Sooner or later, you’re going to ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” I can’t imagine any elected official not coming up against this question at some time or another in their public service life.
The reasons why I ran for City Council changed over time. When I started out, I told myself that I was doing it “because it was my turn; because I wanted to give back; because I thought I could make a contribution.” My reasons were altruistic, and over the years, some of that has remained. But they are not the reasons I serve now—not entirely.
For the past seven years, I have lived my life with a little pocket calendar in hand, and there, scribbled on each page, is written the time and place of different meetings I must attend. These meetings are in the evenings after I come home from work, and without this calendar to guide me, I’d be lost. It is the roadmap of my evening life, my commitments.
Each day, I come home from work and I look at my calendar to see where I’m supposed to be later that night. It may say: “Council meeting, City Hall, 7 o’clock,” or “Communications Commission, 7 p.m.,” or “League of Local Government, Board meeting 5:30, General meeting at 7:30.” It’s always something.
Being 57 years old, I don’t have the energy I had as a kid. Sometimes I’m tired at the end of the day, and upon reading the entry in the pocket calendar, I sigh, resigned, and then I begin to ready myself to go back out. I’ll change my shirt, pick out a fresh tie, and sometimes, missing my supper with my family, I’ll head out the door. Once I get to where I’m going, though, things change. I see other people there whom I have known for years—good people, all—and together we set ourselves to the task at hand doing the best we can to inform ourselves on the issues before us. We try to understand the options available to us and the possible consequences of any particular course of action we might take. Simply put, we reason things out, and then we decide. There is nothing glamorous about any of it.
At every meeting, we are supplied with store-bought cookies and stale coffee. I sometimes crunch on my cookies and sip on my coffee from a Styrofoam cup while thinking about my family at home and what they are having for supper. I also think that when I die, and I will die—young—the coroner performing my autopsy will take one peek inside of me and exclaim, “My god, this man is full of store-bought cookies and stale coffee. Was he an elected official?” Forensics. You can’t beat this stuff.
But at that meeting, I do try to make a contribution, the best I can, and that feels good.
The work of the elected official is, by and large, routine. Sometimes, you will be asked to make a decision that will leave you popular with some people and very unpopular with others. But this is not the usual. The usual is routine, mundane, commonplace, and quotidian. It is the business of running a city, setting the policies by which the City Administrator and professional staff will operate. These professionals, responsible as they are, are not wholly accountable for their actions, because everything they do is at the behest of the elected official, and in our form of representative democracy, the buck has to stop with someone, and that someone is the elected official. It is you.
So I sit at yet another meeting eating cookies and sipping coffee. Before me sits that evening’s agenda, and 99% of the items there are routine business: approving the minutes of the last meeting, passing on the payables that went out last week, awarding a contract to the lowest bidder on a mill and overlay project, authorizing the purchase of a new power jetter for cleaning out sewers, etc.
When you get home that night, you stick the north end of yourself in the refrigerator while the south end is hanging out, and you call over your shoulder, “Did you save anything for me?” Invariably, they have, and taking your plate of food, you warm it in the microwave. You’re tired, hungry, and while held captive for that short time it takes to reheat your supper, you may find yourself asking, “What am I doing this for?”
With the passage of enough time and enough tedium, I found myself asking this question. The reasons I gave myself when I set out to serve had grown dim over the years. But even this has changed, and for me, it came clear shortly after September 11th of 2001. It was during that month that I got another answer to that question, one that powers me still.
It was a beautiful autumn that year. Warm sunny days and cool brisk evenings had left all the trees in the city in hues of bright lemon and red, orange and brown. All the grass on the lawns of the houses that line my street stood out in a surreal Kodachrome green. The trees sentinelled each side of the street, reaching out high overhead, their boughs touching. A canopy of color, they stretch on into the distance looking like the corridor of a cathedral. In stark contrast to all of this, my thoughts lay elsewhere. We had just been attacked by terrorists. I was bewildered, dismayed, confused, angry, and frightened. Mostly, though, I was numb. I was driving slowly down my street when I happened to pass a woman who was sitting in a hammock with her young daughter in their front yard. This young mother was reading to her little girl, and when I saw this, it hit me. That’s when I got the answer to my question.
Although the words didn’t come to me all at once, the meaning of it was clear and profound. That little girl, no doubt, was like my little girl Katie. And like all little girls, she has dreams and ambitions. She may want to become a marine biologist or a ballerina, or maybe, best of all, a mother like her very own who gives her time and attention in the nurturing of those dreams. All children dream, and for those very big dreams to come true, there must be a parent there who has the time and attention to praise and encourage. The dreams of youth are precious, yet so very perishable. Without a parent to lavish praise and encouragement, those dreams are prey to a host of eroding influences.
And I knew that young mother was able to give a greater portion of her time and attention to her little girl because she was not preoccupied with so many of the other things that make up 21st-century living. She was not worrying about her streets being safe, because someone else had hired a police force and, in so doing, done that for her. Nor did she worry about her schools being adequate or her drinking water being pure or her roads being in good repair or her taxes being too high. She rarely gave a thought to fire protection, nor all the rest that goes into living in that pretty little house with the hammock out front. No, instead, she is able to turn her attention to where it belongs—
in the loving service of her little girl who has very big dreams.
I saw it all there before me that day, the answer to my question: “What am I doing this for?” I understood that I was one of a host of people who leave their homes in the evening to go to City Hall or to the school board meeting or wherever else to do the routine, mundane, boring business of self-governance. I appreciated now more than ever before that I get to be the guy who, in his own small way, gets to work behind the scenes and, in so doing, gets to play a role in support of little girls and all their dreams.
Sooner or later, you are going to ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” I found the answer, and it was there before me all along. And now when I sip my coffee and brush the cookie crumbs from my agenda, I smile to myself, knowing that what I do is important. I get to play a role, an important role, in the lives of little girls and their very big dreams.
Richard Talbot is a freelance nonfiction journalist living in Minnesota. It is his particular bent to see the most uncommon aspects of the most common things. His 47 published articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, professional journals, national e-zine blogs, while reprints have appeared abroad in the U.K., and Korean translations appearing in the Asian market. Author of three forthcoming books: The Best Part of the Day; The House on Idaho Avenue; and Chalk Drawings. Now if he can just find a book publisher. Hmm.