Fear of the Stranger

“Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is human fear of the stranger” Ana Maria Pineda

I was taking a walk to the local market the other day when I crossed paths with a middle aged woman carrying groceries back from the store. I did not know her but, people person that I am, I wished her a cheery good morning. She never looked up and passed me by neither answering my greeting nor, in any way, acknowledging that she and I were on the same planet together, not to mention the same neighborhood. Apparently, in her eyes I was a stranger, someone to be feared or at least not trusted.

In this particular case, the woman might have been deaf or her mind was elsewhere but I have had similar experiences before and, in talking to friends, they too have been given the silent treatment by perfect strangers. What’s going on? Have we become so fearful of other people that we are afraid to say hello?

Is it ironic or what that in a culture eager to share our intimate secrets on facebook and other social media outlets, we are becoming less and less willing to talk to one another directly? Good grief, we are even afraid to shake hands with one another without subjecting ourselves to some kind of anti-contaminant. We are becoming a “no touch, don’t talk to strangers society.”

Author Ana Maria Pineda suggests, that our traditional openness to people and new ideas is being smothered by fear of the stranger. Insulated and isolated by our self constructed silos we are building a fence around ourselves keeping the immigrants, people of color and others who are perceived as somehow different than ourselves at bay.

C’mon folks, our world, as you may have observed, is far from perfect but most people are not ogres ready to pounce on others. Honest. Your neighbor is not your enemy but a friend who wants to live in the same kind of peace and harmony you want for yourself. People who speak a different language or have a different color skin are not aliens from space but fellow human beings.

Nah! We don’t need to have love-ins on every block but it might help to recall to mind one of Maya Angelou’s signature quotes, “ We are more alike than unalike.” Not a bad thing to keep in mind next time some “stranger” wishes you good morning.


Giving Kids a Second Chance

Giving Kids the Space To Grow

The issue of trying juveniles in adult court is claiming the attention of both politicians and the general public these days. The brouhaha is being fueled by the high profile case
of the “affluenza kid” the boy who ,when still 16 years-old, killed four people while drunk driving , yet managed to escape a lengthy prison sentence, by claiming his wealthy parents had never taught him the difference between right and wrong.

Predictably the old familiar cry went out from the tough on juvenile crime folks, “This is outrageous, if he’s old enough to do the crime, he’s old enough to do the time.”

By that logic, if a kid is old enough to shoot a gun, he is old enough to enlist in the army; if he is old enough to produce sperm, he is old enough to raise a family.
The juvenile court system was built on the very reasonable premise that children are not adults and that they should not be treated as adults. We don’t allow liquor to be sold to 14 year-olds because, they don’t have the maturity to handle it.

Yet, there seems to be a lot of people comfortable with a legal process that allows us to judge a kid who commits a felony to be tried in adult court. And tried by whom, by the way? A jury of their peers? We wouldn’t dream of allowing kids to serve on a jury. But they can sure be tried, before a jury as though they were adults.

You know something? It’s time we regained the common sense we were born with and start by recalling some of the stupid stuff we did as teens.

I firmly believe that our actions have consequences. If a kid commit a crime, he should be punished for it. That’ fair and just. But don’t ignore the fact that it is a kid who did the deed. Any parent will tell you, kids are works in progress.

Recently I talked to a 17 year-old boy in Juvenile Hall who was reflecting on how he had changed since he was arrested for a crime he had committed when he was 15. I had to smile when he commented on the “immature” 14 and 15 year olds he was living with at juvie. “Man, these kids are so young; they cause most of the trouble around here because they haven’t grown up.”

Good point. Kids grow up; given half a chance, they change as they mature. Trying them as though they are adults and sending them to adult prisons takes away that second chance we owe them.

A Thing Called Hope

A Thing Called Hope

“I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope
And I can’t get it out of my mind”

from the Broadway musical, “South Pacific”

Remember 2015? Seems like day old bread already doesn’t it? We heard more than we wanted to hear about terrorist attacks, immigration issues, growing inequality between the super rich and a diminishing middle class, homelessness in our cities blah, blah, blah.

