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Gratitude List 1552

(1) I was grateful to see that the little Greek gyros place on Main Street has opened up for indoor seating now, as long as people wear their masks when not seated.   Nice to see things returning to a semblance of normalcy.

(2) In the past couple days I’ve been blessed to accomplish much more reading than usual, by way of research.  Among other things, I read all kinds of information related to the “social construction of reality,” culminating in this excellent 14-minute video.  All of this is turning out to be very useful in the blog sequel I’m slowly composing for Thursday.

(3) Gorgeous clear day today, having gotten up to 48F degrees already, though it was 26F when I first awoke in the morning.   Doppio at the cafe makes me want to walk vigorously, like I did yesterday, four miles.

(4) Grateful for this A&W being so close to my house, because it has really fast Wi-Fi and they don’t mind me sitting in here for a while.   Good coffee, too.   A nice place to take my new laptop after an afternoon nap.

(5) I’m really grateful for Kelsey, because she is such a grounding force in the project, both conceptually, and in terms of providing a bridge between me and the younger actors.  It’s been wonderful working with her on the deeper themes during these podcasts.  Grateful for Cody & Keva and the others who remain enthused.  Their spirit is helping to sustain a feeling that I’m not in this thing alone.

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In the Greater Picture

It was a few weeks ago when I told Ashley Peterson of Mental Health at Home that I’d have this blog post ready soon, and just yesterday that I got it done. It still only says about one-third of what I’ve felt is needed. But that’s a good thing. There will probably be a couple sequels. 

Much as I hesitate to draw from immediate personal experience in order to support any greater social theories of mine, I can’t help but have noticed how the events surrounding my difficulty in getting my thyroid medication point to a larger phenomenon.   In this case, I’m going to forego my usual hesitations, on the basis of reasonable suspicion that my hesitation could be lifelong if I don’t speak up at some point.

Besides, the “larger phenomenon” to which I allude may have a lot more to do with my personal development than with anything universal.  So if I focus on how I personally have been affected by certain perceptions and expectations of the medical industry, I can only speak my truth at this time.  How my personal truth may reflect a greater reality is a matter for one’s searching.  I can’t claim to know – only to search.

The Story

When I received my retirement income, I noticed a very nice package combining two forms of insurance: MediCare and MediCaid. At the time, I was also somewhat disappointed with the treatment from the local low income clinic (where the doctor I had was only a P.A. – a Physician Assistant – not a full-fledged M.D.)  It occurred to me a while later that the low income clinic was geared toward those who may not have any insurance at all, and that maybe now that I was more fully insured, I ought to find a small family practice center, and hopefully a more knowledgeable doctor.

While I believe I did find an extremely knowledgeable, experienced doctor, I have noticed over the past few months that the people at the small family practice center seem more stressed in general.   Waits are much longer, which one might think would be the other way around.   While they still smile and try to comport themselves professionally, one does not get the feeling that they enjoy what they are doing.

Often I waited a very long time, and sometimes the doctor himself seemed hurried when he did see me.  But when it seemed to take a lot longer than it should have been taking for me to receive my levothyroxine, I returned to the low income clinic to see if I could get a quick scrip from the previous doctor.

As I entered the clinic, I was immediately greeted with the warmth of familial recognition.  They shouted out: “Hey Andy!  How’s it going?”  There was something distinctly genuine and caring in their vibration.   They weren’t just smiling because that’s the professional thing to do.

I quickly got a hold of the doctor there, who wrote me a prescription after a single meeting.  Then, ironically, when I went to pick up the prescription, it was blocked because the doctor at the family practice center had finally filled the prescription two days beforehand.   I not only had received no notice from either the pharmacy or the doctor’s office, but how was I supposed to believe that the prescription would even be filled at all, if this had been going on for over two weeks?

While the wait at the low income clinic’s pharmacy would have been less than five seconds, the wait at the Walgreens where I had been getting meds from the family practice center was well over an hour.   Also consonant with this theme is that no one at the family practice center other than my doctor himself ever learned my name, even though I’d been going there for months.   The people at the low income clinic remembered me even though I haven’t been going there at all, and in fact went there as infrequently as possible, when I did go there.

Throwback to Homelessness

What this all flashes me back to is an experience I had when I was homeless, which recently has been on my mind because of developments in the musical — things that Kelsey and I have been trying to illuminate in the weekly podcasts.   The experience was that of having found a nice “wellness center” in a low income district in Oakland CA where almost all the patients were African-American and where I was treated very kindly — with true caring — despite long waits and a generally congested staff.

At the same time, if I showed up in the Emergency Room in the hospital in Berkeley, and it was known or determined that I was a homeless person, I was given distinctly less preferential treatment than the person who lived indoors.  Sometimes, the medical problem I came to Emergency for was overlooked completely, as they proceeded to give me all kinds of printed information on where the shelters and services were — as if I wouldn’t have known all of that stuff already.

So naturally, my mind has drawn a parallel.  I’m not homeless now, but I am low income.   My insurance isn’t exactly Blue Shield – it’s the kind people have who are elderly or disabled.  Family practice?  I wondered if I even belonged there.  My mind began to imagine what they might be saying about me:

“We’re a respectable family practice!!  This guy doesn’t have a family, he’s just a transient, there’s substance abuse on his medical chart, he’s probably just passing through town . . .” 

Of course, they probably weren’t thinking that.  The point is that my experiences would be such that I would even think that they would be thinking it!

A Theory in the Making

It seems that there are institutions populated by people who are naturally compassionate and even empathetic towards those who are down and out.   There are also institutions where such people are given lower priority.   This present situation may or may not exemplify this phenomenon, because it could easily be a function of the two individual organizations I have described.   That specific family practice center may be particularly understaffed or otherwise swamped due to the pandemic, and this particular low income clinic may happen to be expanding, and gaining more personnel, and apparently State funds of some kind.

Still, the thing that intrigues me is that, whether or not the recent experience exemplifies a larger phenomenon, it was brought to mind in my interactions with the people involved.   There could have been a kind of confirmation bias going on.   But if so, what exactly is the theory I am trying to confirm?

Only bits and pieces of this “theory” are in place.  That’s why I haven’t been writing.   But I am beginning to believe that my intellect alone is insufficient to piece the entire theory together.  And that’s why (if this makes sense) I finally am writing.

What is being brought to light in the podcasts is how, when we were homeless, we were not in the position to be able to distinguish, among all the authority figures and “pseudo-authorities” in our midst, who were the ones who represented benign agencies whose role it was to assist us, and who were the ones who represented more-or-less adversarial institutions designed to investigate and incriminate us.  All these “higher ups” were relegated into the box of our “observers from inside” – and thus it was difficult to distinguish them, one from another.

In a corresponding way, it was difficult for those who lived indoors to discern from among those who were outside who was a legitimate candidate for genuine assistance, and who was of a criminal bent.   Those in the latter camp often feigned a need for assistance in order to gain benefits.   They were also often very good at it.  Whatever the case, I can assure you that I didn’t look much different than any other person on the streets — at least not at first glance.

Unfortunately, that first glance often seemed to be the only glance I got.   Even if the glance became a stare, or a series of stares, I felt like I was being observed with an ulterior motive.   I felt as though people were watching me, just waiting for me to somehow screw up and incriminate myself.    Years of living with that feeling seem to have led to years of trying to find a feeling to replace it.

So I still resort to ways of dealing with feelings that don’t differ widely from how we approached the matter when we were homeless.   How does one, after all, deal with the inner feeling of being dismissed, overlooked, disregarded?   On the other side of the coin, how does one deal with the feeling of being embraced, respected, and accepted — especially if one is not accustomed to it?

When we were homeless, we lived with eyes in the backs of our heads.  We couldn’t drop our guard long enough to process difficult personal feelings.  So instead, we looked for the larger phenomena that they might represent — and we analyzed, and drew conclusions about society.    We conducted such conversations vocally, publicly — encouraging others nearby to join in.  We were a lot more powerful that way, and much less vulnerable, or at risk.

In a way, this doesn’t seem like all that bad a thing to have been doing — in the greater picture.

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Gratitude List 1551

(1) Going to meet with Keva this Sunday and do some singing and maybe more recording – not necessarily all stuff from the show.   Grateful for the connection.  Just because the workshop is over, it doesn’t have to end.

(2) An idea for a new column came to me out of the blue this morning.   Grateful to have been given something new and interesting to focus on at this time.

(3) New Lenovo arrived from Office Depot.   Great computer, never read a bad review, got $220 off on the deal, everything appears to be working perfectly.

(4) I really like this town cafe, which they expanded during the pandemic.   Takes up a whole block now with two new sections, including a beer and wine bar for after hours.   Looking forward to settling into a new phase of working quietly from here — gotta finish the 4th draft vocal score, and finally begin the piano score (having left the hardest part till last.)  Then the show will be ready for whoever.

(5) And I can move on.   It’s weird when change is “trying to happen.”  It feels so awkward needing to navigate new territory.   But change is necessary — I just have to keep trusting in the One who does not change.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.   Always remember, you have within yourself the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world.”  — Harriet Tubman 

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Re: Everything Must Change

I briefly posted my version of “Everything Must Change” yesterday, prior to promptly removing it from the public eye upon recognition of bloopers too big to bear widespread disclosure.  

Specifically, I kept forgetting during my improv around the standard changes to enter into the repeated modulating passage that precedes the signature hook.  Anyone who knew the correct changes could easily raise their voice in justifiable objection.   So I had to remove the rendition before any further foreseen damage could be effected.

I’m headed up to the church at this moment, confident in my capacity to create a conducive restoration of the formerly misshapen theme.  So convinced am I in my competence to thereof, that I even have dared to announce it beforehand, though one knows not what the future brings.

The piece had been on my mind for two reasons.  One is that it seems fitting in this time of temporal transition, with Good Friday representing the power of Christ’s sacrificial love, wherein there is a death to the flesh in its formerly all-inclusive nature, to be followed by a promised rebirth of a far more transcendent form of life.   “Everything Must Change” can be said to embody this theme, in its core essence.

A second reason is that its chord progression resembles that of another piece that had crossed my mind recently; and that, in fact, I had already performed on a video recording.  “All in Love is Fair” is a song by Stevie Wonder that was popularized in roughly the same era as “Everything Must Change.”  Their chord progressions are similar though not identical.  My mind, while improvising around the progression to “Everything Must Change,” kept forgetting which tune it was that I was supposed to be embellishing.  Many odd short-circuitries of mortal mental prowess transpired.  The upshot was a failure to honor the essence of either piece.   A reconstruction of said construction is therefore in order.

That’s about it!  I’d hesitated to offer what might be interpreted as a mere disclaimer — but then I had a hunch that the explanatory information might be useful to someone, on some level.  I’ll be back within a few hours.    

