Category Archives: #education

The long, patient journey of the chess master “bum.”

Some folks saw him riding his bike through town. They saw he was most likely homeless and they thought no more of him.

Until one day, Randy told me his story. It’s as tragic as any Shakespeare play and twice as real.

I wrote it up for my local newspaper and I hope it sees its day there. But I also want to share it here because Randy and his hero’s journey need to be seen anywhere they can be. It is a story of incredible suffering, patience and eventual peace:

Sitting in the shade of a tree at Lithia Park, any day of the week and most times of the day, Randy Dollinger has his chess board out. A small sign reads “Chess?”

The peaceful scene gives no clue as to the long road Randy has traveled. “I always wanted to make money with chess, somehow,” the 63 year old Ashland resident tells me while waiting for his next student. That yearning was born of a short, tragedy infused career in the cut throat competitive world of tournament chess. It is as unforgiving as it is unyielding.

He began playing chess in his native North Carolina at the age of 12. Within two years he rose through the fierce world of tournament chess to eventually become the state champion at 17, ranked tenth in the nation.

Randy was among the few young, elite champions of his day, even spending time with international chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. “He showed me an opening which helped me win a tournament. He came to watch me play.” He smiles, “Sometimes people can’t believe that story. But it’s true.”

At the pinnacle of his playing Randy had one of his games published. “Two pages in Chess Life. It went all over the world.”

“ I played in all the great cities, I played in 30 tournaments.” He eventually became the only chess player with the ranking of “expert” bestowed by the US Chess Federation in his home state. “People came from all over the East Coast to watch me play.”

He was unstoppable until five years after he began it ended- in the seat of his friend’s car. “I was 17. The passenger in a car, “ he says slowly and thoughtfully. “We got into a wreck. My friend lost control and ran into a tree.”

Randy was injured in a life altering way. “I was in a coma for a week. Then the doctor said it’d be a couple years before my brain would be back in order before I could do the things I had been doing.”

But he couldn’t wait. He lost patience. He had to get back in the game. He went against his doctors orders and went back to playing. “I came to tournaments with my head bandaged, walking on crutches.”

He could not accept it. Randy feared if he took too much time out he would be forgotten.

“I started playing too fast. I lost tournaments, I lost rating points.” Randy leans in and tells the story which changed his life. He is not dramatic but matter of fact and precise. He describes being in a tournament with a crowd looking on and suddenly going blank, not knowing what to do. He had never experienced that before. “I just understood the game right away. I always knew it and then I suddenly just couldn’t get it to work. I would have these moments where I would freeze.”

His ranking fell. His sponsors withered. At 17, he felt finished.

“I stopped playing. It was too disappointing.”

Randy began traveling, trying to find himself outside of chess. He became a meditation student, a wonderer and often homeless. He came to Ashland 25 years ago, much of that time he camped outside and sought refuge in coffee shops.

But he never fully gave up on chess. “Ive been studying the game.”

Most people never knew his story. Briefly he was re-discovered but once again the game left him wounded.

He was offered a sponsorship to play a tournament in Grants Pass more than a decade ago. “I did great. I won second place. People gave me offers to play and teach.” But he couldn’t do it. “All the fear and apprehension came back. I literally had a horrible headache for three days. I couldn’t sleep.”

He figured it was too much. He gave up his dream again.

“I studied but hardly ever played. I wouldn’t play. I couldn’t do it.”

Randy says despite all the disappointment and pain he still had the hope that somehow, one day the game would come back to him.

“Then there was this brainstorm. Just set up my chess board and tell people I’ll teach for compensation.”

He sits on a bench most every day, all day, just within the sound of the park’s cellist with his board, hoping for a game.

“I’m enjoying it again. I love it, plus I’m actually making a little money.” He works by donation. He offers a game for a suggested five dollars and ten gets you a lesson from the master.

His years of patience shows. “Everything revolves around the four main squares in the middle,” he tells a student who stopped her stroll to play. “Every square means something. That’s the power of the game.”

Oakland resident Emily Santiago says in twenty minutes he improved her game. “He’s completely changed my strategy for playing. Chess is like life, I have to keep my most powerful pieces and leverage them, “ she says while staring intently at the board. “I learned to delay gratification.”

Randy’s life story could be told as one of delayed gratification. He’s waited decades for chess to pay him back for his devotion. “I wanted to support myself with chess. 45 years later and I’m finally doing it.”

