Friday, October 25, 2013

The Difference Between Him and Me

They were layering up at the homeless shelter in Ottawa as they headed out the door Monday morning. Summer is over. The rules say shelter residents must leave by nine but most are gone by the time nine rolls around. First to go was the woman who works as a maid at one of our local hotels. She had brought her bike inside for safe keeping. I thought of the hotel up by Route 80 where she was heading, the shelter’s location downtown, and the long way up our big river bluff that separates them. I don’t ride my bike up that big hill.

“You going to be warm enough?” I asked as she pulled on her stocking hat and gloves.

“After I start pedaling hard I sort of make my own heat,” she said. “Unless there’s a lot of wind, then I stay cold the whole way.”

She was, I’d guess, about forty. Forty, living in a homeless shelter, working as a maid.

“Monday’s our biggest day, after the weekend. I don’t get as many hours during the week cause not as many rooms get used. But Sunday morning and Monday are usually big.”

She seemed to relish the prospect of working a long day. More hours mean more money. I held the door as she picked up her bike and walked out.

A woman on the street recently complained to me that she’d been asked to leave the homeless shelter because she was on Social Security Disability and made too much money. People still talk to me as if I’m working in social services and have some say over how people in the local community are helped. It makes me smile. It’s all part of my shift to retirement, which equates to unemployment, which takes me out of influential spheres. I’m glad to be gone.

“Look into that will you Dave?” she said.

I don’t have to look into it. The shelter is always available to people on an emergency basis, but a long term stay includes an assessment of each person’s situation. A person on social security disability typically has the means to buy their own shelter. If they do not or cannot manage that resource, there are agencies to help them, like Bridges Senior Center, or shelter staff. But a person with means, even limited means, who uses the shelter as a long term resource takes a bed away from a person for whom this country provides no resources. That’s why there are few senior citizens in the shelter.

I try to imagine waking up in one of the bunk beds, stumbling my way on stiff joints across the dorm area, basically a big open room for the men, into a group bathroom, and then making my way to the counter for coffee and breakfast. It would be like waking up in a public place-an airport, a bus station-with others seeing you at your worst, your groggiest, your sloppiest. Wait, it is a public place. It’s the total lack of privacy that I think would be the hardest thing to endure in a shelter. Always on display.

I worked the seven to nine shift. After eight I took a walk back towards the washing machines to see if everyone was out of bed. The women have a smaller enclosed space that I avoid. A few men were still sleeping, one curled against the wall in a lower bunk with his back towards me. Another lay on his back on a top bunk, snoring softly, his hair a mess, his beard stubbly.

“It’s going on nine fellas.”

The guy’s snoring stopped. I couldn’t tell if the guy facing the wall heard me or not.

To their credit the PADS organization, which has done a good job raising funds with a second hand store, is expanding the Ottawa shelter by adding three family rooms where parents with young children can live privately. They worked out an arrangement with the city to expand their lease and occupy an unused adjoining space. Through volunteer labor and a minimum of professional paid help, electricians mostly and the heating and air conditioning folks, they are close to completing those rooms. I helped with the demolition right after I retired. Now new interior walls are ready for drywall. I always love seeing an empty space refigured, newly imagined, and put to use. They believe that old part of the building was once a stable. It’s solid. They raised the floor, put in a new exit, closed off an old door, created a play area for kids. I can’t wait to see families there, living more like families were intended to live rather than in a communal dormitory space.

The guys I woke up had made their way to the tables. They sat there, slouched over coffee cups, saying little. I sat with them. “Good Morning America”, the TV show with the bouncy well dressed actors posing as journalists, played in the background. Little of the on air discussion related to the morning that lay before the Americans in Ottawa’s homeless shelter. They ignored it.

Finally the previously snoring guy spoke to the now sitting lower bunk man.

“What you got going today Carl?”

“I got an appointment at the clinic at 2:00, and other than that not a god damned thing.”

I chuckled to myself. Being retired and being homeless are not so different. That man’s schedule sounded identical to mine. The difference between him and me is that I have a home, privacy, and means. He does not. In America that’s just the way it goes.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Davion Navar Henry Only

You might not think retired guys have busy weeks but it happens. Rather than slap out an update in an hour or so I decided to pass on this story that appeared in the Huffington Post. It began, I think, in the Tampa Bay Times and also was written up in Newsweek. I subscribe to a virtual clipping service that e mails me articles about child welfare and juvenile justice in the Midwest and beyond. This one caught my eye. There are so many more kids like this boy out there. Few of us are aware of them, and almost none of them are able to communicate their plight, let alone see it make national news. This boy was lucky. It could save his life I think. Make sure you read this one.

