MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE

ON THE STREETS OF WAIKIKI

Homeless people have been around since I was a young girl in the 60’s wandering the streets of New York City.  Back then, they were few and far between, sitting quietly beside a sign that read, “Spare change?”  Now, they are up front and very center across America. On any given night, half a million people are laying their heads on the ground, exposed to the elements, disease, filth and predators. Statistics say it’s due to unemployment, unaffordable housing, drug use and mental health issues.  And while those things do affect the numbers, there is something deeper at work:  they have lost connection with others.  Sometimes that connection is lost by accident.  Other times it is a purposeful break due to violence, trauma, or family alienation which now affects 27% of us.  

13 years ago, a Stanford graduate fell off the grid.  His concerned classmates, after a long, circuitous hunt, found him alive and sort of well living on the streets of New Orleans.  That story had a happy ending.  Most don’t but often it’s not for lack of trying.  My own mother spent her later years walking the streets of Long Island pushing a shopping cart.  At night, she slept in a baseball dugout.  Despite getting her into housing, she always bolted claiming that she needed, “fresh air and freedom,” both of which came at a price.

Homelessness is a broken connection.  It cannot be simply fixed by relocation, housing or even treatment.  There is no one size fits all when you are talking about people.  If you want to repair a broken circuit, you first have to turn off the power to it, troubleshoot which breaker has malfunctioned, replace and rewire it.  On a plastic panel, it’s a simple process.  In a human being, the breakers are endless and finding the right one to re-wire is often a crapshoot.  This crisis across America will take a multiplicity of interventions connecting together at the same time.   

I’ve spent the last few weeks in Hawaii.  It is not the paradise I remember from 25 years ago.  Now, I cannot go a single block without encountering a homeless person.  I often take the bus but have yet to be able to sit at the stop, since there is usually someone sleeping on the bench.  Once, I was chased into the street by a man who threw his socks at me because I didn’t have a light for his cigarette.  But I’ve noticed something:  The police are tolerant and the locals leave food and coffee by their camp sites.  Yesterday, a blanket and a cooler filled with water and bananas were left on a park bench.  This morning, I added my own pair of worn shoes.  As Iyanla Vanzant so poignantly said, “You have to meet people where they are and sometimes you have to leave them there.”      

SHAME ON ME

Just when I think I’m at a stage of life where things are straightforward and clear, I get a curve ball.  I’m doing a quick shop at Trader Joe’s.  As I enter the produce section, there is a man fondling the bananas.  Yes, fondling.  He eventually pulls off only one.  I’m intrigued.  His clothes are ill fitting and shabby and the seat of his trousers seems oil soaked.  When he turns towards me, his long, stringy, unkempt hair frames a gaunt face that is missing several teeth.  I peg him as homeless.

Two aisles later, we pass in the frozen food section.  His walk is jerky and odd.  Definitely not Parkinson’s, so I wonder if he might have Tardive Dyskinesia.  I vaguely remember it has something to do with taking too much anti- psychotic medication.  I smile at him as we pass and he smiles back.  

Later, as I stand in the checkout line with my small bag of five items, he comes up behind me, still carrying one banana and a small bottle of water.  I offer to let him go first.

“You only have two items,” I say.  “I have five.”

He insists I go first.  I thank him and checkout, silently wondering if it’s perhaps he is getting his food free from the cashier.  

As I maneuver out of the parking lot, he crosses in front of my car with that stumbly gait.  I wait for him, assuming that he might be going to the homeless encampment half a block away.  However, as he gets towards my side, he gestures at me to roll down my window.  I do.

“I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my house for dinner tonight and watch a movie,” he asks sweetly.  I’m stunned to almost wordlessness.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I reply, “but that is sweet of you to ask.”

“Ok,” he says and goes on his way.

I wrestle with myself all the way home.  Does he really have a house?  Is he delusional?  Am I?  Then I realize that it doesn’t matter.  For the whole time I was judging him, he was looking at me with hopeful kindness.  I saw only a burned out car and missed the fact that it was really a BMW.

