Brace For This

At 15, upon the emergence of my final permanent teeth, I started orthodontia.  Nothing unusual about the task that was before my orthodontist and me.  A rite of passage in post-war suburbia.  Yet, I managed to screw things up big time, resulting, at a critical developmental stage, in humiliating self-criticism and loathing.

For the most part, all went smoothly through the metallic installation and manipulation process.  Each fitting and tightening of the screws in my mouth resulted in temporary pain but tangible movement toward the desired end product.  We were proceeding at pace and the whole rigmarole would take roughly three years.

On the date of my last scheduled appointment, disaster struck. All the apparatus in my mouth had already been removed but for the rear brace rings wrapping the third molars in my upper arch.  But I missed the appointment. Plum forgot it.  Then, when I realized my error some days later, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone – including my parents. 

Those two braces remained in my mouth for months.  Heck, it could have been over a year.  Finally, I got a call from the orthodontist’s office. “Hello, may I speak with Dan?”

“Sure, I’m Dan.”

“Hello, this is Tina from Dr. Bernstein’s office,” came the cheerful voice. Shame now instantly burst from my subconscious.  “We don’t have a record of your last appointment.  Do you, by any chance, still have the remaining third molar appliances in your mouth.”

“Oh. Golly.  I guess I do.”  No doubt, my act was all too transparent to the appointment clerk. 

“Well, would you like to come in to get them removed?”

“Um… why yes, of course.  That would be great. Silly me. Thanks”

I did make THAT appointment, mortifying as it was.  Walked in. Sat down. 90 seconds later and it was over.

Mom and Dad never found out.

On the Streets and Off the Path: A Policy Response to Homelessness in Three Acts

This writing piece is different from anything I have posted on this website. Mixing in a bit of personal experience upfront, the core of this much longer than usual post, is my exploration of appropriate government policy responses to what I see as the preeminent visible socioeconomic failure of our time in my hometown of Olympia, as well as much of the west coast of the United States and elsewhere in our country – widespread public homelessness.

Originally, the first part below was written just before the COVID pandemic came into our consciousness. I’ve added a couple of subsequent installments that get us to the present, one year after the original piece was written.

Act 1: February 2020

The Berkeley Hostel’s sign in our sleeping quarters read, “No Smoking.” Ten feet to the right of the sign, a tall and powerful young man sat on the edge of his bunkbed, holding forth with stories of crimes committed and drugs obtained to an attentive audience of a half-dozen other powerful-looking young men. They were all smoking cigarettes.

Laying on my rumpled cot across the small dim-lit room, it was late evening, and I was stewing on the scene.  While I hated smelling the cigarette smoke, there was no way in hell I was going to ask them to stop.  I had run out of money, my stomach ached of hunger, and I was most definitely tired and ready for sleep.  But I wasn’t no idiot.

Back in 1979, I was trying to establish residency in California to go to grad school on the cheap.  Using a friend’s address on my university application, I hitchhiked around the state, looking for a place to stay and perhaps a temp job or two before I found out whether I’d be going to UCLA or Cal. The Berkeley Hostel was kind of the lowest rung of my travel accommodations.  Not the International Youth Hostels of my earlier European visits, this hostel was… well, hostile.  Dirt cheap housing for men who had nowhere else to go but the street.

For me, it was frightening, that hostel.  I stuck out like a lanky albatross, and those young men could have just as soon shot me as say howdy do.  But there was a big difference between me and those smokers, I suspected.  I knew that whenever I wanted, I could call Mom and Dad and ask them to take me back home.  I was middle class by upbringing, bound for grad school (I hoped!), and had support from people who loved me. I had a way out.

The next day I found a place to stay with a friend of my friend’s grandparents.  Two days later I was working for Daniel Ellsberg, sorting through the Pentagon Papers… but that’s another story.  It is the experience of the Berkeley Hostel that has stuck with me these days.  Because if not for the luck of my upbringing and the timing of the incident, I could have found myself mired in a frightening homelessness.  Falling down the economic ditch is so very easy. “Sister Carrie[1]” meet Brother Danny.

In downtown Olympia, in the winter of 2020, homelessness doesn’t feel like the biggest local issue. It feels like the only issue.  For the last year plus, I have been asking my friends and city officials questions.  What am I supposed to do if I see a man lying on the street, sleeping or otherwise unconscious?  Am I supposed to just walk by him? Do I try to rouse him to make sure he’s ok?  And what do I say to that person, if anything, if he is roused?  “You ok?”  “Can I help you?” “Here’s a number to call if you need help?” “Here’s $10?”

Responses to my questions have been unsatisfying. So, my questions have continued, as has my research into homelessness. My son Zac gave me an excellent book called “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” that explores large-scale forces contributing to homelessness. It makes bold recommendations for tackling the issue. I am now in the middle of streaming the excellent podcast, “The Outsiders,” which looks deeply at causes of homelessness, experiences of the homeless, and policy efforts being carried out by the city of Olympia, and other organizations which care about our homeless population, to reduce the number of unsheltered people in the Olympia area, increase their chances of climbing out of their personal chasms, and improve the overall quality of the community for all city residents and businesses.

After my Berkeley Hostel experience, I did indeed make it into grad school at Cal’s Department of City and Regional Planning.  My professional training and eventual experience in local government land use and environmental planning has oriented me toward seeking policy solutions to urban issues, more than interpersonal ones.  Which is why I – along with just about everyone else in our nation – have been exasperated with our inability to come up with solutions to massive increases in homelessness in our communities.