Gratitude List 1550

(1) I’m grateful for the gift of writing.  It’s something I really enjoy doing, and people tell me I’m good at it.

(2) This church has been really nice letting me go in and play that great grand piano all the time.

(3) Grateful for the stimulus check because my new laptop will be arriving sometime this week.   This will be the first time I will have purchased a new laptop in about five years.

(4) Thinking about the workshop gives me more gratitude than sorrow.   There was something remarkable about the whole way it happened — how it provided an oasis in the desert of the pandemic.   It didn’t just help me and me alone.  It helped a whole group of people whom otherwise would probably have never come into contact.  It was one of the most exceptional experiences of my entire life.

(5) Though I’m grateful for what computers and devices can do for us, I’m even more grateful for the power of shutting the lid on the laptop.   Sometimes I shut that lid, and my anxiety level drops to almost zero.    Glad to get up and smell the roses.  Grateful for the gift of life.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
    — Ecclesiastes 3:1 

The Fiercest Blaze of All

Set me as a seal over your heart,
as a seal upon your arm.
For love is as strong as death,
its jealousy as unrelenting as Sheol.
Its sparks are fiery flames,
the fiercest blaze of all.
Mighty waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If a man were to give all the wealth of his house for love,
his offer would be utterly scorned.
— Song of Solomon 8:6-7

From the Outside Looking In

This, the final column in a five-week series, was first published on Spokane Faith and Values on Wednesday the 17th of this month.   Reprinting it here (with significant edits).   I hope you like my work.     

In keeping with the imbalance of all of these inequities, this is perhaps the most profound.

It was often assumed that people who lived inside had a lot to teach those of us who were outside.  It was rarely supposed that we who lived outside had a lot to teach people who never had done so. 

When you stop to think about it, this one isn’t even a logical assumption. If someone were to have seen me flying a sign in 2016, they would have seen somebody who had lived inside for the first 51 years of his life, and was largely outside for the next twelve. Naturally, I knew what it was like to live both inside and out.  But the person approaching me, having always lived indoors, lacked a good half of that knowledge base.

How the outsider is perceived

This led to a serious cognitive dissonance in how the outsider was to be perceived. On the one hand, they were in an ostensibly superior position; that is, a position from which one might feel qualified to render assistance. On the other hand, they were in what was actually a foreign position. No matter how much better one’s lot in life may seem, if the variables of that life were utterly foreign, then how can one presume to be of help?

“How could they possibly be telling us anything we don’t already know?” we would query amongst ourselves. “Or worse, how can they advise us on matters we do know something about, that they don’t?”

They should be listening to us!” we eventually concluded. It was such an inescapable conclusion that we marveled at those who would persist in its denial.

But persist they did. People would relentlessly assault us with bits and pieces of perfectly impertinent, irrelevant information. They would tell us where the feeds and services were, as if we did not already know. They would present us with fliers that any one of us could receive daily at the doors to any of those events. Even when I was busking, even with my own guitar, they would tell me what I should have been doing instead.

Granted, not all passersby were of this predilection. But the saturation was severe enough that those who were not really stood out. How great it felt when my friend Neil and I were busking, and someone simply put a $5 bill into the jar and shouted: “You guys sound great, keep it up!” At least our street craft was acknowledged for what it was meant to be — not for something else.

Given that the disparity in perception was so huge between those who observed us, and we who were being observed, how best could our own aggregate head-space be described?

While attitudes varied from one outdoor dweller to another, there was naturally a thread of common interest in the details of outdoor living that, for some reason, most of those who approached us from inside were not interested in.

Seeking Self-Protection

For one thing, talk of self-protection was very common. We all felt vulnerable — so much so that talk of vulnerability as it was experienced in the relative safety of indoor seclusion often seemed empty and meaningless. We were concerned with getting through the next night, with not being found by assailants in our sleep, with having the semblance of a visible weapon for self-defense, with having those nearby who could watch out for us.

In trying to get on in the wilds, I felt drawn toward guides from the past, bodies of knowledge I never thought I would ever revisit. The Boy Scout Handbook was one such book of knowledge.  Even knowing the right kinds of knots to use to secure my tent was a great bit of useful information, not to mention all kinds of things long forgotten: carving paths, leaving landmarks,  telling which way was North, starting campfires, and making them last.

I found myself also referring to more mystical works that had influenced my youth. “The Castaneda Series” came to mind. Principles from The Yaqui Way of Knowledge that clearly pertained to outdoor living surfaced in my psyche.  There was the principle of finding my place–or “spot”–wherever I decided to stay and sit, and thus maximizing my energy there. There was also the principle of disrupting the routines of life. These are skills that, while they seemed inapplicable to the workaday mainstream, were very useful in the new life that where I had found myself.

It was not uncommon for us to marvel in how separate this new existence seemed from the world to which we’d been accustomed all our lives. Indeed, those who still inhabited the previous mode of existence appeared to be strangers, and alien to us, even though they had once been our kith and kin.

The perception that even friends and family should in this fashion seem suddenly alien, combined with that of an unusually strong bond we who were outside together all shared one with another, further served to illuminate just how much we all looked to be outsiders. Indeed, we were but “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth,” similar to the identification of the sojourners among our progenitors, those who in Hebrews 11:13 lived by faith.

Turning to Scripture

As a believer, I found myself taking to certain Scriptures that, while they had always seemed true to me in a way that transcended the tedium of regular workaday life, now they took on even stronger, more glaring meaning.

I heard people talk about how the people who were still inside were unaware of how there was no hope in the “mainstream” — that meaning the vast social entity from which we felt we had been expelled and flung full-force into this new realm of being. We knew there was no hope in the mainstream, and we were thankful for having been released from it. In my case, I likened it to the “world” as used in the Scripture, Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

When I was still in the mainstream, struggling to fit in and to function, I was unable to see how it failed to form a foundation from which a healthy spiritual life might spring. It was more accurately the case that it rather replicated the world system to which we are not to be conformed. And now that I was outside, I saw this clearly.

Not only this, but the Lord himself positioned himself as an outsider, much the same as we living outside now experienced ourselves to be.

“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” — Hebrews 13:12-14

So it was inevitable that we who believed and who were left outside discovered a deeper identification with our Lord and Master, at the same time as letting go of a much shallower identification with the world.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” — Philippians 2:5-7

Here was the sense in which our New Testament identification in Christ was made so much more accessible through the nature of the situation in which we all found ourselves, and its being opposed to the world.

“And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere He might lay the head.’” — Luke 9:58

This became our experience.  It wasn’t just His being a model or example.  It was we ourselves living out His life in that manner through ourselves and our present-day experience.  We felt it night after night, day after day.

For we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” — 1 Timothy 6:7-8

It was interesting also in reading these time-honored words anew, how the author does not refer to “food and shelter.” We are to be content with “food and clothing.” Many people lived nomadically in those days, without shelter. Shelter is not a necessity in the sense that food is. This is one of the first things we learned, that we all came to accept, in order to cope with the radically different details of life outside.

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  — 2 Corinthians 5:1

Our Reality

While earlier in life I could see in this Scripture a note of hope, I now was able to embrace it as a living reality. For these indoor dwellings with which we used to be content were not our true homes. Rather, our true home is in the indescribable realm of the heavens, of which we, being freed from our indoor dwelling places, were now granted an ephemeral glimpse.

So, with all this naturally going on in one’s mind, as one continues to face the wildly unpredictable vicissitudes of life outside, do you see how much of the narrative we were made privy to, on the part of whoever had always lived inside, seemed frivolous and trivial in comparison? So complete was our absorption in this new kind of life, it came to baffle us that others, ensnared in physical boxes much like those we had already shed, still thought them to be containers of life.

For us, they were not, and really never could be, quite again.  For it was so often thought that those who lived therein had something to teach us about life.  It was rarely if ever thought that for those of us who lived outside, our lives had just begun.   

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Gratitude List 1549

(1) Exercise appears to have been reinstated, with corresponding weight loss in the works.   I ran 2 1/2 miles three days ago, walked four miles briskly the day after, and eight whole miles yesterday – though it was only brisk throughout the first four miles thereof.   Though innervated today, I’m confident I’ll have a good run tomorrow morning.

(2) Working on the 5th and final column of my five-part series for Spokane Faith and Values.   This one should drive the point home.   I’m grateful for the opportunity to have aired this particular viewpoint, at this time.

(3) Beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, which made the walk up and down the hills circling campus very pleasant yesterday, as well as quite brisk on the uphill at the start.   Today’s a shade on the cloudy side, but I like it a lot.   Reminds me of San Francisco.

(4) We closed out our pandemic-based Eden in Babylon workshop yesterday, with tears of joy and thanksgiving on my part.  I’m deeply moved that these people seemed to show up out of nowhere — talented, dedicated singer/actors, who helped me more than they know.   We also recorded three more songs — “Midnight Screams,” “Daylight,” and “The Urban Elegy” — with piano, singing and professional sound design on the part of Liam Marchant.   The band will keep rehearsing every Monday indefinitely, but outside of further future podcasts that Kelsey Chapman and I are planning, the involvement of the singer/actors is formally complete.   The whole having been uniquely beautiful, I’m sure we’ll all stay in touch.

(5) I finished the new version of the script on March 12th, the first revision since December 21st, incorporating everything we learned in the workshop, and then some.   I’m standing on new ground spiritually, and thankful, and taking heed lest I fall.

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More about Science, Theology and the Wearing of Masks

Hey I should have my version of a famous Fats Waller tune as soon as I get my hands off the computer keyboard and onto the piano keyboard (give or take a few hours).  Let’s say we shoot for 2pm PST.  I’ve been busy and a bit batty up since three in the morning on a buzz.

Specifically, I’ve been obsessed with what I hope will be a final script revision based on all the things we learned during our workshop.   I’ve got a zoom meeting with Kelsey at 10 pm, so I’ve got about an hour and a half to clean up the embarrassing last scene.   (All seven scenes beforehand are pretty cool, however.)  

In the meantime, here’s another excerpt from the discussion we had a while back.   The man in the beret is the linguistics professor named Kurt, whom I often speak of very highly.   The fellow named Doug to whom he alludes is a local pastor of dubious persuasion.  Not sure how many cups of coffee I had before my own presentation (I only know how many I’ve had this morning.)

Anyway, hope you enjoy this.   It’s about four minutes long.   

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A Hand Up

The fourth column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

It was when Nadine Woodward was running for Mayor of Spokane that I first heard Tracy Simmons speak. When I heard Ms. Woodward’s campaign slogan, “a hand up, not a hand out,” I felt compelled to comment. A handout to the homeless, she claimed, has a way of “enabling them.”

