Which poor people deserve our help?

Conservatives like to accuse the media of being too liberal. Maybe it’s because we spend so much time covering the downtrodden that we get angry about the economic and social circumstances that put them there.

I admit to having some liberal bias. I believe that a certain level of health care should be guaranteed for everybody; that nobody should go hungry in a land with so much food; that no one should have to sleep on the street. I think that those of us who’ve been fortunate should help out those who have been dealt a bad hand. I think that the rich can pay a little more in taxes and still live far better than the other 99 percent.

But sometimes you meet people who test those convictions. “Hank” is one of them.

I met Hank more than a year ago when I was editing a weekly newspaper. He came into the office to ask if somebody could write a story about his family’s dire straits. A friend was planning a fundraiser for his family, and he was hoping that we would publicize it. Hank was panicking because he was unemployed and about to lose his subsidized housing and was worried that he, his wife, and his severely disabled daughter Lori would be put out on the street. He was hoping somebody would read about him and offer him help.

He was unkempt and reeked of cigarette smoke and clothes that had been worn too long. A gray stubble peppered his jaw, and his bloodshot eyes teared up as he spoke about Lori, hobbled since birth with a deformed leg, in her 20s and robbed of a normal life. He said that health problems limited how much he could work.

I gently asked him about where he had gone for help, and he mentioned his daughter’s doctors, the town’s social service agency, and local officials. But he said he came up dry every time.

Slowly he started to tell his life story, and as he did the tears stopped. He spoke of alcohol problems and failed marriages. His first wife left him when she was pregnant, after finding out that her own sister was also pregnant with his child. He had a sly twinkle in his eyes when he told that story. Then, when he told me he had a $25,000 credit card bill because he brought his daughter “a few nice dresses,” the last of my sympathy ebbed away.

I mumbled to Hank that I would see what I could do, then struggled with what to do next. Does he deserve a story that was a play for sympathy? Was he a downtrodden man to whom life had dealt an unfair hand and who deserved a helping hand from government and charitable neighbors? Or was he somebody who had lived irresponsibly for too long and now wanted the community and the system to bail him out?

I would guess that most of the people who are struggling today fall into the first category. But if we strengthen the safety net for them – as I still think we should – we have to figure that a few Hanks will land in it, too. And so will people like “Iris,” a home health care worker who takes care of an acquaintance’s 90-year-old mother. Iris trades her food stamps to a family member for cash so she can buy cigarettes and booze, stuff you can’t buy with food stamps.

Our views of the disadvantaged tend to have one of two faces. The sympathetic see the Joad family. The unsympathetic see Precious’s momma. Between these extremes are millions of the unemployed, underemployed, elderly and sick who are finding it harder and harder to get by.

Hank and Iris are the poster children for those who want to cut away at the safety net, who feel that the poor got that way because they are irresponsible, made bad choices and didn’t work hard enough. Many might question whether their hard-earned money should pay for government-subsidized housing, food stamps and other programs that Hank and Iris depend on. The unsympathetic characters like Hank, and the people who know how to scam the system like Iris, ruin it for the millions of struggling families who truly deserve some relief, and a helping hand.

But does that mean we let everybody fend for themselves, as some would suggest?
If we don’t strengthen the safety net, what happens to people like Hank’s disabled daughter?

Advertisements

Why yoga stresses me out

Until about five years ago I hadn’t thought about yoga for about 30 years, and it was a quaint and dusty memory from my high school and early college years. But about seven years ago it became hot again, especially after women saw what it did for Madonna.

So I tried it again last year, seeking to recapture the zen-like state and serene accomplishment I felt in high school – when I was leaner and more flexible – and conquered the “plow” and “headstand” positions in gym class with Mrs. Rush.

It was not as I remembered.

The studio, above a busy pizza parlor, was packed elbow to sharp elbow with stressed women determined to de-stress themselves whatever the cost. Clad in their Lululemon yoga pants, they unrolled expensive mats and stretched, with the same serious expressions as elite marathon runners before the big race. This yoga was a big deal.

My friend Jane and I had decided to take a “special” of five introductory classes to see if yoga was right for us. When my friend tried to unroll her own mat – a cheap and worn one rented for $1 from the studio – a woman clad in chic yoga gear gently but pointedly interrupted her.

“This is my spot,” she said.

