Each person’s existence carries its own meaning, this much is clear to me at age 56. I’m not likely to get anywhere near 97 years of age. The genetic and social burdens I carry will probably kill me long before I make it that far. But who knows? I certainly don’t. I plan to live for as long as life brings me joy, and not for one minute longer if I can arrange that.
Like the veteran philosopher, this amatuer philosopher has pondered the meaning of existence many times. I cannot come up with a reason for life beyond the one I gave in the first sentence. Either you find your meaning for continuing for yourself, or you don’t. If you don’t, your existence is liable to be shorter than the person who can find that reason for themselves.
People without purpose tend to wither away. When I was stricken with illness that wouldn’t kill me, but rendered me incapable of continuing to indulge my passion for architecture, for designing and building, I came dangerously close to doing just that. It was the interference of family and friends that kept me here, allowed me time to find new purpose. Otherwise I would have been gone years ago.
A few years ago this week, I held my dying mother in my arms, and wept at the cruelty of the world that would kill this noble woman this way. Kill her with a cancer that she refused to treat. She felt it was the end of her time. And so it was the end of her time. And so it is for all of us, if we allow it to be. Or not.
Accept that you know next to nothing about life and living. Savor each new thing, each new day, as if it is your last. Never miss a sunset if you can help it. Catch the first sun’s rays when you can. Breathe in life and then exhale it to enrich the world around you. Each and every day is a new day with new things to learn. Existence is its own purpose. I wouldn’t have it any other way, myself.
Submitted to the Atlantic. Featured image link, another bridge/sunset from Bing that I had to track down.
The inspiration for this post sprang out of the destruction of my World of Warcraft raiding guild a few days previously. A group of friends that I’ve spent six hours a week, minimum, talking to and working closely with to solve problems in a game that we jointly enjoy. A game we couldn’t enjoy if we didn’t have each other to rely on day-in and day-out. It took twenty people to raid successfully in World of Warcraft when I started playing the end-game content during Wrath of the Lich King. Working closely with twenty people to master the mechanics of a battle for weeks on end draws you closer than most casual friendships.
What happens when these groups of closely-knit battle-hardened companions suddenly decide that they can’t play with each other anymore? I don’t know what else to call that situation other than divorce. A bit extreme you say? It’s not that traumatic? Spend ten years reliably sitting down with the same twenty people and experiencing the adrenaline surge of beating a difficult boss fight through precise coordination, and then get back to me after you tell the other nineteen people to kiss your ass. Let me know how that goes.
Divorce. I’ve been to this dance quite a few times. I’ve never been an invited guest, always the chosen onlooker. When intimacies turn to hostilities, the invited guests always look to the involuntary participants to pick sides. As Bartleby said yesterday I prefer not to.
I’ve never been the invited guest to a divorce because that was one of the ground rules I set for myself a long time ago, when I witnessed the first divorce. The divorce of my adopted father and my biological mother. This was the first time I was encouraged to pick sides as an involuntary participant, just a child of fourteen. I had nowhere else to go, so was forced to witness the folly of adults that should have known better than to let things fall apart as far as they did.
It’s easy. No really, it is easy, not the easy thing that really is hard (any kind of group effort in an MMO)Talk to your intimate relations. Don’t keep secrets unless they are secrets the others have already told you they want kept. Don’t betray agreed-to standards of behavior without talking out the changes first. Don’t close off channels of discussion unless you are prepared to never speak to these people again except in the presence of a lawyer.
But it never fails. Someone thinks they can get by without communicating something. Then that something turns to a thing that can’t be spoken of. Turns into a barrier between two people. Turns into a weight around the neck of the relationship. Turns into a wall preventing communication. Then the secret is found out and the accusations of betrayal begin.
These are adults, but they sure don’t act like adults. Adults that understand even the uncomfortable subjects have to be discussed, and discussed endlessly. This is the nature of being humans, like it or not. Talk. Endless talk. Talk that makes you want to cut off your own tongue or gouge out your ears. If you stop talking, you will eventually cease to be intimate with the other in question. That is the point where they become other.
Other rather than same. The outgroup. The other.
Doesn’t matter. It wasn’t done against me, because I fucking talked it out first. I understand ownership and value and don’t take it for granted. I resent being asked to lend weight to one side or the other of a separation when I have no clear understanding of the fault that led to the separation. I will not willingly pick sides when both sides seem to be at fault and there is no clear reason for the separation in the first place aside from childish insistence on having your own way in a relationship.
The closest I have come to divorce is quitting a job, being fired from a job. There are employers that I can’t speak to again because of what transpired between myself and them. Always it was something kept from me that required that separation, not something I failed to tell them. I am what I present myself to be, take it or leave it, warts and all.