“It does enable them,” I blurted out.

Suddenly, I felt as though everybody in the room was looking at me.

“I was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area,” I explained. “All that a constant string of handouts did for me was to keep me homeless.

Now perhaps that sentiment is misleading. We all need to eat. Jesus fed the hungry without qualification. Does anyone say, “All Jesus did was give them a hand-out?” That’s usually not the way it’s framed.

On the other hand, for five years I watched as a plethora of self-care items was freely distributed to whoever figured out where to find them. There were socks on Mondays, a laundry room on Tuesdays, and razors on Wednesdays. There were 35 free meals a week in the city where I slept outdoors. Many people took continual advantage of these services.

In fact, it began to look as though the same people were showing up for all these events, year after year. There was a noticeable tribe in the making, whose members were a mixed bag.

First, there were those who were disabled, who showed up with caregivers–those for whom the community meal was a part of their planned itinerary. A second group was of a criminal bent, in and out of jail, and discussing their adventures openly. Still others had merely fallen upon hard times. But by and large, the bulk of those who frequented homeless services were clearly sane, competent, and able to work.

So why did they remain there?

For one thing, it isn’t easy for a person who lives outdoors to find a job. Homeless people are disadvantaged. I recall how one of my applications was rejected because I didn’t own a cell phone. Another time, I couldn’t afford the fingerprint check. There was a $35 fee, and I wasn’t able to come up with the money fast enough. It isn’t easy for a homeless person to impress a prospective employer.

Numerous obstacles stand in the way of a homeless person arriving at an interview. They may not be able to shower in time, or obtain decent clothing. They may not be able to manage the public transit to get them there. Even if they succeed at showing up on time and looking sharp, the interviewer may notice that they lost a job three years ago, and haven’t landed one since.

Their credit score may not be pristine. Worse yet, their mailing address may only be a Post Office Box. Why are they not providing their home address? Could they possibly be homeless? How can a homeless person be trusted with a responsible position? Aren’t they all lazy, and perennially unemployed?

“On to the next applicant,” the interviewer frowns.

Ironically, the fallacy that all homeless people are lazy is often what prevents them from being hired. This leads to the sixth inequity that I have wanted to discuss:

It was often thought that because we were homeless, our lives were consigned to a countless string of handouts. It was seldom considered that our lives might be changed through a single hand-up instead.

Here’s How a Hand Up Works

Consider my own experience. Over a period of twelve years, how much money do you think went into feeding me and occasionally providing me with temporary lodging? Easily, thousands upon thousands of dollars, subsidized by the taxpayers of America.

How much money went into ending twelve years of homelessness in the Bay Area?

Exactly $600.

Seriously! That’s all it took. Once I was finally ready to get inside, I found someone who believed in me enough to front me $200 for a one way ticket to a brand new life. Shortly later, that person spotted me $200 for a deposit on my first place of residence. Granted, the place was an old, run-down hotel whose rooms had been converted to “apartments.” But it was still a roof over my head–with a decent mailing address, to boot.

On July 27, 2016, I arrived in the State of Idaho. On September 1st, I signed a one-year-lease. On September 6, I interviewed for a church job. Shortly later, I was hired. This was after years of being considered “unemployable” in California — only because I lived outdoors.

Over the next few weeks, I received four $50 loans from my benefactor. The money went to necessities such as clothing, toiletries, and a photo ID. He and I stayed in touch for a while, and then, by and by, parted ways.

Would it be too much to ask the privileged people of America to walk up and down the sidewalks, talk to the people who sit there daily, get to know them, and decide for themselves who would benefit from a $600 hand-up?

To be sure, many would decline. And even those who accepted would face a rather daunting task. It isn’t easy to discern who would put the hand-up to good use. It takes time to get to know people – and homeless people are no exception. The hand-up I’ve described did not take place in a single day.

But it did take place — and it did work. The role of a single benefactor cannot be discounted. But the main factor in my success was that I left all of my homeless stigma behind.

Think About It

I am not alone. There are millions of people scattered about the streets of North American cities. People who once were your next-door neighbors — who once looked very much like you. And now, due to the pandemic, a new upsurge in homelessness is on the rise. This consists largely of people who, just over a year ago, were working and faithfully keeping up on their rents and mortgages.

How logical is it to assume that all of them are “losers” and “lazy bums?”

How compassionate is it to turn a cold shoulder? To shrug and say: “There are services for people like you!”

How realistic is it to suppose that “services” will suffice to do what must be done?

How courageous is it to wash your hands of the matter, and refuse to associate with people who don’t look like me and you?

How open-minded is it to shun the homeless on the streets, and walk past them as though they were things — and not human beings?

The Answer Begins with You

I challenge anyone who has $600 to spare — and granted, that may not be many — to walk up and down the streets of Spokane and talk to homeless people, as you would talk to any other human being.

Talk about the ball game. Talk about the concert. Talk about your relationship hassles. Get to know these human beings who are no less human than you are. Find out their interests, their passions, their fields of expertise. Find out how much you have in common with these people who are just like you.

And if you have $6000 to spare, you know what to do. I guarantee you there are a lot more than ten people on those streets who don’t need to be there. If you have $60,000 to spare, you know where to spare it.

I’m not saying it will be easy. But the solution to the homeless problem in America does not lie in programs and institutions. It lies in removing the veil of stigma from the picture of the homeless individual.

Shelters and services may play a part, but they will never work effectively until this one thing has been secured. Just as I said in my very first column, we need to strengthen our weakest link. We need to see in every homeless person the book of humanity that we have judged by its cover. And our common humanity, one to another, must be revealed.

That book of humanity is a far more informative document than you might think. And that’s what my next column will be all about.

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Talking Shop, Part Three

Here’s the sequel to Talking Shop, Part Two, in which the character known as Winston Greene is further explored.  This time we talk about how the misconception that a person of Winston’s considerable privilege ought to be a rescuer of those not so endowed is no longer applicable to the kind of person that Winston has become.   14 minutes w/intro & well worth a listen imo.   Some of it may be a bit esoteric — but you can always buzz me with any questions.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 105

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. Drama.

Q. Drama?

A. You heard me.

Q. As in Shakespeare?

A. Come on – you know what I mean.   Personal drama.

Q. Is there a lot of drama in your life right now?

A. If there is, there shouldn’t be.

Q. Then how is it that you claim to be “coming from drama?”

A. Because that’s where I come from — by nature.

Q. You’re a dramatic person by nature?

A. A good friend of mine once told me that I treat life as though it’s a play I’m writing.   A play in which I am the main character.

Q. So you are both Playwright and Protagonist?

A. Yes.  In the Play of Life.

Q. Isn’t that a bit presumptuous of you?   I mean, that you — an almost infinitesimal fraction of the world’s population — should be the playwright of the whole shebang?

A. Presumptuous in an understatement.   Somewhere between grandiose and delusional come to mind.

Q. When did you first realize this?

A.  The night before last.

Q.  Seriously?   Only that recently?   

A.  I believe it had been brewing for a long time.   But finally yes, the night before last is when I connected all the dots.   I’ve been treating people unrealistically for a long time.  I’ve been treating them according to what purpose I think they’re supposed to fulfill in my life — rather than according to who they are.

Q.  What happened the night before last?

A.  I was walking and praying.  Praying for a couple people whom I met recently, people with whom I tried to form friendships, and then I fouled up the friendships.  

Q. How did you do that?

A. I did it because I couldn’t see who they truly were, or what their needs were.  I could only see the role that I presumed they should be playing in my life.

Q. In the Play of Life — the play that you are always writing?

A. Yes!  Now you understand.  

Q. How did you feel when you realized how you had been treating them?

A. Horrible!  I suddenly saw how selfishly I had taken advantage of them.   And each of them had respected me — perhaps even admired me.   They were younger, and they looked up to me.  I should have provided a better example, a better role model.   Instead, I used them — I tried to fashion them into these characters of my own creation.  As though I were —

Q. God?

A. As though I were God.

Q. Was it really that bad?   You didn’t abuse them physically, did you?

A. No . . .

Q. Did you call them names?

A. One of them, yes.  When I was mad.   I tried to apologize — but the apology couldn’t have taken away the hurt.   And then I didn’t know what to do anymore, to be honest with you.

Q. What did you do?

A. I just started to be nice to them, whenever I happened to see them.   Tried to start anew, I guess.

Q. What more can you do?

A. Not much, I suppose.  Maybe time will take care of it all.

Q. What have you learned from all this?

A. Something I should have already known.

Q. What’s that?

A. That I’m a playwright.  I was born to write plays.   My brain thinks in characters and dialogue.  I should write more of them.  I should write a brand new play.   If I write more plays, I will cease to act as though I am the Playwright of Life.   And I will respect the One who truly is that Playwright.  The One who created my character.   The One who wrote the whole show — from the Beginning of Time.

The Questioner pauses.  

Q. Is all the world a stage?

A. In God’s eyes, perhaps.

Q. And in your eyes?

A. All the world’s a page.   I am but a writer who writes on it.   Page after page I will turn, I will write.  Until I’ve written what’s right for me to write.

Q. Promise?

A. I promise.   

Q. But what about the people in your life?

A. It’s not my life.   That’s the whole point.   It’s just life.   I didn’t create it.   God did.   I am only to participate in it, and appreciate it.

Q. But what about the people in your life?

A. They have their own lives.

Q. Really?

A. Well – in a manner of speaking.   I can only pray that they too will be able to get the most — out of Life.     

The Questioner is silent

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Gratitude List 1548

(1) A lady from my church came over two days in a row, helped me clean the house, and showed me how to fix the toilet too. I learned all kinds of things about housecleaning that my own mother never taught me. As a result, I’m enthused about maintaining a nicer, cleaner place.

(2) After wrangling over it for three days in a spirit of merciless self-criticism, I have completed the first draft of my fourth column for the five-week series on Spokane Faith and Values. I submitted it to Kurt, the retired linguistics professor (and the man with the beret whom you see in Microcosm.) His edits on my second column were very helpful, and I look forward to more of the same.

(3) Looks like I’m losing weight again.  Haven’t been running so much, but have been enjoying long brisk walks in the morning and at night.  I use them as a time for prayer and reflection.  They also help to deflect the fact that I’ve got a lot of food in my cupboard these days, and that I’ve a tendency to munch.  Grateful, however, not to be going without.

(4) Mixes are starting to come in from our studio session Sunday before last.   New versions of “Hunted,” “Oracle,” and “Turns Toward Dawn” are available.   The last of these three clips is by far the best, earning us a wonderful commendation from the head of the jazz department at the Conservatory.   