Some believe that the significant increases in homelessness we all visibly see is an unavoidable consequence of growing income and wealth inequality in our society and other systemic economic forces and policies. Some believe that inadequate mental health services and the lack of other social supports are major contributors to the problem.  Others see drug and alcohol abuse as primary causes. Still others believe that society is too “permissive” of anti-social behavior. Drawing on my land use planning background, others blame federal and state housing policies which have resulted in the reduction in subsidized units and the virtual elimination of the traditional SRO (Single Room Occupancy) apartments serving low-income people.

My judgment is that all the above are contributing factors to the expansion of homelessness in our society. Further, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to suss out exact percentages of the contribution of each factor. In proposing a “solution” to the homelessness issue, then, I believe one must include elements that touch all the factors. And that is my intent in the following pages – to propose a “solution.”

Assumptions and Biases 

First, let me state some basic assumptions and biases in addressing homelessness as a public policy issue.  I do not believe it should be socially acceptable for people to be unsheltered and using public spaces as open-air domiciles.  It is not healthy in the long run for people to live unsheltered.  It is not safe and healthy to the unsheltered of course, but also not healthy for communities. It is not an acceptable “lifestyle” in a country that can afford better. 

This lack of acceptance of homelessness sets up three critical – and challengeable – additional assumptions.  Assumptions about human rights, adult responsibilities, and community obligations. 

First, safe and healthy shelter should be a human right. No one should be turned away from someplace to shelter.  Second, it is every person’s responsibility to accept shelter when it is safe and healthy for them to do so. Third, it is a community’s – read government at the federal, state and local level – responsibility to provide enough safe and healthy shelter space to meet all who need it at the maximum level of independent living for each person.  I will explicate the three assumptions.

“Safe and healthy” needs established standards that will not be described here.  But our country has the financial resources and organizational capacity to assure that no one is forced to live/sleep on the street due to lack of money and/or lack of mental health and capacity.  For some, this means the ability to live with a high level of independence in an established residence.  For others, such as the profoundly developmentally disabled, this means 24-7 supervision and care. For many of the currently unsheltered, it means some intermediate level of care and support.  Since society has the capability to shelter all at an appropriate level of independence, it should strive to do so.

But what of those individuals who assert a right to go unsheltered in public spaces if they are not damaging property or hurting people? Must society allow for such a lifestyle? My response is that unsheltered living – for any extended period of time – by its very nature is self-destructive, self-limiting, and impactful on society. I believe that every adult person who has the capability to contribute has a responsibility to contribute to society at a certain minimal level, and that acceptance of that responsibility is part of the essence of a healthy adult life. Of course, people cannot all contribute equally and in the same manner. But one established minimum, should be that all must accept a kind of shelter that has the minimum intrusion into a person’s independent life and still not have that person impact negatively upon others.

But what constitutes minimum intrusion into independence?  The city of Olympia is experimenting with the concept of a “pipeline” for independence.  This seems to me an excellent approach.  If there are a range of options from 24/7 supervision to full independence, individuals can work with community officials to move their lives as far along the independence pipeline as they can go over time.

The Problems of Scale and Distribution

The massive increase in unsheltered population is not evenly distributed throughout the country.  It is most prominent on the west coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The massive increase in unsheltered population in public spaces is not evenly distributed in Thurston County.  It is centered in Olympia – with a secondary impact in Lacey and more defuse patterns in rural areas.  A recent discussion I had with a city of Tumwater official found virtually no unsheltered people in that city during the recent annual homelessness census.

Why are there major variances in frequency of occurrence based on geography? Why is there a tendency for agglomeration of homelessness?

At a statewide level, there appears to be a strong correlation in the frequency of homelessness between increases in the cost of housing and income available to the lowest quartile of the population.  Simply put, someone with a minimum wage job cannot afford the lowest cost housing available on the market. There are many other factors at work, but data from the state department of commerce asserts the above correlation as most profound.

Within an urban area, the greatest correlation between the number of unsheltered people in a public place and the location of that place, is the level of support services available for those people.  If you are homeless, you have vastly more access to social supports in downtown Olympia than anywhere else in the urban area. So, does provision of social services “cause” homelessness to rise?  The evidence is weak on this.  It seems much more the case that the homeless will congregate near services, but services do not increase the number of people experiencing homelessness overall in any urban region.  Overall, people do not choose to be homeless to receive homeless services, but rather people who are homeless go to the locations where services are highest.

What do these two dynamics of scale and distribution tell us about how to solve the problem of homelessness in public spaces?  To me they demand large-scale (principally federal and state) economic-based solutions to housing support as one key part of an overall approach. Local government simply does not have the authority to balance housing and labor markets or the resources to deal with various non-economic factors.

Non-Economic Factors

Large percentages of homeless individuals self-identify as sexual minorities (LGBTQ), far above their percentage in the total population.  African Americans are disproportionately homeless.  Those struggling with drug and other substance abuse account for a disproportionate amount of the homeless.  Institutional racism and prejudice, including decades of legal discrimination, has resulted in members of various social groups being more likely to end up on the streets. 