“I'll take anyone," came the heartbreaking plea of 15-year-old orphan Davion Navar Henry Only, who stood in front of a St. Petersburg, Fla., congregation last month in a last-ditch effort to find an adoptive family. The story of his search for a mom and dad is both terribly sad and indicative of the problem facing so many older orphans who may spend years in foster care without ever finding a permanent home.

For Only, who was born in prison, life has consisted of a constant shuffle through the foster care system, reports the Tampa Bay Times. He knew little about his mother, a drug addict and a convicted thief, and has himself grappled with academic, rage and weight issues.
When Only recently mustered the courage to look up his mother, he discovered that she had died on June 5, 2013, at the age of 55, per Newsweek. At her funeral, he met relatives who, while perhaps were not suitable as guardians, cared about him.

“One of the things they told Davion was that he was loved,” Connie Going, Only's caseworker and an adoption specialist for Florida-based agency Eckerd Community Alternatives, told Newsweek. “He got in the car and said, ‘I didn’t know I was loved, Miss Connie.’ That began the turning point.”

With Going's help, Only began to get serious about his schoolwork and worked on controlling his emotions and leading a healthier lifestyle, per Newsweek.

"He's come a long way," Floyd Watkins, program manager at Only's current group home, told the Tampa Bay Times. "He's starting to put himself out there, which is hard when you've been rejected so many times."

The church appearance, Only's idea, was one way of "putting himself out there." The Times described how the boy wore an ill-fitting black suit and gripped a Bible as he stood before the 300 or so members St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. "Without looking up," writes the Times, "Davion wiped his palms on his pants, cleared his throat, and said: ‘My name is Davion, and I’ve been in foster care since I was born. ... I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either.'"

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that around 400,000 children were in foster care in the U.S. last year. Though this number has declined significantly in the past 10 years, the department's Administration for Children and Families notes that the average age of children waiting to be adopted from foster care is still 8.5 years old.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children released a report in 2009 that noted how "younger foster children have a much better chance of finding a permanent family." The report also said, "Every day that a waiting child remains in foster care, his chances of being adopted decrease."

HLN spoke about Only with Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Tennessee mother whose adoption of a homeless young man named Michael Oher inspired the Oscar-winning film “The Blind Side." Tuohy said that like Oher, who later went on to become a professional football player, Only needs unconditional love and a chance to shine.

"How do we know if someone doesn't offer Davion hope and love and opportunity that he would not become the next greatest teacher or airplane pilot of police office," Tuohy told HLN. "It's just not acceptable that we are out building animal shelters ... and we have kids that are walking on the street and they just want is a forever family. ... This kid just wants to be loved, he wants to wake up in the morning and know that there's somebody who loves him."

The Tampa Bay Times reported this week that two couples from St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church have asked about Only, but that no one has offered to adopt him.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sharing the Truth We Discover

A guy visited the shack recently and asked me a great question.

“What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? Why are you doing it?”

When you don’t have a quick answer don’t you sometimes just wish people would keep their mouth shut? I’ve been thinking of this question for weeks now and I think I have an answer. I’m not a quick thinker. That’s why writing appeals to me. I have to think before I respond and writing matches that speed. I’ve always admired people with witty and snappy answers who engage readily in verbal repartee. But I’ve never been one of those people.

I hope to connect with people through my writing as others have connected with me. I’ve been enriched beyond measure by writers. When I have felt most alone, most isolated, most stranded I have read the words of others and realized I indeed had a tie with the rest of the human race. That can be infinitely important. Is infinitely the right adjective? Let’s go on.

I quit my teaching job, an occupation I had both prepared and been educated for, and struck out on my own. I left everyone I knew and loved for a hazy set of reasons unclear even to me and found myself terribly alone. By chance I picked up a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and read these opening lines:

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased, although I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.”

