Full Frontal Christmas
Christmas. Full Frontal.
("What's that? Is he crazy? It's Christmas, fergoshsakes! How can he be so Grinchy?")
Well, okay, maybe "bah, humbug" is a tad extreme, but pull your chairs closer and I'll explain what's going on in my warped little brain concerning the Christmas holiday.
When I was a boy in Durham, the first week in September usually brought a tingle in my being that was overwhelmed by the first weeks of school, but would quickly grow in intensity. By Halloween, it would be noticeable and would fold itself into the excitement of trick-or-treating, the Great Pumpkin on TV, and the arrival of the Sears Wish Book in the mail. By Thanksgiving, I could barely eat my turkey and watch the parades with the excitement of the approaching holiday. The sight of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy's parade would set a fire of excitement that only blazed brighter and brighter so that my mid-December, I'd be virtually bouncing off the walls. Christmas Day would culminate in such an orgy of gift giving, gift-getting and family visits that December 26th always was a heavy day of depression for me.
However, that's not the case today. As I've aged, I've become more acutely aware of the marketing buildup before Christmas. This in turn has made me more acutely aware that I don't make much money, and can therefore not afford to give many gifts.
For those of you who have not been badly bitten by the Poverty Monster (oh, how I envy you...) here's the breakdown: I live in constant fear from September 1st right up through December 25th that Mike and Ness will wake up Christmas morning and find nothing under her tree save a few random dust bunnies.
That is my number 2 fear, right behind watching a tornado bear down on me.
Sure I somehow manage to pull it off, most years. Some years have been awful close, though*. And as it is, I can't buy presents for anyone other than my immediate family. I can't remember that last year I gave my Mom a Christmas present.
However, there's still a month or two to go. Who knows? Maybe one of those hundreds of resumes I scattergunned all over the Triad will finally bear fruit.
Hope it does so soon. I thought I heard reindeer being test-flown the other night...
*2004 was Annus Horribilis as far as Christmas presents go. I'd just gotten hired at Kohl's, and didn't get much for my first paycheck, so I could only give Ness part of what she wanted, and had to promise Mike and Mama I'd use part of my tax refund in January to get their presents.
Sadly, this is kinda par for the course sometimes. Instead of getting the help they need, some homeless people get kicked by the system again and again until they feel they're in such a tight box the only way out is to End It All. I know the thought crossed my mind during my own bout with homelessness.
It doesn't have to be this way, but it is. I'm reminded of the recent story out of LA where ambulance drivers were caught dumping homeless patients on Skid Row. What is the rationale for dumping people right back into the very situation they're so desperately trying to escape? When did it become okay to throw people right back to the sharks of poverty and homelessness when it's clear they need help escaping?
Saddest of all, why am I not surprised something like this has occurred in Guilford County?
I was going to post about something else entirely, but I thought that avolo's comments to the last post absolutely had to have a response. So, here are some select quotes from his comments, with my responses. I had to be kinda choosy; I couldn't do a blanket response because time is short.
I'd love to sit down and discuss the issues of the day with this guy over a beer -- that'd be one lively confab, I bet...
“But to concede a lifetimes worth of battles into one experience is wrong.” True enough, but maybe I didn’t make myself clear here. The guy reading to his daughter was utilizing just one weapon against the raging beast of poverty; one that is too often underutilized, especially by the Black community (more on that in a moment). Baby steps, avolo. Baby steps…
“But lets be clear there are MANY things that can put/keep/ trap someone in poverty…Am I to believe that you dont love your daughters nor did your father* love your wife because of the economic hardship” Yes, there are many facets to being trapped in poverty, but instilling a love of learning in a child is, again, one weapon against that. Granted, not the only weapon, but a pretty damn powerful one. And what greater expression of love for your child than to make sure she has every weapon at her disposal for combating poverty.
“Ignorance is like a big big big big river, it can drown you.” Truer words were never spoken. In fact, I’d say ignorance is a friggin’ large and deep ocean that invites too many to swim in its warm waters. And too many enjoy doing it even after they discover that the warmth comes from the excess of urine that’s being discharged into it… That’s why the boat of learning and critical thinking is so desperately needed.
“Being Black? Not as important as you d think it is.” I disagree, my friend. It’s very important. Perhaps too important. Blackness (is that a viable word?) is a gravitic pull upon too many of our youth, who are brought up to believe that BLACK must come before HUMAN. It’s a cynical notion that being exploited to perfection by the hip-hop culture, which is feeding our kids (and to a somewhat lesser extent, white and latino kids) the constant refrain of “You gotta keep it real. All you need is some bling and street cred. School is for suckas!” And then later wondering why “The Man” gets everything he ever wants while they simply get arrested.
