Category Archives: Poverty

Seeing, Really Seeing

Am I a bad, shallow person to enjoy places like Liberty so thoroughly?  Only the one percent can actually buy anything there, right?  True, although I did buy some nail varnish, as they call nail polish in Britain.  It cost £12 ($15)—the most expensive nail polish I’ve ever bought—but I love the color and it reminds me of my day there.

But no regular person can actually afford to buy a pair of pants at Harrods.  Isn’t that wrong?  Isn’t it criminal that people spend £1,500 on baby carriages made by Maserati?  Or £2,000 for jeweled clutch purses, or £200 for a canvas tote bag because it has the Liberty look and label?

Isn’t it outrageous that people spend £95 for a small plate with a Liberty design on it, when they won’t give £5 to the homeless person sitting on the pavement outside the store?

Yes, it is outrageous.  And I’m glad there are people designing, making, selling, and buying beautiful things in this world.

Maybe, if the contents of all the high-end department stores were liquidated and the proceeds given to homeless people, those folks would get new clothes, get jobs, find apartments, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nah.

Some would, some wouldn’t. Some might use the money to start a small business, and build it into a business empire … like Harrods.  Some have such intractable problems that no amount of money or social service intervention can solve them.  Some poor people would be offended by the offer of cash and continue on their own path of working their way up.

No, it’s much more complicated. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations almost my whole career and I know that rich people and businesses can be part of the solution.

I just searched the Liberty website for the terms “donations,” “charity,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “philanthropy” and came up empty handed.  It would be nice to think that they hired ex offenders or donated unsold shoes to charity auctions.

I would be happy to help them start a corporate philanthropy program if they would just allow me to work from that green velvet sofa.

For better or worse, I have an “eye” for color, composition, and all things beautiful, whether they’re manmade or natural.  You may be thinking, “Well everyone loves beautiful things!” but you would be wrong.  I have friends who have nothing on their walls.  Nothing.  No art, not even Art-in-a-Box from Target.

They come to my house, look around, and say, “Wow, you have so much stuff on your walls.  Interesting.”  As if it has never occurred to them that they could do the same, much less surround themselves with beautiful, interesting, uplifting objects.

I have been told that I notice things, in general.  The other day, I was in an old-timey grocery store in St. Paul and said to my friend, “Hey!  When was the last time you saw a grocery store with a ‘Grits’ aisle?”

She laughed and said, “You always notice things like that.”

Doesn’t everyone?  I guess not.

I asked my landlady, “What are those tracks?”

“What tracks?”

“The ones there—that look like a snake made them,” I pointed.

“Oh, those.  I’ve never noticed them.  Maybe a mouse?”

I am in a hyper-state of noticing when I’m traveling.  It was good to know I could see things—delightful, humorous things—right at home.  This new year, I’m going to try to pull it in even closer, and notice things in my house that I use or pass by—sightless—every day.

Back at Fortnum and Mason, Heidi and I worked our way slowly through the food hall.

I bought a box of Earl Grey tea for Lynn and a box of English Breakfast for myself.  I didn’t buy these exact containers but you get the idea of the packaging.

Yes, they cost more than a canister of PG Tips at Tesco.  They may not have been grown in a socially-responsibly, environmentally-sustainable manner.  But so what?  They’re beautiful, and six months later I am still dipping into my stash and enjoying the tea and the memory.

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Belize Bound

When I was poor, many years ago, it used to really piss me off when people said things like, “Why don’t you just move to a better neighborhood?” when I told them I’d been burglarized and mugged in one week, that my neighbors kept me up all night with loud parties, and that I had found a used condom and needles in my front yard.

“I can’t afford to move,” I’d say, gritting my teeth so I wouldn’t launch into a rant about how clueless and insensitive they were.  And these were always liberals—I think liberals are often more out of touch with reality than conservatives.

I’m telling you this because some of you may not have the luxury of being able to buy plane tickets on a regular basis.  Your job may not allow you to work remotely or even offer paid holidays.  You may not own a condo you can rent out while you’re away.  I hope I don’t come off as clueless when I write about travel.  I’ve never claimed any of my adventures have been easy or cheap.  I hope some of my stories may inspire you to plan for something when you can afford it, or try something on a small scale if you can’t afford to do it in a big way.

