Economic Lottery & The American Dream

It is day two of my trip home on the Greyhound bus. I am crossing the expansive landscapes of many large states, pondering the artificial boundaries separating the various people of the United States. We sway and move to the inaudible music of the road passing beneath us, together for purposes of travel, while trying hard to remain apart out of respect for each others’ sense of space.

Sometimes there is conversation—sometimes not. Many passengers have spent days on the bus, traveling to see family and friends. Frequent breaks for passenger pick-up and drop-off, the humane stretching of our legs and the respectful nod toward nature seem to serve mostly as cigarette breaks for the majority of passengers.

At one stop, watching most every man and woman file off the bus for a ten-minute cigarette break, I am virtually alone when I hear this giant of a man in the seat kitty-corner and behind me exclaim with amazement into the empty air, “You’re all a bunch of smokin’ b*tches.”

I smile at the forthrightness of the observation and turn to give him a quiet nod of affirmation. My compatriot is as big and black, younger than myself, with jet-black lashes that are so thick, long and curly they look artificial. He could be a line-backer.

Spirituality
Spirituality

At one stop, where we have enough time to purchase something to eat, I note my non-smoking, line-backer friend has picked up a salad for dinner. Turning to him, I comment on the obvious, “It is really hard to eat healthy foods on these trips.”

He nods as an over-sized, plastic-fork-full of salad travels the distance to his mouth. I wonder how he keeps his frame going on iceberg lettuce, bits of shredded carrot, a few slices of cucumber and three anemic cherry tomatoes. He and I do not appear to have anything in common, except that we both do not smoke and seem to favor healthier foods.

“Eavesdropping” on a conversation between two wiry, retired veterans—one white and one black—both hard-of-hearing and diabetic, I learn that one of the men is traveling across country, back to the east coast after a visit to Vegas. This means days on the bus. After the conversation finishes and one veteran gets off at the next stop, I plop down beside the remaining vet. He draws a curtain of privacy around himself by plugging in his ear-buds and listening to tunes. With the shift in seats, I can hear a melody seeping from around his ear-buds, so I decide to do the audacious thing and ask about his music.

“What are you listening to?” I pipe up.

Pulling one ear-bud from my side of his head, he turns to introduce himself, “My name is Martin,” while extending his hand. “‘Part-time Lover’—you know that song?”

Taking his hand in my own, we shake. “My name is Julian. Just like a guy’s name. Can you call up anything by The Gap Band?”

“The Gap Band, you like them?” Martin asks, expressing a subtle level of surprise.

“Yeah…something with a heavier beat. I am not a huge fan of late, Stevie-Wonder songs,” I confess. My truth is out.

At this point, my line-backer friend starts the call and response, “You like The Gap Band?”

Martin finishes scrolling through his options, “Okay. Here it goes.”

We listen quietly (Greyhound rules), “You dropped a bomb on me, baby. You dropped a bomb on me…”— as an extended three-some. More conversational popcorn happens. And, at some point, I am asked about what I do.

“I am a writer.”

“Hey, me too,” my line-backer friend responds. “I have two books coming out.”

It is then that I understand why the economic disparity in wages and in living conditions remains intact and largely unchallenged in the United States.   We are a bunch of madcap gamblers. The majority of Americans and United States émigrés still hold a fundamental belief and trust in the ability of an individual to better his or her personal lot, through skill, creativity, luck, originality, invention, investment, avarice, altruism, parsimony or some combination thereof.

Whether we call ourselves writers, musicians, politicians, do-gooders, investors, bankers, hard workers or adventurers, we live in a nation of risk-takers. My sense is that the majority of Americans would rather play and pay for a high-stakes, all-out win than go through the process of changing our economic system. In accepting this condition, we fail to assist those who may never possess a winning scratch card, and we lose the opportunity to devise a more equitable way of compensating people for the hours they work.  We are, as my fellow writing peer might say, a bunch of gamblin’ b*tches.

