Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Rae Ann, David's Bear


During her accounting career at Chase Bank, Rae Ann didn't handle any account worth less than a million dollars.

One evening, she called her husband, David, from her office to say that the FBI had just shown up, needing her to run numbers on an account whose owner the federal government wanted to prosecute.  So who knew when she'd get home.

That's the type of job she had.

When I met Rae Ann, however, her proficiency with numbers extended to babbling "one-one-one-one-one" or "one-two-one-two-one-two."  You see, I met Rae Ann at Autumn Leaves, the dementia care facility where we'd had to place my father.

Just before David placed Rae Ann at Autumn Leaves, he'd had her brain tested, and it was functioning at the level of a two-year-old's.

David and Rae Ann lived simply, and they never had children.  Theirs was the second marriage for both of them, and while each of them had good jobs that required considerable responsibility, they were never big wage earners.  Still, they'd managed to amass a small fortune that should have ensured that they'd enjoy a comfortable and secure retirement.  But Rae Ann developed early-onset dementia, forcing her to retire early from Chase Bank.  And when she died early this morning, at Autumn Leaves, the sizable retirement portfolio she and David had built had been depleted to several thousand dollars.

All the rest - including vacation property in Maine that David sold a couple of years ago - ended up paying for her dementia care.

David died over a year ago, after his COPD flared up.  He'd quit smoking years before, but after he was forced to place Rae Ann in Autumn Leaves, his mother suffered a debilitating stroke and soon died.  As his wife's condition continued to deteriorate, the stress wreaked havoc on David, and he went back to smoking, even though he kept denying it to anybody who'd ask.  His own death was quick and relatively painful; quite unlike his wife's death, which was slow and, in her final days, quiet and as pain-free as her hospice nurses could make it.

On his deathbed - literally - my mother and I promised David that we'd continue to look after his dear wife, the woman he affectionately called his "Bear."  Her extended family lives in Maine and Florida, and David's only surviving relative, his brother, was struggling with his own cancer treatments at the time.  Fortunately, David's brother eventually managed to beat his cancer, and along with his wife, they moved to Arlington from Mississippi so they could be closer to better cancer care if he needed it in the future.  Along with one of Rae Ann's brothers in Maine who served as her medical power of attorney, David's brother and sister-in-law monitored Rae Ann's daily care until the end.  And Mom and I visited her at least once a week, like we promised her husband we would.

When Mom and I first toured Autumn Leaves, as we prepared to place Dad there, Mom says she was in such a daze, she doesn't remember it.  But we met Rae Ann during that tour, as one of the managers was showing us the facility's airy craft room, and explaining how all of the artwork on the walls had been done by former residents.  Rae Ann, who at the time still sported what I'd call a "normal" hairstyle, wore clean clothes, and properly-applied fingernail polish, wandered into the craft room, silently listening to the manager, and nodding her head in an inquisitive cadence.  At first, I thought she was the family member of another resident there.  She wore a bright shirt with "Maine" on it, something I particularly noticed since my Mom is originally from there.

It wasn't until the manager took Mom and me from the craft room and down another hallway - with Rae Ann still shuffling along behind us! - that I realized she was a resident.

Back then, David usually fed her at mealtimes, so her clothes weren't marked by spilled food.  If you've ever seen a dementia patient eat, you know it can be a messy process.  Rae Ann didn't really need to be fed until about a year ago, but David wanted to spend as much time with her as possible, and he wasn't bothered by the chaos that can easily overtake a dining room full of dementia patients.  Mom and I, on the other hand, couldn't bear to watch Dad eat, so I'd usually place him at David and Rae Ann's table before Mom and I left.

She'd led a proper and well-mannered life before dementia set in, as you'd expect from an accountant at a bank.  Rae Ann quilted, crocheted, and sewed in her spare time - all hobbies that bespeak a congenial temperament of precision and disciplined creativity.  In fact, when her brother-in-law and sister-in-law cleaned out their house after David died, they called a church group known for its knitting circle to come and clear out a bedroom full of cloth, yarn, and other supplies.  When the ladies arrived to get the material, they were stunned, and told her in-laws that they would document all that Rae Ann had in stock for tax purposes, because it would be a significant amount.  To her in-laws' surprise, the ladies calculated that Rae Ann amassed craft materials worth over $11,000!  She'd probably planned on spending her retirement working away quietly on various knitting and sewing projects.  Instead, it went to helping pay down David's estate taxes.