There has also been social policy that has exacerbated the forces that leave individuals with fewer options to homelessness. Civil libertarians fought hard to increase the requirements for government to involuntarily commit individuals to institutions for both mental health and mental capacity reasons.  But at the same time, as the institutions were emptied, there were not corresponding community mental health and other social investments to assist those people to maximum independence in a safe and healthy environment. Finally, the war on drugs in the criminal justice system has been widely seen as a failure and counterproductive.

The Basic Reason for Homelessness

The above analysis identifies reasons for increases in homelessness throughout the country and spikes in homelessness in certain areas.  But there is a universal characteristic that applies to every individual who is homeless which supersedes economics or social class. A late friend of mine, Dr. Aaron Lowin, studied homelessness 20 years ago as a sociological researcher at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.  He found that the underlying constant of the unsheltered, was that they as individuals had been unable to form, nurture and maintain intimate personal relationships.  No matter one’s income, if you have a loved one who will let you “sleep on the couch” you will not be unsheltered.  You might be without a home of your own, but you will not be on the street.  Positive interpersonal connections, ironically, promote healthy independence.

There are policy prescriptions for that curse of social isolation, though none that would on their own eliminate the problem of homelessness.  But it is important to note that for every systems-approach look at the crisis of expanded homelessness, there are individual lives of choice and condition which are distinctive, unique, and complex.

A Comprehensive Proposal

The United States should set as a goal the total elimination of unsheltered people in public spaces.  To accomplish this goal, the following actions should take place:

  1. The federal government should dramatically expand the Section 8 housing voucher program and change some of its attributes. At its core, the program should guarantee that no individual or family would need to use more than 1/3rd of household income on rent.  Lessors (landlords/ladies) of multi-family units would be mandated to accept a certain percentage of housing voucher recipients or lose tax benefits. Rent subsidies would be provided to renters and/or directly paid to lessors.  Those with essentially no income would in turn pay no rent.  Such a program would by necessity include a massive increase in bureaucracy to mitigate against fraud, and to closely monitor income.  The current housing market is essentially a private one and this would maintain that system as the primary means of shelter. 
  2. The federal government should provide funds for a pipeline of supportive public and non-profit housing types throughout the country.  These would also include funding for public and non-profit supportive service providers. The goal of this funding would be to develop a series of options to move people from 24/7 care to as close to independence as they can get. Services would include mental health support, sheltered workshops, addiction and substance abuse support and other direct supports.
  3. To meet the social service staffing needs of the above and below recommendations, an emergency training and hiring program should be enacted and funded with a combination of state and federal funds, for social case workers, mental health counselors, cleaning services and other direct providers to assist the homeless and help them move to maximal independence.
  4. Prior to establishment of the above funding and services, all local governments, with adequate state funding, should provide emergency supportive housing to meet the existing and forecast population of persons experiencing homelessness.   Property owners would be compensated for such use at appropriate market rates.  Other available and suitable sites for emergency housing should be pursued.
  5. The National Guard, as well as Army Corps of Engineers, have experience in establishing emergency shelter and medical facilities, and those resources should be deployed.  The ongoing homelessness crisis is enough reason to activate this federal capacity, in coordination with local and state governments which would be responsible for siting and accurately scaling service centers.
  6. Federal and state governments should institute a comprehensive apprenticeship approach toward employing the employable homeless population. This can be based on existing programs, with major increases in funding and scope.  Emulate the Great Depression’s Civilian Conservation Corps with a major new emphasis on programs like the Washington Conservation Corps, removing invasive species and restoring healthy ecosystem with public access.  Expand trade apprenticeship programs dramatically and combine them with the housing programs identified above.  Provide, for those experiencing homelessness, and who are able and willing to work, a career ladder toward true skill development and financial independence, providing a real bundle of carrots.
  7. Once the above services are in place – or substantially in place – then local governments should carry out actions that would require individuals to accept the appropriate type of housing and level of service for their situation. People would not be allowed to sleep on the street, but rather would be placed into this new pipeline system of support. That means the compassionate enforcement of no-camping laws, and a systematic increase in the expectations for responsible civil behavior.

As a young man, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the world with a high level of independence.  Hitchhiking around California and sleeping under the stars on a warm summer night was a growth experience. Accepting a modest level of physical risk was a small price to pay for my freedom to travel and discover.  But those were sanguine times. My coming-of-age opportunities were backed by a parental home of safety and health. And they were grounded in my own moral compass that left society no worse the wear for my soft rebellions to authority.

That kind of “petit homelessness” has nothing in common with the pervasive and desperate conditions faced by our 21st Century fellow community members.  We owe it to them, and to us, to provide a better set of choices than the depravations and dangers of the street. The resources needed to meet that challenge require no less than a realignment of our publicly funded priorities.  But make no mistake.  We can afford this.  And at the cost of our moral bearings, we cannot afford not to.

Act 2:  August 2020

We are now struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic.  The scourge of homelessness, both in its extent and its health risks to the broader community, and to the homeless people themselves, has gotten far worse than when I wrote the above words in February.

We have also been experiencing the largest and most sustained protest movement to hit the nation’s streets for at least two generations. This movement is laying bare the racial nature of American inequality and police brutality.  It is demanding, in its most elemental spirit, social and economic justice. Homelessness appears to us now, a stunningly cruel and public manifestation of these injustices.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problems identified in this writing’s Act 1 and increased the costs of its proposed solutions.  But for me, the approach remains a logical and achievable means of crawling out of the moral hole that we have dug for ourselves.