Marcus Brown is nine. He’s visiting with his family from Arizona. The chess board is clearly calling to him as he circles Randy, looking at the pieces. Randy says he loves teaching children because he knows the power of the game. “I think it’s important to build skills, to plan and strategize,” says his mother Bobbie. Marcus is not talking, he is only sitting with the pieces and Randy. “Every game is now,” says Randy as he interrupts our discussion. “I have to concentrate.”

Twenty minutes later Marcus leaves the table. “That was great! Good job,” Randy encourages his student. Takes a sip of water and a breath. “I never knew how to give this gift to society. The only way to do it is to set up my board and wait. It requires me to be patient. You have to be patient in life and chess.”

He smiles. His green eyes shine under his gold wire rimmed glasses looking the part of the master. His fingers graze the pieces. He looks up and says to a couple passing by, “You want to play chess?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Case for Walking

Nowhere can you see the realness and the history of where you live better than by foot. You may drive a place every day but until your feet touch its soil, until your eyes stop looking straight ahead but off to the side where a wide set of steps rise like an upside down waterfall leading to a young man with an old school ‘fro texting his girl on the night before his college graduation- will you begin to know a place.

Until you notice just how many people plant rows and rows of lavender along the strip of land after their yard but before the street on the other side of the sidewalk- you won’t understand the generosity of your neighbors and the glory of bees on a summer day.

I passed the cemetery and for the first time realized that a leafy tree stands as a sentinel at the end of even rows of each line of headstones. The grass is exactly even but not mechanized like a modern place, it is still different shades of green from dark to light with some dried grass, yellow and stiff. The rows are more like paths inviting me to follow them and get to know the people who came before.

I found families, a husband who died twenty years before his wife. I kneeled before three headstones of three brothers who all died in different wars. Those people once also walked these streets.

Rounding through town I was stopped by a gaggle of young and lively guys with long dreadlocks and short little songs they busted out in bursts for me. “We’re the rainbow, join us!” I stayed awhile, talked about the Rainbow Gathering coming to Oregon, we talked about their dog and one guy told me I was beautiful. It was generous given that he was a lovely young guy with eyes as blue as any I’d seen.

Walking can boost your morale substantially.

I walked past bus stops and old homes. I saw some trash left by the steps of a stately old place which bragged of its 1888 lineage and I picked it up thinking, it  must be hard to see everything change around you.

I visited with a guy roughly my age carrying a backpack and sleeping bag. He looked clean and was sorting some food as he tucked it away. “It was a good day,” he said smiling. “I see that and I’m glad,” I tipped my head and smiled back. He was about to offer me some of his food but I walked on waving as I passed.

Strangers can be kind for no reason.

I also fell in love with an assorted group of dogs who ran to greet me like their long lost friend. Tails wagging, some singing sorrowful songs urging me to come back and I walked on and I remembered the joy of a good dog. I saw a woman cradling her little black and white dog coming from the vet and kissing the top of her furry head.

Love is so present in the world if you look.

I exchanged dozens of smiles with strangers, witnessed countless acts of awe among children seeing birds and flowers and I never once wished I was in a car despite the sweat which pooled at the back of my neck.

The best moment was in passing a girl, maybe seven or eight, wearing a crisp blue and white dress, a ribbon in her dark wavy hair and the smile on her innocent illuminated face that made years roll backwards to my second grade year. She stood at the top of the stairs outside her home while her grandmother sat smiling that same way on her porch. The girl began waving at strangers and smiling, for no particular reason. She ate an orange popsicle. As I approached the popsicle slipped off its stick into the grass. She observed but didn’t react choosing to continue her waving campaign.

Everything about her gave me hope. I asked if I could capture her picture and I did. I did not ask her a million questions like I might normally do. Frankly I didn’t want to know more than what I could see–the perfect mixture of light and love, innocence and care, playfulness and childish boredom.

If you walk enough you will get bored. Boredom is such a relief. Boredom doesn’t have technology attached or success or failure. It is expansive and allows you to fill it or feel it just as it is. I love boredom.

The case for walking is great. It is good for every part of you except your oh so busy schedule. So here’s the best case for it beyond all others–walk because you do not have time to do it. Break free of your calendar and make the room for walking and seeing and loving and speaking to strangers, and flirting and being bored.