At Autumn Leaves, meanwhile, Rae Ann could be anything but quiet and well-mannered.  One morning, just as we'd arrived to visit Dad, Mom and I saw Rae Ann storm by, her face as black as coal with that tell-tale dementia scowl, water dripping everywhere, clothed only in a canvas-looking shift that caregivers often put on residents while being bathed or showered.  Her hair was dripping wet, and a caregiver was trotting behind her, towel in hand, but staying just enough out of Raye Ann's strident gait.  According to Texas state law, residents of care centers cannot leave a shower with wet hair, so the caregiver who'd lost the battle in the shower was simply following Rae Ann with the towel in case a state inspector showed up!  David had already approved that plan after it was discovered that Rae Ann, whose normal lifetime of patience ran low in her dementia, would often rage out of a half-completed shower, maybe because she didn't understand why she was wet.  "Just stay out of her way when she's in that mood," David would say.  "It's one reason I have her here - I can't control it myself."

He arrived at Autumn Leaves soon after that, and when Mom and I told him - laughing - the spectacle we'd seen, David laughed as well.  "That's my 'Bear'," he grinned.

One time, after she had a seizure and David took her to the hospital, Rae Ann managed to deck an ER technician, despite her petite frame and skinny arms.  Indeed, Mom and I never touched her until recently, when her strength was obviously gone.  We didn't  know what would provoke her.  Sometimes she'd lash out at David, and he just took it, because he knew she didn't know what she was doing.  One time, a visitor to Autumn Leaves came up to her, on the other side of a room from where David and I were talking, and he put his arm around her to greet her.  Some people are touchy-feely like that, even when they don't know the other person.  But Rae Ann wasn't a touchy-feely type of person.  She turned and glared at the man, a complete stranger, and her face turned coal-black.  David turned to me quietly and said, "I'm waiting for her to lay him flat out cold."

Fortunately for the man, he immediately got Rae Ann's drift, and moved away from her, much to David's obvious disappointment!

Back in those days - hard to believe I'm only talking about the time three years ago when Dad was there - the corporate office at Autumn Leaves would hold corporate parties at this Arlington facility, which is the original in their chain of dementia care homes.  They'd hire a caterer, set up long tables with white tablecloths stocked with platters of fancy foods, and invite vendors, family members, and who knows who else to come and have a feast.  Mom and I never understood why people would want to party and socialize at a dementia facility, and the parties never did manage to attract big crowds.  But one evening, as Mom and I were getting ready to leave, and I was about to take Dad down to his dining room (away from the tables with white tablecloths), David came strolling by, looking for Rae Ann.

"Have you eaten any of this grub?" David asked, with a chuckle in his voice.  When we told him we hadn't, he laughed.  "Good!  Because Bear's been by a couple of times already, dipping her hands into each of those bowls, and fingering all of those platters of food!"

And who knows where else those hands had been.  Dementia patients are not known for their cleanliness or sanitation savvy.

One of the things Rae Ann did - for hours on end - was walk.  Autumn Leaves is designed with hallways that radiate out from a central courtyard, which gives dementia patients the feeling that as they walk, they're actually going someplace, even though they're just walking in one big circle.  Dad walked a lot, too, but not as much as Rae Ann.  One Saturday, I recall, Mom and I were at the doorway to Dad's room when I looked up the hall, and saw Miss Margie, one of the most frail women there, being helped along by her son.  But they were in Rae Ann's way, during one of her walks, and she pushed Miss Margie so that she fell, and actually broke her hip - right there, as Miss Margie's son and I watched.  They had to call an ambulance and take Miss Margie to the hospital, and although physical therapy managed to help get her back on her feet, Miss Margie never really did walk again, and her family preferred her having the relative safety of a wheelchair anyway.  But the family never sued David or Rae Ann, or Autumn Leaves.  Like all of us who have to deal with the reality of dementia, Miss Margie's family understood that "sometimes things just happen."  It's sad, and frustrating, and even a bit scary, but that's dementia.

What's also scary about dementia is how young some of its victims are.

Rae Ann, for example, was 71.  She'd had dementia for approximately nine years.  David dutifully cared for her by himself until he could no longer handle her severe mood swings.  He realized things were getting out hand when, one day, she opened the door and invited some Jehovah's Witnesses inside before he, from another part of the house, realized what was going on.  Fortunately for the irreligious David, their conversation was going nowhere fast!  Remember the "one-one-one-one" babbling?  That's about all the talking Rae Ann could do.

Well, except for one time that Mom and I will remember with special fondness.  We were with Dad, and David, and Rae Ann, walking the hallways together, and we came upon one of the activity directors, a young, small woman who was expecting her first child.  And David took it upon himself to make a mild "fat" joke in light of her pregnancy...  at which point Rae Ann stopped, wheeled around, and turning to David, pointed a skinny finger into his face, and loudly chastised, "NO.  Not my husband!"

It was an amazing moment of clarity for Rae Ann, and we all burst into laughter.  Except David, whose eyes welled up with tears.  Yet not with shame, at being reprimanded.

"Imagine her picking this time to be lucid," he marveled, beaming lovingly at his wife.


 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

New Convert Syndrome


A pastor from Chicago recently contacted me for my opinion regarding the dynamics of how singles and America's evangelical church interact.  He'd found my name from a Crosswalk.com article that I'd written several years ago, back when the Christian webzine had me as one of their regular contributors.