I remained Dad’s friend after the divorce despite his actions. Despite the facts of his behavior that I had to drag kicking and screaming out of the woman who expected me to follow her without reason. She was a little bit crazy like that, my mom. A conflict avoided was a win in her book. As if she could avoid the permanent void created in her children’s hearts by simply not talking about the cause of the divorce. It’s not that I had a choice in the matter, dad didn’t want us children, he just wanted things to remain the same in the daylight as they were in the dark. The philandering. The silence. I eventually forgave him, because, what else can you do with family? You will have to see them again. That is a given.
I won’t willingly speak with the employers that betrayed my trust. They earned my enmity by keeping essential facts from me. One day those betrayals may cost them dearly, if that day of judgement comes. Most of them are probably dead already, personally safe from further judgments against them. They are the lucky ones.
Lucky like the stepfather, the Polk in mom’s name, who publicly betrayed everything the word father means. Safe from judgment by being dead by some other hands than mine. Saving me the trouble of having his blood on my hands. I should have thanked him for that, but I never spoke to him after the betrayal of that day. The opportunity to strike or to speak never presented itself. Mercy, after a fashion. Probably a mercy crafted by mom’s hands. She never liked conflict, evaded it at every opportunity. Her unwillingness to engage probably being the the first miscommunication in a long series of misunderstandings. But she’s dead now too. Beyond the reach of judgement.
So here I am asked to take sides in another messy divorce. A smaller, less life-altering conflict than the ones I’ve been in before. If I never log on to World of Warcraft again, a game that for me is like softball or bowling was to my father, it is the social connection that keeps me active among my group of friends. If I never play the game again I won’t have to talk to any of the participants of this messy break-up again.
On the upside, unlike family, I’ll never have to look at any of them again or have to listen to any of their excuses for their inexcusable behavior. So not quite as demeaning as the dissolution of a marriage is to the children of that marriage. The children of our in-game collaboration are the characters that we’ve worked so hard to level, over and over again, just to have the most powerful characters we could construct to bring to the next battle. Those children you can delete and no one will accuse you of murder when you do.
It might be a form of self-mutilation, if self-mutilation can be performed mentally. Investing all that time only to discard it by typing six characters and hitting enter? It ranks up there with self-mutilation in my mind. But it isn’t illegal to delete that part of yourself. That piece of your history. If only all mistakes could be erased that easily.
If I quit playing World of Warcraft I’ll lose those friends. I’ll lose those parts of myself and the parts of themselves that I’ve grown to love as part of the game we play together. I’ll make new friends. I’ll find other games to play, other ways to connect to the outside world. The other games and other friends won’t have fifteen years of history for me to bank on. I’ll have to start over.
So I probably won’t quit World of Warcraft. I probably will log on and play the game. I like the game, even after all this time. Probably because of all this time, not because the game has been mindlessly enjoyable. It wasn’t and it isn’t. It presented challenges, but it offered social connections, connections that are simply not present in most other games. Social connection is why I am still playing the game, and now that very social connection threatens to destroy any remaining pleasure I find in it. I’m tempted to delete all my toons and start over fresh. A fresh start, like I’ve never played the game before. Maybe this week is the week to download and log on to World of Warcraft – Classic. Play a game that I’ve never played before, but sure does seem like what I’ve been playing for the last fifteen years.
At the very least, I will have to log onto the voice chat service and have those discussions that have to be had before either calling it quits or picking a side. I still would prefer not to, but the post-mortem must be performed if I am to have any closure for this latest divorce. I’m beginning to wonder if closure is overrated.
The family asked “why did you go there?” after I wrote this. My guildmates in a game I’ve played for almost as long as my children have been alive, 15 years now, wanted to know why I wouldn’t willingly just pick a side in the diaspora of the guild. This is the explanation for why I try not to pick sides. I’ve been used as a weapon before and I won’t willingly go there again. My insistence on knowing the gory details of a conflict has cost me dearly, many times. I’ll still ask those questions, every time. It is who I am. Take it or leave it. Warts and all.
It is worth noting that both the leader of my former guild as well as members of the diaspora tried to tell me just how wrong the other side was. The guildmaster made it his duty to try to keep me from joining the diaspora by telling me just how bad the people I love and cherish like family really are. It should come as no surprise to anyone that all my Alliance toons are now back in my own guild (Frosty Wyrm Riders) for the time being. I need a bit of a break after that orchestrated trauma to my psyche.
Then there was the effect of Christian Science on my family. I’ve struggled with where and when to mention this little gem of understanding, because mentioning it is fraught with tons of angst and potential explosive feedback. But understanding how I got to 40 without a diagnosis of Meniere’s, how I’ve never been diagnosed with dysgraphia even though I have had all the symptoms of it for the entirety of my life is a direct result of my mother’s early childhood indoctrination into Christian Science. Because of this fact, Christian Science has to be discussed here as part of this story.
Christian Scientists aren’t scientists; they pray to Jesus to cure what ails them. Jesus is their science, and they exercise their science in prayer rooms across the US. They still do this all across America to this day. When a child dies from lack of medical care, and the state where that child dies cannot prosecute the child’s parents, the law that allows this was lobbied for by the followers of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. My mom and her immediate family were members of this belief.
