Month: February 2017

Brother, can you spare a dime?

This last Sunday evening I made a quick trip to our local, suburban grocery store.  As I left the nearly empty parking lot and waited at the red light to turn on to Arapahoe Road, a young/old woman stood to my left holding a worn cardboard sign that read, “Single mom need help.”

I quickly went through the usual mental gymnastics:  are you really a single mom?  If I give you a dollar, will it just go up in smoke-or something worse?  Or really help the kids?  That she was a woman cinched it for me; I don’t give money to men standing at stop lights.

I pushed the down button on the passenger window and said, “Hey, I have something for you.”  I hurriedly pulled a dollar from my wallet; the light could change any time.  She acted like she hadn’t heard me; she could hardly see my car, let alone me, with the sun blasting into her eyes just above the mountains to the west.  I tried again, louder,”Ma’am, here’s a dollar.”

She heard me this time and took off the dark glasses that were doing a poor job of protecting her from the glare.  “Sorry,” she said, coming closer,  “I couldn’t see you.”

She reached into the car; I handed her the bill.  She thanked me and backed away.  The light changed. And I pulled onto Arapahoe.

What is our city, and country, coming to?

I grew up in Denver.  The only memory I have as a youth of panhandlers is one I would like to forget.  In high school, some friends and I went down to skid row, which, believe it or not, was where Larimer Square is now.  We brought some pliers, some dimes, and some matches.  And had a “great” time watching the wretches on the sidewalk burn themselves as they scrambled to pick up the coins that we pitched out the windows.

But aside from that shameful experience, I have no recollection of begging in this town back then.  But now it is common place to see one, two, or even three ragged souls at intersections holding up limp cardboard signs throughout the city.  Even in quite suburban areas on a quiet Sunday evening.

Do I know what to do about it?  No.

But I do have some thoughts on causes.

First, broken families spawn broken people.  In a whole range of ways, virtually every study agrees that divorce or bearing children out of wedlock negatively impacts everyone involved.  Divorced parents and single mothers are more likely to be in poverty.  Which, of course, spills down to children.

But the problems kids face go beyond poverty.  Children in these scenarios are more likely to do poorly in school, be involved in crime, act out sexually, and abuse drugs.

Will a stable marriage solve all these problems?  And mean that we see fewer panhandlers on Denver streets?  Almost certainly not.  But how could it hurt to set it as a goal?

Second, undiagnosed mental illness often plays a role in panhandling and homelessness.  And this is something I am qualified to speak about from personal experience.  I am bipolar.  In my early 20’s I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks and put on medication.  But, like many in my situation, when I was released, I quit taking the medication.  “I don’t need that stuff.”

And for the next thirty years I was on a roller coaster.  Sometimes maniacally high.  But much more frequently in the grip of the black dog of depression.  True, I was never homeless; but I was suicidal many times.  But, I was blessed to be surrounded by a supportive family that was more than enough reason to keep living.   Now I see a psychiatrist quarterly and take daily medication.  But take it from me, mental illness is debilitating.

I can see how someone can wind up on a street corner holding up a “Single mom need help” sign.  But what to do about it is another matter.



Captains Courageous

My son-in-law’s sister, April, is married to a commercial fisherman who works in the North Pacific.  With her six month daughter in tow, she is visiting my daughter’s family here in Denver from her home in a small community on the Oregon coast.  She needs the break: her husband, Keith, left for the Gulf of Alaska in January.  He won’t be home until April.

My wife was in Spokane for the weekend visiting our younger daughter.  So I got an invitation from my other daughter to come to her home for a Korean dinner.    It was delicious: kimchi (my very Caucasian daughter’s contribution to the meal), barbecued Korean ribs, sticky rice, seaweed wraps, spicy pork wrapped in marinated sesame leaves.  It was a sister and brother effort; although they are half Caucasian, they learned well at the apron stings of their full blooded Korean mother.

I don’t know much about Keith; I’ve only met him once.  But I am curious about his life as a fisherman.  Over dinner, I asked April about his work.

“What are they fishing for? What’s his boat like?”

“They’re fishing for pollock; it’s a mid-water fish”


“It’s not a bottom fish like cod or flounder.   Fishing for them is dirty.  That’s what Keith’s father is doing now with his boat up in the Bering Sea.  His boat broke down recently and had to be towed in.”

“So how big is Keith’s boat?”

“It’s about 100 feet long.”

“And how many people are on it?”

“Three: Keith and two hands that work the back where the net is.”

“Three people for a 100 foot boat?  That’s amazing.  How many fish do they catch?”

“He called the other day and said it’s been going pretty well.  They came into port a few days ago with 150,000 pounds.”

“A 150,000 pounds for three people?!  How many tons is that?”

The three of us kicked it around for a few minutes and then, laughing, gave up.  And April has a degree in accounting.  But now, my iPhone tells me it’s 75 tons.

“How do they run a ship that big with three people? ”

“Well, the deck hands manage the net.  The greenest does the cooking.  The hands get to rest when they are looking for fish.  But Keith might go 48 hours without sleeping.  He has to drive the ship, pay attention when the net is going out and when they bring it back in with fish.  And the rest of the time he has to try to find the fish with the radar.  But he gets a nap sometimes.”

“I bet the food’s nothing to write home about.”

“That’s true.”  She paused.  “It’s dangerous work.  One boat in the fleet has already gone down without a trace this season.  And another wound up on the rocks and the crew had to be rescued.”

The discussion ended as the meal did.  My two and a half year old granddaughter, Bridget, was becoming increasingly restive.  The two infants had been in bed even before I arrived for dinner. I read Bridget a book.  The other adults cleaned up and then went to the living room.

