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

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.

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.

 

 

 

ARE YOU YEARS YOUNG….OR OLD??

 

Lani

I met this lovely gal at Trader Joe’s this morning. She was such a knockout in all blue that I asked her to, “Stand right where you are because I MUST take your picture!” She had just finished her 2 ½ mile daily walk, was grabbing some groceries then headed off to one of her two part-time jobs. Her gait was lively, her smile quick and her enthusiasm for life, palpable. Lani is a force and I was inspired not just because of her person but her chronological age. Can you guess it?

One of the best things about aging is that we’ve had years to learn that not only can you not judge a book by its’ cover, you can’t count on the cover to even give you a book. We make a lot of assumptions about others that are wrong and it can affect both our health and psyche negatively. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers,” gets at the heart of our prejudices and presuppositions about others. He writes, “When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity but when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

Such is the case for Olympic athletes. One would assume that all three medalists would be equally ecstatic. It turns out that silver medalists are the most depressed ones on the podium. They have just missed the gold and their disappointment is much greater than the bronze winner who is thrilled to have medaled at all. Researchers have even shown higher rates of depression among silver medalists. It seems that most of us are victims of ‘counterfactual thinking.’ That is, instead of rejoicing in “what actually is,” we compare our objective achievements to what, “might have been.”

That, of course, is the toughest thing about aging: accepting what is and letting go of what was. Scientists know that what truly ages us is the eventual breakdown of our cells and their ability to repair themselves and divide. Recently researchers from the U of A have discovered that by altering the sleep patterns of cells they may be able to slow down the aging process. For now, though, that aging process is zipping by for most of us. The important thing is to shine in the moment—like Lani, who is 81 years young!!

 

YOUR FRIEND, ME

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A friend of mine in his 80’s pulled me aside to talk this morning. He lifted his pant leg to reveal a huge, gauze-covered dressing over his entire shin.

 “I was caught in the middle of a dogfight,” he said. “The doctor can’t stitch it because there’s simply no skin. I have another bandage up here,” he said, indicating his thigh.

 His skin is even thinner than mine and he’s also on blood thinners. I cringed, imagining the pain of that huge, open wound.

 He then confided that his lady friend of late has decided to fly solo. After a long sigh, he simply said:

 “My life is over. I’m in too much pain to move. I have no companionship and there’s nothing to look forward to. Really, nothing.”

 For a moment, I was flummoxed. We’re pals. We’ve worked out together, gone to many a lunch, had tons of talks about love, life, books (he loves murder mysteries) and he has nothing to look forward to? I wanted to give him the pep talk that one normally gives when a friend is feeling down but no words came simply because I know how he feels. I really do.  What could I say?

 Finally, the words come to me tonight, as I ready for bed. So, I dash off this email. Maybe it will help him feel a little less alone.
Hey, kid:

I know you are in a lot of pain and that life isn’t fair.  It’s hard getting older and not snapping back into step the way you once used to.

But I just want you to know how happy it makes me feel inside every time you wave at me when I come to the gym.

Want you to know how much I love your ‘joke of the day,’ cuz even when it’s not funny, it still makes me laugh.

Want you to know that I admire how you’ve kept yourself active and in shape all these years. That takes real strength and persistence.

 Mostly, I just want you to know that my life is just a bit richer and warmer for having you in it… so hang in there.

“This, too, shall pass.”

 Your friend,

Me

 

TOUCHDOWN

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You may find this hard to believe but I just saw my very, first, live, professional football game! The last time I sat in the bleachers was in 1974, during a first date in college. However, by halftime, I told the guy that I’d had enough. (It was also our last date). As for Super bowl parties? I never attended them unless coerced and even then spent every conceivable second in the kitchen or outside listening to the leaves rustle. Anything was better than watching all those big guys run after a ball that I couldn’t even see and then jump on top of each other so hard that it made me wince.

 Until last week I had no clue how the game even worked. So, let me tell you what I learned after just one match: Football is a perfect metaphor for Life.

  1. Once the whistle blows, you only have so much time left.
  2. When you have the ball, you’re always heading for the ‘end zone.’
  3. If you get caught holding the ball, you’ll be sorry.
  4. As you inch towards your goal, some folks will knock themselves out helping you get there. Others will flatten you like a pancake.
  5. There’s always somebody faster, bigger, stronger and younger gaining on you.
  6. If you’re outflanked, you pass the ball to someone else and hope they don’t fumble.
  7. You can play an entire game and never touch the ball once.
  8. You can actually knock people over on purpose and jump right on top of them, if it’s done just so.
  9. You can’t hold on to someone—no matter how much you want to—if they’re not actually holding the ball.
  10. It all starts with a coin toss.

If you can’t play, you can always sit on the sidelines and bark orders at the guys on the field, like the crazed fan behind me did the entire game.  As it happens, I was there to watch a young man I know realize his dream to play in the NFL. Now, the only thing better than chasing your own dreams is watching someone else bring theirs to life. That’s a thrill in itself! My friend played well and as his teammates slapped his butt and gripped his helmet with congratulations, it reminded me of one, more thing:   you don’t do any of it by yourself. Nope, not one, single, solitary yard. Like football, life is a team sport.      

 

 

 

 

FINDING JOY

 

FINDING JOY

I ran into this fabulous, 94 year-old at the Vegas airport last week. Her 10 year-old, great-granddaughter, Gianna, who clearly adored her, was pushing her in a wheelchair.

“Whatcha readin’?” I asked her.

 She grinned and said, “Finding Joy.” Then she thumbed through a few pages, turned the book upside down, shook it and added, “But I can’t find her in here anywhere!” We both cracked up.

Ironically, on the same flight was another woman, also in a wheelchair, who appeared to be at least 10 years younger. She met my attempts to chat with both indifference and a nasty scowl on her face. When it was time to board, she had to wait for an attendant to take her in, so the gate attendant motioned me forward ahead of her. A few moments later as the woman was wheeled towards me in the gangway, she suddenly yelled, “I’m going in there first, you know!”

 “No worries,” I said a bit taken aback. “You’re welcome to go first but believe it or not, we’re all going to get there at the same time.” Others laughed but she didn’t find that funny at all.

 Just then, my new friend, Elaine came rolling up with Gianna.

 “Let’s all sit together!” she said with a big grin.

 “I’d love that,” I replied. “Now are we gonna sit in the cabin or do you want a seat on the wing? It does get a bit windy out there but the view’s much better.”

 “Oh, Let’s sit on the wing!” she said with glee, playing along with my silliness.

 And in a sense, we did sit there.  For isn’t it the wings that lift you soaring into the clouds? Without them, a plane would never leave the ground. Likewise, without joy, we are inexorably left with the heaviness of our own sorrows like that bitter woman. Some folks can find joy under a dusty rock. Others wouldn’t know it if you dumped it in their lap but my new friend, Elaine?  She carries it with her wherever she goes.