Her distrust of doctors and medicine lead directly to her demise February 9, 2018. One of the mantras she took to her grave was doctors don’t know anything. It was her most repeated comment over the last months of her life, as doctor after doctor told her she had cancer and needed chemotherapy. You couldn’t dissuade her of this or pretty much anything else she believed at any point in her life.
This is a hallmark of most of humanity, I have come to find out. If you think you can change the average person’s mind you simply don’t know what you are thinking. People survive as long as they do by believing things, and sticking to those beliefs. My mother survived to the age of 77 and raised four children to adulthood based on her doing exactly what she deemed best at the time, and you won’t convince someone who has lived successfully by their own judgement for 70 years and more that what they believe is wrong. So give that idea up now and save yourself the life-shortening frustration.
Christian Science. If you are a Christian Scientist you don’t take drugs. You don’t see doctors, and if that religious upbringing was all there was to my mother’s belief, I think she would probably have gotten over it eventually. However, over the course of her life she has been nearly killed by well-meaning doctors more than once. All her life she’d been told gibberish by people who didn’t have the sense to pour piss out of a boot with directions written on the bottom (not that she would ever utter such a low phrase. In her estimation) so she knew that people believed insane things and discounted what other people told her almost by rote. She knew what she knew, but that left her vulnerable to the things she thought she knows but was wrong about.
Mom knew the value of modern medicine and never hesitated to get me antibiotics to treat the frequent illnesses that I had as a child, but she never stopped believing that doctors were pulling a scam on the sick. It all had to be a scam, somehow. She was never clear on how or why, but it was a scam, she was sure of it.
She never stopped believing that people would get better on their own if they just lived a better life, ate better food, got the right kind of nutrition. It was the failure of this belief, that healthy living was all you needed to keep from getting cancer that killed her a decade early. Had she not had encounters with believing doctors who proposed treatments that proved near-fatal, treatments that were fatal to her mother. Treatments that decreased the quality of life for the patients she tended. Patients that died anyway. Had she not watched time and again as things were labeled bad be relabeled good with more study and more time. Had she had different experiences with the medical community, she might have said yes to the promising new treatment the doctors wanted to try. The same treatment that saved president Carter’s life. But she didn’t have those experiences, and so she didn’t get to live that extra decade.
There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump (OHM) supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.
I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.
But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things the OHM says is causing poverty; and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?
No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?
All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Mythsbrought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.
…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,
James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States.
His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…
…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.
As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple…
…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity.
Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work.
The above hits the high points of that Freakonomics episode, without getting into the meat of it, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,
In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.
This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.
As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.
The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is; I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.
“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.”
The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.
I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.
Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?
The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations now. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.
Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.
We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.
Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.”
Personal responsibility or paying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way. Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.
While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.
The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. This was important above all things; maintain the illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status. That illusion kept me working.
Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the peirced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty that has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,
Listening to the people who attempt to defend their affinity for the Orange Hate-Monkey in the podcast isn’t helping. Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years. The fact that the researchers on this podcast are so divorced from the truth of the matter, that the reality-disconnected people they have been interviewing actually turned out to be the ones who had the last laugh, that they got their American Psycho candidate on a collision course with the White House, in the face of the researcher’s own blithe belief that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency, isn’t helping with the surreality of this moment in time.
I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time my mom made the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.
So mom remarried. He was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.
Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.
The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.
When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.
For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.
This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,
Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.
…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.
It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.
I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.
I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.
In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?
With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.
Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility that happily ever after might ever occur.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.
It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.
In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.
With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.
Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.
In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.
It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.
There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.
Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.
Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.
When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.
With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly. We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real.
There is something about this introduction to the podcast series This is Love that freakishly makes me think of my mother.
Freakishly, in that I wonder if other people have similar flashes on the things their parents gave up for them? It’s not that my mom ever quantified her sacrifice for the children she had, at least not consciously or as an attempt to persuade. I know some people have had that experience, I’ve had the experience myself with other relatives. Our grandmother would tell us she was dying each year around Christmas, and oh, this might be your last chance to see me. Don’t you remember how I made time for you when you were growing up? We would laugh and roll our eyes, and then try to make time to visit at some point during the season.
But not mom, at least not when she was parenting us. Guilt never seemed to work for us. I remember distinctly her wanting us to clean our plates at mealtimes while I was still in primary school, and so she put a coin jar in the center of the table labeled for the starving children in other countries. We had a great laugh at that as we crammed food into the slot on the jar. That is the one time I remember her attempting to guilt us into anything and it failed, spectacularly.
When I was a teenager and could finally drive and own my own car, I would take long, meandering drives in the country, sometimes for several hours at a time, just listening to music. I’m not sure what I was looking for out there on the road. Release from the pressures of herding three other children around, most likely. On a few occasions mother grew concerned about my spending so much time alone, and so I invited her to come along on a drive with me, just so she could see what I was doing.