There remains but one thing more to say, though it may already be obvious.  The cost of my proposal is significant.  It goes to the overall fiscal priorities of our nation.  Simple solutions like redirecting funds from major cuts in police expenditures to the above programs are but a tiny fraction (perhaps 5 – 10%?) of the needs for effective implement.  The moral question, the political question, is whether we, who are financially and otherwise privileged, are truly willing to advocate for and feel the burden of, a new and inclusive direction for our nation and its suffering communities.  

Act 3: February 2021

The Biden Administration has just replaced the Trump Administration a couple of weeks ago.  The pandemic is near its peak (I pray) of destruction.  And the scourge of Olympia’s homelessness is both deepening and evolving in mixed fashion. Low-income housing has been constructed and occupied. More units are on their way.  But our city’s streets and unbuilt upon lands – both private and public – have become scenes of crushing contradictions. Long-term “impermanent homes” for the homeless are now fixtures of a capital city’s identity.

Hope, maybe, is on the way.  President Biden has called for a massive increase in funding for the federal rental assistance program (Section 8) as part of his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID relief act. We’ll need to watch the details as his proposal wends its way through Congress, but clearly my view that a more aggressive federal response to homelessness is shared by the new Administration.

We have just entered the time of this writing topic’s third act. It looks like we are at the cusp of aggressive government actions at the federal, state and local levels, and correspondingly productive private sector contributions.

It is indeed a time for some well-earned hope. COVID vaccinations are off and running. I got my first dose last week.  There is a genuine potential for political alignment to tackle homelessness and its socioeconomic causes. And decisions and actions to address homelessness in the last few years are now bearing fruit, with constructed units occupied and services provided.

If Act 3 thus begins with productive actions that spawn hope and further actions, may it end with genuine progress toward the elimination of endemic public homelessness. Those who need a safe, healthy and warm home, should have one.

I welcome all criticism of the above.  What assumptions of mine are foolish or wrong?  How could the problems of homelessness be ameliorated at much less cost?  Am I being overly alarmist or unrealistic? How am I missing the mark?


[1]If you haven’t read “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, you ought to. Written in 1900, it is a powerful, sad, scary depiction of what can happen to people in a society without what Ronald Reagan referred to as a “safety net. ” Even with today’s much more extensive set of governmental supports, the psychology and sociology of personal experience in “Sister Carrie” gives insight into what it must be like to fall deeper and deeper down a path of poverty, despair, and decrepitude.


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My Imaginary Doctors

Dad took me to a Transcendental Meditation center as a teen.  I aced TM.  Well, I aced it that first time. For about 5 minutes.  Then never could do it again.

Dad was going through his wellness obsession stage the last eight years of his life. He had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition in the fall of 1972 and the doctor told him to relax, stop exerting himself, take some pills, and he might last a few years. Toward the end of those eight years, Dad learned that there was a wildly experimental surgery he could try.  He decided to reject that option and died while on sabbatical in Israel.  But between diagnosis and death, he delved like a mad man into the field of “wellness.”

The core of his wellness approach – an emerging academic field’s wellness approach – were four principles:

1.      Exercise

2.      Diet

3.      Relaxation

4.      Community Connections

As a professor at the University of Washington School of social Work, he studied and wrote about “The Peckham Experiment” which was an academically designed post-war intergenerational wellness community and research project in England.  He created, along with Dr. Hy Resnick, the “Wallingford Wellness Project” in the Seattle neighborhood of the same name, as an academic case study of the Peckham model.  And he practiced wellness in his own life with a missionary zeal.  Hence the TM and hence his encouragement of his son to join him.

TM was quite a “New Age” fad in the 70’s.  The TM business would provide – at a price – one-time instruction on how to meditate along with a secret mantra.  Supposedly, everyone was given a distinctive mantra tailored to attributes of their personality.  Once given, one was to never say the mantra out loud nor tell anyone its alliteration, lest it would lose its mythic and transformational power.

In that first session, TM staff led me through the process of chanting the mantra internally. I needed to release my mind, not focusing on anything but the mantra. Quickly, I found myself in an incredible state of well-being, and just as quickly they “woke me up” and said that the session was over.  I was now able to do TM.  If I needed any help in the future, I could come back – for an additional fee – and get a TM tune up.   

Dad continued TM for the rest of his life and found it of great value.  I tried to recreate the experience after that first session, and never could.  I gave up trying, concluding that I would revisit relaxation when I really needed it. As an old man.  Perhaps after age 40.

A couple of years after my TM exposure, I went off to The Evergreen State College, a local alternative school. Life was exciting and stressful. A popular book amongst students at that time was “The Well Body Book.”  It was a kind of hippy American version of Mao’s “Barefoot Doctors Handbook.”  

In the rear of the book was an appendix with the concept of an “Imaginary Doctor.” The appendix provided an approach to creating one’s own Imaginary Doctor, and the process of conjuring up this doc whenever you needed it/him/her.  That conjuring process turned out amazingly like TM that I had been taught a couple of years prior.  But different in one key respect.  Instead of emptying my mind of thoughts when I would perceive them, the Imaginary Doctor approach would follow and direct those thoughts in a manner that tried to solve whatever issue or problem was going on in my life. 

The Imaginary Doctor became for me principally a mental health therapist. A therapist who I could visit at any time and discuss any topic, and feel safe and secure in the knowledge that I was in consultation with a wisdom that also knew, more than anyone else could, my personal history, values, and ideals.