In Poverty with The American Dream

Settling into a culture and among a “demographic” both of which are completely new to me and my husband, I decide to enroll in a short, eight-week budgeting course hosted in a local church a few blocks away.  Hoping to learn about the people of the region and local economic circumstances, I figure it may be a real boon if the course also serves to uncover a way in which we might further economize.  Our relocation in 2010 came on the heels of the economic recession and both of us come from families that value frugality and modest living.

The budgeting class is telling—shocking really.  I learn that poverty is a way of life for the majority of people of this region.  I also learn that there are families going without regular food in order to afford cellphone coverage and internet services.  Some employers—especially if a class participant has a slightly higher paying organizational or clerical job which involves company communications—are requiring their employees to purchase and maintain phone accounts and internet services so that employers have 24/7 access to employees via telephone, voice mail, texting and email.

“What are they thinking?” I walk through the door of our house addressing my husband.  “How are these people supposed to budget when there is nothing extra at a minimum-wage position?  And, if the pay is slightly higher, what I am hearing is that any possible “extra” income is immediately taken up by an employer’s requirement to have the employee purchase technology, rendering the employee accessible at all times and via as many communication methods as possible.  What happened to the forty-hour work week?”

Spirituality
Spirituality

Over the next eight weeks, it becomes apparent that the budgeting course’s materials are outdated.  Wages are assumed too high, rents too low and the cost of food in the exercises has not kept pace with current prices—then factor in the issue of needing to be technologically up-to-date—and the economic picture presented in the class does not match a family’s current economic reality at all.

The exercises, instructional in a pedagogical sense (we should all practice our math regularly), are not reflective of people’s present circumstances.  When asking the program coordinator about updating the curriculum and its materials, I am informed that there is not enough money in the budget to make that change.

The course is taught at locations throughout the community.  I am further informed that the course was originally created because some members of the community saw a need “to help those who are economically disadvantaged or less fortunate learn how to handle their money properly.”  I receive this information as a quiet aside because my speech patterns define me as someone “other” than a typical attendee.

In American culture, I bump up against this conceit with amazing frequency:  Poor people are poor because they don’t know how to manage their money.  True in some cases?  Yes.  True in most cases? No.

“What money?” the question comes flying out of my mouth as I walk through the door of our home after class one night.  I find the statement about teaching the economically underprivileged of this community how to manage their money especially ironic when I run across the program coordinator’s annual salary while looking for part-time positions online.  Unless there is something in the program coordinator’s past, about which I do not know, I wonder what an individual earning almost five times more annually than the course’s target audience could possibly offer to the people in these classes—to those living at or below the poverty level in real time?

Though the program coordinator may hold the belief that she is there to help the under-educated and the economically disadvantaged (the program does help some people uncover unwise spending habits), she is really there to collect a hefty paycheck, grow her own 401K, enjoy health benefits, manage her own money properly and feel good about working her I-serve-the-poor job.

This is a field report about earnestly striving human beings, who may be poor or homeless or under-educated and next to whom I have learned and sat.   After basic expenses are paid and technology requirements are covered, there is little to no opportunity to get ahead because there simply is not enough income or money left over to save, invest or otherwise be managed. There is no extra.  And, we would all like to be able to manage our own money—to receive a viable paycheck—or at the very least an adequate one.  We would all like to afford a place to call our own–to participate in The American Dream.

Homeless with the American Dream

“Dude, I can help you with that,” one man is leaning over another seated man filling out an online registration form for homeless services at one of the public library’s computers.

At the adjacent computer terminal, I drop into a chair to check email.  My skin is prickly from the long, hot walk to the library, and I am looking like a boiled lobster while trying hard not to overhear the conversation next to me.

“I got it bro,” the response comes.  “But, thanks for the help.  Hey, man, you know about this place?” the seated man asks gesturing to the screen.

“Yeah, they got a ten-o’clock curfew.  That’s alright.  What I don’t like is the showers and beds and sh*t. They’s all communal.  I ‘m real clean.  I can hardly stand to shower there, let alone sleep.  I got to get me a job, so I can have my own place—my own shower.  You hear me?  Family sent me ahead, ya see?”  (There is a formal recounting of all of the immediate and extended family members relying on this man’s ability to find and retain employment.)