While we were out there together, me just driving aimlessly, we would talk. Mom and I could always talk. We’d talk for hours on the phone sometimes. I never could recall the particulars of any of our conversations, it was always small talk. Just impressions of concerns of the day, plans for the future. Musings about the days gone by. It is these times that come to mind when I listen to the story of the mother spider calling its children to itself, sacrificing herself to them so that they could survive. Feeding herself to them on purpose.
Mom was an artist before we children were born; or more precisely, before I was born. She left college to travel with her then-husband, my father, going overseas for the first time in her short life. I can imagine what her hopes must have been like at the time. Visiting places in Europe, possibly even going to Paris. She did talk to me about wanting to visit Paris, as I sat in vigil with her over the last months of her life. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about her young dreams, I know. I know because in those long drives as a restless teen she had told me of her dreams when she was a restless teen. Traveling. Painting. Exploring the world. I can picture her in Europe right now if I close my eyes, sipping coffee at a cafe near a river, trying to decide which scene deserved her artistic attention.
But that never happened. Instead she had me, and her husband didn’t prove to be much of a father, so she left him within six months of my birth. She married the man I called father for my entire life and eventually settled with him in the middle of the Kansas plains, pretty much as far away from the lights and glamour of Parisian culture as it is possible to get. She set about raising me and the three children that followed me, burying a miscarriage somewhere along the line. When dad’s wayward eye got him in trouble about the time I turned thirteen, she simply switched to the next person she thought could keep her children fed. And so on.
She worked her fingers to the bone at odd jobs as a single parent at the time that inspired this writing, when I was a senior in high school and then attending the local trade school. Two, three jobs at a time if required. She never complained, other than to say how tired she was. Never guilted us about what she gave up so that we could live. She just set about getting from where we were today to where we would be tomorrow, a progression in time that saw us all graduate high school. Some of us went on to college and all of us eventually had children of our own. She helped raise those children, none of us ever asking her if this was what she wanted to spend her life doing. Never once.
Until the end of last November, when her world crashed down around her. Stage four transitional cell carcinoma. Months to live. She could have gotten treatment. She could have still been here with us. She couldn’t pay for the treatment. She wouldn’t even dream of asking us to pay for it, and she didn’t want the government to pay for it. In some weird way, she thrummed her web, and we great mass of the living consumed her without even questioning why things had to be this way.
Now she’s gone. I have become the eldest of our little band of misfits, a natural leadership role that I never wanted and go to great lengths to avoid when I can. What form is the web that I’m now the center of? Will I be called to sacrifice myself to the greater good? Do I want that to happen? Do I have a choice? …And I can still see her youthful, hopeful face among the crowd that I envision along the banks of the Seine. Sipping coffee and deciding what to paint next. If I could tell her one thing now, what would that one thing be? Paint as if your life depended on it. Because ultimately it does.
I wrote this article shortly after mom’s death. At the time I was consumed by the dilemma of knowing that she was going to die months before it actually happened, but constrained by legalities, unable to shorten the time she suffered agonizing pain and loss of self-awareness as her body cannibalized her brain for a few more hours or days of life. By the same token, she was legally unable to ask us to help her end her own life when she decided she was ready to go, even knowing in some portion of her brain somewhere that she was indeed dying. Adding to my internal conflict of her suffering which we could only buffer by giving her drugs to render her unconscious, was the personal belief that she could have accepted treatment and not had to suffer and die this way. But the system works the way it works, and her refusal of treatment combined with Texas law preventing humane treatment for the dying resulted in a month long vigil that ended the way it was always going to end, with her death.
Mother’s suffering. The trauma of losing our mother in this way. The personal costs to health and welfare and the effect on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of being forced to watch her wither away this way unable to do anything to end it. The waste of it all will probably haunt me to the end of my days. I will not go out the way she did, if I have any say in it. The form her death took cheapens the near-flawless nobility of how she sacrificed herself for her children for years virtually without complaint. Without burdening her children with the weight of the crushed dreams of her youth.
Her noble sacrifice inspired my willingness to give my children as much room to become what they wanted as I could afford to give them. I did not want them to have to look back on a life that they spent doing things that they had no interest in doing, just so they could pay the bills each month. I wanted them to be able to look back on their lives and be thankful to have lived, the same way that I can because of her sacrifice. If only her kind of nobility were more common than it is, all children would grow up this way.
This poem ran through my head for weeks as I watched my mother slowly fade away. As I watched my dad die. It is the only answer I have.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Yes, I realize that posting the poem here constitutes a probable breach of copyright. The widget that allows for embedding the poem does not function. I would happily have used that function if it worked. It would have been easier.)