I don’t even know now what so struck me, pulled me in, captivated me by these words. Maybe it was the directness of the first person narrative. Maybe it was his honesty. But I know I was touched, there in a cheap hostel in Aberdeen Scotland, engrossed in the thoughts and the written words of a nineteenth century Russian whose work miraculously found its way into print for me to read and appreciate there by the North Sea. Dostoevsky helped me understand life. I read that book in a matter of days, and his longer novel Crime and Punishment which I stole, ironically, from the Aberdeen Public library, going without sleep to finish it, and by doing so made my way, mostly by myself, through the confusing Scottish winter of 1974. What did Dostoevsky hope to accomplish with his writing? Did he imagine helping me?

I am nourished by writers all the time. As much as I yearn to write, I also live to read. There is so much to take in. I can only choose from among an embarrassment of riches. There’s a guy named Thomas McGuane who talks to me through his writing. I’m sure he doesn’t know it. The musings of his characters, like Berl Pickett the Montana doctor practicing in his hometown, speak of what happens inside my own head. I feel as if he and I are friends, thinking and understanding life the same way. Here the middle aged doctor tends his own dying father.

I laced my fingers over the top of one of the bedposts and just kind of hung there watching him sleep, unable to tell why my heart ached. I’d gotten into the habit sailing through moments like this and I thought if I could get it right, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’d stay right there with it until it was clear.
- from Driving the Rim, Knopf 2010

We can talk , we can talk , we can talk all we want. We can yadda yada yadda; we can blah, blah, blah; we can say what first pops into our head but if we slow down and think, and then write, looking closely at what we’ve written, we improve both our thoughts and our message. By slowly saying and listening to what we’ve written, choosing our words carefully to mean what we think, we communicate so much better, don’t you agree? Don’t you appreciate when people measure what they think in written words, making sure they mean what they write without qualification? Without hedging? Do you appreciate those who take the time to read their words and think them through before they give them to you? I do. I value that greatly. That’s why I read. That’s what I try to do when I when I write.

I think we all need stores that contain truth. I think we need truth just like we need vegetables, and bread, and fruit, and all that sustains us. I write in the hope I can connect with someone who can learn from the life I’ve lived. We are so much alike and yet we are so separate. So divided. We lose people who are lost one to another. We lose people to despair, to sadness, and to loneliness. Writing, and taking the time to read, can remind us we are alike. By sharing our thoughts, our fears, our lives with one another we can help each other. Silence does nothing but keep us apart. We need to share our lives with one another. Sharing life does not have to be tragic and heavy, just as it may not always be happy and bright. But I think we have an obligation to talk to one another about what we’re experiencing. I picture our accumulated body of literature, from the Bible to the last Face Book post on your smart phone, as just that. A record of lives outside our own. It gives us a common basis for living. It lets us know we’re not alone.

Let me share a basic truth. It’s a small one, comic, and not altogether pleasant. Here’s how it developed.

I got dressed for work. My wife asked me to walk the dog before I left. Because I wanted to avoid the unpleasant tasks I knew lay before me at work for as long as possible, I walked the dog gladly. It took a while. I put the dog in the house, yelled good bye to my wife, and walked to my car, parked in our garage. The smell of shit became apparent to me as I opened my car door. Could some animal have shit in my garage? I looked around. I had not the time to search.

I sat in the driver’s seat, put my Buick into reverse, and continued to smell shit as my car went backwards out of the garage. Could something have shit in my car? I’d left the windows open. Maybe the neighbor’s cat snuck in my garage, jumped into my car, and shit in it. At that moment I hated that cat. As I made my way in my car down the hill to my office, a short trip, I searched around and under me in the driver’s side for the source of the smell, looked carefully at the carpet on the passenger side, and craned my neck to look into the back seat. No turds, cat or other, were evident yet the smell of shit persisted.

I parked near the office, walked to the back door, and entered my office building. My own office, with a single desk and a door that closed and made it private, was near the back door. I went immediately to my chair and sat down. Damned if my own office didn’t smell like shit. This is incredible, I thought.

And then it dawned on me. I’ve been in my garage, my car, and my office all the while smelling shit. I came to an unshakeable conclusion, a life lesson. It was as if a bright light had been turned on in a dark room. I sighed, an older guy alone in an ordinary office, and smiled. I’d learned this as a kid on the farm. How could I have forgotten?

If the smell of shit follows you, it’s probably on your shoes.

