midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “poverty”

Intersection of Beginning and Ending

For the second straight day, I couldn’t get my mother on the phone and got no reply to my messages. The last time I called from work and left a message, I got a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong.

I called my wife Amy and told her to meet me at my mother’s apartment building, where we had struggled to move her a year earlier during a period of my mother’s physical health decline and struggle with a mental health disorder. At midlife, roles had reversed and we had become my mother’s caretakers and support system.

When we got no response to our knock on the door, dread came over me. We entered and found her dead on the bathroom floor, cause of death unknown. Though she had been experiencing health problems, they were more the nagging kind than life-threatening—until they were even more than that, suddenly.

It was a tragic start to a political campaign. Only five days earlier, I had registered in dontknockfront-cover_6283732Maryland’s capital of Annapolis as a Democratic candidate for state delegate. I had never told my mother I was considering running—our relationship had been strained during her time of unpredictable and volatile mental health, exacerbated by her stubborn nature and rebellious streak. I didn’t want to mention a political run until I was fully committed to entering the race and felt she was on firmer ground. I had planned to let her know I was in the race the next time I saw her. I never got that opportunity. I felt terrible I had never shared the news.

The profile story on my candidacy in the Baltimore Sun with an October 8, 2013 dateline coincidentally hit the newsstands the same day that Amy and I found my mother dead. That day, I was going to proudly present the article to my mother, my biggest supporter, as I broke the news to her about my candidacy.

I wrote about my mother’s political influence on me and the impact of her death on my nascent campaign in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics:

I credit my mother Sandra Sachs, a diehard liberal Democrat from Boston who had a fascination with the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, a devotion to other charismatic pols and a penchant for volunteering for campaigns, for getting me interested in politics…

The Sun article provided me a nice opening salvo. Now I just had to back it up with real action. That is, as soon as I could plan a memorial service for my mother, meet and make plans with funeral directors, coordinate with out-of-town family, untangle her financial affairs, launch the bureaucratic estate settlement process with the Register of Wills, negotiate with her landlord, make repairs to her apartment, sell her furniture on Craigslist, and move all her other belongings out of her apartment within three weeks. Not the ideal way or frame of mind to launch a campaign.

So the first month of my campaign was put virtually on hold while I dealt with my mother’s affairs and coped with the sudden loss emotionally. In a spiritual way, I felt Sandra Sachs with me during the campaign, watching over me as I traveled door-to-door and marched with people who were struggling day-to-day. It occurred to me that maybe it was fate that I was running at all. It was my mother who loved politics and took pride in identifying herself as a Democrat, the party of inclusion and champion of the vulnerable, with her roots as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the gritty outskirts of Boston and who lived a hardscrabble, working-class life. She would have been proud, I thought, looking down. No one from my family had ever run for political office before. The Kennedys we were not.

My mother’s keen interest in politics landed her on Capitol Hill as a staffer for U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who ran for president in 2000, and Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), no small feat for a woman who spent her initial post-college years in the 1960s into the 1970s raising kids, and then battled back from debilitating depression to gain a foothold in the workforce.

At one candidates’ forum in particular, at a large residential retirement community outside of Baltimore, I felt my mother’s presence with me. I eschewed my usual stump speech in favor of an effort to connect with the seniors on an emotional and personal level, as excerpted from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead:

“I have a good idea of the issues you have faced and your current challenges,” I told the Charlestown [Retirement Community] residents, “but not because I read it or heard a policy wonk or a politician talk about them. I know from personal experience, from trying to help my mother with problems the last couple of years of her life before she died, when her health was going downhill.”

I told them about my mother’s challenges with downsizing and finding appropriate housing; exploring assisted living facilities; searching for viable transportation when she couldn’t drive; navigating a poorly coordinated, frustrating health care system; determining finances; and finding social outlets.

I wasn’t aiming for sympathy, but nevertheless several of the attendees and my fellow candidates offered me condolences and said my speech was heartfelt afterwards. Once again, I didn’t know if my speech had earned me any votes, but I was proud that it was memorable.

Nearly four years later, following a dinner celebrating my daughter Rebecca’s graduation May 20, 2017 from the University of Maryland, Rebecca told me she was sad that Nana – my mother – wasn’t there to celebrate with us. Another prideful campaign sadly missed. Whenever Maryland plays the University of Michigan, often now that Maryland is in Michigan’s athletic conference, Rebecca said she’ll think of her grandmother, who took great pride in transcending her poor, neurotic family in working class Malden, Massachusetts to arrive at a beacon of rah-rah American collegiate life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and who ingrained the “Go Blue!” Michigan chant in her grandkids.