The class was led by a petite blonde, who dimmed the lights and pressed a button on the big gray boom box, releasing a soft trickle of new-agey music. She delivered her instructions in a sweet and low voice, coaxing us into sun salutes, “child” poses, leg lifts, and positions that required extending our arms and balancing on one leg, like upended toy airplanes.

This would have been OK if the studio had not been crowded with at least 18 or 20 people. But we were unable to move our limbs into these contortions without nervously checking the GPS of our neighbors’ legs and arms.

Another challenge was the construction of a new building behind the strip shopping center. Our journey towards nirvana was constantly thwarted by the clanking of structural steel and the staccato pounding of the jackhammer.

But through it all, our leader’s soothing voice continued telling us to relax, to let all our cares go. “I wish she’d hurry up,” I thought. I furtively looked around for a clock and wondered when I could go home and have a glass of wine.

Jane called me the following week. “I can’t go to yoga because I have a meeting,” she said.

A Zen-like relief flooded into my whole being.

“Me neither,” I said. I poured another glass of wine and felt incredibly centered and relaxed.

Any mental hoarders out there?

Does anyone else out there hoard thoughts, memories, obscure facts, jingles, ephemera, trivia, minutia, etc., like others hoard newspapers, dried-out pens and last month’s half-eaten pizza?

Anyone else ever feel as if your brain is an attic with too much clutter from facts, trivia, song passages, memories that are no longer needed? Does it leave no room to store important things, such as your nephew’s anniversary, an appointment, the location of an overdue bill, the fact that your mom had a tooth pulled two days ago and might need a phone call?

Why can’t we call in the experts?

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a business like “Got Junk?” to de-clutter your brain, and cart away all the unnecessary stuff? As I go through my brain I’ve already found a few things I’d get ready for the truck. Here is just a very small sampling:

Entire dialogs from certain Sponge Bob episodes
The disco music that accompanied the “Corn Silk” makeup TV commercial in the 60s (It sounded something like the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”
The names of every one of my grade school teachers: Sister Maria Stella Maris, Miss Welding, Miss Kallam, Sister Mary Boniface, Sister Paul Mary, Sister Dennis Mary…and their disrespectful nicknames: Melon Head, Pruny, etc.
Lyrics from one-hit wonders of the 1970s
“Chumbawumba”
Carter’s Spankypants
The introductory guitar riffs from obscure songs on the B-sides of long-forgotten albums
Songs that “Miss Worm” sang on Captain Kangaroo
“Tantum Ergo” and other Catholic hymns in Latin, unsung since the third grade.
Names of the children and spouses of people I met 16 years ago, but not their last names.
The menus of nearly every wedding I ever attended
Phone numbers of childhood friends who moved a long time ago. I can’t remember their new phone numbers.
Names of all the boats that used to dock next to my first husband’s boat 30 years ago.

While I am digging up more, I’d love to hear about what others might add to the pile from their own personal stash. Weigh in!

O, Jackie! So glad you never knew Rebekah

By now the entire universe is buzzing about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s candid interviews about her White House years, released 47 years after they were taped. Her daughter Caroline, the curator of the tapes, has presented them in a new book and has talked about them in reserved, carefully staged interviews with the media.

For those of us who came of age in the 60s, the realization that Jackie is human – and capable of gossip, pettiness and insecurity – does little to change the impact she had on how we lived. Her style, her class and her fortitude inspired all of us. They became calcified in our memories long before these new tapes had the chance to re-mold them.

The hats my mother wore to Sunday Mass, the camel double-breasted coats we wore every winter, the tartan plaid lunchboxes we carried to the school bus stop (when everybody else had Flintstone lunchboxes) were all influenced by Jackie’s understated style.

Moreover, her classy bearing was an inspiration even to those of us who were not raised in Newport, who grew up in working-class mill towns like mine. Whenever we struggled with the inevitable cruelties of the playground and schoolyard, whenever we faced slights that had us hanging on to dignity by our fingernails, my mom gently reminded us to do what Jackie would do.

Hold up your head. Sweep right past them. Say nothing. Be as regal as a queen, as impenetrable as a Sphinx.

I wonder if how long Jackie would have been able to keep this protective shield charm going if she were a young First Lady today, married to an achingly attractive, charismatic President with a wandering eye. As years went by she had her struggles with paparazzo Ron Galella and author Kitty Kelly. But could Camelot and her regal image have survived Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks?