LIGHTEN UP

Apparently, this is NOT a ballet barre.

There is perhaps no more mournful place in American than the local gym.  Where else can you see a sea of grimacing, grunting faces in various heave-ho positions?  It could be all the mirrors.  I’d be depressed if I stared at nothing but myself, too.  When folks aren’t staring at their anatomy they are deeply involved with their cell phones.  Deeply.  From my observations, the average gym goer spends more time looking at their phone than actually working out.

If you go to the gym, do NOT attempt to converse with anyone, particularly those with ear buds.  They do NOT want to be disturbed from their very, serious business.  Also, do NOT attempt to ‘work in’ with those who have laid sweaty bandanas across the equipment or placed a water bottle at the base.  They plan to occupy that territory for as long as it takes them to do 10 reps, then pause for 5 minutes to look at their phone, do 10 more reps, etc.  They are not in a hurry to work out.  They are, in fact, camping out.  This morning, a man sat on the same piece of equipment while I swam a half-mile.  After I showered and changed, he was still sitting there!

I dare you to go into a gym without your phone and ear buds.  You will get more done in half the time.  You’re also more likely to start up a conversation and burn social calories.  (Yeah, that’s a thing.)  I also dare you to ride a bike without staring at the TV.  Talk about feeling the road.  Distractions are just that.  They keep you from doing the work.  If you don’t do the work you won’t get results.  If you want results, stay out of the gym.  

If you do go, here are some ways to make it fun:

Ask the guy wielding two, heavy ropes if you can, “Double Dutch,” with him.
Ask the 6′ 4″ kid shooting hoops if he’ll take your picture. Explain you’re writing a ‘style’ piece for the NBA.
Pretend to get stuck and ask someone to extricate you from the machine.

But WHATEVER you do make it fun. Life is too short to take yourself that seriously.

USE YOUR WORDS!

OMG!  Hasn’t life been SO much simpler since we reduced words to three letters?  I checked the AQI this morning and decided not to go outside.  Since I don’t take PED’s, I had to do something so headed to the GYM.  (My acronym for Get Yourself Moving)

FYI, more people stare at their phones there than exercise.  So, while they’re texting LOL’s to their BFF’s, I wait and fume.  Finally I say, “Hey.  I’m getting OBM.  Can I work in with you before I GOP?”  A guy wearing a JDI shirt is sprawled in the middle of the mat doing nothing.  I ask if he would mind moving over.  He doesn’t budge.  RUS?  I say, “Don’t wear a JDI shirt if you’re not gonna DI.” 

I head to my car and pass a woman and her mom having coffee at an outside table.  The mom stares at her phone and says, “Honey, what does EMF mean?”  (Had she not told her, I’d have had to look it up). TMI? In the car, I turn the radio on.  WTF is up with all the commercials?  If you have a UTI, STD, PTSD, BPD, ED or OCD, you’re in luck.  There’s a drug for you.  If you just wanna listen to music, however, you’re SOL!   

Back in the day, cops put out APB’s if you were wanted. You were DOA at the morgue and SOS meant ‘Help!’  Now?  We’re living in a 3-letter world.  OIC.  Don’t believe me?  Consider this:  Ariana Grande’s last song was ‘POV’ and 60 Minutes just did a whole segment on NFT’s.  

FTR, I had lunch today with an older friend who doesn’t own a computer or cell phone.  As she struggled to recall where the Red Sea was, I opened my phone.

“Hey Siri?”  I ask.  “Where is the Red Sea?” 

“It is an inlet of the Indian Ocean between Africa and Asia.”

“Isn’t that cool?” I brag.  She looks askance.

“I could’ve looked it up.  Imagine all the other things I might have noticed along the way.”

Branson and Bezos just zoomed into space; a zillion dollars for 10 minutes of free fall but what did they see ‘along the way?’ Do we really need to spend that kind of money to “realize just how small we are and how fragile Earth is?”  DTS. We’re on the expressway of knowledge but everything is flying by.  Nothing is sticking.  Initialism has become our self expression.