But, my friends, did you know that in this past year a woman named Peg Hacskaylo in the District of Columbia created a haven for survivors of domestic abuse called DASH. Peg’s program provides safe housing for the poor to restart their lives.

Did you realize that an immigrant to Berlin by the name of Marina ..Naprushkina initiated neighborhood meetings between new immigrants to Germany and community volunteers
so people would get to know one another.

Then there is Eric De Buhr, a construction worker with a desire to help homeless people.
Eric builds small affordable houses so folks can live decently.

Priti Patkar, an Indian woman has a heart for the children of Mumbai’s sex workers. She is working with other volunteers to provide an education and a safe place to live for the kids.

Musician Rob Silvan is the inspiration behind a movement called KEYS (Kids empowered by your support) which gives kids from a depressed area of Bridgeport, Ct. he opportunity of a musical education.

Then there’s David Altmayer, a computer geek who graduated from Alabama and now finds himself in Budapest, Hungary assisting refugees find their way to resources with the aid of a computer program he created.

I garnered these little tidbits of information by looking through some of the 2015 issues of the Christian Science Monitor. I suspect there are thousands of stories like this . Wherever you live in the world, there are people motivated by the compassion that lies in all of us, good folks who follow the better angels of our nature, people who give a damn.

As we dance into 2016, we can’t pretend that the dark clouds of racism and bigotry will not rear their heads. Homelessness and hunger and and war will still plague us. After all, the folks I mentioned above put their own lives at stake to dissipate the darkness.

But moving through a new year, we need to remember the good that is being done, the challenges met. We humans are far from perfect but we ain’t all bad either. So, along with your New Year’s resolutions to eat less, exercise more and drink more red wine, remember the good stuff we are capable of doing,

In the musical, South Pacific, Nellie sings “You can call me a cockeyed optimist..but I’m stuck like a dope with a thing called hope and I can’t get it out of my heart, not this heart.”

Want a buzz word for 2016? How about Hope?

Where Oh Where is Love?

Where oh Where is Love ?

Do you recall the scene from the musical “Oliver” when little Oliver gazes out the window to the busy street below and his loneliness at being an orphan flows over into his voice as he sings, oh so plaintively, “Where oh where oh where is love?”

II thought of this scene from Oliver when I gazed at a you tube photo of another little boy, this one in a red shirt and blue shorts , whose body lay face down on the shores of the Mediterranean. Another sad and lonely boy but this one was all too real This little kid was dead.

Oliver was fiction and eventually he found his mother and family but there was no Hollywood ending to the story of the little Syrian boy, whose name was Aylan.

When the picture of the boy lying as though asleep in the sand first flashed across the screen on television, the producers warned us that the photo of the little boy might be too graphic for their audience.

They wanted us to be able to shield our eyes from the awful truth of innocence betrayed, and what really happens to little immigrant children caught up in a nightmare they had no part in causing.

But you know something? We needed to look at this little boy because he was one of us. Little Aylan didn’t drop from Mars. He was family and now he is dead. And if many of us shed a tear at the sight, maybe we owed him at least that token of our caring. Hopefully, we can do more.

The little three-year-old’s lifeless body was a sermon in flesh to the rest of us that we can’t afford to ignore. As Americans we have always stood tall in responding to the human needs of our brothers and sisters all over the world. It’s who we are; it’s what we do.

President Obama has pledged that we will take in 10,000 refugees. That’s a start. But we need to do more. We need to demonstrate to the world that the true wealth of our nation lies not in our gross national product but in the generosity of its people.

A generation ago, a past generation of Americans dug down deep to help the impoverished and desperate victims of World War 2 with the Marshall Plan. We can do it again.

Where oh where is love? It’s right here in this big hearted generous land of immigrants. Let’s do it for Aylan.