Barbara Ann Polk left this earth on February 9th, 2018 to be with the angels, while in the company of her family. Born June 8, 1941 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, she was her mother’s youngest child and her father’s second child. Barbara moved many times in her life, Sacramento, CA; Leoti, KS; Sweetwater, TX; San Angelo, TX; Albuquerque, NM; and Buda/Austin, TX. She graduated from Angelo State University in 1992 with an RN and worked as a nurse and hospice care supervisor for many years. She was preceded in death by her mother – Lucille R. Lavo Zonge, her father Randolph Daniel Zonge Sr., her stepmother, Marie Mendler Zonge, and her brother Kenneth L. Zonge. She is survived by her brother, Randolph Daniel Zonge, Jr.; her children: Ray Anthony Steele, Jonnette Ann Kraft, Dawn Marie Wostal, John Russell Steele and her seven grandchildren and her three great-grandchildren. The family will have a private memorial service for her in the fall. She requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to World Vision. (www.worldvision.org)
The strongest of women. The weakest of which Are stronger than any man While lying on their backs Receiving the obeisance of men Succumbing to their own mortal lusts.
She was the strongest of women, Now struck down by the power of creation itself. The mad hatter of genomic mutation, Cancer, consuming her from inside. She who could not be broken breaks herself.
It. Is. Not. Fair.
But she succumbs anyway. Fair is not a word nature understands. She who consumes the innocent and the guilty, The survivor and the wretched fool alike. Nature claims her anyway, fair or not. The hands that raised a multitude, Struck down by simple time.
It’s four in the morning. I’m holding my mother’s frail hand in mine, for one last time. It is warm still. I’m trying, in what I’m certain is a vain attempt, to communicate with what little is left of her. What little the cancer hasn’t already eaten. Trying to let her know that we love her. That we know she loves us, but it really is time to go. The curtains are closing. Silence is descending.
The light is gone. The rage is spent. The breaths are ragged, sometimes minutes apart. Will this be the last one? And then the next one comes. Why does life go on without purpose? How do the systems that make up the form that is my mother, with all that a mother is to a child, how is it that the systems don’t know the purpose has been served? The children are safe and grown. The fight is done. How can it be that she would not know this? She who knew how to mend wounds with a kiss, not knowing the battle was won long ago?
It is a shame. A shame that the kisses of loving children and grandchildren and great grandchildren cannot cure cancer. Cannot mend the ills of old age. Cannot wisk away the pain the way that a mother’s love can. A shame that she fights on for each painful breath of life, not knowing that the decision was rendered in her genes years ago. This battle cannot be won.
It is the fate of us all. To be born is to someday die. A dance with death that spans all of life. Hers has been a long dance. Not the longest, but I think she would say “long enough.” Always time for one more favor for a friend. Always care to spare for the lost souls. For the wayward child with more will than sense. Always more worry for others than for self. So busy helping others with their battles that she forgot to fight her own, perhaps.
A life long enough to see the children grown. A dance long enough to know the form that the ending will take. Now it is done. We miss you already, mommy.
When I was a senior in high school I had a friend who would borrow one of the novels I carried everywhere with me and casually doodle the most amazing cartoons on the flyleaf. His cartoons were better than the things published in MAD or Cracked. My memory of that time may be a bit hazy now, but they were better to me then. Funnier. I marveled at the effortless way the pictures just came out of his hands, at his ability to draw, to write. It struck me as such a wonderful gift, to be able to take a pen and have it just make the lines you wanted to make and to make only those lines in the ways you saw them in your head. Freehand artwork, freehand writing, is almost magic in my eyes.
They didn’t have a word for my disability when I was in school. I was never quite like the other children. Teased frequently, I hid in books and stared at my desk, afraid of catching anyone’s eye lest I be subjected to more derision. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different all the same. The teasing I was subjected to originated with my second grade teacher who thought it would be a good idea to have the other kids torment me to make me write faster.
In my mind the first and second years of elementary school seem to blur together. It’s hard to separate one form of abuse from another. One of my teachers thought that teasing me was the ticket to getting me to perform. The other one thought that daily corporal punishment was it.
Both teachers were dissuaded from their delusions by my parents. The corporal punishment stopped, but the teasing continued until I moved away from that town. I wasn’t to be free of the hangups that this teacher’s cruel methods of instruction inflicted on me until well into adulthood. To this day I remain a public school skeptic largely because of my experiences in school at the hands of the children and this particular teacher, evidence of just how much damage one wrong idea can inflict.
My problems in school were bad enough that the school insisted my parents take me to see a specialist. We went to see the same diagnosticians in Denver two times; once in second grade and again in 5th grade. The school insisted that there was something wrong with me; it wasn’t the teacher, it wasn’t the other children. There was something wrong with me. So my parents paid for the doctors and paid for the travel, and off we went on what was a grand adventure from the perspective of my seven year old self.
