Sunday, July 26, 2009

Homeless Vets

I read an article in the Sunday Santa Rosa Press-Democrat about Stand Down, an annual three-day event held last weekend in San Diego to provide respite and services to homeless war veterans. The injustice of homeless war veterans infuriates me. Whether you are a pacifist, hawk, Republican, Democrat, or lefty war protestor, doesn’t matter, across the board, I am willing to bet that you feel the same as I do. There should be a fail safe mechanism that ensures that every war veteran at the very least has a home, an income (from a job if they are able to work), food on the table, security. In this land of plenty, even in a recession, you would think there is room for us to provide for our war veterans.

Stand Down events are held annually in many cities throughout the country for, as they refer to them, “former members of the armed forces whose lives have collapsed.” At the one in San Diego last week, a tent city was erected for three days. Nearly 1,000 vets turned up (more than last year’s 830) to take advantage of services, including hot food, haircuts, massages, dental care, legal aid, referrals to substance abuse treatment programs, connection to federal benefits, and a place to sleep. Almost all the vets at the event are suffering from some form of mental illness, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or clinical depression. Many of those suffering from depression are depressed because they can’t get a job and have been chronically unemployed for so long that they have become homeless. One woman interviewed was an electrician’s assistant in the service. She had a job but lost it in the recession. Unable to get work again in the field of electrical work, she applied for anything she could find. She says even McDonald’s turned her down. I know affirmative action is being outlawed nationwide, but it seems to me that a war vet should be able to go to the front of the line.

The V.A. estimates there are over 200,000 homeless war vets in the U.S. right now; but that number will be increasing because vets from Iraq and Afghanistan have not yet landed on the streets since it takes a few years in a downward spiral for a disoriented vet to end up homeless. The number one reason for homelessness among vets has traditionally been psychiatric problems and more than a third of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets who have enrolled in the veterans’ health system since 2001 were diagnosed with PTSD , depression, or other mental health disorders. This means there are vets out there who need attention, recognition, and support to secure a productive, comfortable life. They are owed, don’t you think?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

3 Cups of Tea (Not a Book Review)

I recently joined the Code Pink Book Club, local group, which was begun by a member of Code Pink with whom I am friends. This month, we chose not to read the recommended Code Pink book but instead we read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. If you haven’t read the book, it’s about Greg’s passionate mission to build secular schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. These schools educate both boys and girls and offer an alternative to political Islam’s religious extremist schools that are used as a breeding ground for soldiers. Greg says he’s working for peace one school at a time. He really is. One day he will win the Nobel. And when he does, I have no doubt he will be thoroughly embarrassed by the attention, although excited about the money it will bring in for more schools.

When I finished Greg’s book, I felt inadequate. He has risked his life, endured great personal discomfort, and spent months at a time on the other side of the world from his family to dedicate his life to the important work of making a difference in the lives of others. I, on the other hand, would not place risking my life high on my list of entertainment. And I enjoy my creature comforts. In fact, I usually bring my own pillow with me when I travel. I wouldn’t last one night sleeping on the ground in Afghanistan. I was never apart from my children for more than a few days until they left home for college (with the exception of a couple of weeks of sleep-away camp during a few summers). I don’t measure up to Greg on the personal sacrifice yardstick. But what about the making a difference? Because that’s what matters to me.

Then it came to me that I have made a difference in perhaps as many lives as he has, but I have done so with far less bravery, effort, and drama. I have secured the funding necessary to launch and maintain programs that have changed the lives of thousands, many of whom are impoverished children. In doing so, I have had the privilege to work with dedicated people nationwide who regularly put in more than 40 hours a week and use all their ingenuity to make a difference in the lives of others. We have not trekked over miles of rock or dodged bullets. We sleep in a comfortable bed. And we do our best each in our own way. Miracles come in many shapes and sizes. I am proud to be among the ranks of the behind-the-scenes, undramatic, everyday miracle-makers.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Needs a Computer?

