Friday, February 26, 2010

Close to Home, Part 2: Talking About the Neighbors

In my city, they frequent intersections, although you may find them different places in your home town: those neighbors we know collectively as hobos, bums, and bag ladies, many of them carrying hand scrawled signs announcing their hunger. We all have our own reasons; our personal set of rationalizations, justifications, and moralizations that we subconsciously activate as we avoid eye contact.

Many of our thoughts are rational, logical, and not far off the mark. My own involve rumors from unidentified eyewitnesses of limo-driving accomplices relieving unspecified local beggars from wads of collected cash. Other thoughts concern a confirmed experiment an acquaintance conducted when he spent a Saturday offering employ to the entire cast of local characters whose signs claimed they’d work for food. He had no takers.

Further consideration revolves around a San Diego waterfront walk when I, along with some church friends, happened past no fewer than a half dozen idle beggars of indeterminate physical or mental ability and didn’t stop until we saw an amputee selling water from an ice-filled cooler and, respecting his approach, enthusiastically patronized his enterprise.

For years, now, these anecdotes have served as a framework to justify a straightforward drive-by. They were enough to alleviate the little tug of empathy and accompanying twinge of guilt I’d feel as I ignored any evidence on my periphery that all may not be well.

The problem with these well considered thoughts? They’re based on rusty rumors, and a second hand report from a single Saturday fifteen years ago. They’re based on judgment calls about what makes sense to me, an educated woman with a relatively privileged background. And worst of all? They don’t mesh well with my beliefs. I call myself a Christian, but I turn my gaze away from those Jesus called the “least of these”—those folks on the margins of life, the ones he told us to treat as though their flesh was his.

I never knew quite how to reconcile the discrepancy. I don’t feel good just handing over cash. I know I can’t assume honesty, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for automatic cynicism, either. What I really want these people to know is that, thanks to a great local organization, there is no need for anyone to be hungry or without shelter in our city. Our local HELP organization is an ecumenical effort to provide meals and lodging in host churches during the winter months, as well as year round bag lunches, housing assistance, and medical and dental care.

So I’ve decided to tell anyone who asks, by way of a hand held sign, about the options available to them. From now on, my response will be a brown bag. I went to the organization’s web page and printed off copies of the page listing their services and tucked the print outs in lunch bags filled with inexpensive pick-me-ups: granola bars, mini Spaghetti-os, applesauce, and a plastic spoon—simple resources that could sustain someone long enough to make it to the HELP office or the bus stop where staff provides nightly transport to host congregations during the cold weather months.

I have also decided to support the shelter, knowing that is the single best response to folks with legitimate needs. No, I can’t tell if someone is truly needy just by looking at them. But I’m willing to gamble a few snacks, some plastic spoons and a few paper print outs for the chance to give someone some hope.

These bags will be in a handy location in my car, at the ready whenever I encounter sign-wielding folks at city intersections. I haven’t handed one out yet—today marks the official launch of this operation—but I haven’t identified a downside yet. I’m not parting with any cash that might be misused. I’m not putting myself in danger --I am, after all, in a two and a half ton mini van and equipped with various cellular devices—or at risk for continued awkward interactions with potentially unstable people. I see it as funneling them into the proper channels, with a brown bag snack for the journey. This image works for me. I know it won’t meet everyone’s need, but no one can do that. It’s a tiny piece—my piece—in an enormous puzzle everyone would like to solve.

What does your puzzle piece look like? What thoughts are difficult for you to overcome in responding to folks on the periphery? Would the snack pack and literature distribution work for you? Is there something I’m missing? Why don’t we take the opportunity to do something that’s usually not nice --let’s talk about our neighbors.

*Editor's Note: The young man fishing through the goods is NOT a neighbor receiving assistance. He is the author's son.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Jury Is Out

I was driving my Usual Route on a Usual Day, but I knew, without a shade of doubt, that it was The Day. My number was up. The Gig was over. I’d be Rounded Up. Called In. Flagged Down. I didn’t know exactly when, or how, but Dread settled upon me as I awaited my fate.

Although the incidents I am about to describe have actually nothing to do with yesterday’s post, or blogging, for that matter, as an aside, I find it necessary to confess to a moment of horror immediately after I went live with a narrative in which I made fun of the Department of Homeland Security. I spent a couple jittery hours, wondering if the FBI would knock on my door. Two men, in suits in fedoras. One nodding gravely as the other said, “OK, Funny Girl, grab those mug shots of yours and out to the Paddy Wagon with you.” Really, I could see it all going down.

Although Legal Affairs were, indeed, on my mind as I drove home that January afternoon, the Summons for which I was bracing was of the ilk most Regular Citizens encounter from time to time: a seemingly routine Jury Duty.