Would the New York Post have trained a long lens on Jackie as she sunbathed on Onassis’s yacht — looking for signs of cellulite, wrinkles and frizz that can be circled in red on page one? Would a Murdoch minion have tapped her cell phone? Would her secrets, her self-doubts, her faux pas, her makeup-free days be fair game for the front cover of “In Touch” magazine?

Just imagine the headlines that could have resulted if those taped conversations had been captured in real time:

Jackie ‘a dud’ with in-laws
JFK’s semi-nude White House romps
Jackie calls author ‘lesbian’
First Lady trashes Pat Nixon’s perm
Puppy love: Smitten Khruschev delivers pooch to White House
Indira a ‘prune?’
Jackie disses MLK
Sukarno takes Jackie as second wife

I’d like to think that some public figures like Jackie are beyond the reach of meddlers who feel nobody is entitled to a private life. I’d like to think that her class, her contributions as First Lady and her accomplishments would put her in a different category than the long list of public figures ruined by their private slips of the tongue and indiscretions. Today the pedestal of public admiration is as precarious as a stilt, and in a heartbeat can turn into a rail for a tarred-and-feathered fallen hero.

Something tells me that it’s a good thing that Jackie lived in an earlier, more respectful era, so that in our minds she can remain like the heroine of a silent movie: beautiful, brave, classy, perfect…and silent.

Girls Weekend: The Remake

I’ll be honest: the last time I had a girls’ weekend was around 1980, when I had a summer beach rental with friends in Avalon, New Jersey. Back then girls weekend happened every weekend in the summer, when we’d patiently wait in Atlantic City Expressway traffic Friday nights to get to our threadbare apartment a few blocks from the beach.

If it were a movie, the soundtrack would include Jackson Browne, Climax Blues Band, the Bee Gees and our very bawdy parody of “On the Way to Cape May.” The most iconic scenes would be a drunken toga party (popular after “Animal House”); a raucous evening of dirty word Scrabble; disco dancing to Thelma Houston at the Whitebrier Bar; the pot smoke and Tom Petty music that drifted constantly from a neighboring rental known only as “The Zippo House;” a guy nicknamed “Bulge” who hosted a grain alcohol-soaked party each year to celebrate his divorce anniversary; and the time two of my friends pulled a third friend’s boyfriend into the shower with them.

While our Avalon weekends had a girls-gone-wild vibe at times, they had another pulse, which started faintly but grew stronger with each passing summer as we moved through our 20s. The late-night hookups on the beach, the pina coladas and Tom Collinses, the hours of pre-Whitebrier preening, the confidences, the gossip and strategizing…all the while we drifted, then paddled furiously, towards our unspoken goals of love, marriage, children, homes, stability. Once that happened the togas and disco dresses were mothballed in memory, replaced with wedding gowns, maternity clothes, practical mommy gear, back-to-work clothes from Banana Republic, flattering midlife wardrobes from Chico’s and Talbot’s.

For me, girls weekends had become a frivolous indulgence, available only to women without jobs, children, chores, financial obligations or guilt. I heard stories about other women who indulged in spa getaways or drunken ski weekends with their Bunco pals, but demurred when I was invited anywhere.

But without a fulltime job for the first time in years, and with a 13-year-old happy to spend a weekend with just his dad, I finally gave in. Last weekend I joined my friends Jane and Susan at Jane’s cottage in West Yarmouth, Cape Cod for a middle-aged “girls’ weekend” of beach walks, kayaking, movies, food, conversation, wine and gossip…everything except men.

On Friday we met up at the Cape Cod Canal with Jane’s friend Kathy for a four-mile walk; in late afternoon we set up chairs and a small folding table on the beach for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, artichoke dip and conversation. Our only admirer was a duck-sized seagull who loitered nearby and wouldn’t move, even after we threw shells at him.

Saturday morning we took a beach kayak up the Bass River, blessed by a refreshing breeze and brilliant sky. My arms got tired easily but I kept it up, drinking in the pure air and the views of gracious white homes, green lawns tumbling down to weathered docks, sleek powerboats and humble dinghies along the river.

At the dock we talked with a 94-year-old woman who had lost her middle-aged daughter to cancer two years earlier to the day. Clutching a small white paper bag, she had come to the dock to throw nonpareils, her daughter’s favorite candy, into Bass River, where her ashes had been scattered. She spoke lovingly to her daughter’s spirit as her aged hand reached into the crisp white bag again and again. She pasted a tender smile over her pain.