(5) Our church met indoors for the first time yesterday.   We still wore masks and social-distanced.  It was well-coordinated and well-attended, and it made me feel warm inside.   I keep getting a sense that something really positive is in the works.  I can’t quite put my finger on it — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.   

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Microcosm

This is an excerpt from a Zoom meeting held among locals in the small college town where I live.  It was done about five months into the pandemic, but now might be a good time to share.   We were all realizing how the division in our town was microcosmic of the division in America today.   And we all expressed hope for unity.    

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Further Inequities

The third column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-related site Spokane Faith and Values.  Below is a transcript of the piece.  

Since this series began, I have been observing the nature of comments and reactions to my words.  As a result, it strikes me that a few things may need to be clarified.

When I use the word “we” in reference to my experience, I refer specifically to the Berkeley-based homeless community in which I participated between the years 2011 and 2016.  But I have also found that my statements generally hold true for those who have experienced long-term homelessness in other urban areas. 

Also, when I speak in past tense, I refer to specific events that took place throughout the entire 12-year period when I struggled with homelessness.  But again, I believe it stands to reason that the nature of such events is universal.

I am not here to discuss shelters and services. Such discussions can take place anywhere.  I am here to issue a call that we accept and respect those who continue to live outdoors — at a time when more and more people are beginning to do so. 

That said, I’m going to breeze through the next three inequities, to further fortify my statement.

There Are Other Topics of Conversation

If was often thought that homeless people should discuss only homelessness, at the expense of other topics.  It was seldom thought that homeless people, like all other people, should be permitted to discuss any topic they please.

A young person said to me once: “I would have no idea what to say to a homeless person.”

“That’s easy,” I replied.  “Talk to them about anything except homelessness.

You have no idea how refreshing it was when somebody approached me and began to discuss the ball game, the concert, or their most recent argument with their partner.  Conversations in which we were treated as human beings, not as homeless people, were a breath of fresh air. 

It was alarming how many people seemed to think that the only thing that should have been on our minds was our homelessness. Can you imagine if your new neighbor were Black or Hispanic, and the first thing you did was to approach them and discuss their ethnicity?  That’s the way it felt when people insisted on discussing our homelessness with us. 

So, if like my young friend, you are uncertain what to say in the presence of a person who is experiencing homelessness, consider my advice. Unless they bring it up first, talk about anything other than homelessness. Try it – you just might make their day. 

A Homeless Person Has a Need for Privacy

It was often thought that because one was homeless, one had sacrificed their “right to privacy.” It was seldom considered that homeless people need as much privacy as people who live behind closed doors.  

While it is debatable that our right to privacy is guaranteed in the 4th Amendment, I will assert that the 4th Amendment ought to apply equally to homeless citizens as well as to those who live indoors. The problem with a homeless person’s “right to privacy” stems from the fact that, living outdoors, most of the time there simply isn’t any. 

Yet homeless people need to relieve themselves, just like any other kind of person. But indoor bathrooms are often inaccessible. I remember walking the streets of Berkeley for an hour and a half once, trying to find a public bathroom that wasn’t locked. When I finally sneaked behind a bush to do the job, can you imagine how it felt to be viewed with suspicion?

Of course I was viewed with suspicion! Why does somebody sneak behind a bush? Doesn’t everybody have a bathroom? Surely the homeless person was bugging out to “do some drugs.” If a homeless person sneaks into an alleyway, that person probably needs to urinate. But how often is this the public perception? People are more likely to think that the homeless person is sneaking off to “do a drug deal.” And then, once found urinating, they risk getting a scolding, if not an indecent exposure charge.

The fact of the matter is that those who live outside do not have easy access to bathrooms. Those who live inside generally do.  

As for the cops who often woke me in the middle of the night, in order to “search my backpack for drugs” and “run my criminal record,” I can truthfully attest that there were never any drugs in my backpack, nor did I have a criminal record.  But if searching my backpack against my will was not a violation of my 4th Amendment Rights, I’m not sure what it was. 

Many Homeless People Have Jobs

It was often thought that because a person was homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they got a job. It was seldom considered that if a person were homeless, their homelessness would be cured if they found a place to live.  

It was also often assumed that a homeless person didn’t already have a job.  Yet, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless,  40 – 60% of people experiencing homelessness move in and out of jobs. It is also estimated that about 25% of homeless people are working at any given time. I myself took at least four jobs in my field when I was homeless — temporary contracts as a musical director or accompanist at places like Children’s Musical Theatre San Jose and Peninsula Teen Opera. 

While 25% might seem a relatively low figure, it actually testifies tremendously to the fact that homeless people generally want to be working. When we consider the obstacles that homeless people face toward becoming employed — many of which are listed in this excellent article, the figure begins to look quite high.  Moreover, while it is often thought that people become homeless due to “drug addiction,” it is factually evident that most people become homeless due to having lost their jobs.  

There was a common catch-22 that abounded in the realm of outdoor living: “I can’t get a job until I have a place to live, and I can’t get a place to live without a job.” 

But because of rising costs of rents, many of us would rather avoid rentals entirely, and focus on making enough money to survive. It wasn’t the most pleasant use of our energies, but often it was the most essential.

All five of the inequities I have thus far delineated stem from a single evil.  That evil is in the dehumanization of the homeless individual. We were not regarded, in general, as people who were equal to others. It was not considered that we were human beings having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was instead believed that we had to sacrifice our rights — only because we lived outdoors.

Many of us were unwilling to make that sacrifice. And this leads to the inequity that will be discussed in my next column. You may expect it to validate everything I’ve been trying to express since this series began.

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Talking Shop, Part Two

In this sequel to Talking Shop, Part One, the character of Winston Greene — the protagonist in the new musical Eden in Babylon — is explored.   Three of us involved in our ongoing workshop of this production express how Winston acts as a “shield of protection” for those of his chosen tribe.

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“Turns Toward Dawn” (Studio Version)

“Turns Toward Dawn” — Studio Version. Recorded (along with five other songs) on Cooper Knutson’s last day, serving as the main character, Winston Greene, in our ongoing Eden in Babylon workshop. Cooper Knutson and Keva Shull, vocals. Andy Pope, piano. Sound design by Liam Robert Marchant. I am at this stage nothing but proud of everyone involved. The world has yet to hear a better “Turns Toward Dawn” than this.

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Tuesday Tuneup 104

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. The very beginning.

Q. The beginning?  As though nothing else has ever happened before?

A. It doesn’t matter what’s happened before.   This is still the beginning.

Q. The beginning of what?

A. Of a brand new life, of course.  

Q. What happened to the old life?

A. It no longer exists.

Q. All gone?

A. Past.

Q. What about memories?

A. Oh, memories may indeed persist.   And one may learn from those memories, so long as they are not overly indulged.   But no matter how much I may learn from the past, my hope rests entirely in the future.

Q. Isn’t that the essence of hope?

A. I suppose so, by definition.   But all too often, we place our hope in the past.   And there is no hope in the past.  We can learn from the past — but there’s no hope there.

Q. How do we place our hope in the past?  Isn’t that twisted?

A. It is twisted indeed.  And indeed, we are often quite twisted.  But to answer your question, the ways in which we place our hope in the past are manifold.  

Q, Manifold?

A. Yeah.  We do it lots of ways.

Q. Like what?

A. We try to go back to old relationships and mend them.   We try to make mutual amends unilaterally.  But this is pointless.  It takes two to tango.  If one person in a twofold cord has broken that cord, then the other person has no power to bind it together again.

Q. Have you tried to do this recently?

A. I have indeed.

Q. Care to elaborate?

A. Not on the theme of the one-to-one intimate relationship.   But I wouldn’t mind discussing friendships for a while.

Q. Then what about friendships?   

A. We go back to friendships that we feel we botched up.  We flew off the handle, when their attitudes began to baffles us, and their values conflicted with our own.   And yet, we cannot mend these broken friendships all by our own selves.  If they don’t want to talk to us anymore, they won’t.  And there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.

Q. Can’t we apologize?

A. Many times over!  But I guarantee you, if it’s not meant to be, it won’t happen.  In fact, the many apologies issued may even be taken as intrusions.

Q. Intrusions?

A. Certainly!   Would not a single apology have sufficed?   And if they still don’t want to talk to you, no amount of further apology will change their minds.  If anything, they’ll be annoyed at your persistence.   It would be as though you’re trying to find the “magic words” that will win them back.  But let’s face it — there are no magic words.   If they ain’t comin’ back, they ain’t comin’ back.  

Q. What about business relationships?

A. Perhaps a professional relationship was damaged.  Maybe you thought somebody was on your side, but then they hit a nerve.   And you hit them back again!  You hit them even harder, because you were so pissed off.  And back and forth the two of you jousted, taking pot shots at each other whenever possible.  Finally one day, you hit them below the belt — right where it hurt.    

Q. What happened then?

A. What happened then, you ask?   Well I’ll tell you what happened!   They ghosted you.  They simply disappeared.   But this is all for the good, you see.   If they see things differently than you, so be it.   One cannot expect to convert everyone to one’s own way of thinking.   

Q, So how does this all relate to your having arrived at the very beginning?

A. It relates because I’m just not going to bother anymore!  These people are not that important.   Some of them haven’t talked to me in years.

Q. Yet you have persisted in trying to win them back?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. Why?

A. Because of fallacy for which I fell.   You see, I was certain that the only reason these associates had shunned me, was because I was homeless.   So naturally, I thought that once I finally escaped homelessness, they would breath a sigh of relief, and come my way again.   Foolishly, I expected our associations to pick up right where they left off.

Q. Did none of them come your way again?

A. Well – one of them did.  In an area that perhaps I should not discuss.  For it didn’t really work out, and they again went their way.   I took it kinda hard, but it helped to learn a hard lesson.

Q. Have you truly learned that lesson?

A. Perhaps not.  Does anyone ever learn lessons regarding the affairs of the heart?

Q. I don’t know.  Do they?

A. Beats me, pal.  But what I do know is this:

When I was becoming homeless, I lived in a cold cruel world.   I apologized to everyone I knew, all the way down to that gutter.   In that world of coldness and cruelty, the ones who got ahead were the ones who received the most apologies, and gave the least.   The ones who fell the furthest down were the ones who did the most apologizing.   The non-apologizers played one-up on the apologizers – to keep the apologizers in their place.

And the ones who were good at feeling guilty got beat out by the ones who were good at making them feel that way.  The ones who were good at laying on the guilt trips climbed up the corporate ladders, and often made it all the way up to the top.

Q. Wow – may I quote you on that?

A. Spell my name right, please.

Q. But you don’t live in that world anymore, do you?

A. Not at all.

Q. Where do you live?

A. In the emerging world of new beginnings.   Where people trust each other.   Where people respect each other.  Where people still treat each other with good old-fashioned common courtesy.   Where people believe in each other, and try to bring out the best in each other.  Where you have to try to get yourselves into trouble — and where the good guys make it all the way to the top!

