Got My Chops Back Friday Round-Up

What I did this week was get things done. After days and weeks of moping and having a brain dull as an old tennis ball, I just focused on getting stuff done. Meetings, writing, planning, checking things off the list. Just work the list, I always say, work the list. For a person like me, productivity is its own balm. So I got balmed up this week, plenty good.

My beloved Street Angels dealt with a very sick homeless woman who was turned down at shelter because she couldn’t get to the can on her own. In a wheelchair, sick in ten different ways, weak, and living outside, she just was too much for the shelter to bear. I know. They have rules and staffing issues and all that. So Street Angels took said very sick woman to the ER where they kept her for a bit and then discharged her at 1:00 a.m. To the street. My outrage about this and other things this week led me to the conclusion that anger may be the fountain of youth since I’ve never felt more ready or able to go to war.

Yesterday, I stood next to the person who put the peas next to the chicken and gravy over mashed potatoes. We were in an assembly line to put hot meals together to distribute on homeless outreach. She was so careful to make sure the peas hugged the side of the styrofoam container furthest away from the chicken and gravy. “Some people don’t like their food touching.” And I loved that so much, that she would think of that.

Our dog basically lost his balls. There remains a facsimile of balls but it bears little resemblance to what was there. I mentioned this to my husband at the dog park, looking at Swirl’s minimalistic balls swinging like deflated balloons and he said just this, “Better small balls than a dead dog,” he being the one advocating neutering the dog to avoid cancer later. It was our first visit to the dog park in ten days – the recuperation period that long – and it was a sweet return.

When I was in second grade, my mother bought me brown oxford shoes. These were to be my school shoes. My play shoes were $1 sneakers from our dime store. I remember being astonished that she’d bought me little man shoes. They were brown with brown laces, as severe as an old nun’s habit. I wore them with white anklets. I remember to this day sitting at my desk in class and looking down at my feet and feeling such disbelief that those were my shoes. But they were and I just had to learn to live with that reality.

The Currency of Homelessness

I heard our local police chief refer to homeless people as an eyesore. An eyesore. Like a junkyard, like old wet carpet piled at the curb, like boarded up, burned out buildings on main street. Living breathing people seen as an eyesore.

He wasn’t speaking about his department’s official policy toward homelessness, as in, their mission was to reduce community eyesores. He was just talking off the cuff, albeit to an audience of a couple of hundred people, influential ones to boot. We all heard what he said. The word came out of his mouth like he’d used it at roll call the day before. There was no pause, no searching, no thinking Do I mean eyesore or do I mean tragedy?

I wanted to follow up with him but I didn’t. I wanted to think the chief didn’t really mean it. The police here are pretty decent with homeless folks. They don’t clear camps and roust people who aren’t bothering anyone although they have in the past. Two years ago a man who had lived on the banks of the river told me about having his tent and all his belongings trashed by the cops. I believed him but, you know, I didn’t subject what he said to me to a full investigation.

Yesterday, I pulled up to a stoplight where there was a woman holding a sign soliciting money. I don’t always give panhandlers money but I keep dollar bills in my console for that purpose. Someone holding a sign isn’t usually enough for me. I need to look in their eyes, make some connection because, otherwise, it’s such an exercise of noblesse oblige, tossing a dollar bill at someone. Handing them a dollar bill becomes more like a handshake if you are able to look someone in the eye.

I said, “How you doin’?” She took the dollar bill and folded it into her pocket. She was maybe fifty, hair dyed brown, gray roots, heavier, wearing baggy jeans and a hoodie even though the morning was already plenty warm. She most certainly lived in the big tent city that has emerged under the east-west freeway that splits our city in half.

“Are you doin’ okay?” I asked again, as if there was an answer. Yeah, I’m doin’ great out here with your dollar bill in my pocket. All good. Thanks for asking. She did a little shrug, a little shake of the head, and then the light changed. And, of course, I was glad to go. I scolded myself a little. What kind of dialogue did I think I deserved for a dollar? How much shuckin’ and jivin’ was the right amount? Why is it so irresistible to tie strings to a single dollar bill?

At McDonald’s I paid with a twenty so I’d get a lot of ones back and stock up the console. I didn’t want to always have to go in my wallet. That meant sorting through different bills to find a single. Once a homeless woman, impatient with my wallet searching, pointed to a twenty and said, “I’ll just take that.” I found a single and gave it to her but I appreciated her annoyance. It was like she was saying, Hey, I’m not some little kid here standing around waiting for money for a popsicle. I got serious needs.

