ourselves useful to other people.
I’ve been telling you about how I never felt fully at home in Oconomowoc. And that’s true. But I don’t want you to feel bad for me, or to think that I’m complaining. Oconomowoc was a great place to start out. But for me it was just that: a starting point. And, while the saying that life is a journey is true for any of us, for me it has been true not only figuratively but quite literally. And it’s also literally true that my journey – my adult life as a traveling writer – began the day my father came home, to our house at 400 South Silver Lake Street in Oconomowoc, and asked me if I wanted to go to Haiti.
It was 1982, I was sixteen years old, and I had never before been outside the United States. I had no idea what Haiti was like or what I was getting myself into. And my father reminded me years later that my immediate response was to say, “Sure!” My parents had raised me to have such a welcoming attitude toward adventure and the unfamiliar, and they had modeled it for me. My father grew up in Texas at a time when there was actual legally enforced segregation there between white people and black people. And he once told me about the time he found himself playing pickup baseball with black kids. It was “somewhere in Dallas,” he told me, and “there were only two, maybe three of us who were white. I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “I think I was just asked if I’d like to, and I said, ‘Sure!’”
So, when I went from Oconomowoc to Haiti at age sixteen I left home, and I never came all the way back. After experiencing not only one of the poorest, but also one of the most interesting, places in the far-flung world outside of Wisconsin, I definitely felt out of place here anymore. And of course by that time I was getting ready to leave anyway, because that fall I started my senior year at Oconomowoc High School, and soon I would be going to Madison and who knew where after that. My dad reinforced the point by allowing me to spend six weeks of my last semester of high school, in 1983, in Haiti. Part of that was spring break, but part of it wasn’t, and one consequence was that I earned a C in Statistics class with Mr. Wasserman. But another was that I came to see, from direct experience, just how useful to me the four years of French I had taken with Mlle. Bette Brandenburg could be. And it’s very true that my knowledge of both French and Haitian Creole has been very useful to me ever since. And it all began for me here in Oconomowoc with Mlle. Brandenburg, the best teacher I ever had.
My father once told me that “well-adjusted people don’t become writers.” That bothered me at the time, because I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be well-adjusted. But I came to understand that to be poorly adjusted is actually a good thing, and that my parents had made sure – maybe intentionally, maybe accidentally – that I would grow up feeling poorly adjusted. And by making sure that I grew up feeling out of place in the affluent, comfortable town where I was growing up, my parents gave me the personal equipment that I was going to need to adjust to the ways in which both my own life and the world as a whole were going to change as I came into adulthood and then middle age.
To make a long story short, as a journalist and traveling writer I went on to feel out of place in many other places around the world, from Haiti to Nepal – where I spent a college year through the University of Wisconsin-Madison – to inner-city Detroit, to Thailand – where I lived for five years in the 1990s – to Pakistan, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, England, and Zimbabwe. A mentor and role model of mine, the journalist James Fallows, says that journalists get paid to learn, and as an adult I’ve learned a lot and am always learning something new. There are many things that I never would have learned if I had stayed in Oconomowoc.
But in recent years I’ve come back, and one thing that both leaving and returning have taught me is that Wisconsin is not really separate or different from the rest of the world. In February 2011, when 80,000 people occupied the capitol square in Madison in sub-freezing weather because of how strongly they felt about public issues in this state, I happened to be in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Pakistan was quiet at that time, and to be there, reading about turmoil here, felt very strange to me. That was now more than five years ago. I believed then that the bitter divisiveness in Wisconsin was a sign of things still to come all around America, and unfortunately I was right. We badly need to get over the virtual state of political civil war that is gripping America this election year. We need to relearn and remember that we’re all in this thing together.
How we can do that I don’t know, but I do know that Americans of your generation are going to have to be part of the solution. These days, to be in the thick of the action, you don’t need to leave home as I did. The action is coming to you. And that’s frightening, but it’s also exciting. For me individually, and I hope also for you, it’s exciting because people who are enterprising, flexible, and imaginative can thrive in times like these. And it also means that, collectively, we have the opportunity to re-imagine our country’s social and political landscape. You’re young enough that you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that, in my lifetime, there has never been a presidential election as strange, unpredictable, and dangerous as this one. But what’s liberating about this very unstable moment in America is that we have the opportunity to appreciate and work with each other in fresh ways as fellow Americans, rather than shoehorning ourselves and each other into the stale and dehumanizing categories of white and black, Christian and Muslim, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. Where that re-imagining will take us I don’t know, but we’re entitled to hope that it will be somewhere better than where we’ve recently been – if we’re willing to work toward it together.
Lately I’ve been reading a book called A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by the wonderful writer Rebecca Solnit. It’s weird how sometimes what I happen to be reading just happens to coincide with what’s already on my mind, or with what I want to say to an audience. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is about travel as a metaphor for life, because you can’t really travel – or live – without getting lost. I should know, because I’ve traveled a lot. “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. … The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.” The weird and wonderful paradox is that your life will be not only more interesting, but also safer and more secure, if you don’t hold on too tightly to anything, and if you give yourself permission to step out of your comfort zone and experience uncertainty and instability.
I’m going to leave you with a homework assignment, which is to ask your parents and teachers to tell you about the Enron Corporation scandal. Everyone knows that the terrorist attacks that we refer to as 9/11 happened in 2001. But there was another hugely important event that happened that year, and that was the Enron scandal. People don’t really remember the Enron scandal anymore, but they should. In 2012 I drove around America to write Home Free: An American Road Trip, the book that each of you is being given today through the generosity of Vero Metals. That book includes my conversation with Sherron Watkins, the former Enron Corporation vice president who blew the whistle on the scandal.
I sought out Sherron Watkins in Houston, where she lives, because I wanted to know how she had found the courage to do what she did. “It’s this great unknown,” she told me. “It’s this leap of faith. But as soon as you do it – it’s just like all those Old Testament things: you have to step in the raging river, and then the water stops.”