A Boy’s Will is the Wind’s Will

Alone With a New Grandson

Little Ben and I are having a staring contest. He will win. Nobody in the world can outlast the stare of a two-month old baby. I wonder, for the upteenth time, what is going on in his head. Is he thinking anything at all?

The lines of a poem by Henry Wadsworth poem pop serendipitously into my head.

“A boy’s will is the wind’s will and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

Most of us adults assume that the thoughts of a tiny baby are pretty well fixed on survival stuff .
“Will someone please feed me or change my diaper or pick me up?” But maybe we are the ones who are short sighted.

In many ways we are all mysteries to one another. Could it be that this little tot is already sizing us up?

“Hmm! This face sure looks different from Mom. His voice is deeper too. What the hey, he’s making funny faces at me. Now that’s a kick.”

“He’s holding me kind of awkward. Looks like he hasn’t held a baby for a while. But he does smile a lot. He seems to enjoy being with me.”

“I wonder a lot about stuff. Like, how come someone pulled me out of that sweet warm place where I used to be? Well, it was getting a bit cramped in there and I have to admit that I was getting restless.”

Now that I find myself in this new world, I’ve got to figure out where do I go from here. What did that old guy say?” “A boy’s will is the wind’s will and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.?” I gotta think about that one. Not sure what it means but then again I’m not a youth yet.

I’m in no big hurry to grow up. There’s lots of friendly people around me, welcoming me into the world, loving me, taking care of me. I guess I can wait a while before I start thinking those long, long thoughts.

Mondays at Juvenile Hall

Mondays at “Juvie”

Monday afternoons at juvenile hall are laundry folding days. A staff person and three or four of the kids are buried in the week’s laundry of institutional gray shorts and shirts. Each inmate gets his weekly supply which he takes to his own cell, his uniform du jour.

While the laundry is being sorted, I have my time with any of the kids who want to talk to a spiritual advisor. On Mondays that’s me. Being a spiritual advisor to teenage kids is not brand new to me. I’ve been a foster dad and mentored kids in group homes. Having been at one time in my life, a priest , on the one hand, makes me a natural for this kind of volunteer work.

On the other hand, my own spiritual journey has been a roller coaster ride. How does a spiritual advisor advise when at times he’s still trying to figure out his own relationship with God. God is a mystery to me., way too big for me to get my mind around. Now I see him; now I don’t. I do want to believe in God. At least I have that going for me.
And, deep down, I am convinced there is a God of love and that he loves these kids.
Still, It would be easier if I were a more traditional Catholic or, better yet, a Christian fundamentalist. That way, I could be rock solid in my mentoring. “Read the bible, go to church, say grace before meals.” That’s all there is to it, except it’s not.

Life is more complicated. It”s not enough to tell 16 year-old “Juan” to say his prayers when he is already a child dad, grappling with how to take care of his infant daughter. It may be simple to tell Alonzo that he needs to forgive his mom but forgiveness doesn’t come easily when that mom walked out on him when he was only five years-old.

The kids have stories to tell so I do a lot of listening. Despite our differences in background and age, we do after all share a common humanity. We all need love and respect and to forgive and be forgiven. Just listening is a good starting point.

Teenage males, especially those who have experienced a lot of rejection in their lives, are not that ready to confide in a stranger. It helps that I am not paid to be there and am not in authority over them. It takes time to earn their trust but that is one gift I can give.

Besides just listening, I try to pass on to the kids the things I do know about God, that His other name is love, that they are created in His image and likeness. I tell them, too, that just . because they have done some stupid things in their young life doesn’t make them stupid or bad. I share with them the mantra we chanted in the 60’s. “God don’t make no junk.”

I always finish our conversations by looking into the eyes of the lad and promising that I will pray for him. Then I ask him to pray for me. They seem surprised at this. I suspect that many of them had never had someone ask for their prayers. As for me, I’ll take all the prayers I can get.

