To Ease Their Way

At the beginning of my senior year of college, 1967, The Beatles released Paul McCartney's "The Fool on the Hill".  That title, that expression, has been my personal moniker for the whole of my adult life.

        But nobody wants to know him
        They can see that he's just a fool
        And he never gives an answer

        But the fool on the hill
        Sees the sun going down
        And the eyes in his head
        See the world spinning round

I am that fool on the hill.

My first twenty-two years were flush with white privilege and white ignorance.  Mine was a carefree childhood, protected from many of the realities of the world (protected in a way that, in a just and humane world, all children would be protected).  My formal education had been continuously and dogmatically Catholic, until I met some Jesuits who taught me a different, more critical, way of thinking.

I took a course from one Jesuit priest who was a scholar of apocryphal gospels—each year he would spend half his time in the States and the other half in the Holy Land studying scriptures in the original languages.  One lesson I gained from his course is that institutions, especially large ones, will do almost anything to maintain the status quo and hide or kill any thinking that would undermine their authority.  This, he found, was the dominant theme of many of the apocrypha and the reason the Christian hierarchy had denounced them.

I was becoming a skeptic.  My schooling was over but my education was just beginning.  After graduation I had an obligation to the military at a time when much of the country and the world was condemning anyone engaged in the war effort.  My first year as a junior officer was mostly spent in learning what it takes to be a natural leader, as I describe in my stories of Billy Hicks and Lew Williams.

But then came Vietnam, and the beginning of my real education.  As I describe in Charlie Lee and "Now You Know", I witnessed firsthand just how destructive arrogance and unchecked egotism can be, and I fought it in subtle and 'foolish' ways.  But I also observed real courage and true brotherhood for the first time.  And for the first time I was living side-by-side with people of all colors and traditions, most of whom had been sent there under duress.  Those with the most tragic histories were the ones I came to have the most respect for and the ones I found I could rely on the most.

My third year I commanded a basic training company.  That experience showed me that I could be instrumental in improving the prospects of people in the most difficult circumstances.  Back then, my work with Sergeant Oliver was most influential in broadening and clarifying my world view.

For me it was a time of great foolishness, and I look back on those years now as the beginning of the quest that has driven me ever since: to ease the way of those most in need.  For decades now, whenever I've been asked to do something foolish for someone, something costly that offers no tangible reward for me, the fool's conscience in me has always been very clear: "Ease their way."

In 1992, having seen my daughters—your mothers—through high school and having completed my MBA, I looked beyond home and career for ways to be of use.  What I came upon was a pilot program seeking adult mentors for at-risk teens at a time when gangs and drive-by shootings dominated the news in Portland.  This was just what I was looking for... basic training 2.0.  I committed to being involved for one year, stayed for seven, and ended up chairing the board of the organization.

Chairman wasn't really my thing, so in 1999 I ended my tenure in the mentoring organization and became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). As a CASA, for almost 15 years I was an agent in court cases protecting abused and neglected children in Multnomah County. It was remarkably effective work, but the reality of it all was that as CASAs gained experience they were assigned tougher and tougher cases. In the end, as one of the most senior CASAs, I was appointed to two heart-breaker cases that offered no possible win for the children. Those two setbacks were so disturbing I decided to move on and volunteer at the other end of the age spectrum.

I began driving routes for Meals on Wheels in 2013 and I still really enjoy delivering meals to shut-ins and those in our community with serious disabilities or who are living in deep poverty.  It's vitally important work and the Meals operation is remarkably complex and beneficial.  I'll be involved in it for as long as I am able.

In 2015 your grandmother and I became Long Term Care Ombudsmen (LTCO) for the State of Oregon.  We advocated for residents in...
      - Avamere Crestview of Portland, a nursing home;
      - The Taft Home, a residential care facility right out of a Dickens novel;
      - Markham House, an assisted living facility;
      - and two adult foster homes in the Portland area.
This again was important work on behalf of those with serious disabilities or who may have been abused or taken advantage of.

Back in the days when I mentored teens, one of my fellow mentors was Kathy Marchant.  Kathy had given up a successful management career to do public service (another foolish thing to do).  She subsequently became a student of Marshall Rosenberg and has taught Compassionate Communication since 1996.  In the course of her years of teaching she has improved the lives of many hundreds of Oregonians.  While I can't do what she does, I'm honored to assist her in developing and administering her programs.

In 2016 I joined my long-time friend Jude Russell, another former mentor of at-risk teens, in working in the Oregon Department of Correction's Volunteer Program.  Specifically Jude, along with a few others, had been working with a group of twenty prisoners, some incarcerated for life, in Oregon's Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla (about three hours east of Portland).

It's impossible for me to express how profoundly I've been influenced by the integrity and intelligence of these twenty men. I find working closely with them most fulfilling and enjoyable, and eventually I'd like to bring more of what I value about the work at Two Rivers to two prisons closer to home: Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (the state's women's prison) in Wilsonville, and Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland (a minimum security men's prison). 

I am a member of the board of the parent organization of this prison program, Open Hearts Open Minds.  OHOM sponsors volunteer activities within the Oregon prison system, including the production of remarkable performances by inmates of both Shakespearean and modern plays. 

As a correlated activity, I mentor inmates as they transition out of prison and into civilian life.  It is remarkable, to say the least, how much courage and humility it takes for an ex-felon to return to society with almost no money and having to face a world of prejudice.  Those who succeed have my deepest respect.

As I mentioned elsewhere, at the request of an inmate I've begun a project to help those in difficult circumstances find the support they need. It began as a website, The Path, and is evolving into something much bigger, The Path Next Gen.

So there you have it—my life as a fool.  As I reflect on it all, the adventure has remained full and satisfying, even now as I see my own sun going down.  In fact, I've found great joy and comfort all along the way.

And so with love and joy I invite you to join me in foolishness to Ease Their Way.