"But that little girl and my little boy will need more than to be read to for America worth its salt in the sand." I agree. See the above paragraphs in my reply.
“I hate it when people make derogatory assumptions about the Black community, wherever it is, without considering that these afflictions affect ALL communities in an economic zone, regardless of race, or ethnicity.” I hate it, too, avolo, but (and this is coming from a black man) some of those assumptions are on the money. They’ve entered to popular zeitgeist because they exist. Are all of them true? Of course not. But I’ve seen black fathers abandon their families, black families buying big-ticket items instead of preparing their children for careers other than criminal or McDonald’s; black girls learning how to manipulate men instead of numbers or chemical formulae; black boys looking down their noses at their more educated peers (or beating them up); black mothers too damn lazy to go across the street to apply at the new clothes store, but hauling their asses across town to take in whatever new club opens up; black families on welfare not even making token attempts to get off of it; groups of young blacks hanging around public places intimidating others instead of finding ways to be a benefit. I have seen these things growing up, and I see them today. And it’s so needless, avolo. However, this is America. Ostensibly, it’s a free country. If they want to ignorant, half-savage criminals, fine. But why drag the decent, hard-working people with foresight down with them?
“That you are seemingly, with ease, demonizing the Black father as irresponsible…Your drawing too many conclusions about the quality of men you see when you see women with their children.” Okay, I may be generalizing, but again, I’ve seen it too often to ignore its existence. If more black men would take more interest in their families beyond getting into their girlfriend’s panties, the black community would be a lot better off. Are there black men who stay with their families? Sure there are. But there are too few who do, and black children are suffering as a result.
“Brood sow? Thats mean and demeans people who need public assistance to find a foothold in a safety net that they fell through.” That is mean, but I’m not denigrating everyone on public assistance (remember, I’m there, too…for now). No, I’m aiming that at the lazy women who only seem to find energy to propel themselves out of their ennui long enough go to a seedy nightclub and screw yet another guy who cares nothing for her. Such people see welfare as the be-all and end-all. Fortunately, such people are in the minority of welfare recipients. Most are decent, hard-working sorts who just need a hand…for now.
“"I wanted to congratulate the man on his foresight and encourage him to keep up the excellent work" Dont. Its like someone congratulating you for going to the bathroom. Its something you re supposed to do.” Yes, but when a toddler goes to the potty for the first time instead of blowing out yet another Pull-Up, do we praise him or do we simply snarl “’Bout damn time!” Yes, the man was supposed to do it, but it's more important that he did it, which is more than I can say for all too many men in the black community. Still, a little encouragement goes a long way.
*For the record, I grew up without a father; my biological father chose not to hang around after being with my mother (thus I never developed a relationship with him, although I don’t hate him) and my stepfather was a drunken, abusive lout who defined spending time with the family as beating the hell out of us and driving off to drink some more with his equally loutish friends. Hopefully, cirrhosis will stop his foolishness sooner rather than later.
While we were prowling the children's section for books that broke the story of the Holocaust and WWII down to a kid's level, we became witness to a fight.
A strapping man was in total warfare, swatting away at his enemy as powerfully as he could. He wielded his weapon like an expert, landing blow after blow, trying to force his foe back. I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer brutality of his attacks, effective as they were, and found myself pulling for him. The man's daughter (maybe three years old) was there, and seemed as engrossed as I was, especially since she seemed to be the focus of the battle.
Did I mention that the fight was for that little girl's future? Against the twin enemies of ignorance and poverty? And that the weapon the man wielded was -- a book?
So what? you say. Guys read to their kids all the time.
Ah, but there is one image of the scene I haven't yet recounted: The man and his little girl were both black. And I can say with conviction, my friends, that that is a scene not witnessed enough in the black American community.
The man was reading to his little girl with enthusiasm, without worrying if he sounded silly, and without rushing as if having something better to do. The girl, cradled in his lap, was enthusiastically trying to read along, and frequently interrupting her father to point out something interesting on the page.
Why did I describe the scene as a fight? Because it occurred to me how this man was striking at the very roots of poverty and ignorance. And with such a simple weapon as the power of reading and forming ideas. That man was laying the groundwork for that girl to become something other than window-dressing in a rap video. Or a streetwalker. Or some drunken brute's punching bag. Or a brood sow waiting for yet another welfare check to show up. He was making sure, through conveying the sheer joy of reading, that his little girl would one day have the capacity to grow up, grab hold of the underpinnings of this rotted society, and give it a good hard shake.
I mentioned to Ness how good it was that the father was reading to his daughter. She just shrugged her shoulders. Not surprising; she was focused on fulfilling her own objective, but she doesn't seem to recall that Mama and I read to her when she was that age. A lot. And she's seen us reading every chance we've got. She's become a voracious reader herself, and as a result, teacher after teacher have complimented us on how smart she is.** Still, I don't think the scene was entirely lost on her.