 

 

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Traveling Like Crazy; a short story

Slab City, California, USA.

This is the place where people go who have nowhere else, who’s future and past collide into a present tense of impossibility. It looks like it sounds. The sun cooks up the ground into untidy cracks but it doesn’t cook it enough to erase the smell or evaporate the trash from hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living entirely off grid.

The Slabs is roughly a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs in the Imperial Desert, 65 miles north of Calexico and a few minutes from East Jesus-literally.

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E.J. is an impromptu art installation on the road to Slab City. Artists use the trash from the Slab to make eccentric, politically challenging and quirky art amidst the nothingness of dirt and garbage and loneliness. East Jesus looks at you daring you to be anxious. If you don’t do it–if you stay calm and let yourself smile at the giant tray of spoons–you will be changed. It’s hard to say exactly how, but you feel it in the way that a certain song makes you cry. A nerve is touched and now it has sensation and memory of sensation and it’s own life outside you.

That is the East Jesus affect.

The entire drive through sand past the glimmering yet deeply foul Salton Sea, past abandoned shacks and mis-placed businesses slammed between date groves is sensation on salted wound. A road from nothing to nowhere.

The Slabs are left over from a military installation which pulled up stakes more than 40 years ago and today is occupied by people who show up in RV’s and cars, who sleep in tents, hammocks and home-made homes. It’s a self governing, free to squat  place with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for the art of living oddly.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it post apocalyptic wild west side show of people who run out of money, will, ability or patience with “normal” society.

There are 200 in August when the temperatures hit 124 and 2,000 in January when Canadians in mansions on wheels show up to soak up the weirdness and freeness of the desert. While the demographics and bank accounts shift with the seasons, old timers like George who runs a mis-matched trailer encampment which he rents out year round says it’s all the same kind of folks. Those who want to save money and don’t want to be bothered by the politeness of others. Essentially the draw at The Slabs is being left the hell alone. At least some of the time.

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There’s no electricity, running water-hot or cold-and no flush toilets. There’s dirt and some concrete slabs. That covers all the amenities.

There’s open mic night at The Range which looks like a scene from a twenty-somethings coming of age film with crooked and leaning stage, old couches with foam flying in all directions and a bar made of scrap wood hammered together by a blind or drunken man. They come there to sing to each other and recite poetry once per week, normally on Fridays. When asked if the performances are good most say, “Not really.”

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Somewhere in the miles of nothing is also a library and down the “road” an internet cafe which feels like a university student union. People hunker down and rifle their phones  within range of wi-fi. Politics is spoken but rarely argued. Drop outs and loan dodgers, disabled people, senior citizens and anarchist travelers tour each other’s states of mind about nearly any subject where most all conversations begin and end with a funny line and a snicker. Leaving is done one way, a wave of a peace sign over the shoulder and sometimes, “one love, one love.”

Just outside the internet cafe resides a man who calls himself Spyder and he’s the apparent rock star, mayor, Zen Master and builder of Slab City. He has half a manufactured home, a trailer, a truck and an RV. His RV has a rare thing, a hot running shower and radio. He has scrounged parts and created a solar panel and pump system to make it work.

His half of a home is in repair mode. The walls and floor are filled in, the kitchen is nearly functional with another solar rig and pump, his two kids have their own bedrooms. The bathroom in the half house doesn’t work but the RV is next door so the “Kids can shower before school. That’s important.”

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Soon Spyder’s place will have another comfort. He’s hand digging and lining a septic system so the family can use a flush toilet. He trucks in huge drums of water weekly.

“I couldn’t really make it out there. I was abandoned as a baby by my mother and put in the foster system where I was given to a family who didn’t just beat me-they tortured me. My back is wrecked, I never really learned to read or write and I’ve got a bunch of other scars.  I tried working out there doing handy jobs and anything I could get but I still kept winding up homeless–then I heard about this place. You can be what you want to be out here and if you work hard you get to keep the result of your labor. I can’t see ever going back.”

He stands in the sun looking around, sweat is dripping down his shirtless chest and he wipes his face and says it’s time he get back to work.