At age 22, I created my Imaginary Doctor named Larry.  And he is “with me” to this day. Larry is a retired wheat farmer from the Great Plains. About 65 years old. Overweight, but not obese. Barrel-chested would be a fair description.  Sparse, short-cropped gray and brown hair on his balding head.  No beard.  Looks a bit like Roger Ailes, but without a trace of nefarious political guile. Larry is always wearing OshKosh B’Gosh overalls over a red and white plaid shirt, Redwing boots and white socks.  And he is deeply kind, compassionate, wise, and funny. Sometimes I need to ask him to be serious, which he promptly does in a good-natured manner.  But sometimes I really appreciate his positive silliness, which lightens my mood and gives me perspective.

I conjure him through a rote exercise.  Closing my eyes, I chant internally my TM mantra. “EYE-EEM, EYE-EEM, EYE-EEM…” I say it to myself silently, and imagine leaving a wooded glen, walking through a field of native grasses to a 30’s-era yellow bungalow house.  I am the age I am.  Once young, but now not.  I walk briskly up a flight of five stairs to the front door.  It is my home – though I have never lived there.  It is where I visit with Larry.

I open the door, turn left and quickly right down the picture-lined hallway to my special room. The house is warm, with a lived-in feeling of inherited wealth.  I open the door to my room and walk over to a tall, bejeweled chair.  Sitting down on that chair, I face a large box, four feet wide and of ceiling height. Like the door off a Star Trek Enterprise hallway, I will the door to open, and it quickly slides from top to bottom and out pops Larry.

Over the years, Larry has been a wonderful resource.  Our conversations have been intimate, and they have been healing. 

A few years after Larry came into my life, Dad died. Larry and I talked about this, and then he surprised me. “Would you like to see your dad again?” he asked.

“Of course.”  

“Then here he is.”  And with that Dad walked out of the same “box” that Larry emerged from.  We gave each other a big and long hug.

“I miss you Dad,” I cried.

“I’m here anytime you need me.”

I looked toward Larry and asked him if this is ok with him.  Ok that I have this image of my father as a supplement to him as my Imaginary Doctor.

“If this is helpful for you, I’m all in favor of it,” came his reply.

25 years later, Mom died. And yes, she came through the box as well. Six years after that, my sister Ann died.  Yup… I can see her too coming through the box when I want. 

It’s my choice of course.  When I conjure up my Imaginary Doctor…. Doctors, I select whom I want to talk with.  It might be one or four or any pairing in between.  And none of them resents it when they are not picked.  Well, almost none. Larry has been known to pout a bit… and let out a fart of displeasure.

The Barber of Seville

As far as I could tell, my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Marion Chadwick[1], was obsessed with two things:  choral music and math.  5th grade was particularly memorable for me because for the first – and last – time in my K-12 trek through the Bellevue public school system, I became a teacher’s pet.

This warm relationship with Mrs. Chadwick was not due principally to my math skills, which I remember to be amongst the better of us kids in class but clearly not at prodigy levels.  No, it was because of my lovely pre-adolescent singing voice.  I was the only boy in class who would sing out loudly and in key.  There was courage in that for a 5th grade boy, and I rather liked the appreciation it engendered from not only the teacher, but a certain tall, bespectacled girl named Marcy.

Mind you, I didn’t act solely to advance Marcy’s admiration per se, but it was a boost for the ego. I felt, along with her, like an intelligent, capable, and well-mannered kid.

One sunny spring day, Mrs. Chadwick announced that she arranged for us an outing to the Seattle Center to attend a live performance at the Opera House of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” I was quite excited by the notion of driving to the big city to attend a classical performance in an ornate show hall. 

I got all dressed up for the actual event.  Even had on slacks, a sports jacket, and tie – perhaps for the first time in my life.  Mrs. Chadwick had our seat assignments arranged and I was placed in an aisle seat. My neighbor to the right was a petit dark-haired beauty named Melanie.  Even by 5th Grade, there emerged differences between the cool kids, pushing adolescence, and shy nerds like me.  Prior to “The Barber” Melanie had not given me a look or thought.  But as we walked together and sat together for hours, she generously gave me her attention. 

I knew Melanie to have a middle school boyfriend.  I was pretty sure she had actually kissed a boy. She was out of my league and I hadn’t even entered a league to be out of. But for the next couple of years, we at least had “The Barber” as a connection.

I asked Mom and Dad to buy me that opera album and I played it repeatedly. Not exactly a coming-of-age story, but every time I hear “The Barber,” I think of a sweet moment when a nerd and a hot chick shared a dollop of haute culture together. 


[1] Little was I to know that after retirement Marion Chadwick would become a champion swimmer!  https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=marion-kerr-chadwick&pid=147981777

Brahms Quintet in F Minor

Why the piece hit my ears with such depth of meaning I do not know and can never know. Our home was often filled with classical music from our mono record player. Ann practiced on the piano. Laurie, the flute. I, still in elementary school, let’s say I was 10, did not yet play any instrument. But when I heard Brahms Quintet in F Minor, it became my piece. Rudolf Serkin and the Budapest String Quartet. It had to be them that do it.

I played it every day. I played it multiple times a day. The music said to me that I had depth because it had depth. It was stirring to my soul. Exciting. Humbling. And like little children who love being read “Goodnight Moon” for the umpteenth time, I was attached to the Quintet by its familiarity, its predictability.

