Category Archives: Greatest Generation, Boomers, Millennials, Alphabets

Homelessness, Drugs, and Purpose

The battle lines are drawn in Seattle, a ferry ride and an hour or so away from where I live. On one side are those who wish to remove Seattle’s growing homeless camps. On the other side are those who argue for the camps as necessary in a city with sky high rents and inadequate resources for dealing with mental illness and addiction.

Some of the homeless are responsible citizens with jobs but inadequate salaries to afford the high rents. Others have lost jobs through no fault of their own, victims of medical misfortune or of jobs lost in a changing economy.

Others are homeless because they are mentally ill, suffering from diseases such as schizophrenia. The state of Washington, through budget slashing, has seriously eroded the state’s ability to care for victims of mental illness.

The most difficult homeless are those addicted to alcohol and other drugs. These are the homeless that neighborhoods fear: the addicts who shoot up, dropping needles behind as dangers to children and other innocents; who camp on public spaces, leaving them trashed and unfit for human use; who attract drug dealers and turn neighborhoods into drug bazaars and sometimes murder scenes.

Dealing with addiction is surely complex and difficult. Any person under the terrible pull of drugs no doubt needs a strong purpose to conquer their awful hold: Family? A place of service? A pet to love?

If I had a loved one on drugs, I don’t think I’d want them living in a homeless camp. I’d want them removed to a safe place with supervision to help them find a way, a purpose for choosing a better life.

Safe spaces to rehabilitate require money, tax money. Cutting taxes may be a campaign pleaser, but sometimes cutting taxes means we pay higher costs down the road in wasted human lives and neighborhoods.

What’s So Great About the Forty-Hour Work Week?

My current work in progress is the third in a series. A new mother puts her career on hold to start her children “on the right path,” as well as provide a break from her stressful job. Now she’s going back to work, and her husband is considering taking off a couple of years from his career to parent them full time until they’re a little older.

The career theme pops up in my writing, both blogs and novels.

I keep returning to the need many of us have, whether parents or not, to take a rest from our careers. We want to do something different or pursue an idea or take care of others. The sabbatical is a part of some professions because it is deemed worthwhile.

Obviously, barriers prevent most working people from taking sabbaticals. Money is the main obstacle. A single person needs a hefty bank account, usually impossible for most singles without a spouse to back them up. And even couples struggle on one income, with rents or house payments taking a significant percentage of their earnings.

Second is the impossibility for most folks of having a job waiting, certainly the same job, if they decide to take a “sabbatical.” The work must go on. Somebody must do it. Employers may also see a request for a year or so of leave as evidence of laziness or lack of dedication. Certainly, it rarely makes the supervisory job easier.

Also one must consider career advancement. Leaving for a year or two or more can put one behind the power curve for career development.

We need new career models, not the one formed during the suburban decades of post World War II, centered on the single male breadwinner.

Innovative employers could consider changes in career models. Now that we live longer, some of that longer retirement could be used in the middle of life rather than all on the elderly side. Employees might work more years if they have breaks in between paid work. “Retirement” might come to mean merely a longer break.

Another Shooting, Closer to Home This Time

A young man, apparently angry at being dumped by his girl friend, killed her and two other young people and seriously wounded a fourth. This one took place only a ferry ride away from where I live.

According to reports, when his girl friend did not agree to restart their relationship, the young man purchased an AK-15 assault rifle and a manual on how to use it. He later returned for more ammunition.

At a gathering of alumni of a local high school, the young man saw his former girl friend with another man.

He returned to his car and studied the manual. Then he came back to the gathering with the AK-15 and shot his former girl friend and others that he knew as they ran for cover. The police later caught him as he sped down Interstate I-5.

Young men have always had trouble controlling jealousy. Before, they broke up parties with fist fights. Why does any young man, too young to legally purchase a six pack of beer, now choose an assault rifle to vent his anger?

Betting on the Losers to Lose

I took out a mortgage and bought a condo in my single days. I had a good job and good credit and put down a sizeable down payment. I got the condo, lived in it for several years until I joined the Foreign Service, then sold it.

I thought everyone bought homes this way. They saved money for a down payment, worked up a good credit record, then chose a house that suited their income. Bankers wouldn’t lend money on a house that the buyer couldn’t afford, I thought.

Several years later, after my mother died, my brother and I sold her home. The buyer sold a smaller house to buy hers. That fitted into what I understood was one way to buy a house—to build up equity in a smaller one, then sell it.

However, the buyer of her house bought it with a 100 percent mortgage, no money down. It was the first time I knew of someone buying a home without the requirement to pay a portion of the price as a down payment.

Not long after that, the housing bubble burst. Lots of people, it seemed, had underwater mortgages. They owed more on their houses than they were worth.

The drop in house prices was a major reason, of course, but some of it could be traced to the owners not being required to invest more in their houses before they bought them.