I think everyone knows that education is one way to break the grip of poverty. And one way to jump-start a kid's brain and make it thirst for knowledge is the simple act of reading. Somewhere in all that absorption of knowledge is bound to be ways to break the cycle of poverty and make sure it's driven far from the child's life.
And again, it's such a simple thing. And yet so powerful.
I wanted to congratulate the man on his foresight and encourage him to keep up the excellent work, but by the time we found Ness' books and got back to where they were, he and his daughter were gone. Hopefully, he'll read these words here and know that he struck a mighty blow for his daughter's future intellect that night. I salute you, sir. Years from now, I hope you'll have the pleasure of hearing your daughter rattle off some fact that indicates that she could only have come to it by dint of critical thought and know that you were the one who planted that seed on that long ago October night.
Oh, and we found a copy of Anne Frank's diary. I bought it, and a presentation board from Walgreens across the street to boot. Couldn't really afford them, but what the hell -- it gives poverty and ignorance impressive shiners.
She's recently become engrossed with Anne Frank's story after learning about it at the library. She actually wants to do an extra-credit project based on her life and the events occurring at the time. Of course, there's no way I'm going to dampen her enthusiasm. Previously she wanted to absorb as much knowledge as she could about the Titanic, after seeing the movie and falling in love with the theme song.
**Forgive me a little braggadocio. But we've worked hard to make sure that Ness won't just amount to yet another pedestrian waste of flesh. To see our efforts bearing fruit like her quest to learn more about Anne Frank and the Holocaust is very gratifying.
That I Be Not Judged
I'm glad I did enable those Comments. I'm always learning something.
Specifically, the mighty kat confirmed something I was afraid was slowly occurring, but didn't want to admit: I was becoming judgmental. I Forgot Where I Came From. I Failed To Walk In The Other Guy's Shoes (pardon the pun).
To wit: you recall, two posts ago, I rated an (ostensibly*) homeless guy using the Shoe Test Cara taught me as a set of criterion, among others, in making a decision whether or not to help him. I eventually decided not to.* kat nailed me good; I could've tried to glean more information. Becuase I didn't, I apparently slid myself right into that same pigeonhole that other less enlightened people were comfortably nestled in.
The clincher came from gtv. Yeah, the guy's arrogant sometimes (by his own admission), but he was on the money with his Comment. Here's the part that grabbed me, in his own words:
First I listen to their pitch and based on their
demeanor, sincerity AND their tone of voice to determine the integrity of the
person. For example, a normal person and a crackhead could say the exact same
thing like "I'm homeless, I need help for me and my family, and could you please
spare any change you may have kind sir?", but the former would look me in the
eye when saying it, isn't pushy and seems to be genuine in their plea for help
while the latter looks, acts and talks like a crackhead! I have also, on
occasion, asked if they would like to share their story with me over lunch (my
treat) and some have accepted the offer. You'd be amazed what you could learn
just by talking to people. You'd be just as amazed what you might be missing out
on by just looking at their shoes...
I remember my interviews with Tim and Ron. Both of them looked me in the eye as we talked. Neither liked being homeless, but there was that spark of "This isn't the end of me" in their eye. I doubt a liar or a crackhead could fake that kind of defiance of circumstance.
As they say on South Park, "I learned something today." The ugly something is that I'm slipping back into judgementalism. I have to watch that. The pretty something is that fakers can be discovered with just a little personal contact, or at least, much closer observation.
Always good to be snapped back into place by one's peers. Thanks, guys.
*Now, I'll still use the term ostensibly because we do have some fakers around here. The N&R did a story on them some years ago, and I think the local Fox affiliate did a short on-air article as well. There is a small minority of people, for whatever reason, that do try to beat the system by panhandling, although they have the wherewithal not to.
**In going back over the post, I find I neglected to mention that we were several lanes away from the guy in heavy traffic. I couldn't have helped him regardless. Not without causiing a wreck, anyway.
I guess it's just as well. Near as I can remember, I was at work that day. No doubt I would've been too exhausted to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.
Still, I don't like the idea that I didn't help out because I wasn't there. I could've lived with being present but ineffective. But I didn't help out because I wasn't there at all. And that rankles. A lot.