“Yeah, yeah.  I hear, ya.  Who’d ya say was hiring?”

“There’s that warehouse.  They’s taking applications.  Do you need me to help you with that?  I can help you.  I got me a bar of soap and found a stream.

Spirituality

Cleaner washing in that stream than some of those places.  I know they [the local Christian charities] mean well—but germs, man, I’m really funny ’bout germs.  Family is counting on me.  You see what I’m sayin’ bro?”

“Yeah.  I got it,” the seated man replies.  “Thank you, though.”

“I’ll catch you later.” The other man moves away, returning to perch on one of the library’s high stools facing the windows looking out onto the pedestrian traffic on the street.

Exhaling, I finish my computer session, grateful for the home I have.  Gathering my things together, I exit the building to breathe the hot, heavy air and begin my walk home.  I consider how alone the man with the extended family must feel,  I hope Grace keeps him safe.

The Kitchen Door Effect & the Spirit

“The monster on table six with his tight-wad wife and bratty kids doesn’t look like he’s going to tip tonight,” Tina’s smoke-seasoned voice cracks the peace of a smoothly running kitchen machine with her crude complaint.

The padded door, upholstered in leather, is still swinging between the kitchen and dining room.  I feel my heart seize with the harsh tone of her words and delivery.  My stomach follows reactive suit with the social inappropriateness and radical shift in her personality.  Moments ago, I stood two tables away from Tina as she billed and cooed over the same four people.

“What a little gentleman and young lady we have here,” she syruped over the children.  “How old are they?  You two look like you should be on a date. You can’t be old enough to have children.”

This is my third or fourth seasonal stint as a server.  Waiting tables is one of the best short-term positions for earning reliable money during college summers.

Spirituality
Spirituality

This particular restaurant is the most exclusive place I have ever served, featuring a full lakefront view and a classic American dining menu (e.g. steak and lobster).  The regulars are fewer in number, while the more pervasive, non-regular clientele comes to celebrate special occasions.  It is an event for people who dine here.  Tables with children are exceptions.  And, although I am accustomed to some degree of back chat in restaurant kitchens—where frustrated servers occasionally let off steam—this place raises the bar on contradictions when I consider my previous working environments.  It also has more “lifers”—the term applied to wait staff who are not using this form of employment to transition into other lines of work.

Looking to return to my internal equilibrium I think, “They are paying guests.  Don’t they deserve better treatment?”  There is no way for me to put this question to Tina or for her to hear what is going on in my head.  As a junior server, I am in no position to vocalize anything to turn the situation around.  So, I swallow what has been dished up, returning to the dining room while acknowledging, in compassionate fairness to Tina, the fact that she has been on staff for years.  I have not.  She is burned-out.  I am not.  Still, the environment is toxic.  I feel like an egg in a carton of cracked, borderline personalities.

Trying to keep things light in my internal world, I amuse myself with the following silent observation, “Maybe this is why I am now working next to the only padded  kitchen-to-dining-room door I have ever encountered in the ‘hospitality’ industry.”  The trained pedagogue in me would simply send everyone for a long counseling retreat.

Choosing to move on, I remain at the lakeside restaurant only a short time.  But, the experience gives me a clear picture of what I term the Kitchen Door Effect, where things are one way in the dining room (exterior) and another way in the kitchen (interior).  This phenomenon exists—to some degree or another— in virtually every industry, circumstance and personality I have encountered.  Additional life experience causes me to note that the more exclusive or carefully polished an exterior appearance is the greater the gap (or heavier the door) may be between the two realms.

I cannot turn the clock back to adjust working conditions at that restaurant.  Neither can I improve the mental health of the personalities I met there nor was it my place to do so.  What I do have the ability to address is the integration between the kitchen and dining room aspects of my own personality.  And, in terms of a single personality, there is far more than one door or two realms at play.