As I strive, like any good journalist, to keep my use of adverbs to a minimum, I use the word “seemingly” with purpose. You see, it seems I have been a Person of Interest to the Virginia Court System since 2006, beginning with a routine questionnaire determining my eligibly to serve during a specific period of time.

The questionnaire listed some specific automatic exemptions, one of which being the main caregiver for a child under 16. As I was homeschooling my 7th grade son at the time, I checked that box and hoped that was the end of it. The specified period came and went. I forgot about the whole thing.

Until a sheriff showed up at my door with a summons about a year after the questionnaire time period had passed. I called to find out why I was being summoned, and to see if I couldn’t just be removed from whatever list I was on that had caused all this, because, remember, I was exempt. Except now I was no longer homeschooling, but a full time Masters Degree candidate, which, I might add was also qualified as an exemptible circumstance.

The Lady on the Phone explained that I had “lucked out” and it would be “in my best interest” to get it over with” because I had been selected to serve on some sort of panel that just meets for one morning—home for lunch even!—and then you get a certificate that says you’re off the hook for “at least” two years. I felt relived, in a temporary sense, even though I had a vague sort of disquiet about the lack of explanation about how I got roped into all this in the first place. I made arrangements to miss class, which really killed me because I was new and still trying to build a reputation as an overachiever. But, in all, it seemed a fairly painless way to participate in a civic responsibility, and why fight it?

I did my morning duty where I basically sat with a group of bored individuals and did a lot of murmuring and nodding, assuring a string of policemen that they had done a good enough job collecting evidence so as to proceed forward with their cases. I went home for lunch, filed my certificate, enjoyed a sense of pro-social responsibility and hoped that was the end of it. I forgot about the whole thing.

Until I was in the middle of my capstone field experience for my Masters Program and got a questionnaire determining my eligibility to serve on a different court. I pulled out my certificate, checked the box that said I was exempt because I had recently served, and hoped that was the end of it. I forgot about the whole thing.

Until a questionnaire arrives in my mailbox, virtually to the day of when my “You’re Off the Hook” certificate expired. The Outfit peddling this questionnaire offered very limited options for exemption. The literature indicated that I would be in a pool of people who could be called at any given time for a period of two--count ‘em—two years, and also that it would be for one of two types of service: an “on call” kind for a two week period, or The Grand Puma of all Juries, a stalwart group that meets for three consecutive days a months for a year (with an included footnote that it could be 18 months depending on the county in which you reside.)

Considering my mounting history, I was horrified by this communiqué. The dread, walking around every day, just waiting for a sheriff to pull you out of your real life and into what could be anything from an annoying two weeks to tantamount community arrest, unable to go far or long, chained to the court docket for a year.

Living with the cloud of uncertainty for up to two years seemed unbearable, but that afternoon in mid-January, I knew I would hear from them before the sun went down that day. See, I’d gotten the questionnaire in December, and after a respectable period went by in observance of the holidays, I knew they would send for me. Why? Simply, greed. These folks want me. They want me bad. They want me often, as soon as they can get me. Sure, I’ll get my “Off the Hook” certificate, but guess what, it will expire just as they are finished with the people they have in their clutches for this two year round, making me more immediately available to them again.

As you can tell, I have lost all belief in the supposed “random selection” of juries. There is no hope that I will regain that innocence. I do believe that I am in some sort of loop, and I will be summoned to more and more courts of varying formats. Although I was relieved to be selected for the Annoying Two Weeks type of duty this time--I start on Monday--just knowing that Other Kind looms out there is Concerning Knowledge.
And that January afternoon? I came home to a Summons in my mailbox (no sheriff this time.)

If I am to be honest, I must admit that I am considering filling out some paperwork to be removed from the voter rosters, at least for a time—until things, you know, simmer down. In the spirit of lively debate, I would like to know what my readers think. Would that be a huge faux pas, like a dis on America? Especially considering that most people I know have never served? For those of you who are spiritually minded, what are your thoughts? Is it a religious responsibility to remain on the voting rosters, and therefore does not matter that I feel targeted and weary? Is the right thing to do just to trust that God will put me where I am supposed to be—even if it means winding up on the Ball and Chain Duty for a year?

I want to hear your thoughts. It's your own personal Summons--a chance to weigh in on the future of the Virginia Legal System (because they'd clearly fall apart without me). Just please be gentle on me. I’m still a little jumpy from the whole fedora-sporting FBI agent scare.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Grim is the New Grin

In a sharp breach in subject matter, I find it necessary to interrupt my “Close to Home” Series to confess that I am making plans to leave the country. (And yes, if two posts count as a series, then we’re smack in the middle of a Series. The sequel is in the works and promises to be a thought provoking read. Stay tuned.)

In the course of freshening up my passport for some upcoming out-of-the-country action, I became privy to some information urgent enough to warrant a Running With Letters Public Service Announcement.

