I’m Hungry!

“I’m hungry!”

That should be such an innocuous phrase, here in our land of plenty.  For me, it heralds a trip to the refrigerator, perhaps the snack cupboard, to address the niggling pangs between meals.

Mind you, a moment or two on the weigh scale would indicate I am certainly not going to perish imminently if I don’t satisfy the urge.  But I still complain, and I still nibble away.

scale

Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would be like if I lived in a currently-emerging country, maybe in sub-Saharan Africa.  What would the phrase mean to me in that case?  Could I blithely traipse to a snack cupboard, to a well-stocked fridge, to stanch the cravings?

Obviously not.  Were I there, I might not even have access to safe drinking water.  But unlike those poor unfortunates, I am blessed to live in a providential country, overflowing with nature’s bounty, where no one ever has to go hungry.

Except…except, that’s not really true.  People do go hungry, even here.

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet by almost any measure.  Among the thirty-four members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it ranks first in average household income, and leads the world in household spending.  The standard of living sits solidly in the top twenty countries.

However, the gap in household wealth from highest to lowest is larger today than it has ever been.  In 2018, American households held over $113 trillion in assets. If that amount were divided evenly across the population of 329 million, each person would have over $343,000.  But we don’t live in a co-op, and that is not going to happen.

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More than thirty-eight million Americans live in poverty, earning less than twenty-six thousand dollars a year.  The median annual income in America in 2018 was more than sixty-three thousand dollars, so there is a significant gap.  And of course, that number is a minimum.  Many families making much more are still considered low-income by most experts, and many have difficulty making ends meet.

Of the number living in poverty, thirty-seven million struggle with hunger daily, including thirteen million children.  When they say, “I’m hungry!”, it has real import.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this struggle means they have limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.  Their families make choices between food and housing, between food and medical care, between food and utilities, between food and transportation.

Breakfast programs in numerous school districts provide relief to hundreds of thousands of children, except during holiday periods, of course.  And both government and community organizations also provide assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

food stamp

Still, the number of children crying, “I’m hungry!” hovers around thirteen million.

One of the reasons is the slow recovery for the poorer segment of the population from the economic crash of 2008.  This group was demonstrably the last one for which life improved after the economy began to rise.  Even when the wage-earners in the group found jobs, they were often paid only minimum-wage or slightly higher.

The Economic Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit group studying the impact of economic trends and policies on working people in the United States, found that between 2000 and 2015, wages for the bottom earners were flat or declined, and that the preponderance of gains occurred among the highest earners.

This is the time of year when I—comfortably ensconced in front of my television, nibbling on the snacks I fetched when I realized I was hungry—see heartwarming ads portraying people coming home for the holidays.  The snow is gently falling as they mount the porch steps to a house adorned with twinkling Christmas lights.  When the door is thrown open, they are engulfed in hugs and kisses from those already there, laughing and talking in front of an open, festive fire.  They are not among the lowest wage-earners.

Coming_Home_2017

Indeed, it is a scene right out of Norman Rockwell.

I never see ads out of Charles Dickens, however.  I never see anyone like the Cratchit family, huddled around a miserable hearth, trying like Tiny Tim to find cheer and joy in the season.  But they’re out there.

For me, and perhaps for you, “I’m hungry!” is such an innocuous phrase.  For others, it’s a desperate cry for help.

I wonder what else we can do.

Assailed from Within

For six months of the year, I am blessed to live in a beautiful home in the south of Florida.  The house is nestled up against a golf course, fronting on a safe street in a lovely, gated community.  Granted, it is not among the grandest of homes in size and extravagance, but it is certainly more than I might expect to have.

Despite its safe, secure location, the house is subject to various threats from time to time, almost all due to the whims of nature.  It sits in the path taken by a number of hurricanes over the past few years—Charley, Wilma, and Irma since the house was built in 2004.  Only minor damage was inflicted by each of those, fortunately, but the risk remains.

Flooding, loss of power, and compromises to safe drinking water are other external hazards, usually as a side-effect of those hurricanes.

However, the most insidious threats to the integrity of the house come not from outside, but from within.  The greatest danger is from mould, whose major causes are humidity and condensation, which can arise from leaks, poor ventilation, and general dampness.  Once it gains a foothold, it spreads rapidly.

Almost as bad is the threat from termites.  Working from the inside out, they can do a great deal of damage before they are ever detected.  The signs are there, of course—stiff windows and warped doors, papery or hollow-sounding wood, termite droppings, small piles of sawdust—but these are easy to miss in the early stages of an infestation.

Both mould and termites can destroy the structural integrity of a home from the inside more surely than any external threat.  Vigilance is required.

I find this analogous to the situation faced today by the remarkable nation of which Florida is a part.  This grand experiment in democracy, self-proclaimed as the greatest nation on the face of the earth, does face threats from outside its borders.  It has engaged in two wars with foreign adversaries on its home turf (1775-1781 and 1812-1815, plus a civil war from 1861-1865), but recent attacks have come mainly from terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

With what is widely assumed to be the strongest military capability in the world, it seems safe to say the country will not likely suffer an invasion from any foe.