Q. To the top?

A. The sky’s the limit.

Q. Shoot for the moon?

A. Consider it shot.

Q. And what will you do when you make it all the way to the top, Andy?

A. What do you think I’m going to do?  I’m going live frugally and simply, with very few possessions, like a minimalist — just like I live right now.   I’ll take all the extra money I’ve made and feed the hungry and give shelter to those who are without.   And I won’t feed them that junk food they dish out at the food banks — as though to tell them that “beggars can’t be choosers” – as though to punish them for the crime of being poor.   And I won’t put them up in flop houses on Skid Row either.  They’ll be staying at the Ritz Carlton, if I have any say in the matter.   And you won’t catch me flying to Bermuda and back!   The price of that ticket would put a married homeless couple up for three months, in the right situation.  And I’ll stay right here, where I’ve landed, till the day I die.  

Q. Really?

A. Mmm . . . give or take a few details.  I’m still contemplating a Trump-dodge up to Canada.  Not entirely sure we’ve gotten rid of the monster yet.  

Q. What about the past?

A. Kaput.  Finito.  

Q. And the future?

A. It’s the kingdom of heaven, man.   North Idaho is just a step along the way.   

The Questioner is silent.   

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Gratitude List 1655

(1) Just got the second dose of the Moderna vaccine, about two hours ago.   Fulfilled my civic duty, and we’ll see what happens.  No fluish symptoms as of yet.  Grateful for this leap onto what will hopefully be a new and better stage.   

(2) Walking into the cafe, signs of new beginnings are in the air.   People wearing masks appear to be smiling.  Customers are less isolated and more chatty.   Had a couple meaningful conversations with strangers — two ladies I’d not seen before — who gave two different accounts about reactions to their vaccinations.   Sat down in my favorite venue and composed this gratitude list.   God has been good to me today.

(3) Got a nice compliment on Bridging the Gap from a staff member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (AKA Ashland) — someone whom I haven’t talked to since 2004 (ironically, the year most referenced in the audio cast.)   After dispelling the immediate fantasies that Eden in Babylon might be produced at Ashland, I realized that two people who usually don’t comment have made appreciative remarks toward that single talk.   That means it’s probably useful, and I pinned it to my Twitter profile.   Glad I dug it up — hope it helps.   

(4) Because yesterday was Cooper’s last day, we recorded five of his songs back to back in the sanctuary.  Liam engineered the recordings and will have them ready, he says, by Thursday.   All were done with piano only, and most included five back-up singers from the team.    Though it’s difficult to lose Cooper, I’m grateful we used his last day wisely.   (Besides, you never know — he might come back someday.)

(5) Yes – definitely – new beginnings are in the air.   I can feel it.   It’s all around me.   It’s a beautiful day in the city of my birth.   I am somehow where I’m meant to be — where I belong — for now.  

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Bridging the Gap

In case anybody caught yesterday’s podcast, I had a weird realization when I got up this morning.  The Kids of course know my story — and I’ve told my story elsewhere on this blog.   But if you didn’t know that story, there’s a big gap in the information provided on that particular, spontaneous podcast.  It seems I never really explain how I got from living in that big mansion to being homeless on the California streets so quickly.    It then occurred to me, perhaps you would like to have that information as well.

So I dug up this talk I gave into my then-partner’s Motorola smartphone on July 3, 2018.  It tells the story, and then some.   Seems I was a lot more patriotic in those days, and I also knew a lot less about psychiatric conditions.  But the essence of the talk is neither my patriotism nor my lack of savvy.  It’s about classism in America, and social stigma, and the hope that one day, we will bridge the ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the super-poor in our society.   We are, after all, all human – and only human – each and every one.

Andy tells his story on July 3, 2018
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A Homeless Person Has a Life

The second column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-oriented site Spokane Faith and Values, where I have been writing throughout the pandemic.  Below is a verbatim transcript of the piece.  

I recently raised a public objection to the notion that I ought to change my phraseology from “homeless” to “houseless” in everything I write. I felt a bit miffed that the person who made this suggestion had never actually lived outdoors.  

But I am someone who has lived outdoors — not just for a while, but for years on end. During those years, I associated largely with others who were in the same boat. I learned how such people generally speak of themselves.   As a result, I use the words “outside” and “outdoors” more than either of the other two–and I feel compelled to explain why.

In a way, I have the same motive as those who wish to replace “homeless” with “houseless.” The word “homeless” has a lot of pejorative connotations.  But both of these words end with “less.” They still suggest that the person who lives outdoors is necessarily lacking something. But this is not always the case.

In my case, after struggling in and out of untenable living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, I made a conscious choice on April 15, 2011 to join an intentional homeless community. While most of us had experienced a crisis that led to a loss of residence, we unanimously believed that to live outdoors was the lesser of evils. For one thing, we found it preferable to live outside rather than to pay exorbitant rental fees for acceptable living situations (not to mention paying decent rent for unacceptable situations). 

In short, we had a heck of a time finding living situations in the Bay Area that were both affordable and acceptable. So for the time being, we were content to stay outdoors. 

It was there that I found the language most prevalent among all who shared my predicament. This was a simple exchange between the words “inside” and “outside.” If someone had a roof over their head, we said they were “inside.” If they didn’t, they were “outside.” This is how homeless people speak of themselves in the Bay Area. It’s also how they speak of themselves in Moscow, Idaho. And while I have never been homeless in Spokane, I wouldn’t doubt that this parlance is common there as well.

Is there a reason for this linguistic preference? I think there is. It speaks to the essential difference between two disparate camps. Some people have roofs over their heads, and some people don’t. Furthermore, there is nothing morally wrong with sleeping outside — so long as one is not sleeping on someone else’s property.  The landmark decision in Martin v. Boise would seem to support this.

This leads nicely into the second of the seven inequities I have wanted to discuss.

A Homeless Person Does Have a Life 

It was often assumed that, because we had wound up homeless, all of the conclusions we had drawn throughout our entire life span were in need of revision.

This led to an amusing observation. If a person had been a lifelong conservative, and they became homeless, that person was supposed to “become a liberal.” Why? Because the liberal social workers were feeding them.

If a person had been a liberal all their lives, and they became homeless, they were often told that they should “become a conservative.” Why?   Because the Salvation Army was feeding them. 

How many people in those days approached me in order to proselytize their particular version of Christianity? Very many. How many people asked me first if I already knew Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? Very few. 

This imbalance appears to have evolved from some of the preconceptions I discussed last week. It was rarely considered that someone might have become homeless due to a lack of tenable housing. It was almost universally assumed that they became homeless because there was something wrong with them.

Homelessness is Not a Disease

In the rooms of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many “clichés” or sayings intended to assist people who have hit huge “bottoms” in their lives. One of these is: “Your best thinking got you here.”  That statement is then followed by suggestions as to how the recovering addict or alcoholic might change their way of thinking, in accordance with the 12 steps.

I can understand how this would apply to the enormous losses one might incur through drug addiction or alcoholism. People do “drink themselves out of house and home.” Many people with drug problems wind up alienating friends and family, as well as landlords. Many do wind up outdoors. This cannot be denied.

But here I found myself having consciously chosen homelessness as the lesser of evils in a precarious life-situation that had yet to be resolved.  Numerous people approached me saying, in effect:”Your best thinking got you into this position. I have suggestions how you might change your way of thinking.”

I felt like saying: “I agree that my best thinking got me into this position.  But you have never been in this position; therefore you cannot advise me as to how to get out of it.” 

This is how the details of homelessness differ radically from the details of drug addiction or alcoholism. The A.A. member who makes that suggestion is a recovering alcoholic and does have valuable information to share.  But the person who, having always living indoors, makes such a suggestion to a homeless person, has no relevant personal experience. Therefore their suggestions, however well-intended, are not often useful.

This disparity — or inequity or imbalance — is something that can be solved through better communication. But before we can even begin to make that effort, we need to dignify, not only the homeless human being, but the homeless experience itself.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being homeless.

We need to understand this simple truth, and to have it acknowledged far and wide. Look how many people are on the streets! Despite the best efforts of all involved, that number is only bound to increase — especially now, when more people than ever are losing their homes.

We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting. We need to stop obligating people who sleep outside toward quick entries into undignified indoor living situations.  Homelessness is neither a crime nor a disease. We need to stop criminalizing the homeless, and we need to stop treating them as though they are sick. 

If we cannot truly help them to get inside, let us please make it easier for them to live outdoors.

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Talking Shop, Part One

This Wednesday’s podcast is an excerpt from a long conversation involving myself, Kelsey Chapman our Artistic Director, and Cooper Knutson our male lead in the ongoing workshop of my new musical Eden in Babylon.   If you’re interested in my personal story involving wealth, poverty, and homelessness, you probably don’t want to miss this one.   Toward the end, it fades after revealing the connection between my own story and that of the main character in the musical drama, whose name is Winston Greene.  

The song referenced by Cooper, called “Hunted,” involves Winston’s arrest in the second Act, which precedes his attempted assassination.  An instrumental version of it may be found here.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 103

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. Why do you ask?

Q. Aren’t you a little quiet this morning?

A. Didn’t sleep well enough.

Q. Can you get more sleep?

A. Maybe a nap, maybe later.

Q. Anything going on that you want to talk about this morning?

A. Well, I’m a bit down.   But I think it’s the kind of thing that more sleep will eliminate.

Q. Down about anything in particular?

A. My personality, I suppose, as usual.

Q. Down on yourself?

A. Yes and no.  I’m not down on my achievements, or my work.   But some of the dumb things I do kinda get to me every now and then.

Q. Like what?

A. We discussed it earlier.   I put my foot in my mouth sometimes.  It’s awkward.

Q. Is this that thing of “jumping the gun” again?

A. Yeah, that’s it.  Jumping the gun.   Speaking before I think.

Q. When was the last time you did that?

A. Oh, maybe last night.

Q. What was the context?

A. Talking to somebody from California.  I mentioned a great compliment I had received.   But it wasn’t to highlight the fact that I was complimented.  It was to illustrate a point.

Q. What was the point?

A. A parallel between the protagonist in my musical and my own personality, me being the one who wrote the musical.

Q. Somebody compared you to the main character in your musical?

A. Yes.

Q. In a good way, or in a bad way?

A. Oh – a very good way.  It was highly complimentary.  But the point is — it was a factual comparison.

Q. Factual?

A. Yes – it illustrated an intriguing parallel.   So I was hoping that the person from California would catch the parallel.  Instead, they only caught the fact that somebody had “said something sweet” to me.  The way they said it — “Ah, how sweet!” — indicated that they didn’t understand or appreciate the parallel.  They related to the fact that I was complimented — not to the substance of the complimentary statement.  They could have said it about somebody saying something nice about my shirt.

