Thursday, January 30, 2014

On Poverty

I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately.  If you check out the news on your TV or computer these days, you cannot help but hear about the so-called “income gap”, and it seems like we also are seeing more and more cuts being made to programs and services that benefit the less fortunate. There’s almost a demonization of the poor in some quarters. The emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on helping the poor and disenfranchised has also done a great deal to bring issues related to poverty to the forefront for me. On a personal level, I’ve been reading a biography of Robert F. Kennedy who, despite his privileged background, had strong empathy for those living in poverty, and that has also stirred my consciousness of the poor, a consciousness which put down roots many years ago. 

When I was in first grade at St. Mary’s School back in the 1970s, there was an international organization called The Holy Childhood Association that provided parochial school teachers with many educational resources.  It still exists today, though it is now known as the Missionary Childhood Association.  Founded in 1843 and supported by the Vatican, its mission in a nutshell is to help Catholic kids in first world countries to learn about and reach out to the less fortunate.  The classrooms and hallways in our school were filled with Holy Childhood Association posters and bulletin boards showing the challenges that children our age in less-developed countries were facing.  As a school and in our individual classes we undertook many lessons and activities which impressed upon us the obligation of our Catholic faith for caring for one another and especially for those who were less fortunate than us.  We learned about what poverty was, where it was occurring, and how we could help.

One of the Holy Childhood Association’s poverty-awareness activities made a particular impression on me: our support as a class of  “the pagan babies”. 

The way it worked was pretty clever really.  Our first grade class was encouraged by our teacher, Sister Eunice, to voluntarily bring in loose change from home, with parental permission of course, and put it in a canister on her desk to help children who didn’t have enough food or shelter.  The goal was to get to $10, at which point the class would “adopt” a poor baby.  As we started collecting coins toward each new $10 goal, Sister Eunice would announce the gender and nationality of the prospective adoptee, show us a photo sent by the Holy Childhood Association, and tell us a little about where and under what circumstances the child lived.  Next, she would choose two students who would be responsible for giving the baby a name once we reached the $10 mark.  Now of course no child in a far off country had their actual given name changed by a couple of first graders from the USA, but the symbolic naming of the baby made it a very personal thing for us as kids. 

It wasn’t unusual for namers to want to use some version of his or her own name, which was okay.  However, the hard and fast rule was that at least one of the two names had to be that of a saint.  It was a Catholic school, after all. 

My naming partner and I gave a boy from Chad the name “Louis Christopher”.  Louis was the name of my female partner’s French-Canadian grandfather, and we were instructed by her that it was to be pronounced “Loo-Wee”, and NOT “Loo-Iss”.  For some reason, many of my first grade buddies and I found this new-to-us pronunciation quite funny.  And I suppose you can guess where the name Christopher came from.

Donating, while popular, was strictly voluntary, with no minimum amount.  As we were settling in each morning, a few kids would always drop a few pennies and nickels from home into the metal canister as they walked by.  Thanks to the blessed innocence of our being so young, we didn’t pay much attention to who was giving and how much it was.  The rattle of change in that canister was just part of the soundtrack of our day.  The teacher kept a daily tally of how much we had raised posted on the chalkboard.

The drive was limited to coins only.  I remember sometimes finding dimes, nickels and pennies lying around the house at that time and asking my parents if I could take it in to school for the Holy Childhood. My grandparents were aware of the campaign as well and when I went to visit them on Sundays they often gave me some pennies and nickels to take in to school the next day for what they still called “the pagan babies” which was kind of politically incorrect even back then in 1976.

By the end of the school year, our classroom list contained several dozen names.  In hindsight it was a pretty powerful way to get the message through to a bunch of young kids that there were poor people in our world, that they needed our help, that it was our obligation to help, and that we really could help, even if we were only six and seven years old.

Flash forward to today.

I recently made a trip from Aroostook County to southern Maine, stopping in several cities on the way down and back.  These cities would be considered small by most standards, yet in each I saw at least a few men or women standing in traffic medians, holding signs asking for help.  It tugged at my conscience.  I wanted to help them directly, but couldn’t be sure if I was feeding a mouth or an addiction.  (I did donate to a local service organization in their honor, however.)  The plight of these people with their signs really made me think.  What depths would one have to reach in order to spend a frigid January day, standing in city traffic, begging?  Could that happen to someone I know?  Could that happen to me?