Recently, I helped look after the adorable fellows pictured above.  Oh, how I loved listening to them use their words!  Every syllable was a symphony to my ears.  When the littlest dropped his toy and I said, “Uh, Oh.” He replied: “It happens.” Honestly?  Isn’t life short enough without shortening it even more?  IDK.  I’m thinking of adding all the letters back in. It might just prolong my life.

CHEAT SHEET FOR THE CHALLENGED

OMG: Oh My God

AQI: Air Quality Index

PED: Performance Enhancing Drugs

FYI: For Your Information

LOL: Laugh Out Loud

BFF: Best Friends Forever

OBM: Older By the Minute

GOP: Go Out to Pasture

JDI: Just Do It

RUS: Are You Serious

EMF: Enjoy Mother F…..

TMI: Too Much Information

SOL: S… Out of Luck

FTR: For The Record

OIC: Oh I See

POV: Point Of View

NFT: Non Fungible Tokens

DTS: Don’t Think So

IDK: I Don’t Know

GENERATION (wh)Y NOT?

I love meeting new people.  Since the pandemic began, I’ve met more, younger ones than usual.  Perhaps it’s because the older folks are sheltering indoors.  It might also be that our youth are reaching out more.  Such was the case with the smiling fellow above.  

I ran into Josh in the parking lot of the gas station.  He was doing circles on his Onewheel; a cool contraption like a motorized skateboard that moves with your balance.  He is riding it from Florida to California, “Because I love America and really wanted to see it up close.”  If only his enthusiasm and affection for our country would rub off on the disgruntled among us, particularly those who spread their foment and feces through the halls of the Capitol last week.  

At 25, Josh has heart, imagination, gumption, and purpose but he is certainly not alone.  Who can forget Malala Yousafzai, 22, the young girl shot in the head by the Taliban as she rode her bus to school seven years ago?  She single-handedly shone the spotlight on the dearth of education for women in poor countries.  The activist and author is also the youngest to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  

These kids from Gen Y are hitting it out of the park. Their passion for life as well as their compassion for their fellow humans is beyond measure.  They are not asking what their country can do for them.  They are showing what they can do, in their own, unique ways.  I cannot WAIT until they’re in power!  In a sense, they already are.

I also had the good fortune to cross paths with another interesting fellow whom you should know about.  James Kanoff, 22, a Stanford student, started Farm Link with a group of like-minded peers during the pandemic.  They help distribute excess produce from farms into the mouths of the hungry.  Check them out and see if you can be part of Generation (wh)Y Not, too.  If you’re lucky, you just might meet someone new! 

https://www.farmlinkproject.org/about-us

DANCING GIRLS AND CLOWNS

Recently, I stumbled upon this lesser known Lautrec.  The poor girl looks like she has listened to one, too many pandemic horror stories and been subjected to one, too many whiny diatribes from You-Know-Who.  Turns out I wasn’t far off.  Toulouse painted this exhausted, brothel girl after one of her clients left.  He normally painted dancing girls and clowns.  Frankly, we could use more of both in our present climate.

The media makes me feel like that girl: worn out and used.  Once the bastion of fair and unbiased reporting, it has become a phony backdrop of half-truths and innuendo, propped up by financiers who pull the strings of pretty puppets and push private agendas.  I don’t want to see some poor, old man’s hair dye running down his face.  I’d rather watch paint dry.  Between the political rancor and various ‘movements’ all jockeying for position, it’s a wonder any of us are still standing let alone sane.