Q. So how did you put your foot in your mouth?

A. By calling attention to the fact that someone had complimented me, rather than to the dynamics of the intriguing psychological parallel in the first place.

Q. So the focus was on the fact that you were complimented, not on the essence of the complimentary statement?

A. You heard me!  It’s like I just said.  It was as though I spoke out of ego — out of wanting the Californian to know that I had been complimented — kinda like I would have done when I was still down in California.  But in so doing, I missed the opportunity to get an intriguing psychological phenomenon across to them.  In fact, I could have left myself out of the picture entirely, and it would have been a much more meaningful interaction.

Q. Why did you not do so?   Why did you call attention to the fact that someone had flattered you, rather than to the intellectual dynamics of an interesting topic in the first place?

A. Because I was talking with a Californian.

Q. But – but — why does it matter whether they were a Californian or not?

A. Because in California, everybody was either always very critical of me, or else they were feeding my ego with inordinate praise.

Q. So you inordinately praised yourself, in order to defray their criticisms?

A. Exactly.  I defended myself — even though I had not yet been attacked.

Q. Why do you stigmatize Californians?

A. I think “stereotype” would be a better word.

Q. So why stereotype them?   Why stereotype anybody?

A. I don’t know.   It took years for me to realize that my best possible solution in life was to simply leave the State of California.  Since then, I’ve basically been raving to old friends of mine how great it is up here in Idaho.   But they never receive the positive.   They just think I’m down on Californians for some reason.

Q. Are you?

A. Well — I can count the number of Californians I still talk to on one hand.

Q. What is it about California?

A. You got me, man.  They have this attitude — and I don’t like to stereotype people or box them in — I hate it when people do that to me — but it’s this glaring generalization that I can’t escape.   They somehow — in general — put forth the attitude that they’re better than the rest of us, simply because they live in California.  And it’s like whoop-de-doo.   For all the problems that California has, you’d think they’d stop telling everybody in all the other States how we’re supposed to live.

Q. Are you sure you want to post these words online, where everybody can see them?

A. Not really.

Q. Then why are you doing it?

A. Because of my personality.  I stick my foot in my mouth.  I don’t think before I speak.  I jump the gun.

Q. Can you get better at this?

A. Maybe.   Gradually over time, I suppose.

Q. Say — I just thought of something — were you hurt by the way you were treated in California?

A. Hurt doesn’t even say it.   I was  only as though I was a piece of garbage for about twelve years, while I and a bunch of other so-called pieces of garbage were struggling to survive.

Q. You mean, when you were homeless?

A. Yes.   When I was homeless.   When we were homeless.

Q. But nobody’s treating you like garbage now, are they?

A. Not that I can tell.

Q. Then why bemoan the past?

A. Because I have no guard against becoming homeless again.   I’m just a check or two away.   One single emergency, and I’m probably out on the streets.

Q. And then what?

A. Then we’ll see how all these people who seem to like me so much will treat me.

Q. But they’re not Californians, are they?

A. No – but they’re people.   And people have their ideas about homeless people.   They usually don’t change them — until they themselves become homeless.

The Questioner is silent. 

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Gratitude List 1654

(1) Taking a week off from EIB rehearsals was just about the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I caught up on my sleep as well as on reading and housecleaning. Was also able to devote more time to my daughter and to my friends. Grateful for the power of rest.

(2) The first column in the five week series is beginning to take off, surprisingly enough. Though the essential message — having to do with stigma — is a challenge to articulate, I have confidence that after five weekly columns, I’ll have gotten the point across. Grateful for the opportunity.

(3) I’ve sold five new From a Distance piano albums already. Taking the cash bit by bit to the Dollar Store for groceries is reminiscent of a former time of thrift, when all throughout the 90’s I took my tip money four nights a week to a Lucky grocery store after getting off my regular gig at Gulliver’s Restaurant. Never had a food bill in those days, never had to go to a food bank, never went hungry.

(4) I was a new man when I arrived at the recording session yesterday. The spirit of professionalism was striking, and we nailed “Turns Toward Dawn” on the 3rd take. The way that Liam and Cody work together, both with expertise in their respective fields, neither having known the other before a few short weeks ago, is beyond impressive. After the session, we ran “Oracle.” This was the first time I’ve accompanied it since Cody took over teaching the choral parts, and it rocked. I was blessed — I was jazzed — I was proud.

(5) Grateful for my church, where I’ve been a member now for over 4 1/2 years. They have supported me in my best and put up with me in my worst. Very thankful for my new life in Idaho, after years of struggling on the San Francisco Bay Area streets.

Don’t lose faith. Promise yourself that you will be a success story, and I promise you that all the forces of the universe will unite to come to your aid; you might not feel it today or for a while, but the longer you wait the bigger the prize.   — George Bernard Shaw  

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The Challenge They Overlooked

I’m doing a five-week series on homelessness for Spokane Faith and Values.   While I don’t like to work on the Sabbath, I figure it’s not too much work to paste each column in the series here on five successive Saturdays.  The first column was published last Wednesday on this page, and a verbatim transcript of it follows below.   

I recently came out and identified myself as a person who lived largely outdoors throughout a 12-year period of time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being as I was fortunate enough to escape the situation where a one-bedroom apartment rents for up to $3,000, and alight upon beautiful Moscow, Idaho where my current one-bedroom apartment rents for $481, I consider myself to be in the ideal position to express what homelessness is actually like. That is, from the perspective of those of us who have lived it.

Being an introverted artist-type, I was naturally overjoyed to find myself in the year 2016 to be a person who had now attained to quiet enjoyment of residence.  One of the first items of indoor convenience that I found myself extremely thankful for was something you might not expect:

Finally, I had my own power outlet. In fact, I had several. 

When I lived outdoors, it was a constant struggle to find a power outlet where I could plug in my laptop. Outdoor power outlets were scarce, and when I found one, I dared not use it very long. The thieves and vandals who roam the outdoors would have eventually found me. In fact, five laptops were stolen from me in a three year period of time in Berkeley and Oakland alone. Two of those thefts were the results of strong-armed robbery.

No longer did I have to worry about any of that. Nor did I have to be worried about being kicked out of coffeeshops, either because of a two-hour time limit in the crowded Bay Area, or because I was “one of them.” No longer did I have to face the situation of somebody refusing to serve me because I was a homeless person.  Though often they let me in, at other times they did not. There being many thieves on the streets, I can’t say that I entirely blamed them. On the other hand, I was not one of those thieves.  I was only an artist, trying to do his art.

“A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight.”
— Proverbs 11:1

All of this points to a “false balance” — what I call an inequity. There was an unusual schism between those of us who lived outdoors, and those who did not. So, when I finally achieved the power outlet that I had been praying for, I set about to delineate these inequities for the good of those who still live inside. I did this in a spirit of conviction, knowing that many are losing their homes these days, and even more so during the current economic crunch.

I pinpointed seven inequities — instance of imbalance, or of injustice.   Seven disparities between the way the world is seen by those who live outside, and those who live indoors.

The first of these is couched within every word I have thus far written in this column. We who lived outside knew that our main day-to-day challenge was to deal with all the unusual features of outdoor living. Those who had not yet lived outdoors invariably thought that our challenge was something else.

In other words, people wanted to know what had made us homeless. In the process, the reality that we simply were homeless was often swept aside.

I can assure you that in the past five years in Idaho, I have done everything that would have “made me homeless” in California. And guess what? None of them ever made me homeless.

This stigma interfered with all our efforts to find dignified, indoor living. It was assumed that we were criminals. Surely we must be drug addicts or alcoholics. Or simply losers, with no work ethic.

At best, we were thought to have serious mental health disorders. If so, the stigma against those with mental health conditions also came into play. We found ourselves morally judged for internal mental conditions over which we had no control.

As a result, we were often directed toward living situations that we found worse than staying outdoors. Since we “couldn’t take care of ourselves,” we were referred to board-and-care homes. Since we were “drug addicts,” we were referred to rehabs. Since we were “crazy,” we were referred to psychiatric facilities. And since we were “criminals,” we were handcuffed and thrown into jails, often at the slightest of pretexts.

By no means am I trying to suggest that those elements do not entail within the realm of the many different sorts of people who live and sleep outside.  The National Coalition for the Homeless has estimated that roughly one out of every four people experiencing homelessness is drug-addicted. That’s a pretty high count — but what about the other three-fourth?

It is also estimated that about one-third of people enduring homelessness have serious mental health disorders. That’s a lot of people struggling — but what about the other two-thirds?

Not to mention, what proportion of criminals live inside? White-collar criminals who get away with it?  Employers who screw their workers out of wages? Addicts who can afford the designer drugs, and use those substances quietly behind closed doors?  All of these play into the biggest difficulty that we had in communicating with those who tried to help us.

It was very often thought that if we could solve all those other problems, we could solve the much huger problem that is homelessness. It was very seldom thought that if we were to solve homelessness, we would be in a better position to solve all those other problems. And it was rarely thought that few of those problems even applied.

I have six other inequities to describe before this series, God willing, is over. But first and foremost, the biggest inequity was this: It was often thought that we were homeless because we had failed in some other area. It was rarely thought that we were homeless because we had failed to sustain a home.  

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In the Bleak Midwinter

I’m sure there have been bleaker midwinters than this (but I’m not sure when.)  The image on the soundcloud is right outside my door, at around eight in the evening last night.   The music behind the image conveys my thoughts around the theme of “In the Bleak Midwinter” — the Harold Darke setting to the words of Christina Rossetti (not to be confused with the more well-known setting by Gustav Holst.)  I hope you enjoy my thoughts.   

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New Album: “From a Distance”

It’s been about a year now since I’ve released a piano album.   From a Distance reveals the best of what I’ve been able to produce throughout the year when we’ve been social distancing and sheltering in place.   Unlike previous albums – which were recorded either with a Motorola or a Samsung smartphone, all selections were recorded with either an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 7.  The result is a much higher sound quality.  I listened last night, and it really gives the listener the feeling that they are attending a private live piano concert.  

Here are the twelve selections on From a Distance:

The Letter – Wayne Carson
Desperado – Glenn Frey & Don Henley
The Way We Were – Marvin Hamlisch
We Three Kings – John Henry Hopkins Jr.
In the Bleak Midwinter – Harold Darke
Be Thou My Vision – Traditional (Irish Origin)
All the Things You Are – Jerome Kern
Somebody Loves Me – George Gershwin
I Get a Kick Out of You – Cole Porter
I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Frank Loesser
Never Never Land – Jule Styne
From a Distance – Julie Gold

So far the album is available only on CD.  If (like some of us) you still have an affinity for that particular medium, why don’t you leave a mailing address in the Contact form, and I’ll pop one in the mail.  I do request a $15 donation.  (You can make that where it says “donate” below the page here, or get back to me if you don’t use PayPal.)