The proliferation of panhandlers sharpened my eyes to see other signs of poverty around me: the run-down apartment houses that did not look entirely safe for occupancy, the people in tattered clothing trying to stay warm in the winter cold, the sheer number of food pantries and homeless shelters in a relatively small state like Maine. If the problem is this serious here, what can it possibly be like in New York, Rio de Janeiro or Bombay?

And the biggest question bouncing around my brain: What can I really do as just one person?

I wish there was an easy answer to that question, but there isn’t.  At this point, the only answer I have come up with is DO SOMETHING!  It may not change the scope of global poverty, but every little bit each of us does, whether it’s a contribution to a charity or service organization, a donation to a food pantry or thrift shop, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or even just working to shift stereotypical thinking about the poor as somehow lesser people, adds another bright new fiber to the sometimes-tattered tapestry of what’s right with us as human beings. 

Post Script--This editorial by Robyn Merrill, recently published in the Bangor Daily News, makes many good points about poverty as it impacts Maine: Beyond the attacks, ideology: What poverty looks like in Maine

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Slight Brush With Greatness

Depending on where you conduct your life, you may or may not come into contact with influential people.  For some, standing in line behind a movie star at Starbucks is just part of a typical morning, while for others, attending a party where the mayor of your small town is invited might be as big a deal as it gets.  Here in Maine, we have a surprising number of celebrities for a small, relatively rural state, due in part to the large number of vacation homes situated here in “Vacationland”.  Stephen King, the Bush family, Martha Stewart, Patrick Dempsey and a number of others call Maine home for at least part of the year.

One of our more beloved well-known people was the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan.  For those of you unfamiliar with her, she is in the American history books for a number of things, including being the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress,  and the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the American Presidency at a major political party's convention.  Her famous (and politically courageous) “Declaration of Conscience” speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1950 was the beginning of the end for red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts.  She was the first notable person to declare that essentially “Emperor McCarthy” wore no clothes.  After serving in Congress, Senator Smith retired to Skowhegan in 1972, where she became somewhat of a “grand old lady” of Maine politics, much beloved by most of her former constituents and especially by those in her hometown, where almost everything is named after her.  Members of both political parties held her in very high regard.  It was with Senator Smith that I had what I consider my most memorable brush with greatness.

In the summer of 1992, I was fresh out of college with an education degree, and had been hired for my first teaching job, which was slated to start that September.  During that summer, I got my first apartment, a second-floor efficiency, in the town of Skowhegan, Maine and prepared for my first year of teaching as I also adjusted to life on my own.  My personal funding would be pretty limited until I started receiving paychecks in September, so I spent most of my time getting my classroom and lesson plans ready, as well as exploring the Skowhegan area on my mountain bike.

Skowhegan, if you don’t know it, is a beautiful and historic town on the Kennebec River in central Maine, about an hour north of the state capital of Augusta.  A working class community of about 6000 people, I felt right at home there, as the town was very similar in size and character to my hometown in the County, from which I had just moved.  If the weather cooperated and I didn’t feel compelled to give in to my workaholic nature and head to the school, I often hopped on my bicycle to pedal around the tree-lined streets or dusty back roads.  There were cemeteries and historical sites to explore, as well as beautiful scenery and unique architecture.  Unless it was very hot of course, when all I would explore by bike was the road from my apartment to Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, a well-known, locally-based dairy bar on Madison Avenue.