So, in this year of closing down and closing in, I refuse to close up. *  Since I must now provide my own levity, this has been my day so far:  

  1. I sat on my windowsill outside and made strange, bird noises in order to entice the birds to my feeder faster.  An elderly couple, who walk by often, suddenly stopped as I twittered on.  She raised a single, tentative finger as if to say, ‘Are you OK?’  I gave her a thumbs up.
  2. Upon entering my local coffee shop, I said, to no one in particular, “Isn’t this just wonderful?”  People stopped talking and looked up at me expectantly.  “We’re still ALIVE!” 
  3. I walked on the ‘wrong’ side of the bike path because I felt like it.  (Not to worry, there have been no bikes for weeks due to construction.)  However, a haughty woman fast-walked past me and barked, “You’re on the wrong side!”  “Oh, No!  What side is the RIGHT side?”  I asked her.  
  4. Turned on the news and hit MUTE.  While the anchor carried on, different heads popped up in separate squares onscreen. I watched their mouths.  It’s just like having my own flat-screen, goldfish bowl! 

Yes, there are horrors around every corner but there is also wonder and hope.  Honestly?  If I hear one more death prediction or political slander piece, I’m going Toulouse it.

* “The Man Closing Up,” by Donald Justice.

A BIRD IN THE HAND

IMG_1383

Recently a juvenile cowbird sat squawking on my windowsill with its mouth wide open. Suddenly, a smaller bird of a different species altogether flew in and stuck food in its’ mouth! I was shocked to watch this happen several more times. Clearly, the bird doing the feeding was not its’ ‘real’ mother. It was a black-headed gnatcatcher!! Apparently, the cowbird likes to drop its eggs into the nests of other birds and skip parenting altogether. The beauty is that those ‘other’ birds do their best to raise someone else’s fledgling.

It’s a great lesson for me in this time of protecting my neighbor by wearing a mask. Never have I been more acutely aware of our collective breaths! And I am not just referring to the pandemic but to all of those who’s lives intersect with our own. We inhale and exhale each other with a connectedness that stretches around the world. Just like those surrogate birds, we are responsible for lives that we don’t know, may not understand and may never even meet!

As a kid who was raised by my grandmother, I appreciate the value of being parented by someone who really wants you. It is the same kind of devotion that hopefully all adoptees receive. Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela and Babe Ruth were all adopted and clearly thrived. So have storks, monkeys and seals, often nurtured by parents other than their own. Giving life is one thing but nurturing it takes a different kind of devotion altogether.

This morning, a young woodpecker with a broken leg showed up on my doorstep. For a moment I wondered if I should just let nature take its course but the thought of a hawk swooping down to devour it made me cringe. Carefully, I scooped her into my hands and settled her on a large, comfy towel inside a box. She was terrified and so was I. I didn’t know how to care for her. After calling wildlife rescue, I was eventually able to leave her in far more capable hands than my own. Now if only we could leave the world that way for those who come after us.

ALL IN

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.” Marie Curie (1867-1934)

sky n football

10 years ago, I was so terrified of dogs that I rarely visited friends who had them. Then this little one came home. Skylar weighed less than a pound. She’d been taken from her mother too soon so I had to feed her with a dropper around the clock. We had high hopes that she would be a companion for our children who begged us to get her. Within a few weeks, however, she became my sole responsibility.

Having never owned a dog, I didn’t relish the task. My ignorance was boundless but she was patient with me. The first time I took her for a walk, I put an old cat leash around her neck and almost strangled her. When I dropped a sock out of the laundry basket and she brought it back to me, I thought she had super powers. “Look what my puppy did!” I bragged on Facebook. “It’s called fetch,” my friends replied. Apparently every dog could do it.

Skylar watched my hair turn from brown to gray. She transformed from a rascal who chewed up shoes into an obedient pup who thought sunflower sprouts were a treat. She was there through high school then college graduations, followed us into three, different homes in three, different states and hovered at my side through two, major surgeries. She made me laugh over little things like the face she always made when I brushed her teeth. When I played the piano, she howled along as if we were in it together and we were. At night, if I tossed and turned then sighed, astonishingly, she did the same. Yes, she barked at most everything from falling leaves to FedEx trucks. However, after she alerted me to a midnight prowler, I came to respect her every growl.