So what would my presence have brought to the table that the other worthies wouldn't have? I guess just my presence at all. Like I said a moment ago, I bet I would've been the only person in the room that had ever suffered homelessness. Maybe my being there would've put a face (ugly though it is) on the homelessness problem in the Triad. Maybe I could've caught up with the guy afterward and put a bug or two in his ear. Maybe simply have slipped him a piece of paper with the URLs for Cara's and my blogs. Maybe given him a piece of information that would've helped in the fight against homelessness. Maybe just been there. Sometimes, just being there is powerful enough; just ask Nichelle Nichols.**
It just rankles me that I missed an opportunity like that. Maybe I'm getting slack in my old age. Maybe I'm more burned out than I realize. Maybe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is setting in.*** I don't know anymore.
I do know that I sometimes I need to speak up, and I'm sometimes too all in to do it. More's the pity.
* In fact, she's always ten steps ahead of me on this effort. I envy her being so on top of things. In my own defense, however, it wouldn't bother me unduly if the events of February to May, 2006 were tossed in the ash can of other forgotten things in the back of my mind.
**Who you will recognize as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek (finally worked in a plug for one of my fave TV shows...) The story goes that she was going to quit the show due to the scarcity and lack of quality of her scenes. At a social function, she met none other than the Man Himself, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who exhorted her to stick with it because her very presence, even in the background, spoke volumes about the presence of negroes (the term at the time) in society. The rest, of course, is TV history.
***I'm not making light of this. PTSD is a real problem that manifests after all kinds of stressful situations. It's not just "shell-shock" anymore.
The Haggard Sole
I know I haven't been active much in that arena lately, on the blog or in the arena. Not out of a sense of "psh! I got mine..." but just out of the afromentioned burnout and trying to put our lives back together.* There's just a lot to do for ourselves right now, and frankly I feel guilty for missing out on the fight. I know, I know -- you gotta do for you and yours first, but there's still the nagging notion that we went through that three-month nightmare for a reason.
Still, it was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot. Sometimes I even get to apply what I've learned.
Take, for instance the guys on the street corner with the Hungry.Homeless.GodBless signs. I remember mentioning to Cara Michele about struggling to distinguish the ones who actually need help from the ones who're just trying to get over on the system. She told me to look at their shoes. Aha, the nicer/more expensive the shoes, the less likely this is a person actually needing help.
A couple weeks ago, I approached a corner having just gotten off of Wendover Avenue headed toward town. An older man was standing there strategically with a cardboard sign. My eyes immediately went to his feet. Hmm, worn walking shoes, probably picked up from the Goodwill. There's someone with him. His wife, perhaps? She seems slightly older. She has a cane; maybe she's partially disabled. Still, he's carrying a sign instead of actively trying to better his position. Help him, yes or no? I decided to give him a buck coupled with a word of encouragement and advice, but blast it! I had spent it on gas already. Plus, the light had changed and the guy behind me looked eager to see how far he could shove his SUV into my trunk.
Okay, maybe next time.
In contrast, the other day, Mama and I were headed home from the grocery store when we saw a guy at the corner of West Market and Spring Garden St. He had the requisite sign. I checked out his feet. Brand-new walking shoes! I looked him over then with a very critical eye. The guy was younger than I was. He had on a short-sleeved shirt that allowed him to sport a pair of very well developed arms. The shirt and the jeans were quite clean and in good shape. He had a spring in his step as he paced his chosen corner seeking handouts. He didn't have the world-weary look of someone who was tired of fighting to survive. Even given Cara Michele’s admonition that mental illness isn’t always evident, this guy looked too much like he’d gone for an evening constitutional and decided to pick up a little spare change from passers-by.
Yeah. I did pass by. Without looking back. So did a lot of other people.
I know that sounds cruel. That guy may well have needed help after all. But there was just too much evidence to the contrary. In the end, I stuck to my usual criterion: if he was in that good a shape, he could’ve been out doing better for himself. After all, if a fat old curmudgeon like me can stumble into work every day, I know a strapping buck like that can too.
*Homelessness can disrupt lives much more than most people know. We're still taking care of business that got postponed from last February that we're just now able to pick back up on. Those who've been without a roof overhead for far longer no doubt come back to total train-wrecks of lives.
The Security of Mundanity
Had to happen eventually; our lives have been mostly on fast-forward for the past month or so as we try and cram ten times the amount of information and business into half the time frame we've become accustomed to dealing with. Even though we now have use of the Trusty Steed*, the time just seems to slip away.
Paradoxically, we've also been contending with a growing ennui, which is probably to be expected having returned to a sense of normalcy bordering on mundanity.
And yet, I'll take the boring mundane over the "excitement" of being homeless any day.
*It's still going, even after that business with the transmission and the fact that it still badly needs a tune-up. Still, it's the toughest little car I've ever owned. Even my old '63 Chevy Malibu I owned in the late '80s (may it rest in peace) would've given up the ghost by now. See, this is why I prefer Chevys over any other car (sorry, Ford fans!)