I remember the experience because it was such a rare occurrence to be in another place. The Rocky Mountains around Denver were about as different from the grassy plains of Kansas as you can get. It was the first airplane flight I could remember, and it made me love flying. I have a great love of Colorado largely because of the experiences I went through in Denver on those two visits.
The doctors were nice. They gave me various tests. Handwriting tests, drawing tests. Clearly they were looking at motor control in the manner after the time (late 60’s early 70’s) trying to figure out why I couldn’t write well. Writing really hurt. It still hurts. The stupid pencils never went where I wanted them to go. Lines were never straight. Letters were never legible. Cursive? Cursive was a practice in slow torture. Every assignment in school made me suffer in silence; unable to write and yet required to write. Homework went undone. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I literally would grow tired from the constant pain of writing and simply pass out on my homework.
My mother doesn’t remember the word dysgraphia being used at the time, but what I was suffering through was distinctly dysgraphic in nature.
I loved to read. Reading and writing are two completely different exercises in the mind. The words would sometimes get tangled up in my head, but the places I could go while reading were so much better than the reality I was facing that I just soldiered on through the occasional confusion. But writing? I flunked a semester of english my sophomore year in high school because half of my grade would be based on a term paper I would be required to write long-hand. The subject of the paper that was selected for me was of no interest to me. I asked the instructor for a different subject more than once, only to be told I would write the paper and to stop arguing about it. In one of my first acts of rebellion I flunked the class rather than spend a week or more in agony only to have the paper rejected because it couldn’t be read.
I have never taken notes in class. When told to take notes I would write a few lines and stop (a trick I learned early. If the page is blank the teacher will notice and scold you) Notes were pointless. By the time I had written down the first sentence I’d have missed the next three sentences. What I learned to do was listen and absorb so that I could repeat what was said almost verbatim, at least briefly. Eventually I learned to synthesize the information internally and was able to rapidly apply it to new problems without ever having to write anything on paper.
Few of my teachers believed that I could do this, that I could absorb and apply knowledge without first committing it to paper. They especially didn’t believe it because I failed so frequently to do anything demonstrative in front of the class. I was afraid to write poorly and so would take far too long at the blackboard to be able to demonstrate anything to anybody.
Even though the specialists who tested me in fifth grade issued written instructions, specific to each teacher about the challenges I was facing learning in a classroom environment, the instructions were discarded as lending favoritism to a child that the school teachers and administration frankly thought was the problem in the first place. My mother was livid at the time and still gets angry talking about the subject. Did they know how much all of this testing cost? Paid for twice over out of my parent’s own pockets? At the insistence of the school? Testing and findings to be discarded as too much trouble to institute, too much trouble to turn into a different teaching model?
What they did instead was slap a label on me. They called me slow.
I carried that label with me from second grade through seventh grade. The label and the torment only stopped at that point because I moved away from my hometown in Western Kansas for a few years; and when I came back to Kansas for my sophomore year of high school it was to a different town, Garden City, and to a different school. I never did spend any significant time in Leoti from that point forward. My nostalgia for the place I long considered home is leavened with ambivalence and rebellion. Rebellion against the label slow.
My sophomore and junior years of rebellion in Kansas under the custody of my father got me sent back to Texas and my mother. The all too familiar plight of children caught up in divorce. Shuttle diplomacy and holidays with the other parent. Custody battles and missed child support payments. From Leoti, Kansas and slow to Stinnett, Texas and rebellion. Garden City, Kansas and missed opportunities to Sweetwater, Texas and make the best of what you have left.
My senior year of high school in the late, hot Texas summer of 1980. My friend and his artwork were also transplants to the town and the school. Since we were both new, we decided to navigate the terrain together. Watch each other’s backs. The counselor lined out the required classes we would need to finish the year and graduate. He and I would be in organic chemistry together. A class we both found so boring that I would read and he would doodle on my books. We also had a few other classes together.
This is small town rural Texas, education isn’t something they spend a lot of money on. In the Kansas high school I had attended the previous year I had automotive mechanics and welding and a virtual smorgasbord of other classes I could have picked through if I had wanted to test my abilities in other areas. In small town Texas I essentially had two elective choices; metal shop and woodshop. Home economics would not be offered to boys. There was an FFA group, but animal husbandry was not my thing even if we had a farm to raise animals on, which we didn’t. When we were unimpressed with the first two options, the counselor did admit that they also had a typing class and technical drafting. These were clearly choices she didn’t think anyone should be interested in. When we went around to talk to the various instructors to see what we might be interested in, I had an epiphany.
An epiphany in the example drawings from the drafting class. Drawings that illustrated how to build things. I had been a model builder for years by that point, but it had never occurred to me that someone had to draw those assembly instructions. It was the drafting equipment. The drafting machines, boards, lead holders, straight-edges and triangles. The realization dawned on me. I didn’t need fine motor control as long as I had an edge to guide the pencil. I could focus on pressure and distance and not worry about direction. Writing? Slow, painful, tedious work; but block lettering gave me the ability to finally be able to communicate what I wanted to say clearly. Leroy lettering guides kept the hands moving, forming the correct shapes.
