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.
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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.

Return to Wonder

Return to Wonder

Odd that we elders do not often share with youth the wonders of old age. We grouse about our bodily aches and limitations but the gifts of aging are as real as its losses. We do our kids and grandkids no favor when we conceal from them the quiet satisfactions of old age, the return to innocence that envelops our passing years, the sweet comfort of our memories and the return of our childhood capacity to wonder.
Among the many unheralded blessings of old age is our ability to return to the innocence of our childhood. We look upon the tiny hands of a new born baby and we are astonished. We are in awe at the flight of a raven gliding in majesty above. Our eyes come alive at the sight of a young woman jogger moving past us so effortlessly, her young legs strong; her motion so fluid.
The deepening shadows of a fall afternoon invite us to pause and enjoy the moment. Whether we touch the rough bark of an ancient redwood or smell the sweet scent of a honeysuckle or revel in the sound of a long forgotten song or the laughter of children at play, we find ourselves nourished, graced by the small wonders of life. If only for a moment, our heart is filled with wonder and thankfulness for the gift of life. “What did we do to deserve this?” we ask ourselves.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make them aware of the gratitude we feel towards them and the warmth of our love. The next generation should know that old age is not all darkness and pain. They should know that, along with the challenges of aging, there is fulfillment and hope and yes a return to wonder.
If we but make the effort we find that the gifts of our senior years are many; forgiveness, tolerance, gratitude are all our companions as we near the finish line. Hopefully, we become less hardened in our judgments, more accepting of our failings, more humble and above all, grateful for the gift of our years and the God who lives within us all.

Legacy of Laughter

Legacy of Laughter

My big brother Joe, who died recently, was an excellent pediatrician. Admired for his professional competence and genuine caring, he also carried a secret weapon, a weapon that, in the long run, made him a better physician; Joe had a great sense of humor.
I recall him telling me about meeting another doctor at a professional meeting and being asked his specialty. “Pediatrics,”Joe answered. “Oh,” said the doctor, with just a touch of patronizing in his voice. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to spend his career looking after a gaggle of snotty-nosed kids.” Joe replied, “Why, what is your specialty? ”
When the doctor replied “I’m a proctologist,” Joe admits cracking up. (Proctology is a field of medicine dealing with disorders of the rectum, anus and colon.) Joe said, “I’m sorry Doctor but I’ll take the kids any day.”
Another time Joe was working on a team of medical professional and found himself partners with one of those pompous professionals we have all met from time to time. According to my brother, this was a nice guy but he just took himself a little too seriously. The next time he went out on rounds with the doctor, Joe surreptitiously planted a piece of paper on his back with the words “KICK ME.” The sight of the distinguished physician drawing mysterious giggles from the nurses and other staff must have been hilarious. Joe admits that it was a junior high school kind of joke but had no regrets. “In our profession you need to show your human side,”
Having a good laugh, especially at ourselves, is a good weapon to have in our arsenals, whether we be doctors or super market cashiers, old folks or youngins. Laughter puts our lives in perspective when the “woulda, shouda, coudas” of daily living get us down.
A sense of humor enables us to see our lives through the prism of the ancient redwood forests and the mighty ocean and the billions of years our planet has existed. Man o man, we are so blessed just to have been given the gift of life.
We have our role to play as human beings…to tread lightly upon our planet, to be kind to others, to give back the gifts God has honored us with, to stand by our kids and family, to dance and sing and yes,to know how to laugh and share that gift with others.
It helped make my brother Joe an extraordinary doctor. It can turn our own lives into something special as well.

laughter, perspective, sense of humor

When Just Getting Up is Hard To Do

When Just Getting Up is Hard to Do

She is old, very old. The wrinkles on her skin and thinning white hair announced to anyone who sees her that she is near the finish line of life. Still, she manages a faint smile when she says good morning.
“You know, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of bed this morning.”
“Don’t you feel well,” I ask.
“No, I’m not sick. Sometimes I lie in bed and just have to talk myself into a reason for getting up. Know what I mean?”
I do know what she means. Our older generation is like a kid at a birthday party who is given a gift she is not sure what to do with. We have been given the gift of many more years of living but we are not quite sure what to do with them.
The very phrase, “the gift of years” can sound hollow to a lonely older person. As my late mother-in-law famously expressed it, “Screw the golden years; you can have them.” I suspect that many gray heads would find it easy to relate to her sentiment. Don’t you agree?
So, what do those of us “of a certain age” do with the years that, ready or not, have been gifted to us? For many of us the stresses of aging are softened somewhat by the presence of family and grandchildren nearby. But for those who find themselves alone in the world, the process of aging with its many losses is more than just challenging.
We can bitch and moan about it. That’s pretty normal. Sometimes it’s even therapeutic. Old folks should be cut some slack to complain but when we find that the complaint department is closed for the duration and no one is listening to our gripes, then what? Sadly, some of us give up. We die inside long before the brain (and heart) is dead.
There is a better way. It starts with changing our attitude. What we can do is call upon our life experience, our elder wisdom, and to figure out a way to use the time we have been given. A good starting point is to lift our gaze from staring at our own navel and start thinking about how we can contribute to our world. To paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what other people can do for you; ask what you can do for other people.”
What we can do for others, especially if we are confined to home or limited in other ways, may seem inconsequential but each one of us has something unique to give. If even the flapping of a butterfly’s wings has an effect on the other side of the world, does not an act of kindness, a heartfelt thank you, a word of forgiveness contribute to making the world a more loving place?
The timeless words of St. Francis are meant for all ages but perhaps speak most eloquently for those of us seeking meaning in our latter years. “It is in giving that we receive; in loving that we are loved.”