Grandpa Charles was my model for listening to music. His arms would swing and then hit the air with definitive climactic rhythmic smacks. I loved how he loved the music. I would love the music the same way. I would let the music take me in and take me over. I would swing my hands and tighten and release my body. I would do this, lying on our living room’s supremely comfortable, exceedingly long, orange couch, propped up by the matching orange pillows.

My sister Laurie was not amused. She said, “you know, Danny, if you keep listening to that record again and again, pretty soon the needle will scratch its way to the bottom and destroy the record. Forever. And you will never be able to listen to it again.

My Quintet listening slowed down. Considerably. Life presented other joys and the brain would seek preoccupation by all else in creation.

The notion of being able to buy another record somehow never crossed my mind. Her pronouncement scared me away from the record. Could one listen to Brahms Quintet in F Minor only so many times? Were life’s pleasures to be meted out? Rationed like some WWII food stuff?

Political Ecology: My Fulcrum

The surprise came early.  7th Grade.

All through elementary school, I was an academic wizard. Well, as magical as non-grade grades could be. “Outstanding” and “very good” were accompanied by “Danny is an enthusiastic learner” or “Danny loves to sing.”  My two much older sisters were also academic stars, but with actual grades to prove it.

So, when I started 7th Grade and got only a 3.0 GPA, it was more than a disappointment to me and my parents.  It was a surprise.  Worse, the numbers steadily went down from there. My high school guidance counselor instructed me as a senior to pursue technical training. “You know, Dan, college isn’t for everyone.” He pulled an Al Campanis[1] and claimed that “some folks just don’t have ‘the necessities.’ But that’s OK!” He meant it comfortingly.

I didn’t listen to him.  Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality.  I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted. And my D in French was undeserved.  I should have flunked.

A succeeding year of unskilled dead-end jobs and flirtations with the wrong side of mental health came to focus my mind. Conclusion? I needed SOME career track, and for reasons no longer remembered,  decided it was as a biologist.  At 19, I enrolled at Bellevue Community College with that aim.  Oddly enough though, if one wants to be a biologist, one does not actually take biology classes.  Chemistry – yes.  Physics, trigonometry, calculus – absolutely.  Liberal arts “breadth” classes in English, political science, anthropology – of course.  But not biology.

This community college late bloomer (as my dad called me at the time) began to come into his academic competence.  For the first time, my numerical grades were good. Quite good actually. In approaching the decision of where – not if – to go on to a four-year school, I spent intense hours looking at academic catalogs. Each college wooed prospective students with heimishe photos, playful graphics, and haughty statements of the institution’s noble purposes and fine accomplishments.

Flipping through The Evergreen State College’s catalog, I read about a program called “Political Ecology.”  Initially bewildered and enraptured at the same time, reading program details delivered a self-recognition. For the first time, my values and passions had a structure to inhabit.  An epiphanic moment!

Heck – speaking to myself – I read newspapers. Volunteered for political campaigns.  And I wanted to be a biologist.  Was there actually something that included all that?! Later, I was to find that that something was called land use and environmental planning. 

Evergreen’s catalog did the trick.  I enrolled there, though never did take “Political Ecology” as it was a program for lower division students.  Rather, I took “Environments:  Chemistry, Ecology and Politics,” an upper division program that covered many of the same topics.  Starting as the chemistry expert in ECEP, I ended the program more attracted to the politics angle than anything else. As I learned more about land use planning, my academic and career goals fell quickly and smoothly into place.  I set myself up with a bizarrely specific goal – to be a Planning Director of a small city or rural county on the edge of a metropolitan area.  Eight years later, at age 30, I achieved that career objective precisely, as the Community and Economic Development Director for the city of Tumwater, Washington.

The “Political Ecology” moment proved decisive.  It would link personal growth with personality orientation and eventually professional advancement and accomplishment. So much of my identity would be wrapped in that professional milieu. Citizen involvement, public policy development, governance structure, land use, environmental and fiscal analyses became much of who I was.  Not just what I did.  

Possessing an identity, being someone you want to be and present yourself as, is crucial to a healthy life.  It provides meaning and purpose. A cohesive narrative of self. So much of my identity was derived from my professional work.  Yet, there were doubtless downsides in integrating ones work tightly with identity.

I ponder how different it must be for those folks who don’t “find themselves” in their work. Is it hard to maintain an interest and purpose in one’s daily toils? Retirement now is a test of that proposition.  Certainly, a career also keeps one away from much in life.  People can and do find their identity outside of paid work. Hobbies. Avocations. Family and friends.

I count myself lucky to have had the epiphany of “Political Ecology.” In general, I feel blessed where it took me. But there is only so much one can do and be in this snippet of time we have on Earth.  My epiphanic moment cut off options to explore others. Fulcrums open and close paths. Whether we want them to or not.

Choosing life is about seeking and embracing those fulcrums that may still be to come.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Campanis

Aage

Aage forced John Lennon to cut his hair.  Yoko too. Least wise, that was the story Aage told, and who was I to doubt it.

I first met Aage Rosendal Nielsen five months before the alleged crew cut incident took place at the New Experimental College (NEC) campus in the hilly northwest Jutland farmland of Skyum Bjerge, Denmark. It was the summer of 1969. I was 14 years old and had been hitchhiking around the UK and Europe for six weeks with my big sister Ann. She was 21 and had just finished her studies at the London School of Economics.  (I wrote earlier in this blog about our initial travels in Great Britain and Ireland in a piece titled “Breaking Away.”)  Mom and dad too were traveling elsewhere in Europe, and we were all to meet up at NEC.