Doors are what separate us from our highest Light, the sacred Self.  In truth, our external world is only as unified in the Light as our discrete internal world.  This is one of the primary teachings that restaurant position provided.  To work on removing these doors, over time, is to become whole, gracious, kind and compassionate, while growing in the knowledge that each living creature possesses a divine Light of its own.  So, no matter what the external appearances, concerns, attachments, fiscal arrangements or social structures may be in a given situation, we have the opportunity to unify our personality around our highest Light.  This is a tall order requiring commitment, bravery and tenacity.

So, while I cannot change the falseness of certain social environments or the craziness in the kitchen environments of the world, I am focusing on “unhinging” my own bent toward duality and contradiction—searching out and removing my own doors—in favor of table-side food preparation with a full view of the Lake.

Spirit of the Divine Child

“Hey, Lady, I ain’t trying to rob ya,” are the hurriedly shouted words of a homeless man, a veteran, at a stoplight.

The light is a long red, and I had comfortably handed two cans of apricots out of the window when the man turns to ask me whether or not the cans are pop-tops.

Spirituality

“I don’t know,” I shout back in honest reply.  (My husband had done the shopping the day before.)  Trying to answer his concern, I lean over to the glove compartment and quickly pull out the Swiss Army Knife we use for camping.

“Here, this will work,” I shout again handing the folded knife and attached cord out the window.

This is the gesture that produces his concerned response.  Yet, what holds me in wonder, before the light turns green, is observing the obvious joy and growing excitement the homeless man exudes as he begins exploring the knife’s many features.

It is as though that simple gift, this one gesture, has produced Christmas for the Divine Child inside of a scruffy, bent man.

Holding Space: A Dog Love Story

  1. A dog with exceptional social skills—both people and canine.  I want a dog diplomat.
  2. A dog who is safe to have off-lead and who comes when called.
  3. A dog who is smart and learns quickly.
  4. A dog who is reliable with children.
  5. An excellent walking companion who can keep pace with me.

After volunteering briefly to walk dogs for a local animal shelter, I realize what I am feeling is not going to be fulfilled by simply being around “dog energy” once a week.  I want a dog of my own—to enter into the committed relationship that is formal, long-term dog ownership.  When I have this realization, we are living in graduate-school housing, which does not allow canine companions (except for service dogs).  To honor my desire and ensure that hope survives, I find a dog leash and hang it on the coat rack next to our front door, holding space in my heart for the dog who would be.

Spirituality

Moving to a new region of the country a year later, we make sure to find older housing that allows dogs.  In meditation, I am granted insight into the fiscal parameters required before I can begin searching for my new friend.  In the mean time, I add more yoga classes to my schedule and make an official list of desired traits for my future companion, all while reading books on dog care and watching dog training media.  Another year passes.  I am finally financially secure enough to begin looking for my future friend.

The search begins at our local Humane Society.  Soon, we are going about every two weeks.  This ritual becomes difficult.  Coming to know some of the dog personalities,  I can sense their expectant hearts looking for a safe place to call home.  Yet, no one dog feels like the match for the puzzle piece I hold fast in my heart.

Then, one day when we are out of town, we drive past a small, hand-lettered sign for another community’s newly opened animal shelter.

“Should we take a look?”  I ask my family as we drive past the sign.

“We have the time today,” my husband responds.

Turning the vehicle around, we follow a series of small signs to a beautiful, brand-new facility off of a dirt road and a high hill.  Pulling into the parking lot, we note the facility’s amazing design.  We are facing full-length, slide-away “windows” that allow fresh air to circulate through the building.

Walking inside, there is the normal clamor of dog voices punching thick sanitizer air that pervades every shelter.  Because we are in a smaller municipality and at a facility I have not checked before, the number of hopeful hearts is not quite as overwhelming and the personalities are new to me.  My heart feels a little more settled about approaching this shelter’s walk-through.

“Are you the one?” I ask as I approach each dog, relying on my heart and spiritual sight to help me.