How Using the “F” Word Changed My Life

How Using the “F” Word Changed My Life

by Hank Mattimore

Part of my responsibilities as a volunteer grandpa at a home for abused and neglected children was to drive the kids to doctor’s appointments or to after school activities. As a surrogate grandparent I tried very hard to set a good example for the kids in our charge. The had already heard enough cuss words and been exposed to enough violence in their young lives.

On this particular day, I had 11 year old “Tony” with me in the car. An Afro-American and new to the home, he was quite shy and I wasn’t having a lot of success getting him to open up to this old white guy. This was hardly unusual. Kids sent to our group home had reason not to trust the adults in their lives.

After a few awkward tries at conversation, I turned on the radio to listen to the 49’er football game. I’m one of these over-the-top football fans so when I hear the announcer saying that the niners were on the one yard line with only 30 seconds left to play in a tie game, I am excited. “Go Niners,” I yell. Then disaster strikes. The Niners fumble and Arizona recovers.

I don’t normally swear. I’ve never used bad language in front of the kids but at this moment I was to break all of the rules. The “F” word erupts from my mouth. Omigosh! I didn’t say that did I? No, not in front of a little kid.

There was this moment of shocked silence. Sheepishly, I looked down at Tony. His big brown eyes looked at me astonished. “Grandpa Hank ! !” Was all he said. Of course I apologised. “Sorry Tony. That just slipped out.”

I turned the game off and we rode in silence for a few minutes, me inwardly ashamed at losing my composure. Then I turned again to the boy. The little bugger had a smile on his face. “Damn it,” I thought to myself. “What are you laughing at?” “Nuthin,” he answered but the grin never left his face.

I had to smile, too. “Dude, I screwed up didn’t I?” The boy put his hand on my shoulder for a brief second. “Hey, it’s ok grandpa Hank. we all make mistakes.”

What I recall the most about that experience was that the relationship between this old white grandpa and an 11 year old kid named Tony was never the same after that, We connected.

Maybe in seeing my own humanity it gave him permission to be more relaxed around me. Whatever it was, we became buddies. He used to drop in on me to watch TV together. Our favorite show was “Everybody Hates Chris”, that sitcom about a junior high black kid and his experiences growing up going to an all white school.

We bonded, Tony and I. I like to think I was able to help him grow up through those pre-adolescent years. He helped me to grow, too. Made me realize that the good Lord uses even our goofs to teach us life lessons. I’m even grateful for the niners for NOT winning that game.

Kudos to Cato the Elder

Kudos To Cato the Elder

Cato, the Elder, Roman statesman and philosopher, started to study Greek at the age of 80. When questioned by a younger friend why he was taking up a brand new language so late in life, Cato was said to reply “Well it’s the only time I have left.”

Cato’s example could be a kick in the pants for all of us old geezers who use our advanced years as a handy excuse to avoid trying new stuff or giving back to society what we have received. Many of us are quite familiar with playing the age card when it suits us.
But, in the long run, we don’t do ourselves any favor by slowing down to a hobble when we are quite capable of walking.

Obviously I am not talking about older people who are severely disabled. Both younger people and healthy old folks owe them our support and assistance.

But if the good Lord gave us a healthy second half to our life as well as a first, He/She must have had a reason for it. We are alive because our lives are still incomplete. We have a job to do, people to forgive, children to encourage, fences to mend, stories to tell and songs to sing.

Remember the poet Browning’s words about the second half of life being “the best is yet to be” ? Our modern world, in its obsession with staying youthful at any cost, has managed to turn Browning’s words around hasn’t it ?“The best is yet to be has become the worst is yet to be.” As a society we are gripped by a fear of aging. We even have a buzz word for it…”Gerontophobia.”

Well, I say handle that gerontophobia BS with a sense of humor. A quirky friend of mine was wont to say, with a twinkle in her 85 year old eyes, “Life is getting awfully scary these days. sometimes I wonder if I’m going to get out of it alive.”

