Paragraphs To Ponder—Haiti

By Maria Abi-Habib.

“With broken bones and open wounds, the injured jammed into damaged hospitals or headed to the airport, hoping for mercy flights out. A handful of doctors toiled all night in makeshift triage wards. A retired senator used his seven-seat propeller plane to ferry the most urgent patients to emergency care in the capital.

A day after a magnitude-7.2 earthquake killed at least 1,300 people and injured thousands in western Haiti, the main airport of the city of Les Cayes was overwhelmed Sunday with people trying to evacuate their loved ones to Port-au-Prince, the capital, about 80 miles to the east.

There wasn’t much choice. With just a few dozen doctors available in a region that is home to one million people, the quake aftermath was turning increasingly dire.

‘I’m the only surgeon over there,’ said Dr. Edward Destine, an orthopedic surgeon, waving toward a temporary operating room of corrugated tin set up near the airport in Les Cayes. ‘I would like to operate on 10 people today, but I just don’t have the supplies,’ he said, listing an urgent need for intravenous drips and even the most basic antibiotics.

The earthquake was the latest calamity to convulse Haiti, which is still living with the aftereffects of a 2010 quake that killed an estimated quarter-million people. Saturday’s quake came about five weeks after the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, leaving a leadership vacuum in a country already grappling with severe poverty and rampant gang violence.”

Postscript.

Breaking With Biden

Why is President Biden framing geopolitics this way?

“I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake. Not just with China. Look around the world. We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology? The environment. How will they do that? It is clear, absolutely clear … this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies. That’s what’s at stake here. We’ve got to prove democracy works.”

Why do we have to prove democracy works? What’s wrong with sovereign nations choosing other forms of government that work well for them? What do we gain from trying to impose democracy on others who have no interest in it?

It’s ironic that Biden asks, “Will there be a middle class?” because China is rapidly building one while ours is shrinking. Would I want to live somewhere like China without the civil liberties I’ve grown accustomed to? No, I wouldn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that many people are willing to live with centralized power as long as their quality of life is improving.

I prefer our inefficient democracy, but it’s ethnocentric to assume our form of government is better than all the rest. Maybe in 2089, Tiananmen Square II will happen and the Chinese people will force a change of government.

Until then, improving quality of life is all that matters. Instead of framing geopolitics as a zero-sum game between democracies and autocracies, we should focus on diplomacy, 21st century environmental policies, demilitarization, creating jobs that pay livable wages, and reducing poverty home and abroad.

Granted, this is nitpicking. Biden is off to a great start. What a refreshing reset. Nevertheless, no matter how successful he is over the next 3+ years, I will never vote for an 82 year-old for President.

How Not To Care

If you look even a little bit, the growing population of homeless men, women, and children in Olympia, Washington are easily visible; mostly you’ll find them close to the social service agencies they depend upon, like the Salvation Army and the Thurston County Food Bank. An enormous tent and tarp community stretches all along the western edge of Capital Lake on Deschutes Parkway SW. It looks like a refugee camp you might find in Northeast Africa, but worse because there’s no UNHCR to create some semblance of order. More accurately, picture Miami post Hurricane Katrina. Many more live in tents and tarps among the trees that line the Woodland Trail and the I-5 freeway.  

The classic argument between the Individual Responsibility folks, “they have to take responsibility for their bad decisions” versus the Systemic Forces folks, “the growing numbers of homeless who succumb to combinations of poverty, addiction, and poor mental health are entirely predictable given our ‘winner-takes-all’ economic system coupled with our anemic social safety net” shows no signs of abating. Nearly all of the Individual Responsibility folks respond to  homeless men, women, and children with a mix of resentment and anger. At the same time, a gradually increasing percentage of the Systemic Forces folks are exasperated as some natural areas are lost and downtown grows less clean and safe.

So why, as the population of homeless men, women, and children rises; does it seem like our collective empathy decreases? Even among a lot of decent people who have demonstrated empathy in their past for others less fortunate than them?

Mired in resentment and anger, we leapfrog caring about our fellow citizens’ pain and suffering because we don’t know any homeless person’s story. We don’t know where they’re from, what their childhood was like, what hardships they’ve had to endure. Not knowing any of those things makes it much easier to assume they’ve made a series of bad decisions. And that until they start making good ones, they get what they deserve. 

Local papers don’t have the resources to tell their stories anymore. And even if alternative papers tried, would we read them when we don’t even really look at our homeless neighbors? As if they have leprosy, the best we can do, it seems, is a quick glance.

The secret to not caring about the homeless is not knowing anything about any one homeless person. Not learning their names and not looking at them helps too, but mostly, it’s avoiding learning how and why and where things went off the rails. 

Irrespective of one’s religious views or politics, it seems increasingly common to castigate “the homeless”. Because they remain an abstraction. 

This proven strategy works equally well in other contexts too. For example, the same approach to not caring works for the growing number of Central American immigrants gathering at our southern border. Many Fox News hosts are absolutely giddy over what the gathering numbers of desperate immigrants mean for Biden’s approval ratings and the midterm elections because they don’t know any of their stories. There are laws to be enforced and political gain to be made, nevermind their pain and suffering, their humanity.

Yesterday, I screwed up. And mistakenly read this story in the New York Times.

A Violent End to a Desperate Dream Leaves a Guatemalan Town Grieving

In doing so, I was introduced to Santa Cristina García Pérez, a 20 year old, one of twelve Comitecos who were massacred by Mexican police near the U.S. border. I learned Christina was one of 11 siblings who hoped to make enough money in the U.S. to. . . 

“. . . cover the cost of an operation for her one-year-old sister, Angela Idalia, who was born with a cleft lip. . . . 

She wanted to save Ángela Idalia from what she thought would be a life of ridicule, relatives said.”