There is another aspect of this shelter that is unique.  In some cases, it keeps dogs in “family” units, giving the shelter the feeling of a group home instead of a prison.  Coming into a large, indoor play area, where the wall-length windows are recessed, I see my family through the open air about twenty-feet away.  They are still in the parking lot, looking directly into the space where I am standing.

Along with other dogs, a litter of three-month-old puppies are in the play area, surrendered a week ago.  There are two males, who look like Black Labs, and two females—one looks like a Doberman mix, while the other appears to have some German Sheppard in her, except that she has drop ears.  But what catches my eye is the luminescent spiritual crown floating above the head of the female puppy who appears to be a Sheppard mix.

Spirituality

Receiving permission to move in among the dogs, I pet each puppy and then pick up the puppy with the spiritual crown. Turning to face my family, I ask, “Is this the one?”  Everyone nods in affirmation.

This is how our dog, Sophie, came to live with us.  We waited almost three years for a dog and searched for six months.  We celebrate ten years together this week.  The fulfillment of wishes, held deep in the heart, can take time, a long time.  Patience and sincere willingness to be faithful to one’s feelings regarding “the proper order of things” creates an enduring sense of peace in those willing to abide.

Goodwill, Princesses & Waldorf Schooling

Finding myself short a few items of weather-appropriate clothing on a trip recently, I walk across the highway from my mom-and-pop hotel to a Goodwill store with bins, where you can purchase clothing by the pound.

Spirituality

Shopping in this way is something of an adventure. You never know what you will find and the store atmosphere can produce an unusual level of camaraderie, as customers help one another search for desired items. Getting to one bin, opposite a slight woman about ten years my senior, I offer her the pristine white knit shirt I have found, thinking it might be a little snug for me.

“Do you think you could use this?” I ask her.

With her hand hugging a child’s crinoline tutu, she looks up at me from her sorting, “No, I think it might be a little loose on me.” And, then the conversation starts,

“Can you believe that my daughter is removing all of the princess stuff from my granddaughter’s room? She just started at the Waldorf School and they want her to develop her own identity.”

I laugh, “Well, you are talking to something of a Montessori-Waldorf person, so I am not sure I can comment with impartiality.  But, I can say—having grown up on a diet of animated princesses—even after having completed college, not having prince charming to rescue and support me was a bit of a shock. So, maybe it will be best for your granddaughter in the long run, and best for her future partner, too. They can share the task of supporting a household together.”

“I suppose you are right. It just makes it really hard…”

“To be a grandmother?”

“Yes, to be a grandmother,” her voice becomes reflective.

“I think the dress you have could be the official costume for a professional dancer.

Spirituality

Maybe approaching the gift from that angle would be easier on everyone….It really is a matter of culture. I have a relative attending private school who came home one day and announced that she needed to marry a wealthy man. There was a pretty good discussion about helping her revise that notion. But the culture of that specific school setting was all about modeling that paradigm. So, how could she know anything else?”

“Yes. I see what you mean. I suppose it will be fine.”

Nodding to one another, we move on. A few bins later, a ruggedly handsome outdoorsman says, “Hey, if you see a crushable puffer coat, let me know. I need it for camping.”

“Okay,” I look up from the last of my sorting.

Five dollars and five items later, the vigilant wind assists me in opening the front door and the scattering of sleet. The air outside is cold and inviting. Turning to the west, I see the sun dip in the sky.

On the Road Again

On  late Saturday mornings, my father would sometimes walk up from the office to the house and make an inquiry, “Hey, want to go for a ride? I have some bushings that need to be repaired.”

Three hours later and halfway across the state, I find myself in the smallest of cottage-industry shops in the middle of nowhere.  There are streams and lakes and fields and forests—and very few people.  The late-afternoon sunlight comes in through the dirty windows of a repurposed filling station, standing as only one of three buildings at a singular intersection, marking the community’s center. Half a dozen people are bent over vice grips wrapping copper wiring around parts—by hand.