My mother could not believe I wanted to draw when I came home from school that first day. After everything I had been through, the problems I had writing and communicating all my life. Writing, she told me, was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories. She would write things down that I asked her to, and then I would meticulously copy each character onto another page. But drawing? She couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. If that was what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t stop me from doing it.
It was another senior class that finally showed me how to write painlessly. Typing. I knew touch typing would be a useful skill because I had already seen my first computer keyboard.
The computer was built into a suburban; as in, it filled the entire inside of the vehicle aside from the driver and passenger seats. You had to open the side doors to get access to the input and output terminals, sitting outside the vehicle in the Arizona heat. As kids, the science went right over our heads, but I do remember that he could type on a keyboard and the computer would print the clearest, most precise letters I had ever seen. It talked back to him. He played a text game for us and we were completely blown away by it.
Presented with the chance to learn how to touch-type as a senior, I took advantage of it. IBM Selectric III’s seem clunky and slow now, and error correction was a pain in the ass. But in the 80’s, for me, it was like being given access to electric light for the first time. I could type whatever I wanted on the keyboard and it would produce exactly what I wanted it to say almost as fast as I could think it. I had never had access to anything like it before. I asked to be able to do my homework in the typing lab, it was so much easier to just type it than it was to write it. I knew I’d never be able to afford a machine of my own, but if I could just be able to work in an office, there would be machines in the office I could use.
The pieces of my future were falling into place before me, whether I knew it or not. My intense interest in architecture could be accessed through drafting for architecture. My inability to write could be bypassed by access to a typewriter. After a year of drafting in high school, and a twelve month technical course at the local campus of TSTI, a twelve-month course that I spent eighteen months completing.
Eighteen months where I was badgered by my advisers. They told me I was a slacker. Told me that I was never going to be able to work in the drafting industry. they tried every way they could think of to get me to quit the course, because all of them knew that I couldn’t draw well enough to make it in the business world. Couldn’t apply myself with enough diligence to produce the work required of a draftsman.
But the instructors at the TSTI campus had taken delivery of a CAD system during my time at the school. And I knew, even if they didn’t, that the computer revolution was on its way. The world that they thought I would have to conform to, to exist in, wasn’t going to be a permanent fixture in my life.
I finally graduated and got my certificate and I went out in the world with my label of slow and my newfound tools, went out to discover the land of design and construction for myself. I went out into the business world and was almost immediately flummoxed by the fact you have to sit still in an office.
Sitting still drives me absolutely nuts. Give me some decent shoes and rugged clothes, and I’ll spend all day for weeks exploring every inch of ground around me for whatever can be found. I never really thought about it; but I imagine being cooped up inside revisited the torment of school, being asked to engage in rituals I found painful and to gauge facial expressions I found confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst. Maybe I need the physical stimulation to make the mind work.
In any case, the first barrier to office work wasn’t actually the writing and drawing. No, the first barrier was getting over my own internal loathing of sitting still. That took years, longer than it took me to learn to type or to draw with precision. Eventually I learned to tap into what is commonly termed as flow now; and I could draw essentially effortlessly for hours at a time, longer and better than my peers. I had to be more dogged, more persistent. I had to be because I was slower than they were. That is an unpleasant, unavoidable fact.
My hand drawing production rate was much slower. However, because I had to take time to make sure the lines were exactly right, my drawings were also generally of better quality. This is not bragging, this is me relating the feedback that I got from dozens of years of work in the field. Yes, Anthony. Your drawings are beautiful. Can you turn them out faster? The same old label of slow coming back to haunt me.
“You are slow, Anthony.” Sounds like stupid in my ears, and it is meant to sound that way. Yes, I take longer to get there, but it will be worth the trip unlike some draftsmen I won’t mention. That is the line that ran in my head in response. I had to bite that retort back more times than I can count.
I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.
In the end, I did it.
Not because I got faster at hand drawing than anybody else. No, all of my peers can sketch rings around me. They always have been and probably always will be able to draw rings around me. The few times I’ve ever had to draw anything by hand in the field I was embarrassed to do so. My contractor friends, men who trusted my drawings implicitly, were always careful to assure me it would be fine, but I know just how childish my scribbles looked.
They were bad, and it was a barrier that kept me from advancing in the field of architecture. More than once I was offered promotion to supervisor or manager and I always balked at it. Why? Because supervisors and managers draw freehand right on the paper, and the draftsman just takes what they draw and cleans it up. I was really good at the clean up part of the process after years of practice. I was never going to be good at the freehand part. That was not something I would be able to do, and deep down in my heart I knew it was a barrier that I could not cross.
What changed things for me was the early exposure to computing at the shoulder of my beloved uncle. The exposure that made me understand the power of computers.