The book finished, I looked up and noticed that April was on her cell phone.  I didn’t give it much thought except that it was, perhaps, a bit odd that she be on her phone with all that was going on.  “But,” I reasoned to myself, “isn’t everyone on their ‘device’ virtually all the time?”  With that, I went into the living room also and took a chair near April.

It was only then that I realized that April was talking to Keith as he steered his boat back out to the fishing grounds from where they’d been in port.  When I did, I hurridly moved back to the kitchen table.  I felt like I had interrupted something sacred.  Even more so when I heard, from across the room, “I love you.  We miss you.  And I’ll be praying for you.”

When I got home that night I did a quick google search on the hazards of commercial fishing.  It was worse than April let on; it is the most dangerous job in the country.

That was Friday night.  On Sunday, I went to Haden and Lauren’s church so I would have the opportunity to see April and her daughter before they went home.  Chloe, like her mother, is beautiful.  Gentle, almond eyes.  A ready smile in a broad face.

After the sermon, which was a good one, we were invited to come to the front and receive the bread and wine.  “You can also light a candle off to the side if you would like.”

With the rest of the congregation, I shuffled forward.  After receiving the elements, I lit a candle for Keith and his family.  And his comrades who have gone down to the sea.

Next time you pass the fish case in your grocery store, I invite you, in sprit, to do likewise.








Cognitive Dissonance

My wife and I had the fun of baby sitting our two young granddaughters the other evening while our daughter and her husband got a little time to themselves.

After dinner, I suggested to my older granddaughter, Bridgette, that we toddle around the corner to see our elderly friend, Marsha.   It wasn’t a hard sell.  A long time favorite among neighborhood children because of her habit of passing out tootsie roll pops to any of the little beggars who show up at her front door, Marsha greeted us warmly as the porch light came on.  This despite the fact that two and a half year old Bridgette asked for her treat even before she said hello to Marsha.

With Bridgette on my lap, Marsha and I caught up on neighborhood news around the kitchen table.  Her daughter was well.  So was my family.

Then Marsha said something that caught me by surprise.  “I suppose you like how Trump is handling things.”  The look on her face made it perfectly clear that she didn’t.

Although I certainly knew that she was aware that I had served in the Colorado House for eight years, I didn’t remember ever discussing politics with her before.  And it definitely wasn’t my intent to begin that night.  I answered with what I trusted was a non-confrontational, “Yes, I do support him.”  And left it at that.  To my relief, she did too.

A few minutes later, the three of us pushed back from the table and made our way to the counter on which the jar holding the candy sat.  Taking it in her slightly arthritic hands, Marsha held the jar down where Bridgette could contemplate its apparently inexhaustible riches.  Having made her selection, Marsha reminded Bridgette that it had to wait until we got home.  And, she added, “It’s very important that you don’t run with the sucker in your mouth.”  Spoken like a real expert on the subject of suckers and kids.

Marsha put away the sucker jar.  And then said something else that came as revelation.  Tearing up, she told me that a nephew on her deceased husband’s side is dying of cancer.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.  “Does he have a family?”

“Yes, a wife and two young children.  And, short of a miracle, there really isn’t any hope for him.”

“Oh, Marsha,” I said, “I am so sorry.  Any idea of how he got it?”

“Yes,” she said, “he was a fireman in New York on 9/11.  All that dust . . .”  Her voice trailed off and she went to a cupboard and pulled out a white coffee mug. It read, “Never give up the fight.”

“They’ve given these out to show support for the family.”  Her eyes were glistening.

I rubbed her back; I should have given her a hug.  “I’ll pray for him,” I promised.

Hand in hand, Bridgette and I walked home a few minutes later.  Shortly thereafter, amidst the usual hugs, kisses, bustle, sucker and confusion, we bid our daughter and her family goodnight.

It didn’t occur to me until some time later how strange the conversation with Marsha had been.

She doesn’t like how Trump is handling things.  Exactly what she meant, I don’t know.  I didn’t ask.

But I do know that her immediate family has been directly and tragically impacted by Islamic terror.  Her nephew’s wife is likely to be a widow.  The nephew’s young children are likely to be fatherless.

Maybe Marsha doesn’t like a whole host of other things that President Trump is doing.  But wouldn’t utilizing “extreme vetting” on immigrants trying to get to the US from Islamic countries well known to harbor terrorists cover a multitude of other Presidential sins when your own family has been so terribly scarred?  Evidently not.

But, in a larger sense, Marsha’s disapproval is understandable, perhaps even natural.  She is elderly-around 80.  How can she resist the relentless barrage of propaganda masquerading as news that has declared it is an illegitimate interest of our nation to control our borders.   To-gasp!-benefit the citizens of our country, rather than foreigners? And now our black robed judges, in all their august sanctimony, are piling on, joining in the chorus of Presidential denunciations.

Of course, Marsha believes that all right thinking people agree that the President is wrong.

But why are so many feminists, unless they are willfully ignorant of how women are treated in fundamentalist Islamic countries, protesting the President’s travel ban?  And, for that matter, why are so many gays joining in the sometimes violent protests, when, according to a June, 2016 Washington Post article, homosexual acts can be punished by death in 10 Muslim countries?  Most of these types, presumably, aren’t laboring under the limitations of advancing years.

It would be nice to think that what they are doing is a courageous, sacrificial example of turning the other cheek to one’s enemies.  But that’s pretty hard to swallow.  How do the cursings, beat downs, burning and rioting that are directed at President Trump and his supporters square with loving your enemies?  At the very least, it’s an odd way to pick your enemies:  love those that are trying to kill and maim you.  And hate those that are trying to protect you.