I doubled down on my mistake by taking my time to truly see all of the Comitecos mourning their friends and family. Powerful images of profound loss, one after another. Including one of Ricardo García Pérez, Cristina’s dad, placing a bottle of water next to her casket. . .

“. . . so that Ms. García’s spirit did not suffer from thirst on its journey to the next life.”

I wasn’t the only one learning about the Comitecos. The Times explains:

“The killings have stunned the community, spurred a wave of international media attention on Comitancillo and an outpouring of financial support for the victim’s families. Among other acts of largess, donations from nearby communities in the region and from the Guatemalan diaspora have paid for Ángela Idalia’s first surgery to repair her cleft lip and have enabled the García family to build a new house.”

That’s one more vivid example that when most people see someone suffering, look into their eyes, learn their name, and something about their life journey; they can’t help but care. And help.

In contrast, the homeless in my community remain an abstraction. An abstraction most of us are determined to keep at a comfortable distance. Given our mounting resentment and anger at this abstraction, we keep asking, “When is someone going to do something?” 

 

Nomadland

Frances McDormand is Fern, a widower struggling to let go of her past. She’s hard working and resilient. Her van makes for a precarious home. She befriends other “nomads” also living on the road, but only to a point, because she isn’t fully in the present.

Nomadland has the feel of a compelling documentary. A thoughtful window into a vulnerable, but resourceful community of non-conformists prioritizing personal freedom and nature over material comfort. If you enjoy films firmly based in reality, you may like it as much as I did.

Pressing Pause

This blog was born out of a desire to step off the treadmill of life long enough to think about meaning and purpose in life.

Since our collective treadmill has been rendered inoperable by the coronavirus, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think more deeply about how to live.

But how do we do that when we’re like sedentary people trying to create exercise routines, how do we start being introspective and reflective, of thinking conceptually about what we want for ourselves, our neighbors, the world? How to reimagine our post-coronavirus lives?

One way is to rethink what’s most important. For example, many people are being more thankful for the non-materialistic joys in their lives, whether that’s a daily walk, deeper appreciation for nature, shared meals with family, or renewed conversations with lapsed friends. Similarly, many people are rethinking their consumer habits, realizing how little most material things adds to their lives. Many, of course, will have to spend less post-pandemic, others will choose to.

And yet, this isn’t such a golden opportunity to press pause or do much of anything for the 90.1% of people who are deeply worried about how they’ll meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. Many, many people can’t get past the most basic of questions, “How will I/we meet our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, medical care?”

As a member of the New American Aristocracy, I have the luxury of reinvigorating my inner life; meanwhile, hundreds of millions of poor, working class, and middle class people around the world wonder how they’ll feed, house, and cloth themselves without steady work that pays livable wages.

Gideon Litchfield, in an essay titled “Where not going back to normal,” points this out:

“As usual. . . the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.”

He concludes:

“But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.”

The cynic in me thinks it’s more likely that heightened scarcity—especially of decent jobs—will cause people to be even more self-centered. The negative critiques of globalization add to my skepticism, if not cynicism. The worst case scenario is every person and every country for themselves in an increasingly cutthroat survival of the fittest competition. I hope I’m way off.

If the “New American” or “World Aristocracy” are smart, they’ll realize it’s in their own enlightened self-interest to think about how to assist and empower the “ones who have lost far too much already”. Ultimately, we will all sink or swim together.

In the end, it’s a question of time and perspective. Like any uber-lucky ten-percenter, at age 58, I can “circle my wagons” and save, invest, and spend with only my family and me in mind. I would live very comfortably, but my daughters’ children and their children would inherit an even less hospitable world.

Instead, I intend on taking the long view by focusing less on my comfort and more on the common good, or as stated in the humble blog’s byline, small steps toward thriving families, schools, and communities.

We Need To Stop Criminalizing Poverty

A tweet:

“A Georgia man stole a can of beer. The judge ordered ankle monitoring. The company administering it charged him more than $1,000. He sold plasma, but fell behind on his payments & the judge jailed him for non-payment. We need to stop criminalizing poverty.”

I had to read this a few times. The first time I thought the author was excusing the man’s initial act of stealing the can of beer as a result of his poverty. So I wondered, what does stopping criminalizing poverty mean? It can’t mean excusing theft can it? Otherwise, as Chinua Achebe wrote, things fall apart.

Upon closer review, the overarching problem is falling behind on his payments for the disproportionate fine. And being jailed. Stopping criminalizing poverty means a poor person should not be fined $1,000 for stealing something valued at $5. Nor should they be jailed when they can’t pay the fine on time. Taxpayers pay for the person’s time in prison and society pays when they find it even more difficult to find work upon their release.

Community service makes much more sense.

Sentence To Ponder

From The Guardian. The report is from Oxfam, a British-based charitable organization:

“The growing concentration of the world’s wealth has been highlighted by a report showing that the 26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.”

Oxfam says between 2017 and 2018 a billionaire was created every two days. And then there’s this. Just 1% of Jeff Bezos’s (pre-divorce) fortune is equivalent to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Related.

Wednesday Assorted Links

1. I wouldn’t normally be drawn to an essay titled The Gift of Menopause, but the Times’s preamble drew me in. So glad. Brilliant. Exquisitely written.

2. The Difference Between Being Broke and Being Poor.

3. The Fight for Iowa’s White Working-Class Soul. Is that DJ Byrnes’s future?

4. The Highest Court in the Land. For Richie. Who would dominate.

5A. The specious claims of the “wellness industrial complex” continued. Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness. 5B. Wellness Brands Like Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP Wage War on Science.

6. Flat Cokes, Relay Running, and 500 Pages of Notes: A Professor Prepares to Break a Guinness World Record for Longest Lesson. I will not be attending.

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.