I often marvel how I ever managed to live so long before finding such a grand companion. Few humans are as unabashed in both their affections and distresses. Skylar was ALL IN for everything and everyone was a potential friend. For several thousand days, I have held her close against my heart and then, last week, as she took her final breath. The house is pin drop quiet now. Our long running conversation has ended but I will never forget how wonderful it was to have.

 

 

 

100 STEPS

IMG_0882

Since lockdown started, I’ve been walking a three-mile loop in my neighborhood. In the middle of the walk, there’s a very, steep hill. My iphone says it’s 5 stories high but it feels more like 10. The first time I tackled it, the temperature was 90 something, my heart was pounding and my legs felt weak. I thought I’d never get to the top and kept looking up to see how much further I had to go. The second time, I tried not to look up but curiosity got the better of me and every step became agony. The third time, I forced myself to look down and counted each step instead. It came to exactly 100 left-right steps! Not looking ahead and just focusing on my feet made the ascent much easier. Now that hill doesn’t seem so steep anymore.

I’m using this same strategy for our present pandemic. I say ‘present’ because this, too, will pass. Wjust don’t know when that will be or what life will look like when it does. Living in this masked and distanced universe is enough to send anyone over the edge. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Nearly half of Americans recently polled say they are experiencing mental health issues.

There is a bell curve to anxiety. At the top of it, we are motivated, focused and energized. We wash our hands, wear our masks and keep a proper distance from others. On the right-hand tail of the curve, however, we become overwhelmed and paranoid which actually weakens our immune system. We obsess over cleanliness, are terrified to go out in public and fill our heads with negative news and grim statistics. Look around. If someone is driving all alone wearing a mask, the protection they need is likely from themselves.

Eckhart Tolle encourages us to appreciate the, “power of now.” The Bible cautions, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” So, here is to realizing that the constraints we find ourselves in will eventually lead to something better. As Victor Hugo wrote over 100 years ago, “The pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light, just as the soul dilates in misfortune and in the end finds God.” It is only a few steps away. Count them with me.

 

STOP….LOOK…LOOK AGAIN

stop

 On my walk today, I happened upon this sight. It seems a perfect metaphor to our present situation. We’ve been stopped where we are but as we pause, let’s notice the beauty around us. Life will never return to the way it was before. Ultimately that may prove to be a good thing.

 I’m not just referring to the fact that crime has gone down world wide or that the bear population in Yosemite has quadrupled. It’s wonderful that residents in Punjab, India can finally see the Himalayas again after 30 years of obscurity behind air pollution. My real hope for our new future comes from the transformative way my neighbors, fellow citizens, scientists and world leaders have embraced this crisis and are carrying on.

 Health care workers are on the job despite lack of proper equipment and inordinate stress. Scientists are working globally on vaccines and cures. Educators have moved their teaching programs online. Our goods and services are being delivered and everyone is taking disinfection seriously. No longer will my guests roll their eyes when I ask them to take their shoes off at the door. All this creative restructuring may be our salvation.  

 Consider the future of a visit to the doctor. Last week, I ‘saw’ mine on my telephone from the privacy of my bedroom. He called me at the exact agreed on time and I had his undivided attention. After examining me via my handheld iPhone, he sent a prescription to my pharmacy, which was delivered to my mailbox.

 Imagine education if online schooling becomes the norm. Our over-priced colleges may well have to rethink their usefulness. Will students really want to suffer the enormities of overwhelming debt when they can get the same degrees for a fraction of the cost? Might congressmen stay in the districts they represent instead of commuting to Washington?  Can we foresee a time when we value our farmers more than our politicians?

 Although we are now wary of our neighbors we also realize just how much we need them. Experts warn that the coming recession will pale against the impending wave of depression and mental health issues that are likely to follow. As unemployment soars, so will the divorce rate. Maybe that’s a good thing. This has forced us to truly examine those we’ve chosen to share our lives with. Kindness will be king, (along with cleanliness of course). The loss of any life is hard.  The losses now are brutal and devastating.  For now, let’s just put one foot in front of the other and look for beauty anywhere we can find it.