Maybe the greatest gift we elders can pass on to the next generation is to put aside the fear of aging and just keep truckin. We’re old enough to know that we may not change the world, but we can improve ourselves and, by George, we can improve our little corner of the world.

Recalling the immortal words of the great Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” we can finish our life journey with our brains still engaged, our legs still pumping.
That old guy, Cato the Elder, he had the right idea.

Undeclared War on our own Kids

Our Undeclared “War” on Kids

We are a bellicose nation. Even if the cause is just we like to label our initiatives as “wars.” In the Kennedy-Johnson era we launched a war on poverty. For the past number of years we have (mostly misspent) our billions on fighting the war on drugs.

More recently as we allow our governments to spend more money building prisons to incarcerate our kids rather than schools to educate them, I’m beginning to. wonder if we are not in effect, embarked on yet another war, a war on kids.

Look at the facts. When compared to almost any developed nation, our kids score dismally in math and science tests., On the other hand, we lead all nations, first or third world countries, in the number of our youth we throw in prison. We label this battle “a war on crime.” I call it a war on children.

When we have to battle for every budget dollar to pay for daycare for our children or paid pregnancy leave for young mothers or a living wage for the parents of our kids, it’s time to admit it. We are at war with our future generation.

When I read the War Games trilogy, I could not help noticing a resemblance to our own times. Remember, in that book, the government sacrificed the cream of its youth in war games so that those in power could live in comfort. We too, send our young men and women to wage war on shadowy enemies. Then, we begrudge them their veterans benefits when they come back wounded in body and in soul.

We put our future generation in hock with their student loans. We try kids, some as young as 12 or 13, in adult court. Counselors in group homes for youth are paid less than their buddies flipping hamburgers. Pre-school teachers, to whom we entrust our small children, need food stamps to support their own families.

There is a lot of wisdom in the old adage, “In war, there are no winners.” When we cheat kids out of a good education by our failure to support our schools, or by sending them to prison for nonviolent crimes, or short-changing our second rate foster care system, our kids will not emerge winners. Nor will we.

It’s time we called a truce in this war. If a society is judged on how we care for our children, we aren’t doing very well. We can do better. Our kids need us to do better.

Walk Like a Millionaire

Walk Like a Millionaire

My Jewish grandfather was a short, barrel chested man with the voice of a cantor and the tude of an Olympic athlete at the height of his career. In his mid-eighties, he carried himself like a young man. One day, old Ben caught me with my head down, feet sort of dragging. I had just blown a job interview and was feeling sorry for myself.
“Hank,” he bellowed, “Get those shoulders back. You’re way too smart, way too gifted to walk that way. I want you to promise me that you will always walk like a millionaire and let the world know you’ve got what it takes.”
His words, spoken so many years ago, came back to me yesterday as I found myself slouching along musing disconsolately about the state of Hank. Man! I am OLD. Never mind that bull shit about 80 being the new 60. Eight decades is eight decades. I feel those 80 big ones in my bones (and eyes and ears and the “nether” regions of my anatomy) all the time. So is it time to cash in my chips or at least start acting like an old guy?
Get outta here. Rather it’s time to listen to my Jewish grandpa. And pay heed too, to the words of the poet, Robert Browning.
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
If my time remaining is short, all the more reason to be up and about. There are kind words to be said; frail older people to be supported; young kids to be listened to. There are old friends to be contacted and people to forgive and others from whom to ask forgiveness. There are smiles to bestow and jokes to tell. There is love to spread around generously. If not now, when?
All of that good stuff is part of life, part of the giving back we all owe for receiving the gift of life. We octogenarians have our assignments and there is no time to waste. A younger generation has a right to expect from us the wisdom we have garnered through our life experience.
My Jewish Grandpa was right on. Now is NOT the time to shuffle through old age as though we have nothing to give. Our riches are within us, wealth that is our privilege to share.
Now is our time to walk like millonaires.