One particular afternoon, I got on my bike and followed my nose up a rather steep street called Norridgewock Avenue, which I had not previously checked out.  Knowing that the next town over was called Norridgewock, I figured I would follow the street to the town line and then turn around.  It was pretty hot, and before long I regretted biting off such a lofty goal, but I was young and stubborn, and had nothing else to do, so I powered on.  Before long though, I ended up getting off my bike and pushing it up what I later learned was called Neil Hill.  I was pretty exhausted from the heat by the time I reached the top.  As I stopped to catch my breath and take a drink of water, I saw a sign nearby that indicated I was across the street from the Margaret Chase Smith Library, which I knew was attached to the home of Senator Smith, who by that time was in her mid-90s.  While I was catching my breath, I caught sight of a figure dressed in a bright blue bathrobe sitting alone on a wicker chair inside a glass atrium and looking over at me.  It was a very slight, elderly lady with a head full of silver-white hair, sipping from a mug.  Before it clearly registered in my mind who this actually was, the lady in the blue bathrobe raised her hand and gave me a wave and a smile.  Suddenly it clicked in my oxygen-starved brain.  It was Senator Margaret Chase Smith herself!  Of course, I returned the smile and wave from the woman who would later be selected the most influential Mainer of the 20th century.  

Having caught my breath again, and not wanting to disturb Senator Smith’s privacy, I gamely mounted my bike again and continued on my way.  On my return trip past Senator Smith’s house heading home, she was no longer sitting in the atrium.  I biked past there a couple more times over the next few years, but never saw the grand old lady again.

Sen. Smith, as she would have looked around the time I saw her. I believe that is the very chair in which she was sitting that day. (Photo from Margaret Chase Smith Library website)

As “brushes with greatness” go, this could probably be considered a slight brush at best.  It wasn’t like I was seated next to Senator Smith at a state dinner and had a foreign policy discussion or anything like that.  It was just a simple, friendly wave and smile from an elderly woman to a stranger on a bike on the street near her home.  Nonetheless, it made an impression on me.  This important and influential woman who had dined with presidents, statesmen and royalty, who had the courage to speak up against a bully when almost every other leader in the country was intimidated, and who had made history by helping clear a path for future female leaders, was still “Margaret from Maine” who would smile and wave at a passing bicyclist.

The memory of that day has stayed with me all these years.  You don't seem to see many in positions of leadership like her anymore.  Maybe when we go to choose our leaders, we should be looking more carefully for people of character and courage, like Senator Smith.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Slogging: A Post for Writerly Types

I consider myself an actual writer, for whatever that is worth.  It’s not my career, and I am not published at this point, but nonetheless I identify with those who have put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, throughout the ages.  Writing is something that I have loved to do ever since I was very young, and also something upon which I have gotten a great deal of feedback, mostly positive, since those early days.  Various and disparate sources have told me that I have a knack for writing, which has been both a blessing and a curse.  It’s been a blessing in that such input has spurred me on to keep up with my writing over the years and to cultivate it.  At the same time, as the great philosopher Spiderman once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.  My writing ability is hardly what I would consider a “great power”, but it is something I possess which not everyone does and, I feel, should be used for some greater good.  So when I don’t write much, or at all, it seems like squandering, and I’ve been doing a lot of squandering lately.

Although I’ve been aware of it for a while (witness my post: Writing About Having Nothing To Write About, from last April), my lack of writing production really jumped out at me recently when I was examining the layout of this blog, “Wicked Awesomology”.  I noticed that I had tallied 47 blog posts in the year 2012, and yet only 27 for 2013.  Now I think we all realize that more is not necessarily better and I would be better off posting nothing than tossing something on here that is not very good.  Still, being down 20 posts on the year is more of a drop-off than I would like to see, especially considering that my readership numbers, in terms of visitors to the blog, have steadily risen.  In addition to the blog, I have two writing works in progress, one of which is a collaborative effort that is moving at a slow crawl at best, and the other is a novel that is still in the outlining phase, where it has been for a couple of months now.  A third work in progress, a Maine-based murder-mystery, is no longer in progress by any definition of the word, since I have completely lost my way on it.  It isn’t abandoned per say, but it is resting.

The writing slowdown has also become evident in the nature of my Twitter account, which I originally started several years ago to connect with other writers and foster my own writing.  When I first began on Twitter (@countofbluecars, by the way), the vast majority of followers and people I followed were writers, and the dominant theme of my tweets was writing.  My account has evolved over time to be broader based, and I have attracted, and been attracted to, Twitter accounts from other aspects of life, like politics, sports, humor, animal issues, the media, fellow Mainers, and so on.  I’d say only about a third of my followers are writing-related people, and the percentage of those I follow who are writers or connected to the field is less than that.  My actual tweets on writing have become rare.  I enjoy my Twitter account as it is now, so it is not a bad thing, however the demographics of it seem to indicate that the place writing occupies in my life has shrunk.