There’s an agricultural canal which runs behind The Slabs about half a mile or so from Spyder’s place. People speak of swimming and bathing in it especially in the fall when it’s hot and the water is still high due to water releases for late crops. They say it’s a beach, an inland paradise when it gets really hot.  But it’s actually a long, shallow edged and deep centered waterway which smells of farm waste and chemicals. It’s an odd shade of green but it’s moving water in the desert. That’s as good as it gets.

This is not a place for the germaphobe or picky person.

Slab City has its joiners and loners, cool folk and angry outliers, all of them cheap skates and free loaders who have an aversion to loans and taxes and working all week to pay for a house that owns them and demands more upgrades. For the most part the dwellers of The Slab aren’t keen on government or cities or much to do with the world outside. However, it would not be accurate to say they’re lazy and don’t want to work.

Showing up with a tent in the white hot center of a huge desert with zero water or power does not allow anyone here to be lazy. Surviving is an entry level position and living with handmade upgrades like a roof and floor is the corner office. Nothing along the chain here is achieved without sun up to sun down work and innovation.

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Learning how to innovate is a daily occupation. Inventions will be born at Slab City.

Within two days of chumming around The Slabs, I find I’m eyeballing spots near roads but away from others. I’m evaluating sun angles and looking for smooth slabs and proximity to a decent path in and out. I’m creating a gear list: rope, tarps, big jugs for water, car batteries, propane tanks, camp stoves and lights. Shovels-one for digging large holes and one for a bathroom. I get hung up on the bathroom part but keep mumbling, ‘I really think I could do this and enjoy it.’

It’s not realistic. Yet……

When traveling like crazy, be prepared to be crazy. Meeting people in their odd smells, off grid pre-occupations, eccentricities and realities does not allow ambivalence. The mammalian response is to respond–to blend and join. The Slab City joiner/non joiner is a flag flying proudly for a country not yet invented. It’s the pirate ship or tropical island where mis-fits fit.

Nothing could be more pleasing.

Driving back in the pink sunset of the desert toward alleged civilization an isolation draped itself around my car.  I powered on through worlds, picked up a hitch hiker who refused to give her name and stopped for dinner where I was the only woman in a crowded restaurant and eventually found myself at the bizarre and magical Miracle Baths Hotel where a suite near the massage closet was available.

Floating under a dark sky in a pool filled with bath water listening to the conversation in Russian nearby and recalling an earlier one about why they don’t want us to know about aliens, the thought came in clearly that traveling like crazy is among the best ways to stay sane.

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The Day I Worked out a golf Swing Among the “Forgotten People”

“Awful! You sliced it low and left. What did you get— 65 yards?”

img_1417That’s how I met JR. Those were the first words between us. JR is a homeless man living among the 400 or so tents off highway 57 in Santa Ana, California. He had his golf balls, mostly cheap Wilsons, lined up on tees made of sand and rock whacking away and landing in the ironically named Santa Ana River which had not a drop of water in it on this November day.

“You know so much about golf—come show me something!” JR yelled back at me.

I was there looking for a story. I’d been embedding in homeless camps on and off for the past year to learn about the bottom one percent virtually no one is talking about except in statistical terms. Homelessness is declared a crisis in every major West Coast city and Los Angeles is seriously considering a 100 million dollar outlay to “solve” it.

For the working poor who spend half their income on shelter, some 11 million according to the latest Housing and Urban Development numbers, it doesn’t take much to fall into homelessness.

If there are “Forgotten People” as president-elect Donald Trump claims, then these are those people. The unhoused who’s numbers are rising by 15 and 20% along the West Coast since 2014. They come from the South, Mid-west and rural Northern towns hoping to make a break for themselves. Instead they often find themselves priced out and locked out.

img_1350This camp, one of Southern California’s largest, is post apocalyptic. It’s locked behind a slapdash fence between a long and steady crawl of traffic and the riverbed. Nothing but dirt, gravel and tents, no electricity or bathrooms, but tents for more than a mile.

“First is your stance. Your shoulders aren’t squared over the ball, your hips are turned and you’ve got a happy foot sliding on the right. It’ll never work. Plus, why are you trying to drive with a five iron?” I say to him smiling and pretending to scold.

He lowers his camouflage hat over his eyes surrounded by smile lines and chuckles. “You see a spot for me to set a full bag around here? He points to his camp site set up tucked against the cyclone fencing. “This is my sleeping tent and my food tent. You may not have noticed this isn’t a country club.”