Readers, it seems that we’ve been misinformed. Pumped full of well-intentioned bad advice from everyone from Mom to William Shakespeare. If your growing up experience was anything like mine, you are doubtless under the impression that sporting a smile will not only net you more friends, it will make you more attractive, too. Why, even the community center where I used to work out was into the Smile Scene, posting awareness posters touting the benefits of “building community” on the premises with our flashy grins. Perhaps The Bard even convinced you that a smile can suck the power right out of crime when he penned in Othello Act I, Scene III, “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief."

Wanting to put forth a universal welcome throughout my travels, I sat down for my passport photos with a friendly smile. After all, as Unknown told us, everyone smiles in the same language.

“Don’t smile,” the photographer said.


“You can’t smile for passport photos.”

Unnerved, I nonetheless summoned a serious expression that I just couldn’t hold before bursting into silly gales of laughter—which, I am glad to report, remains compliant with universal expectation that it is contagious.

Although my photographer seemed much happier now that she was laughing, it was still her duty to inform me that smiling is not all we've cracked it up to be. Readers, the Department of Homeland Security has concluded that smiling actually promotes terrorism. In a possible incomplete read of that prolific wordsmith Unknown, our top officials have concluded that “A smile is a powerful weapon,” evidently missing the end of the quote which concludes: “ you can even break ice with it."

It seems that while we’ve been wantonly grinning, beaming, and otherwise flashing our pearly whites around our respective towns, we have been inadvertently bolstering hidden factions of foul sentiment. And here I was, on the verge of presenting a pro-malevolent visage to the world at large.

With my reputation as an upstanding citizen on the line, I quickly reigned in my mirth. Allowing for a large margin for error, I adopted a stern countenance that I envisioned leveling off to a neutral flatline.

However, the photographer saw her opportunity and lost no time. Thanks to her quick pounce on the shutter, I get to present this highly pro-social public image:

I’m holding on to these mug-I mean, head shots. In our current political climate, I’m expecting a PBS response in the form of a 2010 makeover for the Guy Smiley gig on Sesame Street. After all, our next generation needs to be lot savvier than we have been, walking around with dopey grins when a close resemblance to the enemy remains our best defense.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Close to Home, Part 1

Maybe it’s just the weather. Perhaps it’s because I spent most of the last year gearing up for a move that never happened. Or it could just be the way I roll. Whatever the cause, I’ve been wanting to blow this town with a wanderlust rivaling George Bailey’s, just before Uncle Billy lost the bank deposit and the townspeople helped George discover what a Wonderful Life he had right in Bedford Falls.

If I would have been as faithful a January poster as I had planned, you would know that here at my house, I had nary a bank deposit to lose, as we’re just coming off Frugal January, a month of living off hoarded reserves while my husband launched a new business venture. Finances aside, the Usual Suspects of sundry responsibilities don’t compose a favorable atmosphere for immediate departure, either. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to remember—before my sanity headed south, without me—that you don’t always have to be far to be away.

How could I forget the wonderful afternoon my children and I spent consuming authentic British junk food ,exploring tartans, and restoring an antique instrument mere miles from our front door? That day, I proved to two skeptical children that you really can become a tourist on the streets you’ve tread your entire life. This weekend, I proved it to myself all over again.

While cold, sometimes freezing rain pulled an all-nighter on the region, my husband and I were far removed from the misery: soaking in a private Jacuzzi tub, snacking on gourmet cheeses, sipping champagne by a roaring fire. In reality, we were less than half an hour from home. But having a well-stocked and beautifully decorated bed and breakfast inn virtually to ourselves? We were in a world of our own.

In the morning, we took a spontaneous tour of a stained glass-studded 17th century church. Even without the benefit of sunlight the windows were a wonder to behold.

Home before noon, we were gone for less than 24 hours—no heap of accumulated laundry, with no mountain of mail and rolled newspapers waiting on the flip side.

And thus I succeeded in staving off the travel bug for at least a little longer, and learned anew the importance of appreciating the underrated here and now right in front of me. It’s a timely lesson, too, as it's one that relates to the book proposal on which I am currently working. Thanks, by the way, to those of you who have asked about it. It’s basically version 2.0 of a concept that got away from me more than six years ago and withered on the vine. This time, I’ve called in an important reinforcement—my friend, Patti, a former editor at the same struggling Tribune publication for which I used to write. She’s a great writer with stories of her own festering in file folders, and we’ve decided that enough is enough. We’re meeting now, bi-weekly, and giving each other assignments and deadlines and encouragement to keep our projects on track. We even have a joint venture thrown in the mix.