The common theme to all of this is judging people. Me judging who are the worthy homeless by looking in their eyes and homeless people judging me for my generosity or lack of it. Non-homeless people fuss about whether to give money to homeless people and think they’re righteous the whole time – whether they give money or don’t or, if they’re like me, they establish some eye contact litmus test to giving.

But homeless people do their own judging. Being homeless doesn’t strip people of opinion. I felt the slight scorch of opinion from the woman at the stoplight. She wasn’t just an eyesore standing on the corner. She was a person who thought my patronizing question really didn’t deserve an answer. I loved her for that. It reminded me that we’re equal.

Pobrecito (Poor Baby)

It was about the third inning when my son and I realized we were at the same ballgame but on opposite sides of the stadium. After I told him what section I was in, he sent me this picture.

The first thing I thought when I saw it was – why is my hair so flat? That’s how self-absorbed I am.

I am in a period of incessant introspection or, as some would call it, having my head up my ass. I am thinking about what I am thinking about all of the time. It’s oppressive and stifling. I need to shake it off.

Yesterday, I drove over the Hoan Bridge with the top down on my car and I sang You Are My Sunshine as loud as I could. That helped.

Today, I listened to critiques of an essay I’d written offered by members of the writing workshop I attend. The best one was a look actually, a wee bit of eye rolling, from a senior writer whose work is always very clear and purposeful. The look was in response to a paragraph that I knew was self-absorbed and precious but only after I read it aloud to the group. Oh please, I could hear her thinking. Give me a break. That helped.

Yoga yesterday helped. The teacher began by telling us she had broken her back over the weekend. This was not hyperbole. She had broken two vertebrae. It was a disarming start to the session and snapped me out of my introspection and weariness for a while. But I richoted back as soon as I got in the car.

So I think this photograph is saying something to me – beyond the condition of my hair. It’s saying – you’re but one head among hundreds. Get over yourself. Easier said than done, I say.

Unsettled Week Friday Round-Up

Friends lost an adult child/grandchild to suicide. This isn’t the first child/grandchild they have lost. I think of this many times during the day and wake up at night thinking about it. But I don’t feel frantic about needing to do something or fix something like I did before. I’m not out buying books and candles to drop off. My experience as a spectator of grieving has taught me to quit thinking I have something magic to ease the pain. All I can really do is say hello even if no one is able to answer back.

The storm last night was so loud that even in my deafness I could hear it. Thunder broke right over our house and the lightening radiated in all the windows like we were in a boat at sea. Our dog paced for a while and then leaped on the bed, something he has only done once before when he stood above me, his wolfish face just inches from mine. Last night he stared out the window, settled, then got up again until finally we all slept together, curled and twisted, like a litter of puppies until the sun came up.

I am loathe to disqualify someone from anything because of age. But Joe Biden’s statement last night during the debate suggesting that parents should make sure to have the radio or record player on at night as a way to advantage their children gave me pause. Maybe if you’re old, like Biden, Sanders, or Warren, you need to make an extra effort to be current. It might be homey to harken back to Roosevelt days when families roasted popcorn in the fireplace and retrieved apples from the fruit cellar, but it basically shows a disinterest in the actual lives of younger people, which in Biden’s case, is most people in the country.

We are going to the symphony tonight. We have season tickets and it is the first night of the new season. I know nothing about classical music. I don’t play an instrument and I can’t sing. I often don’t want to go, thinking that it would be much nicer to lay on the couch, drink rum, and watch Anderson Cooper. So around noon on symphony day, I start looking for reasons to skip out and, when there are none, I go and I sit transfixed by the concertmaster the entire time. His name is Frank Almond. He is an extraordinary violinist and quite good looking but his claim to fame is that he carried his 1715 Lipinski Stradivarius in a briefcase which someone stole from him one night in the parking ramp. It’s true. They made a movie about it. Anyway, at the end of the night, I will be glad I went – because of Frank but also the music.

If I give off tired, flat vibes, it’s because I am tired and flat. It would worry me except I know it will pass. It’s the one benefit of aging, knowing from experience that nothing lasts forever, except maybe my friends’ grief. That isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Inheritance

Once, while she was sitting in a chair in my living room, I reached out and touched a Black woman’s hair. At that moment and without thinking about it in any way, my hand was drawn to her hair, its airiness and resilience. I patted her hair a few times before what I was doing struck me and I pulled my hand back. She never turned her head to look at me but I felt her stiffen her shoulders. She would never scold me, though. My young friend looked up to me, respected me as an elder, and touching her hair could be interpreted as my trying to comfort her. She was, after all, going through a difficult situation.