He is smiling. His teeth are hit and miss, his breath smells like a white jug wine and he is charming the flip flops off me. At 61, he stands shirtless in the ruthlessness of a Southern California sun.

“I’m JR from Michigan. Not a bad body for an old guy, don’t you think?” He gives a model like pose and stares out toward the river bed like a general surveying his battle field. He giggles, fondles his beard and asks, “You’re a sight. What are you doing here?”

“Looking for a photo op. and a story. But I can see my real purpose is a golf lesson. Okay, show me your best stance. JR, what the hell is up with your grip?” His hands are tight and he’s choked up on the club.

“Okay. What’s wrong with my grip?”

I pry his hands away and tell him, “Hold it like a bird. Don’t let it fly away but don’t crush it.”

img_1366He works on it. Shifts his feet. I position his shoulders and knees above the ball. “Okay, you’re set up. Keep your eye on where you want the ball to go. Let the club hit the ball. It’s not force but feel. Go!”

JR whiffs it. The ball barely dribbles twenty yards. “You’re wrecking what little game I have!”

I assure him it takes a bucket of balls to get comfortable. But his stance and grip are improved if he stays with it. We both know there are limits to how far he can go with one club and a handful of banged up Wilson seconds.

 

We both know why it’s unique to see a guy working on his game out here. Surviving day to day, finding food, water and a job are the normal pre-occupations.

He shows me around. We meet artists who sing, make rock sculptures and write poetry. We meet edgy, young guys who have dogs on ropes and a few tweakers toward the back of the camp who mostly day sleep.

“We got all kinds in here. I just talk to everyone and feed them if they’re hungry. It’s us making the best of it. It’s not that bad.”

JR is constant motion running me through the homeless village like a tourist, waving and smiling like I’m the new kid in summer camp. He moves through the groups introducing me to his people. “Julie is a journalist reporting on homelessness . She’s writing about us.” Some people want to talk to me, will let me take a picture, most aren’t too impressed. They’ve seen the reporters come and go. They are still here either way.

JR hit the road five years ago. He only wants to tell me he prays with people and uses what money he has to feed the hungry. He says he’s on foot but that’s the only detail he’ll fill in.

He stops and leans in to tell me something.

“These are the people this country doesn’t work for and more and more are coming every day. When I got here a few months ago there were twenty of us—now it’s four hundred and still growing.”

I ask him why he thinks it’s happening. “ Nine dollar hour jobs land you here. There’s not enough left over for rent and rents are too high anyway. How you going to pay rent when it’s 15 hundred a month and you don’t even make that?”

He says if one thing goes wrong, you get sick or have a car break down then you can’t recover, although people try.

“Why work and still live here? Although lots of people do. I see them getting up early and heading to work. I couldn’t do it.”

JR had been in the military and construction at one point. “This is hard but it’s nothing to compared to what I’ve seen. I’m okay. I do feel sad for the young ones out here. I don’t know how they ever get out of here. There’s really no way.

We make our way back to his tent and driving range. We go back to our golf lesson.
“Okay JR, settle in. Let’s see you breathe into the shot. Hands, shoulders, feet. All good. Okay, give it a whack.”

He winds up, swings easy. The ball pops up straight and lands about 150 yards away. He smiles. I clap.

The sun is going down. “Better get you out of here missy. I’ll walk you to the gate.”

As I leave there is a young family setting up a small outdoor grill. The dog is tied to a stake in the ground and the kids look hungry.

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Ten Ways to Tell if Your Guy(partner) is a Grown Ass Man(person).

Let me be clear I stand on no high ground here. If there’s a way to make a poor choice–I’ve done it. But lately I’ve been hanging around with a grown ass man and despite the fact I’m a slow learner some things are coming into focus.

First: I had the good fortune of grown ass man friends. They were the ones helping me, letting me lean on them from time to time and being reliable while my boy was out playing. I’m so grateful to those grown up guys who showed up and showed me what a grown ass man really looks like. If you find yourself leaning on your friends rather than your partner–chances are he’s not grown.

Second: age has nothing to do with it. I wasted months of my life on an old guy who was damn near seventy still trying to be the captain of his high school football team surrounded by cheerleaders. His self-esteem was so low he couldn’t stop playing games. He was so desperate to be admired. I feel bad for him, but not too bad. If your partner can’t commit to a plan, a phone call and a relationship, no matter what else he says, he’s not a grown ass man.