Later came a walk on the beach, where we marveled at an abandoned sand village of empty horseshoe crab shells; five miles of biking and a great fish dinner. The moon was full that night and its light sparkled on the ocean when we left the restaurant at 9 p.m. We turned in at around 11 p.m., around the same time we’d be going out during my last girls weekend. But before that, in a nod to the ghosts of our younger selves, we enjoyed shots of orange liqueur.

And I realized, as we move through middle age and savor our families and the wisdom gained since our 20s, how time with friends is still good for the mind and soul. It’s no longer a luxury.

Verbal toupees for “older” people

Can anyone suggest some good euphemisms for “elderly” or “older” that don’t sound like euphemisms?

A verbal toupee to cover up our embarrassment with becoming old, or describing someone who’s old? So many adjectives have been designated only for use with older people. If they were products, you’d most likely find them in the back pages of AARP Magazine, next to the stair lifts and vacuum pumps for erectile dysfunction.

Is the word “vigorous” ever been used to describe a baby? Is “youthful” ever used next to anybody else other than an older woman or an indiscretion? Will a “cougar” ever be a spotted animal again?

I especially hate “spry.” It’s never used to describe a younger adult; only somebody who’s old. When I read the word “spry,” it infers “they are in surprisingly good shape when everybody expects them to be decrepid” or “they can get around without a walker…isn’t that amazing?” You never hear that word “spry” used to describe a 20-year-old track star.

Until a few years ago Spry was a solid vegetable shortening…a competitor to Crisco. If I remember that, then I guess I am old enough to be spry!!!!

Please feel free to share your own favorite (or most dreadful) euphemisms for those of us in midlife and beyond.

The most glamorous mother-in-law

Lois, my mother-in-law, turns 79 today and I Don’t Know How She Does It.

She still walks five miles a day; has thick and gorgeous auburn hair and wears a size four. She is almost Nancy Reaganesque in her petite glamour — only far more liberal, earthier and Jewish.

On the occasion of her birthday I looked through some old photos of Lois and she always looked younger than her age. A 30-year-old photo of her with my stepdaughter – her first grandchild — shows a radiantly smiling blonde whose skin even looked dewy. She was pushing 50 then and still looked like she was in her late 20s.

“Who’s your plastic surgeon?” asked one of her friends not too long ago.

No plastic surgeon here; just lots of discipline, great genes and most importantly, a determination to celebrate every day.

When she learned she was diabetic a few years ago, Lois gave up white bread and desserts and shaved even more weight off her already-petite frame. Now she weighs about what she did when she was a harried young mom with four rambunctious boys.

She’s a great walking partner (when I can keep up with her) who shares gossip and stories nonstop as we briskly clock the miles, turning a workout into a girls’ night out at a Nancy Meyers movie. She talks about people I’ll never meet but somehow I’m enthralled.

She also has boundless energy and is one of those people who constantly has to be doing something. Even when she is watching television her knitting needles are clicking furiously, creating the latest of dozens of afghans she has made for people she loves. Sometimes when I watch her I feel so tired that I have to lie down. Maybe I’m eating too many carbs.

When she took my 29-year-old stepson to Europe a few years ago, some of his friends assumed he was accompanying his doddering grandma on the trip.

“I’ll be lucky if I can keep up with her,” was Jesse’s response. And he was right. She matched him step by step around the Swiss Alps and Barcelona.

She loves so much to organize and re-organize things, in her own home and wherever she visits. Even her refrigerator shelves look like a display in a Michael Kors boutique, while mine look and smell like a crypt.

I’ve learned to relax and enjoy her efforts to organize me. In fact, I have now outsourced this job completely to her.

“Lois, I’m saving some closets just for you!” I tell her before she visits, and I can sense her gleeful anticipation over the phone.

Lois’s own closets are bursting with élan. I have never seen her wear sweats, except for our walks. Soon after we’ve arrived home, sweaty and dusty, she is showered and tastefully coifed and made up, wearing a pair of curvy jeans and turquoise jewelry.

And I guess what’s most inspiring about Lois is her loyalty and protectiveness of the people she loves. She can be headstrong and opinionated, and isn’t afraid to go to bat against anybody, whether it’s her husband’s oncologists or the host at the El Torito restaurant, who wouldn’t give us the table we wanted by the window. My father-in-law, who battled cancer more than a decade ago, is alive because she was a pit bull with the doctors. She knew his charts even better than they did, and never hesitated to point out things they might have overlooked.

So happy birthday to a woman who’s a great role model in how to age gracefully!