But what of the threats from within?  The nation proudly touts itself as the leader of the free world, based on the pillars of its foundation.  What are those, and where might they be found?

The US Constitution of 1789 begins with these words—

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,

establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common

defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty

to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…

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It has been amended and revised many times since then, but its basic premise has never altered.  Among its most important pillars are: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, the right to due process of law, and voting rights.

Its whole purpose was famously summed up in 1863 as ensuring that… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

No foreign threat has been successful, so far, in efforts to thwart the intent of the framers.  The greatest reason for this is that generations of elected representatives from both legislative and executive branches have honourably carried out their sworn oath to…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic… [and] well and faithfully discharge the duties of [their] office…

It’s called integrity.

Is that changing, I wonder, in front of our eyes?  Has personal interest—whether political or financial—become more important to some than defence of the Constitution?  Has political partisanship on the part of some trumped the notion of duty to country?  Has the job of some elected officials become, not to carry out the will of the majority of the people, but to curry favour with wealthy lobbyists and sponsors so as to ensure re-election?

lobbying

The answers are for each American to decide for her- or himself, I suppose.  But it is worth noting that, although some of these threats are being mounted by foreign interests, they are being encouraged and implemented by some from inside the nation.

Even the strongest tree rots from the inside out.

Benjamin Franklin, when asked by citizens what sort of government the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had created, answered, A republic, if you can keep it.

We shall see.

A Worship of Writers

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of a murder of crows, a herd of cows, a gaggle of geese.  You know of prides of lions, packs of wolves, and barrels of monkeys.  You may even be familiar with a conspiracy of lemurs, a parliament of owls, and a convocation of eagles.

Almost every animal species has its own collective name, which is sometimes shared with other species.

Humans are no exception.  We recognize band of brothers, pack of thieves, circle of friends.  We may find ourselves from time to time as part of a flock of tourists, a panel of experts, or, sadly, a cortege of mourners.  And there are many more I have learned only recently—sneer of butlers, feast of brewers, helix of geneticists, and one I especially love, slither of gossip columnists.

To my surprise and delight, I have recently been invited to become one of such a collective—a worship of writers.  I had never heard the term before, though I have long worshipped the art of writing.

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We meet once a week to read our responses to a writing prompt, each response no more than a page-and-a-half, and to offer constructive criticism of each other’s work.  The responses are posted on a private blog, if their authors so choose, for all to enjoy and ponder again.

The prompt for this week, the first one for me, is separation.  Each of us must write something to reflect that notion, knowing it can have many interpretations.  Here is my first endeavour—

*  *  *  *  *  *

“There’s no easy way to say this, Harold,” the man behind the desk said.  “So, I’ll come right out with it.  “It’s been decided that we’re letting you go, effective today.”

“W-what?” I stammered, shifting from one foot to the other.

“You know we’ve been consolidating for some time,” he said.  “Rightsizing.  It’s been decided that we can no longer afford to carry your department.”

“But…but what about our readers?” I asked.

Staring at his hands folded carefully behind the nameplate in front of him—Don Mountbank, Managing Editor—he said, “Ruby will escort you out.  You can take your personal belongings, of course, but nothing else.  HR will be in touch with the separation details.”

Ruby, the fat security guard, moved next to me.  I wondered why she’d been there when I first entered the office.  Now I knew.

“Don, wait, this is crazy,” I said.  “I’ve been with the paper for thirty-eight years.  Longer than anybody.  This is all I know.  I’m a news-guy!”

Still not looking at me, Mountbank said, “Harold, this is very hard on me.  Don’t make it even worse.  Nothing you say is going to change a thing.  It’s been decided.”

I felt countless eyes following us as Ruby walked me through the newsroom to my cubicle.  Everything of my own was in the knapsack hanging on the back of my lopsided chair.  I didn’t even open my desk.

At the employees’ door, Ruby said, “Sorry, Harold.”

The door banged shut and I was on the street.  After almost forty years, the separation took no more time than that.

o – o – o – o – o

That was three months ago.  I’m back in the newsroom today for the first time since.  The few people still left, when they see me coming, bolt from their chairs, ducking, running.  It’s not me they fear, of course.  It’s the Winchester 94 I’m carrying, my deer-hunting rifle for more than twenty-five years.

It’s the first thing Don Mountbank sees when I burst into his office.

“Harold!  What the hell…”  He pushes his chair back from his desk, seeking to separate himself from whatever might be coming.

The young reporter he was meeting with rises slowly from her chair, hands splayed in front of her.  She’d been hired shortly before my employment was terminated.

“Mary?” I say, checking my memory.  When she nods, I say, “Sit down, Mary.  Right there.  Take out your phone and record everything that happens here.  Audio only, no video.  Got that?”

She nods again, eyes wide, and takes out her phone.

“Harold, what the hell are you doing, man?” Mountbank says, his voice cracking.  “This is crazy!  You know what will happen when the police find out?”

“Shut up, Don!” I say.  “This is hard enough on me as it is.  Don’t make it worse.”