What follows works for any gender and any pairing. I’ve just selected my own experience so I’m using man to fit the role since I’m a cisgender, heterosexual female. You can substitute woman or they and it still works.

So here are the ways you can tell if your guy is a grown ass man:

  1. He is not ambiguous. Having been successful in his life he knows what he wants and how to achieve it. He will be clear with you what his intentions are and check in early and often to see if you share those intentions.
  2. He budgets accordingly. There is no worse feeling than being with a guy who acts like you’ve taken him to the vet for neutering every time the check comes. A grown ass man sets his cash aside to accommodate his plans. That doesn’t mean he has to be rich to be grown but he does have to plan a date he can manage. If it needs to be a split check he tells you in advance so you can act like a grown ass woman and bring your money.
  3. He likes you. Grown ass men don’t treat their partners like a chore or some add-on to their fabulous lives. He will enjoy your company, like talking to you, share your interests and care about your people. He will be interested in you even when you have a headache.
  4. He will do what he says he’s going to do. A grown ass man has no trouble telling you when he will call and then call at that time. The same holds true for getting together, making plans and ultimately creating a life.
  5. Grown ass men don’t need to lie. He will tell the truth because he has nothing to hide. He’s made mistakes and moved on. He’ll tell you about the good and the bad without hesitation because he is confident in his ability to persevere. He does not do things he is ashamed of as a rule, but if he makes a mistake, he’ll tell you.
  6. He will listen to advice and seek counsel. Grown ass men are smart enough to trust collective wisdom. They don’t have all the answers nor do they have the need to know everything. They have learned that’s not realistic.
  7. Grown ass men are emotionally available. He will cry when it hurts, he will laugh when it tickles him and he will draw pictures of little hearts and flowers on a card if he is so moved. A grown ass man has no need to prove who he is and no need for credentials that make him seem more like a robot. He will respect your emotions as well, knowing that our emotions actually drive our actions, not just yours, but his too.
  8. Grown ass men enjoy sex–with you. They also enjoy talking, cuddling, going to movies and doing other things. Grown ass men are people who have many interests and enjoy exploring them. They are not out for a conquest and they don’t think it’s your job to worry about their sex drive.
  9. He will support you for who you are. Because he knows himself, he knows what sort of  characteristics he values. If you hold those characteristics and he’s decided to be with you then he won’t be out to change you or your priorities. In fact, a grown ass man is more likely to help you achieve your goals and deepen your other relationships.
  10. Finally, a grown ass man is seeking a grown ass partner. He is looking for someone who has done the work to be clear on what is important, who is not insecure, needy, clings or otherwise hoping to find a partner to complete them. A grown ass man wants a partner who is respectful to him and to themselves and does not look to see anyone subjugated or treated as a lesser partner.

I can’t speak for anyone else but I was enculturated to think the nice guy wasn’t as cool as the guy who thought he was too good for me and also to believe that the guy who made me feel insecure was exciting. When I finally moved past that, I couldn’t believe I ever thought that way.

Being loved by a grown ass man makes life better, easier and more meaningful. Being kept off balance makes life more difficult. Achieving your goals is like pushing that rock up a hill everyday and getting nowhere when you’re dealing with a boy who sucks your mental and emotional bank dry. We all need support. If your partner isn’t grown then chances are he’s throwing barriers in your path.

It’s better to be single than trying to make it work with someone who is not grown enough to know how or simply doesn’t want to. Be good to you. Cut them loose. Be who you are and your grown ass man will show up, or not. But either way you don’t have someone pulling you down. Either way you’re better off.

Oh and one final thought–a grown ass man is sexier and more attractive in every way. He has no need to prove anything so he is confident and loving. He is fun and also thoughtful.

Maybe, just maybe, if nice guys finish first and grown ass men are the ones in relationships these boys will figure out it’s time to grow up. It won’t help you, but it might help the next person who comes along.

 

 

 

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The Resurrection of the Redneck

He stood shaking his head, big eyes behind coke bottle glasses, “No one seems to understand how angry they are. They’ve been left behind.” The long time senator said while leaning against a counter in a crisp blue shirt with a stethoscope around his neck, “We’ve got to solve this. I see it in my practice, people who can’t afford to stay healthy, no housing, working all the time in a dead-end job. They’re mad. That’s what Trump gets that Bernie also understood. I just don’t think the mainstream understands.”