Marriage and, by the way, Family

MARRIAGE and, by the way, Family

I remember taking a college course entitled “Marriage and Family.” In those quaint olden days it seemed fitting to put the two subjects, “marriage” and “family” together. Most couples got married and had children. That’s just the way it worked. Putting the two topics into a single course made sense because in the vast majority of cases, people planned to raise children.
Not so much anymore. A scholar by the name of Cormac Burke, a participant in the current synod on the family in Rome, reminded us recently that family is, fast becoming a dispensable part of marriage. He says “Modern marriage is basically an a deux arrangement, an agreement between two people that has nothing to do with children.” A family can of course be added on later but only if convenient.
“Children,” he adds, “instead of being the natural fruit of married love and the glue that holds it together in times of stress are reduced to the category of minor accessories to the personal happiness of two separate persons and so dispensable,( like the marriage itself) if they do not serve each individuals happiness.”
We talk a lot these days about the rights we are owed as married people (gay or straight). We want tax advantages and inheritance rights perhaps forgetting that these rights and privileges were by and large given to married folks in order to protect and provide for the offspring of their marriages.
Was it the 80’s that was referred to as the “me generation?” I’d suggest that we could call ourselves the “me and you generation.” We have become so obsessed with a couples personal relationship and fulfillment that the broader social nature of marriage and family has faded into insignificance.
I submit that marriage is greater that the personal relationship between willing partners. A married couple becomes part of a society bigger than themselves. They have certain rights as members of society but they also have obligations to that same society. This includes being open to raising a new generation of children themselves, or fulfilling their obligation in love and compassion to those children who have no one to take care of them. Foster kids and homeless kids are “our kids” too.
We are not doing very well by our children. They are the ones who suffer when we separate marriage from family, when we pursue our individual lives as though they are an afterthought in the scheme of things, as though their welfare is not the most important aspect of marriage.

Losing a Brother

Losing a Brother

I lost one of my older brothers a few months back. I thought I was coping pretty well with his loss. You know the drill. Time is a great healer. He’s in a better place. It was a good death. Yea,yea yea.
Then September 20th. dawned, Dan’s birthday. For the first time, I would not be calling him on the phone or dropping him a card in the mail to wish him many happy returns. Sometimes Dan and I would put a single dollar bill in the card, a throwback to when we were kids and a dollar bill was always included as one of our presents.
But now, a birthday without my brother? No! From deep within me came the rumblings of a grief I did not expect, a sucker punch that made me look for a chair to rest in. Dan is gone.
Dan is gone. My big brother, my role model, my confidante. He was the one who told me the facts of life when I was only five-years old, taught me the art of tossing a perfect one hand push shot on the basketball court, and a curve ball on the baseball diamond. Dan was my partner when he and I would play Pa and my brother Dick on our golfing vacations. We played stick ball together. I was proud to caddy for him when, as a fourteen-year-old kid, he won the junior golf championship in Buffalo.
It is said that the greatest loss in life is to lose a parent or a spouse or, God forbid, your own child. I have no quarrel with that thinking but the loss of a sibling deserves honorable mention among the panoply of losses.
A brother or a sister is part of you. You grow up together, sleep in the same room, and wear one another’s clothes. Once you reach a certain age you don’t snitch on one another. You scheme to fool your parents and keep one another’s secrets. There is competition between siblings. That goes without saying. But there is sibling loyalty, too. You honor that. There are certain things mom and dad need not know; things you share that you share with on one else.
My brother and I grew up at a time and place when people, especially brothers, were not physically demonstrative. No hugging for us. You’ve got to be kidding. A hand shake or pat on the back was about as close as we got to showing our affection for one another. No. “I love you man” stuff for us.
But, at the end of Dan’s life, we both realized that saying “I love you” to a brother was not only acceptable, it felt right and good. Because, the truth is we did love one another. The inhibitions finally melted away and we spoke heart to heart, soul to soul.
We still do. On my imaginary birthday card, with the traditional dollar bill tucked inside, I wrote “I love you, Dan. I always did and I always will.”