When you draw something in the computer, it can be duplicated endlessly without degrading the copy. The digital world allows you to be able to replicate whatever work you’d done previously by simply copying and pasting. Drawing guides are built in, so shaky handwork is irrelevant. The initial precision was the determining factor of replicability, and I had honed precision to a fine art already. It was just a matter of mastering the new tools.
Since I couldn’t get my employers to see the vision of my uncle’s suburban filled with computer gear, I took it upon myself to enroll in courses at Austin Community College so that I could gain access to the contemporary PC’s of the time (probably 386) while the motor control problem makes me a klutz with hardware, software is just a matter of understanding the logic of the system in a way that allows you to utilize shortcuts built into it. Classes in programming were more than I wanted to deal with and programming itself means little to me still, but breaking the security barriers on the simple GUI’s the school used at the time was child’s play, and I spent a year learning how not to get caught doing things with the computer that weren’t allowed, while learning the reasonably simple (for an experienced draftsman like myself) drawing exercises that I had to produce in order to pass the class.
When the classes were done and I felt prepared for what I saw as the inevitable future, my employers threw me a curveball and bought into a CAD program other than the one I had trained for. While I had spent a year learning AutoCAD, other CAD programs had made inroads in the architecture field and my employers purchased a program called CADvance and hired an operator from outside the firm to run the system.
Side note. It’s nice to know I was actually behind the times when I started my evangelizing for CAD and computers in the architecture sphere. I found this article over at Reanimation Library on Boyd Auger’s 1972 book, The Architect and the Computer quite interesting. Quite interesting that in 1972 the trend towards digitization was this apparent to anyone, even if they were really only promoting the products they had created to digitize documents. I really do hate to think that something that I thought was apparent was invisible to everyone else. Clearly, not everyone. /sidenote
Undaunted, I simply learned the far more straightforward command parameters for CADvance. The process took all of three days and I was already (unbeknownst to me) as fast or faster than the outside help my employers had hired. I mastered his system and improved on it before realizing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in that firm and made the move to another firm. A larger firm that used both systems I already knew.
It was about the time that my new employers adopted a third system Microstation and I mastered that program (with the help of the Wife’s student software discounts, her then ongoing pursuit of an MLIS and her still invaluable proofreading skills. Love you too, dear) and then started helping my co-workers become proficient with this new third system that I began to realize that I wasn’t the slowest person on the floor. In the middle of a monologue of self-criticism about streamlining some process or other, the coworker I was talking to stopped me cold to inform me that you know you are the fastest draftsman on the floor, right? No, I hadn’t known it until he pointed it out.
Liberation from false constraints, from labels you never wanted, never accepted, is a feeling that is hard to describe. Hard to fathom. I will be eternally grateful to my friend and coworker who pointed this fact out to me. It was years of additional work understanding just what it meant to not be seen as slow and stupid. To not have to push back against a negative view, a constraint you internalized and never let go of until long after everyone around you had stopped holding the view and instead were puzzled by what continues to drive you to be faster.
A recurring argument that I had with a few of my supervisors and fellow architects (back when I had a license, back when I was one of them) was the common belief that people aren’t in nature when they aren’t working on a 2D paper surface. The misguided notion that the synthesis of ideas requires a fixed medium (paper) and a writing implement (pencil) to engage the creative brain.
Future architects are explicitly told by some college professors that they “cannot design in a computer environment.” This false limitation being taught to so many students appals me to my core. It invalidates everything about me, my experiences, my pain and trials and eventual triumph. Is it a good thing that I never went to college to learn architecture? Had I followed the traditional route, embarked on a master’s degree in Architecture, I might have had this additional bad information to wrestle with and put behind me. Computer design is wholly artificial and so it can’t be a place to design in.
If I accepted this falsehood as truth I would never have embarked on my journey in the first place. I’d be just as disabled and just as hopeless, but with no belief that I could ever be more than that. Paper and pencil are natural to the people who find them natural. If the characters will not flow from you hands using them, find some other medium to express yourself in. All of them are natural. Do what you can do and never apologize for having to take a different road than everybody else. None of them know what experiences you have, what disabilities you will have to cope with. What gifts you might have hiding inside.
This is the end of the story of Coping With Dysgraphia. It only gets me to the middle of my architecture story, a story I still haven’t told fully; beginning, middle or end. That story will have to wait for another muse, another time. My parting thought on the subject of dysgraphia is, I wish I could remember what the subject of that term paper was that I refused to write way back when. When I was a sophomore in Garden City in 1978 flunking out of english class. I could write a whole book on the subject now with the tools we have today. I wonder what kind of story that would have been then if I could have simply been able to do what I do now?
Listening to The Hero’s Journey on the TED radio hour inspired me to put this story into words. Specifically it was the story of Ismael Nazario who was convicted of a crime and sent to Rikers as a teen. There but for grace go I. The difference that the color of your skin can make.