My doctor and state representative is in a small medical practice taking care of a group of people most of us don’t openly admit to knowing or belonging to: the basic redneck–white, poor, angry and fitting nowhere.

These are the folks connecting dots in a different sort of way.

They had nothing to start with but had some vague belief in an America that could allow them to rise above their raising. They had a core value that they or their children could be better, that they could get out of the trailer park or the rural, run down house and street where the sidewalk never goes.

Without that dream they free fall into despair and anger. They seek out a bad guy in black and white thinking.

Nuance is not really taught in the hollows and the grey working man’s towns. They find the bad guy in the voice of those who stand for the rights of people outside their group. The believe that #blacklivesmatter somehow means they do not.

They surmise that “they are getting all the attention” and this redneck believes that means “they” are also coming up in a world where they cannot.

This divisiveness is encouraged and pandered to for votes. It’s easy to stir the good ‘ole boys who haven’t had a good day in a long while.

I come from these places. A second generation, natural born hillbilly, I understand going to church on Sunday and Wednesday. I understand about a God who is jealous and a religion long on hell and short on heaven which evokes a deeper sense of unrest by sending the message that salvation is a secret word and handshake. It’s a club with a narrow doorway reserved for a select group of true believers.

For us it was this group or bust. There was so little else.

It’s hard to convince this group with their worn out hands and second hand shoes that they enjoy privilege.

It’s hard to tell a redneck that it’s not the poor Mexican and black person stealing their scant opportunities but the wealthy guy like Donald Trump who manufactures all his swag in a foreign country. It’s hard also to convince the good Baptist that the person who prays to a different God is actually not so different. That his aspirational prayers come from the same place–poverty, stress and also hope.

For the redneck cracker life is binary.  There is “us” and “them.” There is a sense of scarcity which can be witnessed all around. When you think life is a battle, you make combatants of anyone whom you believe is not lifting you up. You perceive that whatever the others have is taken from your possibilities.

This myth is propagated by those of craven heart who use ignorance and fear as a foothold to their own success.

So how do we speak to the poor white trash folk who’s shiniest thing is their new rifle meant to protect them in this untrustworthy world? How do we discuss the finer point that poverty is the enemy shared by people of all colors, especially people of color?

Here’s what spoke to me as a young, discarded, white trash girl living in an old house without central heat in a field of dying dreams–the idea of a bigger world.

I read about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, I saw myself in their words. I was challenged by my teachers who asked me what would happen if it was more true that we created God in our image rather than the other way around?

I hid my Aldous Huxley and Upton Sinclair books from my mom. She didn’t approve of “commie writers who were godless and didn’t understand people like us.”

But someone recommended those books to me, someone who thought I was smart enough to consider the concepts of nuance and justice beyond the small world where I lived.

That’s because a teacher, a principal, an uncle, a librarian and even my dad believed in education as the way forward.

We need those people now more than ever.

Ultimately rednecks, Trump voters, are people who value independence and they know more about sustainability than most. It’s been passed down for generations. That has some value.

They want their children to succeed even if it means they don’t see them so often, they want to see a world where their grandchildren can use words they’ve never heard of because some rednecks also have deep dreams of a better world.

Dare I say they also want to matter?

Some may see this as opposed to but that’s not where it needs to go. How about they matter– also? It’s additive. Because while this group may not look like it’s in peril, in so many ways it is.

They too have no health care and are dying from a host of diseases caused by a rough life and bad food which is made for poor people, they too live in a world of violence and addiction and rage and they, too, are ashamed of who they are. They carry the additional burden of privilege which says they should be better.

They know they should be better. What they don’t know is how.

So this blog is why I can never truly go home. It rings of liberal condescending babble which makes every redneck sound like a dirty fool with no life outside of hate. But the truth is that’s the way it gets handed down in a myth that says ‘we aren’t much but we have each other.’ Kill the myth and you begin to kill the problem.

Give the redneck and the black activist the same self worth and they can work together. Raise everyone out of poverty and no one has to fight over the last bite.

Break the “broken nation” myth as well. This country was never great but always pretty good on a comparative scale. It’s always had struggles like every place and always had bright days.

Unravel the myth that to be good- one nation, one person, must be better. You can have lots of good without needing a better.