So why am I not writing more?  Hard to say, really.  Yes, I have been busy with other things in my life, but no more so than in the past when my writing production was much higher.  It’s possible that I’ve been more choosey about my topics.  A lot of the things that pop into my head as possible topics for blog posts, short stories or novels seem like they have already been done by me, overdone by someone else, or just not feasible.  For instance, I am writing this on New Year’s Day. Why not write about my New Year’s resolutions, you might ask? Already did that a couple of years ago and it did not go well at all.  (Let’s just say putting them out for public display made not keeping them even harder.)  A predictions post?  It seems like every other blog out there has one of those up on it.  Why not post some personal “Best of 2013” offerings?  Also heavily represented in the blogosphere, and plus, who cares?

It’s that “who cares” attitude that could be at least partly holding me back.  There is a popular stereotype that bloggers are self-indulgent people who post merely as a means of inflating their sense of personal worth.  It’s about the writer, not the audience, and that’s not how I roll.  I’ve tried very hard to keep my readers at the forefront.  Before I start any post, I always ask myself:  Is the topic something that those reading will actually be interested in?  If the answer is no, then I either try to change it so that it is, or else I dump it.  And then, if I do choose to stick with it, I ask myself, does it fit “the brand” I have built?  Is it the kind of post that people have to come expect from reading Wicked Awesomology in the past?  Anecdotal light humor is the general theme.  Will writing something outside that realm be well-received on this particular blog?  Would it be better suited for another venue?

A case in point:  Recently, a young relative of mine was murdered in a domestic violence situation.  It struck me very deeply, and made me want to put something out there in writing to somehow deal with it and to raise awareness.  But what, and where, and how?  That’s a pretty heavy topic for Wicked Awesomology, and would probably be longer than a standard blog post.  Would my typical readers accept such a thing, or should I look elsewhere to get it out there?  And then, could I write it in such a way that is inspiring, not maudlin and pitying?

And so on and so forth.  I could make a longer list of writing excuses, but fail to see the benefit of that.

I tend to be a solution-oriented kind of guy, so all this leads me to wonder what I’m going to actually do about this lack of writing production, aside from whine about it.  A few things come to mind, actually.  One is to broaden the scope of the Wicked Awesomology blog in 2014, so that I will have the freedom to write about a wider range of topics and ideas.  The core of the blog will remain the same, but the tone will likely vary more as I take more risks with what I write.  It would probably be wise to cut myself some slack on the volume of writing I produce also.  As I mentioned earlier, more is not better, especially if the content produced is substandard.  Not all actual writing involves putting words down.  Research and planning are no small parts of the actual process, so setting a goal related to actual volume produced daily or weekly does not seem like a good idea.  I am however setting a production goal for at least one of my works-in-progress.  Since the collaborative project is, well, collaborative, I’ll get with my writing partner soon enough to set a goal on that, but as far as my adventure novel goes, I’d like to have the rough draft written and be in the midst of the revision stages by the first day of 2015.

Another thing that I want to do more of as a writer in 2014 is connect in a concrete way with my readers and with fellow writers, in hopes that the increased feedback will drive me further.  I have a couple of ideas on how I might go about doing this both in person and online, one of these ideas involves you.  I want to open up my e-mail to you for topic suggestions, critiques on posts, and general conversation about writing and/or the topics in my posts.  One thing I have heard from other bloggers is that only a fraction of your readers will respond in the “comments” section below a posting, due to its very public nature. Someone said it’s akin to those who make comments or ask questions at a public meeting.  Only those comfortable in front of a group tend to speak up.  I want to encourage you to share your thoughts on writing, mine or yours, with me via e-mail.  My address for the purposes of writing is  

I hope to hear from many of you soon. Now let’s get writing!  Or at least thinking about it.