I put my ankle on my knee, looked closely at my upturned shoe, and found there, as I knew I would, caked behind the heel, the source of the smell. To add insult to injury I realized it was most likely my own dog’s shit from a previous walk. Everything became clear. It was a moment when truth, albeit an old one once learned but forgotten, was rediscovered. Life is like that. It confuses you and then everything became clear. We’re never too old to learn, just as we’re never too young to discover truth on our own. I know it’s a stinking story, but I felt absolutely obligated to share it with you.

There you have it. I admit it’s not yet Dostoevsky, but I’m working at it. I write to bring you things that are true. I think you’ll know if and when it hits home. Good writing brings us together. It seems worth doing. That’s what I’m about out here in the shack. Wish me luck.

Friday, October 4, 2013


There’s an awful lot going on in Washington. Not to hurt the tourist industry, but I don’t think it’s a good time to vacation there. In addition to a sudden increase in unemployment among furloughed government workers a lot of stuff is closed, due to the government shut down, and Republicans seem angry about that even though they engineered the shut down.

Consider the WW Two veteran who was on an Ohio ‘honor flight” and rather than spending a quiet fall day at the WWII memorial with his buddies, reflecting on their experiences seventy plus years ago, got caught amidst the CNN cameras and the barricades with Steve King and Michelle Bachmann getting into the picture. If I’m a 93 year old in a wheelchair with a catheter bag the last thing I want is to be on TV. I bet he wished he had come on a different day. I think there’s a big lack of good Karma in that place and it’s best to just avoid it if you can.

The United States was almost always the kind of place where defeated politicians gave kind concession speeches. Elections are adversarial, so when someone wins someone else loses. The losers in elections usually say things like “the voters have spoken, my opponent is a good person, I wish him or her well, God Bless America.” The value put forth by those kinds of statements reflects the idea that the US has a system of governing that relies on majority rule. Votes determine those majorities, both in public elections and in the passage of bills in our legislative bodies. It’s how we make policy and decide things. If you are in the minority regarding a particular candidate or policy question you’re not supposed to drop out of the system but rather we’ve been taught to work within it to make things better. Perhaps your time will come and next time you will win. But in the end we continue to participate, voters and politicians alike. We work with the winners for the good of everybody because we live together and need each other. American politicians, rather than requiring complete agreement, have always accepted consensus and gone on with the business of governing, with notable exceptions. The Civil War being one. The Affordable Care Act apparently being another.

If you’ve watched CNN or C Span lately you’ve seen and heard, maybe just now gotten to know, people like Steve King, Republican member of the House of Representatives from rural Northwest Iowa. Sioux City is the big town in his district. In addition to being rabidly opposed, and I do mean rabid, to the Affordable Care Act, Steve King passed a bill as a State legislator making English the official language of Iowa. Does Illinois have an official language? If it does, don’t you assume its English? The Steve King/English/official language thing is an indication of his Anti Immigrant politics. Since Tom Tancredo of Colorado left the House, and until Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona wins election to Congress, you won’t find a more anti-immigrant voice on Capitol Hill. So you can’t call Rep. King a single issue kind of guy. He has a whole list of things he hates in addition to ObamaCare. He was recently shown in footage at the World War Two memorial, where my poor catheterized 93 year old was stuck, saying with a crazed look that the closing of the memorial was “no doubt a direct order from the White House.” I don’t think Steve cares much for our President.

Standing with Steve King among the Tea Party Republicans most proud of shutting down our government was Diane Black, whose House district takes in suburban Nashville in Tennessee. I became acquainted with Diane through the single camera on C Span that records speeches given to seemingly no one. Diane was explaining her evolution to being “completely and utterly” opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Diane was a registered nurse who married a doctor who became rich. She was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1998 and recently promoted to the U.S. House of Representatives. She and her husband’s net worth is reported at almost $29 million because of her husband's stake in Aegis Sciences Corporation, a "...forensic chemical and drug-testing laboratory specializing in The Zero-Tolerance Drug Testing® programs for businesses, professional and amateur sports, pain management physicians, and medical examiners.” She explained her odyssey to Washington as a direct response to ObamaCare. She and her husband realized they had to “do something about” what was happening in medicine in America so she came to Washington with the sole purpose of “defeating this terrible scourge.” Scourge.