So why did the lenders not require home buyers to make sufficient down payments?

Lots of mortgages, it seems, were packaged together. Some included mortgages which shouldn’t have been made under the old rules, but, supposedly, other mortgages to able buyers would balance them out. Lenders would make more income than ever from lending more money, even to unqualified buyers.

So it was okay to set up a home buyer for failure. It was okay to lend to folks that lenders knew weren’t going to be able to continue in their homes, who would fail. It was okay to do this because it would work out, for the lenders, at least.

Only it didn’t, and thousands of homeowners suffered. People who were conned into thinking they’d finally reached their dream of home ownership dropped into a nightmare.

I Joined a Student Protest Once

College students made the news recently at one of the universities in Seattle. They are demanding curriculum changes. They say they want fewer courses centering on “dead white men” and more courses from a diverse set of writers.

I took part in a student protest once. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have been led by noble purposes. The strike protested food in the college cafeteria. I joined because spring had arrived, and it was a fun thing to do.

Organizers worked with car owners to drive all students who wanted to participate to off campus eateries during lunch.

The college president met with us in meetings. He lost his temper in the group I was in. His mistake, I think, was in supposing that the protest was about our rejection of the food.

The protest wasn’t about food, not really. It was a way for us, the students, to believe we had a part to play in the ordering of our lives, to believe we counted.

I make no judgements today on the arguments of the students or the curriculum they protest. The protests do mirror those of youth in the 1960’s. Then, students were inspired by the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House. Through tragic circumstances, the Kennedy generation was eclipsed by the older generation of Lyndon Johnson. The younger generation felt betrayed.

Perhaps today’s younger generation, some of whom are campus protestors and many of whom support Bernie Sanders, were similarly disillusioned when the promise of Obama’s election was followed by years of political infighting.

Macklemore Speaks Out on Addiction

Macklemore (Ben Haggerty), the rap singer, recently teamed up with President Barack Obama in the president’s weekly radio address. (Reported in The Seattle Times on15 May 2016.) The two discussed growing drug addiction in the U.S.

Drug addiction is no longer a disease mostly of the poor or of minorities. Some have criticized the country for a lack of concern about addiction when it was perceived as a problem for poor blacks. Regardless, addiction is a tragedy needing attention. It robs the victim of a meaningful life while robbing the country of gifts the addicted could give to society.

Macklemore, in noting the cost of addiction disease, speaks from experience. Though sober now, he has struggled with prescription drugs and alcohol.

Addiction is not a new problem—alcoholics have been around since drinks were fermented to preserve them. However, all sorts of new ways to inebriate oneself now exist. The emphasis on pleasure as our main goal in life has fed the search for self gratification.

We no longer raise our children to “amount to something”—to serve. We want them to be happy—surely a goal no one can consistently reach. No wonder we consider unhappiness as an intruder with no right to trespass on our psyches. We must end it with a pill or a drink or an injection—even if we threaten our own self-destruction.

Concerned with the needs of the physical self, we forget to strengthen the inner self.

Who Eats Together Anymore?

Family therapists used to ask patients about their family meals in helping them understand their relationships. Apparently those questions are less relevant now because families don’t eat together enough to draw conclusions in many cases. This is how Les and Leslie Parott introduced their book The Hour That Matters Most.

Parents may consider meals a challenge: children crying, refusing to eat, or generally acting ornery. Apparently it’s worth the effort.

Studies have shown, the Parotts say, that dining together decreases the likelihood that the children will do drugs, become involved in promiscuous sexuality, or suffer serious depression.

Not every meal has to be a seven-course banquet. Simple meals may even be healthier: a salad thrown together, tuna sandwiches, and fruit for dessert.

Frankly, I’ve never found cooking as much fun as some do. Neither did my mother. We often had hastily prepared meals—canned corned beef hash or pork chops with mushroom soup and canned green beans, but we ate at least one meal together each day, more on weekends.

I’m glad she made the effort. I remember how pleasurable the talk was at the table (once we children grew into a more civilized state). Our discussions were civil, on just about anything and everything: politics, community, church activities, school activities, world events, and so on. We conversed, in other words.

Dining together promises a relatively easy way to promote healthy families. We all have to eat.

Those Favored Baby Boomers: Pay It Forward?

Today’s baby boomers, now beginning to retire, lived in a fortunate time. World War II ended before they were born. The Cold War never became the feared nuclear conflagration.

They were favored by the greatest equality yet known in an industrial society. Greater access to education and advancement narrowed the gap between the elites and the masses.

Today wealth is once again rising in society’s top tiers and falling in the middle and working classes. Even wealth for the much touted “knowledge” workers tends to accumulate only for a few at the top.

Ronald Inglehart writes: “In 1965, CEO pay at the largest 350 U.S. companies was 20 times as high the pay of the average worker; in 1989, it was 58 times as high; and in 2012, it was 273 times as high.” (“Inequality and Modernization,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2016.)