But my proposal? It’s got a lot to do with the material right here in this blog. It’s loaded with art metaphors and never strays too far from the witty, tongue-in-cheek sort of commentary I tend to favor. It's also pretty tightly tied to the concept of embracing the extraordinary experiences embedded within the admittedly ordinary lives most of us lead—because no matter where we call home, most of our days are spent there. And we need to squeeze every bit of adventure and discovery we can from each one.

Psst…before you head out, take a moment and check something out for me, OK? Just take a little peek up and to the right—see all those pretty faces? Is your picture included in that sort of mosaic along the side of the page? If not, why not go ahead and add it…because I love mosaics and I love followers…and following my followers!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Friday Facelift

I’ve been saving this post to press into service as a splash of color at the greyest point of winter. As my family, friends, and long time followers know, I am a Solar Powered creature of Sun and Light. Although I enjoy a good old fashioned snowstorm as much as the next guy, SE Virginia’s Storm of the Season has dissolved into a wet mush of filthy ice and rotting vegetation, and we are, by all accounts, on the verge of getting pelted with about 12 hours of icy rain, so it’s safe to say I’m done.

For me, one of the biggest things winter has working against its limited palette. Color—not unlike myself—is an entity thoroughly dependent on light. Winter, by definition, is a Low Light entity, which means, by default, that the season isn’t going to impress anyone with a Prismatic Showcase.

I may still have a few followers out there who remember a little teaser post from way back in November when I promised to show you what I did with the fabric pictured above. Since I never got the post together before the calendar told us that we didn’t have time for projects that didn’t involve turkey, trees, or toys, I decided to hold onto it as a possible antidote for winter blahs.

I don’t know how it is at your house, but at mine, the master bedroom has traditionally taken all the awards for dutifully serving as the most underdeveloped room of the house. Even as a kid, I remember all of the hasty, pre-company clean ups consisting of gathering all the clutter and stuffing it into my parent’s bedroom—a habit I have tried time and again to keep from seeping into my own housekeeping rituals with varying success.

Inspired by my friend, Lori, who has all the good ideas, I decided to confront the dismal scene below by crafting a custom fabric headboard:

The beauty of this project is its complete adaptability. All you need to transform the sleeping area of your choice is a piece of plywood cut to the specs of your specific bed, cot, or mattress, pillow forms or cut foam, a bit of fixative, a staple gun, and enough upholstery cloth to cover same. Since my accommodations are king-sized, I decided to divide the space into thirds and display three coordinating colors. This decision proved fortuitous as I discovered that my local home improvement store carried pre-cut plywood in the exact measurements I needed to cover my space.

Patience was another thing that worked in my favor. I planned the project a full three weeks before executing, as I was holding out in hopes that the cloth I selected at 15+ dollars per yard would go on sale. In this, I also was lucky in that the very day I decided that I simply could not wait any more, the entire store went on deep discount. Although my original plan called for cut foam—that I also could have obtained at deep discount—I got lucky for the third time when I happened to find 3 pillow forms that just happened to be—you guessed it—the exact size to mount on my three cut boards.

Luck does not necessarily have to be on your side. Lori’s project was for a full-sized bed, and she found that a standard, uncut piece of plywood fit her needs perfectly. She also said that most home improvement stores will cut the board for free.

Once I got all the supplies home, I was less than two hours away from a completed headboard. I used brush on adhesive to fix the bottom end of my cloth and the pillow form to the plywood. I glued about 6-8 inches of cloth (top side down!) straight to the plywood,added some staples for added stability, and adhered the pillow form on top of the cloth and onto the plywood. The glue I used dried pretty quickly, so it was not long before I was able to wrap the rest of my cloth around the pillow form and fix the rest in place with a staple gun.

Originally, I planned to bolt the three finished panels to my bed frame, but once I set them into place, I realized that they were not going anywhere, so I declared the project done. Lori chose the option of fixing her single covered panel to the wall behind her bed, creating a completely different effect. She used cut foam for her panel, so her creation was flatter and sported cleaner lines.

I used my scraps to cover an old cork board to create a custom memory board for the wall near my bed. I also decided to add some shelves and fixtures in a white-and-silver theme. The end result? You get to be some of the first guests I’ve actually invited into my room:

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Mosaic Prayer

Dear God,

Could you please take the scattered mass of vague ideas and interesting-yet- disjointed thoughts that occupy my mind and somehow fit them together in a way that is attractive, yet functional? Please don't forget the chipped little fragments from everything I've already messed up. And those little pieces I've loved for so long but haven't been able to force fit into anything I've ever designed. Then, could you sort of cement it all together with your own brand of mortar so I won't disrupt the pattern with my clumsy, chaotic flailings?


I love to blog. Really. But I'm also having a fling with the visual arts, and getting re-acquainted with a book proposal that has been languishing in my files since circa 2003. I don't know how--or if--it all fits together. I just couldn't let another day pass without at least noticing this little piece of my life. If you're still out there, I'd love to know. It would make me smile.


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