Remind folks that there is enough. If we share the food and the work life goes more smoothly.

And here’s a big one–there is no enemy. This is tough for people from religions of Abraham. Everything is taught in duality, heaven and hell, right and wrong. But what if that’s not true? What if we can all be right, at least partly? What if there is a natural balance which favors equality?

Rednecks are not the problem. Scarcity is not the problem. Enemies are not the problem. The problem is that we believe they are the problem.

Hug a redneck, tell him his shiny shotgun is cool so long as it’s not aimed at you or anyone else, tell him you see his point about shitty healthcare and jobs that don’t pay enough to hardly keep the lights on. Tell him that it’s not really his fault and that his striving is witnessed. Tell him he matters not in opposition but also. Tell him that holding hands and singing together is a real thing and he’s invited. Tell him you respect the hard work of his hands and that together we can bring back jobs and hope for everyone.

Allow the resurrection of the redneck and know it doesn’t need to be a threat to anyone else. Great American writer John Steinbeck taught me it’s not really a world of this or that and that hillbillys also have a soul. He’s the first to convince me I had worth as a person.

So while I’m dreaming, let’s bring back reading.

We know Trump is a clown. Rednecks know it too. My guess is The Donald even knows it. But they, like so many Americans, are angry and want to show it. They want someone to understand that even working forty hours per week, growing food in their weedy yard, shooting animals and casting a line in a nearby creek is not getting them by and they are truly afraid.

They want someone to listen to them because even though they have white skin when you check the box as white trash you are less than nothing. You are in the way.

Gandhi won freedom for his nation because he figured out how to lead a poor people’s rebellion across all castes. He found allies in the wealthy too. We don’t have a Gandhi in this election anymore. He dropped out.

So now what?

Be the Gandhi you wish to see. Hold hands with everyone. Spread the word that there is actually enough. Let people know that we have enough food and houses to take care of everyone if we knew we did.  Let the redneck rise standing next to the second generation Mexican who speaks Spanish at home and the man who’s great grandfather was a slave who built the White House.

That guy across from you is not the problem, but a part of the solution. That redneck also has something to offer.

The doctor is right–people need to understand.

 

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Filed under #Bernie Sanders, #connection, #DonaldTrump, #education, #happiness, #Jesus, #men, Uncategorized

American Buddha-prequel

When I first saw him he was walking past my entrance to Southern Oregon University. He had a head scarf over white boy dreads, a tall walking stick and a noticeable hitch in his walk. He moved quickly through a crowd, his head above the rest. He had to be about six foot two.

He had this smile. Sanguine. Serene. I muttered to myself as I clicked the turn signal to pull into campus, “that kid has a Buddha smile.”

I had not seen him before. Then I saw him again. Once in the library, another time outside Stevenson Union, another time sitting on a small concrete wall. He was often working, writing in a small book.

But always that smile with calm, very light eyes. He wore the same jeans, too big and tied with a rope, also rolled up along the bottom to reveal the cause of his hitch–a metal leg.

Each time I saw him he made his way quickly through the crowds. Every now and then he would stop and bow in acknowledgement to a person who approached him but I never saw him speaking with another person. He was always alone and often tucked in where he could stay that way.

It’s like when you buy a certain car and then realize how many others there are. Once you notice something, you see it everywhere. Once I noticed him I saw him everywhere on campus and even some other places in town.

I assumed he was a student at the small liberal arts school at the southern tip of Oregon. I taught a few classes there and it wasn’t long before I knew quite a few students. Teaching journalism, I looked for the writers. I encouraged students to try writing for the campus paper. Vowing to ask him about his major, I planned to approach him next time he popped into view.

Over spring break my chance came. He passed my window and walked under the Southern Oregon University arch across a baseball field sized lawn, past Churchill, one of the oldest and storied buildings on campus said to contain ghosts, past a cute Japanese Maple and out of sight.

“Go! Now!” I thought as I threw on my jacket and kept a brisk pace down the “Comm. Hall”, out through the big glass doors with clanky handles, past the smoking benches and up the hill toward the library. It was open, I figured he was going there. But instead I saw him sitting in a small Zen Garden just behind Churchill.

I had no idea what I’d say to him. But I knew I’d say something. I ducked under a tree branch and stood at the other end of the bench where he sat….

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July 27, 2016 · 7:43 am