What lessons can the aging baby boomers teach? That wealth should be the only reward for a career?

Why not pride in quality products, beneficial to society, not gimmicks to make money? How about better salaries for employees? How about more contributions to schools and teachers and programs that help the less well off catch up? Drug rehabilitation and treatment for mental illness? More opportunities for the homeless to become useful citizens? Working hours more favorable to families?

Baby boomers profited from favorable times, not the least of which was the opportunity to advance if one worked hard.

Finding Community with Wendell Berry and Port William, Kentucky

I discovered my first Wendell Berry novel, Hannah Coulter, through my book club. This book and the others portraying the mythical Port William, Kentucky, community are not suspenseful thrillers, the ones we hurry through to conclusion, then forget the next day. They are not tales of great tragedy or outrage, simply the telling of tender sorrows and joys of a community.

Berry’s stories chronicle the time when machine labor was replacing the labor of humans and their animals. In one of Berry’s short stories “A New Day (1949)” from A Place in Time, tractors have all but replaced horse-drawn farm machines. A young man, still with a team of horses, has trained them to become“the felt thought of a man, so that while their effort lasted he would not, he could not, distinguish between himself and them.” One could not picture such a relationship with a tractor.

I am not a Luddite fulminating against machines. I certainly don’t want to go back to scrubbing clothes in a tub. Machines free us in many way. But we have lost something in distancing ourselves, not only from animal labor, but from a life closer to the physical world and to our neighbors on whom we depend.

One could say Berry’s fiction idolizes a past life that, in reality, wasn’t ideal for everyone: victims of color or ethnicity, an ingrown culture, and poverty. The strength of the stories lies in reminding us of the precious small worlds that we have lost in our quest for more things.

Maybe we can use our supposed free time to grow our inner and outer worlds, to mature as well as to rescue the human misery that lurks at the edges of our new creations. However, it seems we often use the release from back breaking labor merely to make more money to buy more things that increasingly disconnect us from each other.

That Yearning for a Sense of Place

Americans move often; yet American creative experience bursts with a sense of place: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Pat Conroy’s Southern based novels, Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Perhaps because we change place so often (including original immigration journeys), we are better able to identify place and our yearning for it.

Sometimes a sense of place means alienation. Some of us are homeless. Others of us have a physical address but lack family roots. Career moves, military service in strange countries, and fast paced generational changes contribute to rootlessness. We can be lost in time as well as in place.

Who do we belong to? Who are our family? What does our rootlessness do to our children? Where do we go when it’s time to die? How do we care for each other when we are constantly changing place?

An Absence of Child Raisers

A society dies if it lacks child raisers. It literally dies if it does not produce children. It dies a slower death if it produces children but does not raise them.

Over the past century or two, life has become more difficult for child raisers. We have moved our work places further and further from our homes and communities. First, fathers left to work longer distances away from their children. Recently, mothers have followed the male model, working long distances from home.

Community, the village that helps raise a child, became less important. We separated first into nuclear families, then couples, now singles with perhaps an unmarried partner in tow.

Children, who need a great deal of care in the first years of life, are a hindrance both to the career-oriented lifestyles we have come to admire and the pleasure-oriented life others of us follow.

No one should be shamed into having children. Parenthood is a calling, and it is not for everyone. However, we need caring space for those who do want to become parents—time off to nurture their offspring, decent housing and schools, safe neighborhoods.

Our society lives or dies on how well we raise our children. How do we bring child raising back into the mainstream?

Amazon Reviews: Political Weapons?

Even Amazon reviews have become tools for rampant anger. Some reviews are written by people who haven’t even read the book or used the product. The reviews are written as a political polemic. They encourage one-star reviews as a political vote—not on the book or product itself.

One woman, writing a book on finding forgiveness after the death of her small child in a mass shooting, was pilloried by radical guns rights activists. Regardless of one’s views on the Second Amendment, such disregard for human hurt counts as less than civilized.

Hank Davis, of Peacemakers Alliance, a group working with gangs and violence-prone groups, commented on the killings of three children in separate incidents in Cleveland, Ohio: “…social media websites, especially Facebook and Instagram, have helped fuel and ignite deadly disputes rooted in someone feeling disrespected.”

Perhaps the anonymity of the Internet encourages the temptation to antisocial diatribes instead of dealing with our anger in more mature ways.

We don’t see the ones we post to, whose needs we can ignore. They are not in front of us for any meaningful discussion. We don’t see their faces reacting to what we write. It’s all about us and our anger, and we can rant for as long as we wish with no one to check us. For many, the Internet is an ego magnifier.

To be sure, the Internet makes possible a more diverse discussion. It gives a certain amount of voice to otherwise voiceless, ordinary citizens. It has its place.

But our digital communications require what any civil society needs if it is to function: checks on our ego and a respect for the broader community.