Unable to stifle my surprise, I lean into my father’s space to verify, “They wind these by hand?”

“Yes. The labor and new copper wiring are less expensive than a brand new part.  They will ship them out when they are finished.”

Spirituality

On the drive home, we take a forty-mile detour (eighty in total) to purchase all-beef bratwurst from one of the only small meat suppliers left in the state.  There is an upcoming drivers’ picnic to celebrate the end of the school year.  Forty miles is nothing when considering some of the travel distances that the contracted drivers cover for charter trips or a single high-school athletic meet:  three hours out, play ball and three hours back.  In time, I learn to ask my dad about how far or how long the ride might be before making any solid commitments to a Saturday ride.

The bus service my parents owned, coupled with a propensity for long family road trips, means that I grew up reading maps and on the road again.  There were “day trips” to Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee or the Quad Cities, when a minor-league ball team needed transportation.  There were driving marathons to and from Florida, California and the East Coast.

A keen observer of design—both natural and manufactured—my father never tired of heading out on a road trip to appreciate the world around him and the people he served.  A teacher by vocation, he was inherently curious and ready to discuss potential design improvements on almost any object or subject.  He relished his personal time while driving.  In retrospect, those long hours were the essence of his personal practice.

Napa Valley, Pizza & Spirituality

The gauge on my physical vessel is on “E” as I park in front of a middle-of-nowhere gas station. There is a huge sign in front, advertising freshly made pizza.

“What to order…” my mind is moving ahead of my feet. Hunger disquiets my mind like almost nothing else.  And, racing on an empty belly, takes me far and away from peaceful center.   I march over to the food counter feeling like an edgy, empty creature.

A man in his early 20’s approaches me, “Do you know what you would like to order?”

Grabbing a tri-fold menu from the clear plastic dispenser on the wall, I look down and answer, “No. But, it has to be substantial in calories and interesting in terms of flavor.”

“If you will permit me,” he says gently and patiently, “I can make some recommendations based upon combinations that our regular customers enjoy.”

This sentence causes a thin and brittle rod of urban self-importance that has been buried inside of me to snap. My hunger suddenly does not seem that important.  I take a breath to readjust, wanting to meet the kind offer of this man’s exceptional professional care.

Spirituality

Listening carefully as my maître d’ of gas-station-pizza pies proceeds to outline “his kitchen’s” most favored combinations, he and I become two souls bent over one of Napa Valley’s best wine lists or, perhaps, a most exclusive restaurant’s menu. It amazes me that he, through the tone of his voice, choice of words and the cadence of his descriptions can transport me—transport us—to a place without time inclusive of luxury and exclusivity. To receive this gift of his singular countenance all I need to do is to step back from my own conceit and allow him to play his professional role.

Going outside to be under the sun’s light while the pizza is baking, I wonder how many opportunities to enjoy another human being’s countenance I have missed because of an absent-minded push or assertion on my part, regarding “me” needs, “my” opinions or the social roles I thought I needed to play.

Thank you, pizza man, for your superior care and the gift of this teaching.

Sports Cars, Walker Art Center & Technology

Long, long ago, on one early Sunday morning, I made tracks with my husband through the empty streets of Minneapolis. On the pristine white of a newly stretched snow canvas, we took turns making snow angels and carrying our infant child in a front pack en route to the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden.  The Garden’s gigantic cherry had a thick layer of icing dripping from its round, red head while the tantalizing curve of the spoon scooped up all that was extra.

Spirituality

Finishing our walking tour, refreshed, we came to a standstill at the streetlights. Suddenly, the unusual and decadent void of silence was broken by a roaring European sports car with an overly preoccupied driver (on a now very antiquated portable phone) careening near us with a spray of fresh powder.  The new mother in me became indignant when the driver fishtailed dangerously close.

The new father, a biologist by training, observed with complete calm, “There must be something in our DNA that makes us want the next best atlatl.”

What drives our seemingly insatiable wanting?  This is the question to take on every outing.