I really think you’ll enjoy it.  (I’ll also be posting my version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” in about an hour, and “From a Distance” next Friday.)

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.

A Man of Integrity

I was very impressed with the psychiatrist I saw on the single day referenced in this story.  In fact, I put a call into the clinic this morning to see if I could use his name.   It being six years ago, however, he might not remember me.  It being a very memorable event, however, he just might.   Then again, he struck me as such an amazing individual, it’s quite likely that all his visits are just as memorable.  So maybe he won’t remember me after all.  We’ll see.

I believe it was the year 2015 when I decided I would try to get a $20 monthly disabled bus pass, rather than continue to hike up my transportation bill with two dollar drops here and there.  Because a regular bus pass was $80 in Alameda County at the time, I figured it was worth a shot.

As I strolled into the clinic where a psychiatrist was to evaluate my case, I saw a young doctor approaching me from down the hall.  He seemed a bit distraught, or perhaps preoccupied.

“Mr. Pope,” he addressed me.  “Right this way.”

He sat me down in his office and started us off with something unusual.   Apparently, he needed a twenty-minute recording for some sort of presentation before some kind of board.  Thinking I might fit the bill, he asked if he could interview me.

“There is methamphetamine abuse in your history,” he began. “Would you mind if I recorded your answers to some questions first?  Then we can see about getting you your disabled bus pass.”

“I don’t mind at all,” I agreed — even though I did mind.  I never could shake the “tweaker tag” that followed me around, year after year, via medical chart.  I believe I signed something, and the interview began.

Although I don’t recall the exact line of questioning, I was quite surprised when he stopped the recorder about five minutes into the interview.

“I don’t believe you!” he cried. “You are not coming across like a tweaker.”

“Thank you,” I said.  

“In fact, you are coming across like a highly intelligent, perfectly capable and competent man.  I’m sorry, Mr. Pope, but I do not believe you have a legitimate disability, and I am hesitant to sign for your disabled bus pass.”

“Well, um — it probably says on my chart that I am bipolar.”

“Yes it does.  And you are showing no symptoms of bipolar disorder either.”

“That’s probably because I’m not bipolar,” I continued.  “Ever since I had an episode in 2004 that I believe to have been medication-induced, doctors have been reading the word ‘bipolar’ on my chart and not questioning it.  In fact, you are the first clinician who ever has.”

“Does this disturb you?”

“Not at all,” I replied.  “I take it as integrity.”

The doctor paused for a moment.

“I take your statements as integrity, as well.”

“I appreciate that,” I replied.  “But I must say, there really is something wrong with me, and it really does keep me from being employable.”

His interest piqued.  “What do you think is wrong with you?” he asked.

“Well, for one thing, I am able to perform complex tasks that most people find almost impossible — such as typing at an extremely fast speed and playing a piano just as fast.  I have no trouble organizing my thoughts into complex sentences, and to create impressive improvisational music comes natural to me.  However, I am incapable of doing the simplest things that most people do routinely.  I have a really hard time buttoning my shirt and zipping up my pants.   My hands seem only designed to type and play a piano.”

“Go on,” he said, seeming to be intrigued.

“I have great difficulty concentrating.  Oh, I concentrate fine — until I come up against a snag.  Then my mind drifts off into outer space, and I have the devil of a time returning to the intended point of focus.  Although I write profusely, I can count the number of books I’ve read cover to cover on two hands.   My mind spaces out when I’m reading, and sometimes even finds itself rewriting the book I’m reading — all before I realize what I’m doing.   Couldn’t get a college degree, in fact.  Couldn’t handle the reading load. “

“Stop right there!” he exclaimed excitedly.  “Now I have something I can use.”

He turned the recorder back on and let me speak for another twenty minutes.  Then I watched as he immediately picked up my papers, and signed for me to receive a disabled bus pass.

My jaw dropped open.  “Wow!” I shouted.  “What is wrong with me?”

“You’re ADD, man!!”

I tend to doubt that the good doctor will remember me — at least not by name.  And with the fast pace of the business in the Bay Area, he may well choose not to return my call.  It was that very fast pace, however, that led one doctor after another not to question the misdiagnosis they were reading on my charts.  In such an environment, it was certainly refreshing to encounter a doctor whose professional integrity exceeded his sense of hurry.   We’ll see if he returns my call.  

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Tuesday Tuneup 102

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. A place of extreme excess.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I’m extremely excessive.

Q. How so?

A. Well, for one thing, I talk too much.

Q. But aren’t you an Introvert?

A. That I am.

Q. But aren’t most Introverts very quiet people?

A. Probably.   I’ve met a few others who are pretty chatty, though.

Q. Do you find those people to be extremely excessive?

A. No, not really.

Q. Then why do you think of you yourself as such?

A. Well, it’s not just that I talk too much.

Q. What else do you do?

A. I don’t think before I speak.

Q. Do you speak too soon?

A. Yes.  And often, there are consequences.

Q. What kinds of consequences?

A. I wind up annoying people.   Being in a leadership position, I give instructions that somebody begins to act upon, and later I realize the instructions were incorrect, and I alter the instructions after the fact, expecting them to switch gears and act upon them.  Very poor leadership, on my part.

Q. So you’re saying that you “jump the gun?”

A. Yes.

Q. Has anyone conveyed to you that they are annoyed with you?

A. No – not exactly . . .

Q. Why do you think this is?

A. Well obviously, they’re too polite to tell me, and they’re afraid of hurting my feelings.

Q. But you are convinced that they are annoyed with you?

A. Yes.

Q. What does it matter what they think?

A. Oh I don’t know.  I guess it doesn’t matter what they think, so much as it matters whether or not I do the right thing.

Q. And what is the right thing?

A. I’ve already told you!  I need to stop talking so much, and I need to think before I speak.  But that’s not all.

Q. What else is there?

A. Sometimes when I get super-stressed, I deliver a message to the wrong recipients.  A message that is supposed to go to say, a therapist or counselor, somehow goes to one of the people who is working for me.

Q. So you dump on them?

A. You might say so.

Q. Now what do all these things have in common?

A. Impatience.   I am too impatient.   Maybe not the talking too much — but the jumping the gun, and the need to vent — it all points to a spiritual problem.   I must be more patient.

Q. Can you now begin to do so?

A. Only if I trust God for the results.  I tend not to do that.  I don’t trust that the Universe is going to unfold as it should — if only I get out of its way.  Rather, I think that I have to do everything myself.

Q. Where does that come from?

A. Lack of faith.

Q. So you need more patience and you need more faith?

A. It would seem so, yes.

Q. Seem so?

A. Things are not always what they seem.

Q. What do you mean?

A. I already have faith.  I already have patience.  These are fruits of the Spirit.  And I already have the Spirit.  Faith, patience, love, joy, peace — these are all in me.   They’re inbred in our Divine Design.  I just need to exercise them — to practice them.

Q. Are you perfect?   Doesn’t everybody make mistakes?

A. But Jesus said: “Be therefore perfect – even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

Q. Why do you think he said that?

A. He wanted to inspire us to the highest possible standard.

Q. Has anyone ever achieved the highest possible standard?

A. Only one man has done so, in my opinion.

Q. So if only Jesus has achieved the highest possible standard — in your opinion — why are you so hard on yourself?

A. I don’t know.  It just seems that — nobody has ever accomplished anything truly great by going easy on themselves.

The Questioner is silent.  

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Gratitude List 1652

(1) Health and self-care have been distinctly better since having finally finished a very challenging and unanticipated task. Actually got eight hours sleep the night before last, and six hours last night. Starting to run again – did three miles in the snow with my NanoSpikes. Sat down to meditate thereafter, and though I slept through most of the twenty minutes, it still seemed beneficial.

(2) Finished the first column for the five-week series on Spokane Faith and Values. Completed a draft of the second column, which I’m about to edit and submit. Grateful for the opportunity.

(3) It was nice to hear my daughter introduce me to a friend of hers yesterday by saying: “This is my dad Andy.  He was on the streets for like thirteen years and now he’s a published journalist and widely respected, and they’re producing a musical he wrote about youth homelessness.”  (A bit hyperbolic on both ends, but still nice to hear.) Grateful for a daughter who is proud of me.

(4) Big night tonight, if Cooper doesn’t get snowed out on the mountainous 30 mile drive.  Five musicians and five singers are going to be gathering with sound engineer and all kinds of recording equipment, hopefully to record “Sirens of Hope” and “Turns Toward Dawn” before we lose Cooper to a lead in a TV series.   (Asking for prayer).  

(5) Observed a very restful Sabbath on Saturday, which no doubt contributed to the unprecedented eight hours of sleep.  One thing I did do was fix the ending to Desperado.  It was a labor of love as opposed to all the stressful stuff that constitutes “work” in our high-pressure, fast-paced society.  You might check it out — we all need to let Somebody love us — before it’s too late.

The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, power and grace. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Won’t They Ever Learn?

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt; their acts are vile.
There is no one who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven
upon the sons of men
to see if any understand,
if any seek God.
All have turned away,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Will the workers of iniquity never learn?
They devour my people like bread;
they refuse to call upon the LORD.
There they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is in the company of the righteous.
You sinners frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
yet the LORD is their shelter.
— Psalm 14:1-6

Don’t Fear the Reaper

It was late one afternoon in the year 2012 as I departed from Ohlone Park, where I had been sleeping all day in the sun.  As I walked slowly into town, I had felt a kind of pathos that I related, not specifically to my homeless condition, but to my overall position on the planet.

“I really am not meant for this world,” I told myself.  “Who am I trying to fool?”

At that thought, a very slow strain of song began to well up inside me.   Very low notes, in a minor key, sung very slowly.   I remember likening the strain to a dirge — to music that might accompany a funeral.   

I must have appeared to be either very pensive or very downtrodden.   I recall a woman with dark hair stopping to look at me.  She gestured toward me as though to ask me if I needed help, or if I wanted to talk.  But I only looked at her and smiled — and kept on going.

The theme developed into eight measures of true melancholy and darkness.  I couldn’t get the music of my mind.   Then, as I entered onto Shattuck Avenue, I ran into my friends Jerome and D’Angelo — two very large African-American men with whom I was camping out at the time.  (We were sleeping in a vacant lot, and I felt their presence often protected me, as I sometimes stayed up working on my laptop throughout the night.)