And I’ll always think of my mother when I recall my run for politics, one of her other great loves.

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Thoughts on Struggle, Resilience, Gratitude and Grace

Counseling has given me a new perspective on struggle, resilience, gratitude and grace, at this time of year when we may slow down enough to think about these phenomegracena.

I’m working as a therapist intern at a mental health agency in Baltimore that serves low-income clients. Many have substance abuse problems. Some have been drug dealers. Some have spent time in prison. Many have been victims of crime or domestic abuse; some have perpetrated violent crimes.

Some have been homeless or evicted with no place to go, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Some are shunned by their families. Some were criminally abused or neglected as children.

All are struggling mightily, yet they have resilience. They want better. They want to overcome. They don’t quit. The question, however, is always: How motivated are they to change? When I think about resilience I’ve had to summon to face challenges, it doesn’t compare.

Many of our clients are on the margins of society, nearly invisible. Many have dropped out of the job market. Some want to return, but it’s a struggle to re-enter. Some have become isolated or reclusive, out of distrust or fear of failure, rejection or disappointment. They want independence, but it’s a struggle to get there; many have to lean on others for help. It’s easy to see: Once you fall into a hole, the climb to emerge can be arduous.

They are grateful for people who care about them, whether a therapist, a social worker or a friend or family member who stuck by them during difficult times when others didn’t. They are grateful for sobriety, kids and grandkids, and new chances.

Our clients inhabit a world and have lived through experiences with which I had no familiarity until my counseling internships. For the clients who have let me into their worlds and taught me about the enormous challenges they both inherited and created themselves, I am grateful. They have blessed me with a real-world education that books and classes can’t approximate. I hope I am providing a certain kind of education for them in return.

As for grace, Gerald G. May, M.D. described “living into grace” in Addiction & Grace:

“Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved…It is just given.

“But living into grace does not depend upon simple receptivity alone. It also requires an active attempt to live life in accord with the facts of grace [which]…are simple: grace always exists, it is always available, it is always good, and it is always victorious…

“The risk, of course, is to my addictions; if I try to live in accord with grace, then I will be relinquishing the gods I have made of my attachments…I must make conscious efforts of will; I must struggle with myself if I am going to act in accord with those facts. Living into grace requires taking risks of faith.”

As we enter a new year, I hope and pray our clients are able to recognize grace working in their lives and find the strength to take the risks of faith to live into grace.

Social Insecurity

God help me if, in my supposed “Golden Years,” I’m hanging out by my mailbox, hopefully not hunched over like Quasimodo or leaning on a walker or sitting on a scooter (no offense to those who need them for mobility, I just hope it’s not me), on a certain day of each month anxiously awaiting my Social Security check so I can survive for another month.

Often through no fault of their own – or sometimes, through bad luck, setbacks, unfortunate decisions, costly medical problems, lack of foresight and typical life struggles – that is the fate of many older people in the U.S. The fear that I may join them drives me to try to maximize my income-producing options for the future and save and invest as much as possible, as hard as it is with two college-age children, my own graduate school education, a mortgage, and a life in a metro area with one of the nation’s highest costs of living.

The AARP’s Retirement Confidence Survey revealed that nearly half of 50+ workers and nearly three in five retirees have less than $25,000 in savings and investments. That, to me, certainly seems like a crisis of poverty engulfing our elderly citizens. Think about it: three of five retirees who may live 20 years in retirement may have $1,000 or less in savings and investments for each of those years. That’s a retirement of mere survival.

Most 50+ American retirees have less than $25,000 in savings/investments.

Most 50+ American retirees have less than $25,000 in savings/investments.

The survey found that Social Security is a major source of retirement income for two of three retirees over age 50.

The survey concluded that Americans age 50 and older may not have a realistic view of their financial future in retirement and are not adequately preparing for it.

Whether many people could possibly adequately prepare for it in this age is another matter, with wages and income stagnant in perpetuity; rampant employer layoffs, persistent and widespread unemployment and jobs shipped overseas; escalating and unaffordable college tuition; high student and consumer debt loads; and rising consumer costs and government fees and taxes.

In my state, Maryland, politicians are trying to force workers to save for retirement. A new legislative effort has been launched to establish retirement security plans for more than a million Marylanders who would otherwise rely entirely on Social Security in retirement.