Aage was the founder and rector of NEC, part of what he had labeled Nordenfjord World University.  It was a pedagogical inheritor of the Danish Folk High School tradition started in the 19th century by N. F. S. Grundtvig.  Aage boastfully said that the college would last for 1000 years.  As it turned out, he was off by about 975.

These were authority-challenging times in the late 60’s, and NEC’s structure was made for that weltanschauung. It had no regular classes and no published curriculum. No paid faculty members, in fact no “teachers” at all. Each student would pursue study interests, without interference or outside influence.  Students could study for as little as  one week or  up to one year. If they felt like teaching something, they could offer that too.  There was no tuition per se, other than paying the daily cost of sleeping and eating at the converted farmhouse that served as the college’s all-everything building. 

Like any seemingly non-hierarchical organization, Aage was the charismatic leadership that held the place together.  He published his magnum opus, “Lust for Learning,” in 1968 and NEC was born from that lodestar. He was famous enough to draw in my sister Ann from London, John and Yoko from wherever they were churning out “Peace Studies”, and my social work professor father and mother, intellectually curious about what was labeled then the European “Youth Movement.”

Aage was middle aged, iconoclastic, challenging, brilliant and arrogant.  My sister was having problems with my parents, and she determined that NEC could serve as a place to directly address those problems. A core decision making tool at NEC were Aage-led sessions called tings. Disputants would sit around and express their problems with others and work to resolve them.  Our family did a ting.

To my 14-year-old self, Aage gave the impression of a deeply “cool” person, and the encounter with Ann and the folks was an opportunity for all of them to learn from each other in a safe environment. He called us “The Funny Family” and called me “Little Brother.” He seemed avuncular and sardonic and whip smart. I grew to trust him.

Our ting was in the vast farmhouse central room.  Ringed with bookshelves filled with the works of R.D. Laing, C.G. Jung, and other titles of the counterculture zeitgeist; walls with art by students; long wooden dining tables and upright chairs; and plush soft couches and futons; the room was for dining, lounging, studying, presentations, and tings.

Aage led off our ting with a question.  “Why are we here?” At first there was awkwardness, then Ann started in.  She had been misunderstood. She had had unfair expectations placed upon her by our parents. She was struggling with many questions that our parents could not understand. As the ting continued, I listened intently.  Because the controversy was not upon me, I had an opportunity for detached perspective. I remember distinctly, and perhaps for the first time, feeling smart and mature and wise and clever in my family. And I remember Aage credentialing what I said.

The ting ended well.  Tears of reconciliation. Hugs.  A sense of bonding from a shared emotional experience.

But in the perspective of time and a horrible subsequent event, it all seems gimmicky now.

Seven years later, just prior to starting at The Evergreen State College, I was traveling around Europe and contacted Aage to see if I could stay at NEC, study, and do some farm work to offset some of the daily “tuition” costs.  Aage agreed.  But when I arrived, I had a horrible illness.  Temperature well over 100 that lasted for days and days. I was bedridden.  After close to a week, I began to come out of it.  Aage told me that I would have to pay full tuition since I had not been working.  I said I didn’t have that full tuition. He called me a filthy, money-grubbing Jew and that I had to pay the full cost. “Whatever happened to the honest, smart boy I knew seven years ago?” he screamed.

I called my parents to tell them of the situation, and to wire money. But Aage wanted more than just the money for the days I had been there.  He wanted the full amount for the entire time that I had intended to stay, even though I now wanted to leave immediately. I was distraught. Frightened. His face was in a rage as he laid into my character.

When he concluded his ultimatum, he left the room swiftly, expecting me to take action to rectify my error.  His younger, Indian girlfriend remained.  “Aage can be so unnecessarily cruel sometimes,” she said to me in a mixture of sympathy and intellectual detachment. Then she left too.

That evening, I gathered my belongings, paid what I could along with a note of explanation, and escaped NEC in the dark of night. And wondering, for the rest of my life, what constituted “necessary cruelty.”

January 5, 1970 – New Experimental College – Aage’s hand gesturing with John listening

I hitchhiked away and got picked up by a middle-aged Danish couple who owned a farm down the road.  I told them what happened with Aage and they were incensed.  They had heard of him, didn’t know him well, but were appalled by what he did to me.  I asked them whether I could make a collect call to my parents at their home and they graciously allowed me to do that. 

This is where it gets a bit vague.  I remember talking with Mom and Dad and Dad saying, “let me talk with Aage and see what I can do.”  After a while, Dad called me back and said something to the extent that Aage felt badly about the outburst and wanted to get back together with me to talk about the situation. I told Dad I’d think about it.

My hosts at the time were adamantly against it.  “Don’t go back to that man, Aage. He’s not a good man.”  But I decided to go back and try to work something out. 

In retrospect, my best guess is that Dad called Aage and read him the riot act.  Essentially shaming him into talking with me.  He and Mom might even have decided to pay off Aage to some degree just to protect me.  I don’t know if either of those scenarios are correct. But what I do remember is going back and having a tête-à-tête with Aage, no longer feeling cowed by him, but coming to an agreement about money and time.  I then stayed a day or two more before taking off.  I did not leave in a huff, but more with a sense of dignity intact, and an important lesson learned that anti-Semitism is lying under the surface of so many, including the perceived enlightened liberals.