I should have said, “I’m sorry I just touched your hair like that.” But I didn’t, hoping, I guess, that the moment would evaporate and she wouldn’t attach a bad meaning to my presumption that her hair was there for me to touch. But I knew that I’d overstepped. Obviously, because I remember it still five years later. I also know that if I apologized to her right now, she would wave it off even if it had really upset her, because she is accustomed to not making issues out of the missteps of White people. There isn’t enough time in the day, she would say.

I waver between wanting to believe I’m not racist because a Black friend once told me I was post-racial and knowing that the history of racism and slavery is as much part of my DNA as any White southerner. It is harder to deny my own racism when I have reflexes like touching my young Black friend’s hair. Because, you see, it’s reflexes where your DNA really steps up and tells you what’s what.

My ancestors came from England and settled in New York. They were early adopters, if you will, ahead of the immigration curve. Before America was a thing, my folks were here. The year they settled in New York has a 16 in it, if that tells you anything. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827, two hundred years later. That’s a lot of DNA to pile up, a lot of reflex to reproduce and settle in to a whole line of people. Maybe they owned slaves, maybe not. But my ancestors certainly lived in a slave-holding society for a long time.

So assuming I really am post-racial as I like to think I am, I know that, at best, my post-racialism is an intellectual response to my environment. It means that when I have time to think, assess, evaluate, I generally have reactions that are not racist. It means that I support policies that are anti-racist and associate with people who are like-minded, who are also not racist. But I’m not so sure my nerve endings, the unruly ganglia of reflex, have caught up to this post-racially evolved state. They may still be getting some of their signals from men wearing knee pants and carrying muskets.

My situation isn’t unusual, it’s just unspoken. White folks don’t go around talking about how they stupidly touched a Black woman’s hair. They don’t mention the imperceptible second look at the Black teen walking toward them or the tiny second’s worth of hesitation in sharing an elevator with a Black man. Those are secrets we upstanding citizens with enormously deep roots in America keep to ourselves, mostly because we don’t want to call it what it is. It’s racism.

It’s going to be a long struggle to end racism when it’s baked into genes we haven’t even discovered yet. We’ll get there, I believe that, but meanwhile, I’m keeping my hands to myself.

Getting to the Clearing

I woke up this morning in a thicket.

A night of worrying about one person and then another, and feeling deep grief for yet another, turning from one side to the other, looking out our big bedroom window at the light in the living room of the house across the street. They never turn it off.

The tags on my dog’s collar jingled in the dark when he got up to rearrange himself on his big blue bed that I mended last night, sewing up gnawed patches with double thread, knotted at the end like my mother taught me. I hadn’t sewn anything for years and I like it, the wholesomeness of it, the mending.

I went for a long walk before breakfast, dressed like a homely woman who didn’t care and felt myself almost shuffling, the branches from the morning’s thicket slowing me down, my healthy striding self yesterday’s news.

My dog didn’t care and for that I was grateful. A young man working with a roofing crew on a house down the block smiled at me and I thought for a minute, what does he see? How do I seem to people outside? I only see the inside where it is tangled and bushy and tiresome.

I worked hard on a grant proposal for a client and though I’ve written hundreds of proposals and am pretty good at it I started to worry that I’d completely missed the mark, that I’d missed some essential detail that would have redefined the entire direction of the proposal – like I was writing it for cats and it was really for dogs. But then I read it through and it was good, detailed, factual, even compelling. So I started to feel better.

Then my granddaughter came after school, wearing a baseball cap over her now deep blue hair. She wore a sweatshirt with big embroidered roses on the hood which was a new look for her since she eschews decorations of any kind although today she told me that she’s always liked roses. I never knew. I made her a grilled cheese sandwich which she ate and then she fell asleep.

I made soup out of yesterday’s leftover roast chicken but I let the soup go too long and too hard while I was upstairs writing and it boiled away to nearly nothing. So I made a white sauce for a chicken noodle casserole that was probably as close to a work of art as I will ever produce. And the day felt redeemed then, not because of the casserole but because of the white sauce which, I always say, if you can make a decent white sauce, you can always make something out of nothing.