Category Archives: class divide

needs and NEEDS

In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath.  There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous.  I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject.  But it went fine.  Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.

They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).

Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample.  Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.

The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.

“What about voting rights?” someone asked.  It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.

“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.

A few days later I was at a friend’s house.  She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education.  Reparations for slavery.  Medicare for all.  Green New Deal.

I think about my coworkers at the YMCA.  They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.

In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires?  Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?  Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?

My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry.  If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.

It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues.  It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.

In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions.  I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke.  Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …

… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.

“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.

Vince laughed at the thing.  “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”

“Will do,” I replied.  The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata.  I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.

“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later.  Fair question.

“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.

“But for today, I feel human again!”

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

On The Rocks

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to write a pithy introduction to the carnivorous plant show at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.  I guess I’ll just show, not tell.

The exhibit was a little bit of art, a bit of science, and a whole lot of Little Shop of Horrors kitsch.  It was fun. It was pretty. I learned some facts that I immediately forgot.

I took a gander in the gift shop and didn’t buy anything.  My plan was to find the trolley for which I’d seen signs directing me to the Opera House Gate.  The RBG is enormous, as are most botanic gardens, and I had visions of covering it all with the aid of wheels and a silver-tongued guide as we had in Melbourne.

After walking 20 minutes to the gate, I couldn’t find the trolley.  Construction was under way for the Invictus Games; more about that later.  Perhaps the trolley was under a tarp.  There were volunteers everywhere, bumping into each other, and none of them knew anything about a trolley.

I passed this sign about the Opera House being the site of Gadigal land.  I wonder if the Gadigal people are comforted by these signs and pronouncements of “sorry.”  Or do they say, “Yeh, sorry is nice, but you’ve still got our land.”

As long as I was in the general vicinity and it was a beautiful day for a walk, I headed over to the area called The Rocks.  This was where the original settlers … um, settled.  I guess it’s called The Rocks because it’s very hilly and there must be gigantic rocks in them thar hills.

I had been urged to visit The Rocks by my Lebanese friends on the dive boat on the reef, and by other strangers.  It seemed the main attractions were “interesting shops and restaurants.”  I never found any, even after much wandering.  Everything seemed closed, and there was lots of construction so I kept hitting dead ends.  There was some charming Victorian architecture, like the Mercantile Hotel, where I had a wonderful fresh, healthy salad.

This was in the toilet.

As I often do when I’m traveling on my own, I pulled out my notepad to jot down some notes.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a young woman at the table next doing the same.

I like the texture of pencil, or a roller-ball pen, on paper.

I was once mocked at work for using a pencil.  I was sharpening one in the copy room and a member of management who wears a perpetual frozen smile said in a syrupy but patronizing voice, “Anne, how old school—a pencil!”  She tried to pull it off as a joke so I smiled back, said nothing, and returned to my desk where I shot off a few lines with my razor sharp pencil, then returned to the copy room and shredded the sheet of paper.

Across the street was Susannah House, an original tenement where immigrants had lived up until the 1970s.

I got there just in time for the 3:00pm tour. This didn’t leave any time to check out the small selection of gift items, but they were all related to household cleaning in the 1980s—think lye soap and wooden scrub brushes—things I could live without.

A very thin man dressed in a period costume led us through the rooms.  He recited the usual types of dreary stories you hear in such places.  You know: ‘This is the bedroom where Mrs. Lopadopalous gave birth to her 14th child after her husband died of alcoholism.  Six of her children had died from smallpox or flu but little George grew up to be the first mayor of Greek ancestry of a medium-sized Australian city.”

I loved it.  In one of the kitchens he told the tale of old Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fight for tenants’ rights against the big-money interests who wanted to tear down the tenement and put up a shopping center.

Then he turned, pointed out the icebox in the corner and said, “That’s an original. The ice came all the way from a vast lake in some place called Mih-neh-soda, in the states.”

 

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.