His arms are raised now, as if to shield himself.  “Harold, listen, you know it wasn’t personal.  I tried to save you.  I went to the wall for you.  It wasn’t my decision.”

I point the Winchester at him.  “Looks like you’re up against the wall again, Don.”

And then he soils himself.  Both Mary and I lean back involuntarily, as if we can separate ourselves from the smell.  Before he can say another word, I shoot him twice, once in the left knee, once in the right hand.  The sound is louder than the flat Crack! I’m used to outdoors, the smell of cordite more pungent.  He screams, writhing in his chair until he slides to the floor.

I turn to Mary.  “This is your story to report,” I say.  “Your exclusive.  We’re going to leave now, you right in front of me.  If you do exactly as I tell you, I won’t hurt you.  Understand?”

She nods again, phone clutched tightly, and we head back to the deserted newsroom.  As we approach my former cubicle, four police officers appear at the far end of the room.  Ruby is with them, pointing at me.

POLICE!  PUT DOWN THE GUN!

Mary and I freeze, the Winchester pointed at her back.

PUT DOWN THE GUN!  PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!

Mary raises her arms.

“Mary,” I say softly.  “This is your story.  They’ll try to take it away from you, but don’t let them.  You’re part of this, not separate from it.  You report it, understand?”

When she nods, I say, “Okay, start walking away from me.  Go slowly so you won’t scare the cops.  You’ll be fine.”

When we are sufficiently separated, I take my finger off the trigger.  The cops don’t see that.  All they see is me still pointing the rifle at Mary.

SIR, PUT DOWN THE GUN!  NOW!

But I don’t.  Instead, I pivot towards them, the Winchester in firing position, no finger on the trigger.  I’m struck immediately, three times, four, five, driving me backwards…

I’m on the floor…I see the ceiling tiles…the fluorescent lights…one is flickering…

Now I hear Mary screaming…

My chest hurts, it hurts…

And now…

*  *  *  *  *  *

I don’t expect my new writer friends to worship the piece, but I’m eager to hear what they think of it.  This is going to be fun.

One More Time

A few years ago, we sold our home in Florida and I retired from playing ball.  Once the decision was taken, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  There was no special celebration or ritual ceremony to mark the occasion.  After all, several of my friends had already made the same decision before me.  And furthermore, when it came right down to it, nobody really cared.

PP home

However, last spring we purchased another Florida home, and as this past autumn approached, I began to have second thoughts about that retirement.  I began to question if I could actually carry through with the decision.  I mean, how would I weather another winter in Florida without playing ball?

As September gave way to October, the sunshine state beckoned us again, and, with a sense of quiet desperation, I began to search ‘midst the debris of a sporting life for my trusty old ball glove.

glove

My wife (whose university degree dealt with biology, physiology, kinesiology, and other -ologies having to do with the human body) tells me that the average male person attains his physical peak around the age of twenty-six years.  If she’s right, that would mean I am fifty years beyond my glorious prime.

These days, I can’t remember what I was even doing when I was twenty-six, let alone how well I might have been doing it.  But I’m pretty sure I was somewhere playing softball, for somebody.

Now I have to admit that, with my level of athletic prowess, it’s difficult to tell if I ever actually reached a peak!  Regardless, I’m long past the point where even I could think of myself as a player ‘on the way up’, a kid ‘with a future’!

A few winters ago, before my decision to retire, several little things occurred on the playing field that, by themselves, weren’t especially significant.  Taken together, though, they presented a pattern which had led to my giving up the game.

First was the change in the distance between the bases; it got longer!  Either that, or I began to slow down.  And, for a ballplayer who couldn’t hit his weight, who threw three-bouncers from centre field to the infield, speed on the base paths was a commodity I sorely needed.

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I also noticed I had stopped caring who won the game.  What mattered more to me was that I got to play my innings.  I don’t think my teammates knew, because nothing changed outwardly in my approach to the game.  But I knew, and I worried about it.  I mean, who wants to be on a ball team with someone who isn’t even competitive anymore?

The clincher, however, was a fall I took in the outfield, after [ahem] catching a long fly ball.  It was similar to dozens of such falls in the past, except this time I tore some ligaments in my shoulder.  Surgery was required twice—once to insert two screws, and again to remove them.  Those were not fun.

Consequently, when we sold our home, I retired.  Hung up the cleats.

However, upon my recent return to Florida this fall, I heard about the first meeting of the new season, to organize teams for winter ball.  I wandered over to the ballpark, just to see who might be coming back.  And I took my ball glove with me for moral support.

Once there, of course, my crumbling resolve to be retired collapsed completely.  Surrounded by past teammates—and wondering how they all got so old—I joyously entered my name and signed on the dotted line.

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I’m back! the boy inside me cried.

I probably still can’t hit for average, and my speed in the outfield will be tragically reduced on my gimpy knees, but I can still spit in the dirt and pound my glove.  So, sometime within the next couple of days, under a warm, winter sun, with all the other erstwhile boys of summer, I’ll trot—or totter—on to that field of dreams again.

One more time.