“Jerome!” I cried.  “D’Angelo — I’ve got this song in me.  It’s deep.  I’m not quite sure where it came from.”

“Can we hear it?” asked Jerome.

“Of course,” I replied.  “But let’s seek a place in private.”

The three of us then walked to the Redwoods, where we stood beneath the tall trees during the setting sun.  No one was within sight, as I slowly sang the eerie melody.  I sang four measures slowly, then paused.  I then sang the same four measures again, getting even slower at the end.

Their reactions are unforgettable to this day.

D’Angelo looked aghast, almost shocked — almost terrified.

“You better take that song right back where it came from!”  He cried.  “That is dark – it’s a song of death!  I believe it is evil!”

“No, no,” Jerome, a brilliant writer, was quick to disagree.  “Dark is good.  Andy should keep that passage – and expand upon it.”

I recall watching D’Angelo look over to his best friend Jerome silently.  Of course, anyone who knows me knows already that I took Jerome’s advice.

I walked slowly about the city of Berkeley that evening.  I walked in dark corridors, in quiet places where people were not gathered.  By the end of the night, I had the A Part, and the B Part, and a little bridge.

I also has a Dell laptop in those days, with Finale software installed.  So it wasn’t long before I came up with the saxophone solo, the wooden clarinet, the harp, and other instruments.  It was at first wooden and pastoral, then brassy and urban.  I remember going over to this guy Lorenzo’s apartment with it – I remember playing the fully sequenced version below for a homeless journalist we called James the Greater.

It was on that night that the Urban Elegy was born.

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Tuesday Tuneup 101

Q. Where are you coming from?

A. To be honest with you, it varies from one moment to the next.   Sometimes I’m coming from a place of peace and love toward all humanity.   At other times, I’m coming from anger.

Q. Anger?

A. Well – I like to call it “righteous indignation.”

Q. Are you indignant at the moment?

A. No, not really.

Q. Are you coming from a place of peace and love toward all humanity?

A. Well, I wouldn’t say all humanity —

Q. Then where are you coming from at this moment?

Pause.

A. A very pensive place.  A place of thinking things over.

Q. Why is that?

A. I imploded the other day.  I shut down from stress.  I got to the point where the deadline, however self-imposed, was so much more important than any other thing in life — including my own self-care — that I literally shut down.   I became non-functional.  I imploded.

Q. Did anybody witness the implosion?  Or was it completely internal?

A. Oh, it was seen all right!   I wonder, however, if they knew the extent of it.

Q. Were you trying to hide it?

A. Yes and no.  I didn’t hide the fact that I was upset about something.  But I don’t think I conveyed the full extent of the inner implosion.

Q. Why not?

A. It would have been rude, ugly, and self-centered.

Q. So you suppressed it?

A. Well, I never exactly expressed it.

Q. What did you express?

A. Oh, some minor peeve that everybody knew I would get over in minute or two.

Q. But what was really going on?

A. Extreme insecurity.   We all implode every now and then — but me personally, I prefer to implode in private.

Q. So you were afraid that they would detect your implosion?

A. Exactly.  As I collapsed inwardly under the stress of pressure and deadline, I began to throw out smokescreens, in an effort to divert attention away from the implosion.

Q. Did it work?

A. I think so.  I think they just thought I was irritated.

Q. What exactly do you mean by “implosion?”

A. Well – it’s hard to define.   This graph, however, may be useful:

implosion

Q. Where did you get that graph?

A. Free Thesaurus.  

Q. To which of those external manifestations did your implosion lead you?

A. What do you mean?

Q. I mean – on the circle there – did you explode?  Did you go off?  Did you collapse?

A. Almost all apply.  But mostly, I think I “broke.”

Q. What did you break?

A. I broke my resolve.   I broke my code.  I broke my standard as to how I am to comport myself among the others.

Q. The others?

A. The other Artists.  The Artists who were, at that moment, in my midst.

Q. What is your code?

A. I could write books about it.

Q. Can you capsulize?

A. I’ll try.

Pause.

A. My code is not to be a people-pleaser.  Not to say or do things because I am trying to get a favorable reaction from one or more of the other Artists.   Obviously, I cannot please everybody.  And in such a small, close-knit group, such measures  — born entirely of personal insecurity — are transparent.

Q. Have you not only told me what your code is not?

A. Can you repeat that, please?

Q. I said: “Have you not only told me what your code is not?”

A. Ah, I see.  I have in fact only told you what I aspire not to do.

Q. But what do you aspire to do instead?

A. I aspire to act according to the standard.

Q. The Moral Standard?

A. Well – that goes without saying.  But it’s not the standard that is most applicable in this context.

Q. What standard is that?

A. The Aesthetic Standard.

Q. Clarify?

A. I believe in an absolute aesthetic standard.   Just as with morality — and in my view, ethics — there is a standard of Beauty for which we all must strive.

Q. How does this apply in the context of the Artists?

A. Because we’re trying to get it just right.  We’re trying to make it as beautiful as we can make it.  And if we fall short, we feel it.  It drags down the energy of the whole room.   When we come closer to it, we feel that too — and it lifts up our hearts.

Q. Wow — so, this people-pleasing of yours, it interferes with the striving for the standard?

A. Of course it does.  People-pleasing is ugly.  The standard is beautiful.  But the gist of this discussion is merely this:

As long as I stay focused on our mutual desire to reach the highest Artistic standard, I will avoid my self-centered desire to make positive impressions on the other Artists.  And then, ironically, I will probably make the best impression I can possibly ever make.   Because it will no longer be I who seeks to impress.  It will be that which I and the other Artists have mutually created.  

It is that final Artistic product that I hope — that we hope — will impress the world.

The Questioner is silent.   

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Gratitude List 1651

(1) Finally got that huge project concerning the time signature change out of the way.  Even got inspired in the process and heard some cool three part harmonies in my head that I was able to add to the score.   The result is a 12-page combined vocal, bass and guitar score to my song The Word from Beyond.  I’m not only proud of my work, I am relieved and thankful to have finished it.

(2) Really enjoyed the Coffee Talk on Saturday morning. I always enjoy hearing the perspectives of all the religious journalists, and often more so, the atheists who are clearly freethinkers and untainted by dogmatic doctrine.

(3) One of the Kids came over and helped me clean up the house.  Got a jump start anyway – still gotta do the bathroom.  She sang while she worked, too.  Nice to have supportive people in my life.

(4) I agreed with my editor-in-chief to a five-week series on a certain theme, to begin on the 17th and run for five consecutive Wednesdays.   Also, my Hobo, Homeless or Houseless piece will be published this Wednesday.   So I get six in a row — this could lead to something even better.

(5) I hope you enjoy this rehearsal version of The Urban Elegy that we did yesterday.  It’s a rough recording, but the essence of the song is there.   You can hear the Wendt Brothers harmonies as well as solos by Zazen and Keva, and four part harmonies throughout.   I’m proud of these young Artists.  We’re all proud — and I’m grateful.

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Hobo, Homeless or Houseless

Submitted this morning to Tracy Simmons, editor-in-chief of Spokane Faith and Values.  

I recently learned that the word “homeless” is no longer considered politically correct among many people currently working in related services. It has been replaced by “houseless” because the word “homeless” has developed “pejorative connotations.”

Arguably, the word “homeless” replaced the word “hobo” because the latter had developed pejorative connotations.  Logically, it is only a matter of time before the word “houseless” develops pejorative connotations.

But I am not here to lambaste the concept of political correctness.   Personally, I think P.C. is a great idea in theory, but in practice it burns more bridges than it builds.

If this offends my lefter-leaning friends, so be it.  I find myself often wishing I could be seen as a person who cares about World Peace and social justice without having to get crammed into the liberal “box” — and this is one reason why I am not comfortable identifying as a “liberal” — even though I am more than happy to identify as a “progressive.”

(Another reason is because the word “liberal” has connotations that may suggest a permissive lifestyle, which as a Christ follower is not my bag.  “Progressive” works because I’d definitely like to see us build a better, more solid, less divided society.)

To the point, I am not about to change my language.  For the past five years, I have been writing profusely and passionately about the homeless experience. My writings include a full-length musical about youth homelessness in urban America, as well as numerous blogs, essays, and published articles. The idea that I need to change my language is almost Orwellian. It is not as though I can pretend that we are suddenly at war with “Eurasia” and not “Europia.”

Also, in case it hasn’t been clear, my homeless rights advocacy is not the result of an unusual and unfounded compassion for those experiencing the homeless condition. I myself was homeless for years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know whereof I speak from personal experience, and I network with others who have shared that experience. I have been trying to contact my friends from Berkeley, California who have also experienced homelessness, one of whom I have interviewed on this site. Though no one there has gotten back to me yet, I seriously doubt that this fix was effected by a homeless person, or by anyone who has ever experienced that condition.

I did learn in discussing the matter with the graveyard shift worker at the corner store that she had been homeless for several years as well. She told me she knows of no homeless or formerly homeless friend who would identify themselves as “houseless.” She also made the interesting analogy that, although she identifies as “queer,” people who do not share her orientation object to her identification. Of course, having been homeless herself, she knew as well as I do that one of the worst things about living outdoors is that people who lived indoors often told us how we were supposed to identify ourselves.

And yet, when we pleaded with them not to use words like “housed” and “shelter’ in reference to us when we were seeking residence — but to please say “found a place” or “place to live” instead – it fell on deaf ears. Why? Because we were not people. We were homeless people. A person can look can look for a place to live. A homeless person has to look for shelter.

Do you think for one moment than when I left twelve years of homeless and borderline-homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I finally moved to Moscow Idaho in a successful search for dignified, indoor residence, I told the prospective landlord that I had been homeless? Or that I was looking for “shelter?” Of course not! Think about it! He’d have moved on to the next applicant.

In fact, when I later tried to help an elderly man experiencing homelessness get an apartment in that same complex, the landlord told me: “I’m sorry, Andy. If I let him in, I’ll have to let them all in.”

While the conversation with the woman in the store was somewhat comforting, it did little to assuage my concerns. In fact, I couldn’t sleep till three in the morning, and woke up at 5:30 feeling nauseous.

That nausea persists to this moment. But I do want to make a statement in closing. That statement is simply this:

The day when we learn that it is more important to listen to the words of people who have experienced something that we have not, and that it is more important to raise awareness of that condition, than it is to label it with words that we find less offensive or pejorative, that will truly be a very great day.

The problem with political correctness in this instance is that it bi-passes the need to actually decriminalize and rehumanize the homeless individual, by choosing a different term that will be “less pejorative” rather than by dealing with the pejorative discriminations and prejudices themselves.

I’m in a lot of pain. What a sorrowful turn of events for Homeless Rights Activism.

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