I was driving down scenic Summit Avenue yesterday in my beloved Mini; spring was in the air and I was listening to Vivaldi.  I felt utter joy.

“Life is beautiful!” I exclaimed in my head.

That’s not a thought I ever had when I was in my 20s or 30s.  It’s not a thought many people in Syria are having right now.  It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to intentionally kill my joy because others are suffering, but it remembering them certainly intensifies my feelings of gratitude for how far I have come.

Back to January in Minnesota.  The holidays are over.  There will be nothing by three months of cold, dreary, short days without a holiday until the end of May.

And so I went to Belize.  It makes a difference, getting away somewhere warm, even if only a long weekend.

This would be an all-inclusive group trip operated by Wilderness Inquiry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.  Their thing is “inclusive outdoor adventure travel.”  I totally missed that because I Googled “tours of Belize” and went straight to that trip page.  I looked at the color photos, glanced through the itinerary, checked the price, and booked it.

This was back in December, and I didn’t give it much thought until I got a call from the trip leader, Mark, in January.  I have been on group tours before, and it’s good practice to have a meeting ahead of time—if everyone is local—or to at least talk to someone to learn the expectations and ask questions.

Mark informed me about the Wilderness Inquiry mission of inclusion.  “I lead a lot of trips to the boundary waters, and this will be my first international trip,” he said, excitement in his voice.

“You mean, your first international trip ever?” I asked, a little alarmed.

“No, I went to Uruguay last year with my girlfriend.  Her family is from there.  So I’m ready.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.  The Gross Domestic Product of Uruguay is four times that of Belize. But the tour and my plane ticket were paid for, so it was too late to back out and he seemed very confident.  Everything would be fine, right?

The night before I left, I had dinner with Vince and met his girlfriend, Heather.  I liked her a lot, especially since she gave me a beautifully boxed birthday present—a sweater and Moleskin notebooks and pretty pens, which I used to take notes on the trip.  I looked forward to watching their relationship develop.

My birthday.  Vince picked me up at 5:00 am and took me to the airport.  He’s a morning person like me, but 5:00 was even a bit early for him, so it was a very nice effort on his part.  And it’s nice to hug a loved one good-bye, just in case something fatal happens.

TGI Thursdays

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The hostess at TGI Thursdays looked at me like I was an alien, then slowly led me to a table in the center of the restaurant and left me with a menu, which was all in English.

She had an African accent and I didn’t hear enough of it to ID which country, but I’m pretty sure her real name wasn’t the one on her nametag—“Hi!  My name is Emily.”

She was about six feet tall, string-bean thin, and wore stiletto heels and a barely-there mini skirt.  I vaguely wondered if she changed into more modest clothes to get to and from work, but I didn’t really give it much thought.

I was hungry by now, so I was happy when the waiter appeared almost immediately.  He too looked at me strangely.  Whatever!  What was wrong with these people?  I ordered a club sandwich and a beer, then settled back and looked around.

Have you ever walked into a situation and thought nothing of it until it was too late to get out of it?

All the other women in the bar were either African or Asian, and none appeared to be older than 20.  They were all dressed like “Emily”—in high heels, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses.  They were literally hanging on the arms of fat, middle aged white men, many of whom were talking loudly, so I could hear their Australian, English, and American accents.  North American, that is—I’m sure most of them were Canadian, ha, ha.  These were oil workers, no doubt, and I was in a brothel.

The girls (I’ll call them girls because many appeared to be 17 or 18 years old) tittered and cooed at everything the men said, as if the men were the most fascinating, funny, and appealing male specimens ever.

“Ooh, Keef, you so funny!” a girl laughed near my table.  Keith was 50-something, ruddy faced, rotund, and very drunk.  He sat tilted as though he was about to keel over.

As all this sunk in, one of the few Arab patrons approached my table.  He was like a human cliche of an Arab man: wearing a kaffiyeh, sporting a Saddam Hussein-style black mustache, and smoking a cigarette in a short gold holder.  He leered at me as he circled my table several times.

I had the urge to bleat like a lamb.  Then he aggressively pulled out the chair opposite me and asked, “May I join you?”

“No!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly.

A giant Sudanese bouncer sidled up to me and the Arab guy slinked away.

“Do you know where you are?” the bouncer asked in a low voice.

“Yeh-yes…” I replied, feeling sheepish (in the embarrassed sense, not in the about-to-be groped-or-worse sense).