Apparently not my 85-year-old cousin, whom we visited over the weekend. This cousin is not a boring old lady, either. She’s a spitfire. More fun than a crate of Looneytoon characters (without the speech impediments). She said she understands that if she was in the workforce these days, she’d have to use a computer. But retired 20 years, and busy with an active social life and many interests, she doesn’t have time to sit around browsing the internet. She has no interest in email, which she views skeptically as little more than people sending dull jokes around to each other, hacking into one another’s private files, and attempting to steal someone else’s identity. “The only thing I might use a computer for,” she says, “is research. And for that I just call my son.”

So I turn to her son and I ask him how he provides her with the research. “Well,” he smiles indulgently, with a smile that reveals just how much he loves his mother, “once I get the information, I read it to her over the phone, mail it to her, or bring it with me when I come to visit.” She doesn’t have a fax machine, which does not concern her one iota. “What would I use that for?” she asks, and then launches into a rant about Facebook and “twattering” (we think she means Twitter). My cousin asks me if I use Facebook. I explain that I check out Facebook a couple of times a day, that this is new in my life, and I like it because there are people I connect with regularly on Facebook who live far away and would normally not be part of my daily life. Facebook makes it possible for me to have an ordinary day-to-day connection with quite a few people whom I like and would not otherwise have had any contact with for many years at a time. Facebook gives me that global village on a personal level. Although I am careful not to let it suck up too much of my time and I skip most entries by the people who post too much.

I have to say that I remember vividly the exact moment in 1986 when I realized that I needed a computer. Prior to that moment, I could not fathom what a regular person would do with such a thing. Maybe if I was a mathematician, I thought. Or maybe if I had to do a lot of accounting. Then I got a job writing a book for an educational publishing company. My friend Jim gave me the key to his front door and permission to use his computer during the day while he was at work. He gave me a one-hour lesson in the use of WordPerfect on his Kaypro. DOS operating system. No mouse. I was struck by lightning. My life changed forever. Today, my ability to work from home and have the independence and freedom that I have had for the past 10 years is a direct result of the capacity of a home computer and the internet. I am truly grateful for the technology that makes my lifestyle possible.

Yesterday, when I looked at my 85-year-old cousin, I tried to imagine a life in which a computer is useless, a life rich with in-person experiences in the local village. It reminded me to step out of my own cultural context more often for a different perspective.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Putting a Foot in It

Last week, when I was swamped with work, my lovely husband Ron made me dinner. A delicious mushroom stroganoff. “That is sensational,” I said. “Yeah, I really put my foot in it,” he replied, which is apparently a common Black expression meaning he did a great job cooking something really tasty. After 31 years in a relationship with a brother, I thought I knew a thing or two about Black culture, but I had no clue what he was talking about. He could not believe that I had never heard that expression. Well, if I heard it, I forgot it, and I don’t think I ever knew what it meant. Fast forward to yesterday. We have a new tradition, begun last year, of cooking Soul Food instead of BBQ for the 4th of July. A small group of close friends shared the Soul Food meal with us last year. Too much fun. Same group got together again this year. We had cornbread, black-eyed peas, mac & cheese, green beans, coleslaw, sweet potato pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, and, the centerpiece of the meal, was fried tilapia according to Ron’s special recipe. (I hear it’s to die for, but I wouldn’t know since I don’t eat fish.) Our trusty Soul Food crew turned up. Friend Jessica’s mom Helene, who’s 83, made the black-eyed peas and Calvin (master of the perfect crust) made the strawberry rhubarb pie. After the meal, when we lay draped across the furniture moaning, Helene turned to Ron and said, “You really put your foot in it.”

He put his foot in it again in the morning when he made biscuits, grits, eggs, and turkey bacon for breakfast. You gotta love this Soul Food.

I could stop with the food, but I want to share another highlight of our 4th of July. I forced our visitors to listen as I read aloud Time magazine columnist Joel Stein’s account of his wife wanting to eat the placenta after the birth of their son. Here is where you can find the article. I read Joel Stein every week, and this has got to be the funniest column he has ever written. If you need a good laugh, check it out. It had us in stitches yesterday.