U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined Maryland leaders to promote the national initiative at the state level: the creation of workplace savings accounts in which employees would be automatically enrolled but would have the right to bow out of participation.

While I believe the financial fate of the nation’s elderly is important to the U.S. economy and society’s overall health and well-being, I contend that the government is overstepping its reach in this effort of forced “workplace savings accounts.” I also believe in individual responsibility and accountability and free choice. And where does this policy leave entrepreneurs, consultants and other non-traditional income earners in this unstable economy which is increasingly moving toward a free-agent model and employers cannot be counted upon for a secure job for life?

As for me, this fear of over-reliance on somewhat meager Social Security payments is one of my motivations for pursuing a graduate degree in mental health counseling. Counseling is something I can do independently to produce income if I so choose, and a career that doesn’t necessarily come with a built-in retirement date. It expands my options, and I want all the options I can generate at my disposal to live life on my own terms in the future.

Baltimore Riots Hit Closer to Home

Another liquor store -- apparently not my tennis partner's -- that was looted during Baltimore riots, including stolen ATM.

Another liquor store — apparently not my tennis partner’s — that was looted during Baltimore riots, including stolen ATM.

The Baltimore riots just became more personal.

As disturbing as it was to see Baltimore looted and burned from my living room in my suburban community 20 miles away, it was still anonymous rioters wreaking havoc on anonymous victims. That has changed.

I got an e-mail from my tennis community that a Korean-American who I have played against in tennis leagues, played with on the same team, and partnered with in doubles, was injured (I don’t know how seriously) and lost his business, a liquor store, to rioters.

The e-mail said that my one-time doubles partner “was knocked out by a brick, kicked, punched, batted, and pick-pocketed,” and that his wallet and cell phone were stolen. It continued: “His store was overrun by violent protestors who broke into his business, looted everything and eventually burned the store down. The store has since been boarded up by the Fire Department.  Everything is lost. Everything is ruined.”

The Wall Street Journal referred to my tennis partner’s tragedy in its April 28 story: “Several other fires burned around the city, including at Fireside North, a liquor store in West Baltimore, where a resident said the owner had given all his cash to looters before pleading unsuccessfully with them not to burn his shop. The shaken owner declined to comment.” Though the WSJ didn’t name the owner, a Korean online news organization did.

Overall, this is a tremendously complex situation that has played out in communities across the country that involves many factors including racism, police abuse of force, intergenerational poverty, lack of economic opportunity, failing educational systems, deplorable housing, lack of political will to address entrenched, systemic problems, hopelessness and isolation.

But what happened to my tennis partner is not complicated. It’s criminal, pure and simple. And those who perpetrated the violence and destruction should be apprehended and brought to justice – just like the Baltimore police officers who were responsible for the treatment and death of Freddie Gray, if they are found through the legal process to be culpable.

In my current graduate school class, Diversity Issues in Counseling, I read, “Black Like Me,” a book by a white author who took dermatological drugs that darkened his skin so he could experience life as a black man in the U.S. South and write about his daily life, observations and experiences. John Howard Griffin’s courageous experiment took place in 1959, a time of overt, oppressive and nearly intractable racism. But even 55 years later, one of his poignant observations still rings true, as demonstrated in Baltimore:

“I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering, and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance. If some spark does set the keg afire, it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice – a holocaust that will drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings. Then we will all pay for not having cried for justice long ago.”

Griffin was right. Economic and social justice have been too long denied by a society too willing to look the other way while those unfortunate enough to be born into depraved and oppressive inner city blight conditions suffer through no fault of their own.

But he also was dead-on about the need to “rise beyond vengeance,” and about the “senseless tragedy” of “injustice answering injustice,” dragging down innocent and well-intentioned people through base behavior that harms the brave actions of those who dare to “rise to greatness” and address injustices through civil methods exemplified by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

My tennis partner was an innocent who was dragged down by vengeance. I am angry at the City of Baltimore for that. I have no doubt that more could have and should have been done to protect him, and others who suffered similar losses at the hands of criminals exploiting a volatile situation. I hope he is able to recover physically and economically. Whether he would ever be able to recover trust in a community he served, and that shattered it – both the city’s power structure and the criminals who attacked him and his livelihood – would seem less likely.

You can help my tennis partner recover through a Go Fund Me site: http://gofundme.com/BaltimoreRiot

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