“I will stand next to you while you enjoy your meal,” the bouncer said.

What could I say but, “Thank you?”

My club sandwich and beer arrived.  They were like any club sandwich and beer you would get anywhere else in the world.  I ate, drank, and did what I commonly do when I am dining alone; I wrote in my journal.  In this case, I took detailed notes, which is how I can write this narrative years later.

It’s not a very remarkable story.  I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that something more dramatic didn’t happen.  It was an eye opener for me.  I had seen adolescent girls in Jamaica with the proverbial obese middle-aged German men stuffed into Speedos.  I had read about human trafficking and sex workers in my master’s program.

But this was how the business actually worked.  Supply and demand.  I figured the maze I had walked through to get to the entrance was a means of shielding passersby from what was going on inside, and also of signaling to people like me who just wanted a sandwich and a beer, “This is something you should think twice about!”   Obviously I was too dense to get it.

To be continued …

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

Cooper versus Cruiser

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Finally, I will shut up about my car, I promise.  I got to the garage, met Tracy, who was a woman, and after I paid the bill she flagged down a guy to lead me to my car.

“Honey,” she called out to him, “Will ya’ll show this here Miss Anne where her PT Cruiser is?”

PT Cruiser!?

Thankfully the guy got it.  “Ya’ll got a Mini Cooper, right? Ya’ll insulted she called it a PT Cruiser?” he laughed.

“I’ve never been so insulted!”

In my opinion, PT Cruisers are novelty cars for retired people who really want a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) but can’t admit it.  The PT Cruiser allows them to drive a giant gas-guzzling vehicle and pretend they’re quirky and eccentric.  Despite the fact that I was getting all-new spark plugs, I still affirm that the Mini is a finely-engineered vehicle.  And mine was nine years old, after all.

PT Cruiser

I raced back to the B&B, parked the car in front, and parked myself in the courtyard under the Kumquat tree with a book and a glass of wine. Molly texted to ask if I wanted them to come  join me.  “no enjoy yourselves and take your time.”  If there was something called a “sub-text,” I would have typed, “No!  Stay away!  I need to be alone!”

Courtyard-Bench-sm

This is how you know if you’re an introvert or an extrovert.  It’s not about whether you like people or parties or crowds, or have a lot of friends.  It’s about what you do to recharge when you’re drained. I’m an introvert, because as much as I love my friends and parties and crowds, I just want to be alone when I’ve been through a stressful experience.

So I sat under the Kumquat tree for hours.  I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha, and I hadn’t expected it to be so fascinating.  How accurate was it, I wondered? I would never dream of asking my sister-in-law Akiko, who has a PhD.  I think she would be horrified that I would think she knew anything about geishas.

-f-g-memoirs-of-a-geisha-31766513-500-233

Hours later, Lynn, Christine, and Molly strolled in and I was happy to see them.

“Why was I so stressed about a stupid car?” I wondered out loud.

“Because you didn’t know if you’d get here,” Christine said.

“You’re emotionally attached to it,” said Lynn. “I had a Mazda Miata convertible that was my baby.  When we moved to Scotland I finally sold her because I could only drive her once a year.  When they took her away I cried!”

“It was five hundred and fifty bucks!” Molly chimed in.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, an unplanned $550 expense would have been a disaster.  I would have had to borrow money from my mother, or put it on a credit card.  I would have had to cut back on some other essential item, like food or cigarettes or beer.

Slowly, slowly, I’ve worked my way out of debt and into financial safety.  If I had worked for Wells Fargo this would have gone a lot faster, but I’ve always worked for charities.  Like I’ve written before, you can work for a nonprofit and have a good life, if you’re very, very careful about your spending.  Saving, even small amounts, is super important too, because the interest eventually piles on and one day you look at your balance and think, “Whoa!  How did it get so big!”  Of course it can go down, too, if you’re invested in the stock market, so don’t look at it when the market’s down, and whatever you do, don’t sell at the bottom.

Sorry, I go off on tangents, I know.

You may be wondering if New Orleans is an expensive destination, and I think the answer is no, if you can find reasonably-priced accommodation.  They’re still rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, so there’s a housing shortage.  Plan way ahead, especially if you’re going during a festival.  If you can gather a group of friends together and split the cost four ways, it’s very affordable.  And more fun.