There are a lot of Representatives in the House. Four hundred and thirty five actually. Each is supposed to represent more or less the same number of people, and so the maps of their districts vary greatly in size depending on the density of population in that area. California has fifty three of them. Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Vermont have only one for the whole state. Any group of 435 people is going to be pretty diverse, so we shouldn't be surprised at the number of very conservative representatives. They tend to come from districts which are either rural or suburban.

When C Span puts the identifier bar under the talking head of a house member it lists three towns in their district. I think those are probably the biggest towns. When Eric Cantor of Virginia is speaking they list his three towns as Culpepper, Montpelier, and Glen Allen. Culpepper’s population is 16,379. I saw Eric Cantor on C Span standing with a bunch of furloughed doctors and research guys in white coats at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Eric was touting a house bill that would give some emergency money to the shut down NIH. Not all the money, but rather the money for pediatric cancer research. Good tactical choice.

Later in the day House Republicans were doing the same for Veterans. They were proposing to give them some emergency money for some of the things they do for veterans. This piece of film took place in House chambers where they parcel out the speeches in minutes. A very soft spoken kind appearing African American representative, a Democrat from a Southern state got a minute to speak. During his minute he said that he had two veteran’s groups in his district and he had recently talked to them about this bill. They told him that if Congress truly wanted to honor them as veterans they would not use them as pawns in a partisan political battle, pitting them against family members and others in their community suffering from the government shut down, but instead open government so that all can benefit. Then he sat down. Those bills, if they pass, are sent to the Senate where they are taking no action. I think the air is going out of that “emergency money for appealing issues” tactic. They seem to now be focusing on the debt ceiling.

So out of the four hundred and thirty five representatives in the U.S. House some small and undetermined number of them, less than eighty and more than thirty, hard to tell, who identify themselves as Tea Party Republicans, are driving the bus. And the bus is headed towards a cliff. The Republican Speaker of the House and his fellow Republicans are at this point cooperating with their desire to wrench concessions from the President on the Affordable Health Care, and now the debt ceiling, and the budget-all outside the legislative process. Am I wrong in thinking we used to do this by introducing bills, debating them, amending, them, passing them, making them law, and then following those laws? I think the House may have abandoned that, and I know it’s slow and cumbersome, because the vocal minority didn’t have the votes to do it that way. That way requires majorities and we don’t appear to be big on majorities these days. They’re developing other tactics. I don’t think it’s good.

It does makes for great TV however, and produces really interesting quotes. My favorite so far is this:

“Now that we’ve… lit ourselves on fire, we’ve got to stay together.”
Representative Devin Nunes, R-California

I don’t know Devin, and I don’t know what life has been like for him up to this point. But I think he has a fuzzy idea of the physics of combustion. I personally am not staying together with anyone that is on fire. I’m not standing with them, sitting around them, or staying in the same room with them. I might, and actually I’ve always wanted to, grab one of those red fire extinguishers, pull the pin from the handle, point the black funnel at him, and spray the guy down with foam. We had those fire extinguishers all over YSB, spent a fortune having them inspected and charged up, and in my thirty five years there I never had a chance to use one. Always wanted to. I’ve got one beside me right now in the shack here in case something goes wrong with the wood burner. I’d hose Devin down with the white foamy stuff in a minute, given the opportunity, but I kind of think he wants to flame on. I don’t get it. It’s a bad metaphor for government Devin.

John Boehner says he doesn’t have the votes to pass a clean continuing resolution, one with no conditions and demands, to keep our country running. That would mean all the Democrats vote for it and enough moderate Republicans to pass the bill. So he’s not calling it. Some think that’s not true. A Democrat on C Span (it was late, I couldn’t keep up with all the names) held up a list that she claimed had seventeen Republicans listed who would vote for a clean continuing resolution. That’s a start.

My representative, Adam Kinzinger, has been quiet. I’m glad he’s not on C Span spouting off but I wonder, what towns they would put under his talking head? Belvedere, Ottawa, Pontiac? Do you think he might join other Republicans in getting the government funded and working again? I’d like to think he would. He represents me. I’d like him to do that. I bet others that live in his district would also. Let’s call him. His number in Washington is 202 225 3635. If Adam is not your representative, and your voice in the House is another Republican who could help us do the right thing, why not call him or her? I’m thinking of Peter Roskam. Where is he on this question? His number is 202 225 4561. Let’s do something to help this along, other than watching TV and enjoying the dangerous circus act that pretends to be our United States Congress.