Strumming at NEC – Perhaps Aage, John and Yoko had a ting, and this was the result!

Peach Juice: Memories of Summer in the Darkness of a COVID-Infused January

A fruit can be bad, or ok, or fine or wonderful, or everything in the universe at the moment that it meets the mouth.  A great peach is my favorite fruit.  A bad peach is inedible.

One scorching-hot August day, next to Maryhill State Park, Jean and I came upon a u-pick peach orchard.  The peaches were huge. The peaches were orangy crimson. They looked picture-perfect.  When pressed, the flesh gave just so. But one never knows, does one? Not until the first bite.

Locally Grown Maryhill Peaches from Gunkel Orchards

We picked a basketful.  Perhaps 20 of the largest, orangiest, crimsonyist specimens.  Paid the farmer’s son for the privilege. Washed a couple of our haul from a nearby water hose, and bit in.

The juice squirted from my mouth… exploding out of its fuzzy confinement. The taste, a sublime blending of sweet and tart, took me to the heavens.  I was living the Zen hot dog vendor order joke – make me “one with everything.” 

 It’s nuts, really, but if I could have a choice of my last sentient moment on earth, I would take memories of sitting next to someone I love, with a searing sun beating down on us, adjacent to a peach orchard overlooking Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, and splattering warm peach juice over my face, neck and chest from that first spectacular bite. 

Safe Harbor Day

We have our momentary influences. Momentary inspirations. Often, combinations of seemingly unrelated inputs, joined at once, produce… well, produce something.

Our writing class prompt from a fellow student was the following:

Writers!
I am inspired by This I Believe, https://thisibelieve.org/There are lots of examples of topics to choose from.
For our writing exercise, I suggest 250 words, which is the word limit for a letter to The Olympian.

Your writing can be fanciful, satirical,absurd, and/or satirical (like Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, where one solution to the challenge of poverty would be to eat the children of the poor. (!) Or it could be serious. Though come to think of it, Swift was making a serious point, and now I’m even more intrigued by his approach. In my case, I want to plumb my feelings/confusions/questions that are surfacing about the reality of racism. (Maybe I’ll take a Swift approach? I doubt I’d have the focus, skill, and courage to do that but that is a possibility out there for the taking.)

Anything is fair game!And thanks for being so game!

Well, that was a broad choice of topics and styles. Then, another student suggested, just because I think he liked it, that we listen to this unexpected amalgam performance:

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; Paul Simon (Arr. Colin Jacobsen): American Tune

As I considered a topic upon which to write, I found that it was “Safe Harbor Day” in the USA. An arcane bit of presidential electoral college mumbo jumbo that never has really mattered before, but apparently is yet another ignore-at-your-peril step toward realizing a de-Trumpifed inevitability. A step that I will choose to embrace – against all good sense – as a turning point toward better days.

COVID is killing more than ever. A high percentage of my fellow citizens are either crazy, hungry, angry, or all three. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can slow down, if you are as fortunate as I, and grab hold of a little hope with a little poetry.

“Letter to the Editor”

It’s all over.

It really is.

All over but the screaming

The whining

The madness.

All over but the tears.

All over but the tears. And the tears.

Now …  let’s let those tears heal those tears.[1]

Refocus.

Turn to beauty.

To the Bachs. JS, Johann Christian, Carl Phillip Emanuel. All of them.

To Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

To Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh.

Let’s turn to truth.

To Keats and Whitman

Newton and Lavoisier.

Let’s spend our time in the company of those

Whose greatness

And whose goodness

We can bathe.

Breathe deeply.

Let’s begin again.


[1] First tears is pronounced “teers” and second “tares.”

My Feets

(The below was cobbled together for my “Beautiful Lies, Beautiful Truths” writing class assignment:  Write about feet in 250 words or less.)

In Florida, for officer candidate school during WWII, Dad claimed he was “saved by my feet!”  Scheduled to ship out to the European theater, the Army couldn’t find or make size 14AAA shoes in time for him to join his regiment eastward across the Atlantic.  His feet let him skip the war.

My 15AA’s haven’t exactly saved my life. All of London in 1972 lacked English football shoes that fit, so I couldn’t play on my youth club team when asked last minute to join.  Frustrating? Sure! But no survival at stake.

Pointing downwards, strangers inevitably ask to this day, “how big are those things?”  They don’t inquire politely. No.  They ridicule. They laugh.

What other body part is treated this way?  You know. Mockable.  No one comes up to me and says “My, your hands are incredibly long!”  At 6’5”, my height is a common query. But it’s the darn feet that bring on the jocular ribbing.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dfpds-business-logo.jpg
My business logo from the 1980’s, imprinted on the company stationery. Does the image invoke anything familiar?

Sometimes I lose it, responding, “Is there another part of my body that I have absolutely no control over that you would like to make fun of?”  But that unpleasantness only surfaces when I’m having a bad day. And occasionally, my feet emerge as actual assets.

 “You know what they say about men with long feet?” a flirtatious woman once asked me.  

“No what?” I innocently replied.

“Well…  you know,” she demurred, with a coyly arched eyebrow.

OK, I’ll admit it.  My racing scull-shaped pods have their advantages after all. Who else has feet as their personal theme song?