Here's his question:

Although single myself, I have spoken on singleness maybe twice in my life.  Singleness is way down my list of interests or passions.  Nevertheless, I’ve begun looking at bias or even prejudice against singles in the Protestant church, as pointed out to me by Muslims background believers and Jewish believers.  A cultural lens is strong and causes us to see things that are not there and blinds us to things that are.  The fresh eyes of Muslim background believers and Jewish folks looking at Protestant Christianity have exposed different blind spots in the church, and one of those may be perceived bias against singleness.  My own experience as a single has been positive, but the more I've dug into the issue of singleness and the church, I'm realizing my good experience may be the exception.  What is your perspective of the broader church and its relationship with singles?

And here is my response:

What you highlight here is probably less a dynamic of singlehood, and more a dynamic of "new convert syndrome." 

Which, of course, is quite unfortunate, and inexcusably common, since as evangelicals, we should be used to being around new converts.  But so few of us, at least in the United States, participate in the conversion and initial discipleship experience of new converts, we actually find the enthusiasm and intensity of new believers (regardless of their marital status) to be somewhat draining and odd.  Particularly for new believers who come from other religious traditions that are more intense than ours, such as Islam and Judaism.

We Western evangelicals are mostly sanguine and enveloped in our own problems and frustrations with church, even to the point where we become wet blankets for new converts.  Here they are, with the Holy Spirit having just revealed the most profound truths they will ever know, and here we are - no matter our gender, or race, or ethnicity (as conventional American evangelicals) - actually being bothered by the questions, the optimism, the exploration, and the excitement of new believers.

I myself have been guilty of this, and I've seen it first-hand, where a new believer quickly runs into walls thrown up not just by unbelievers, but by fellow Christ-followers who should be willing to spend the extra time and energy necessary to help acclimate our new brothers and sisters in Christ into His new life.  It's called "discipleship," and we try to squeeze the process into a program, or a class, or some other package, when discipleship is often as individualistic as the convert.  Like most genuine relationships, the discipleship dynamic should probably be more organic and less structured than we try to make it.

I suspect that true discipleship requires more time and energy from us than we want to give it.

And particularly within the dynamic of a singles ministry, or when singles have new faith, this "new convert syndrome" can take on even more awkward tones, at least with men.   Evangelical women, as you might be able to attest, can be fiercely protective of their virtue to the point of being overly guarded and easily offended.  Meanwhile, evangelical men tend to be either ill-equipped spiritually or at least uncomfortable discussing faith with new believers.  If it's not about sports, business, or politics, many guys quickly clam up.  In my New York City days, I was around MBBs and Jewish converts who tend to be more intense, and frankly, when you're not used to it, it can be off-putting.  Which, of course, is my fault, not theirs.

A lot of it depends on the language and expressions that were used in the salvation process.  If people come to Christ on promises that He will make their lives better, and that He will help them succeed, then frustration will inevitably ensue after the conversion experience.  Life isn't easy for believers, and those of us who've been saved for a while know that.  However, if people are led to Christ through Biblical instruction, which teaches the indelible nature of our sin, yet the totality of God's holy grace, then emotional and situational expectations probably won't lead to quick disappointment.

So while the church in general may have issues with singles, for new converts of any marital status, it may be that many long-time evangelicals simply consider them too much work...

...To which this Chicago church-planter replied, "well-said."

Was it?


Monday, February 12, 2018

Chipsters "R" Gentefiers, yet Profit Still Motive


Gentrification has arrived in Dallas.  Big time.

And some new urbanists hope gentefication isn't far behind.

For years, beginning with suburbanization in the 1950's, and then fueled by white flight since the 1960's, many Caucasians have considered Dallas's central residential neighborhoods undesirable.  And not simply for racist reasons.  Like every other city in America during those decades, bigger suburban lot sizes and single-family homes were prized totems of the American Dream, while dense, zero-lot-line urban neighborhoods simply couldn't compete for affection.

Now that our urbanization tide has turned, however, newer generations of all skin colors and ethnicities are discovering what their parents and grandparents had deemed outdated:  the "inner-city."  Smaller lot sizes are now desirable because both husbands and wives now work outside the home, and have little time for - or interest in - tending a sprawling yard.  Trends shift, after all.  Plus, increasingly grueling commuter drive times now encourage many urban workers to live closer to work.  And, frankly, America's inner cities feature a housing infrastructure that has decayed over the years to the point where it's becoming economically feasible to profitably redevelop aging neighborhoods.

The problem, of course, is that these aging neighborhoods full of decaying housing aren't empty.  While whites and affluent minorities have been ensconced within suburbia, the urban poor have continued living in these grim urban neighborhoods.  And the reason inner-city housing is now prime for economic renewal rests entirely on the fact that the urban poor have been unable to pay for the type of maintenance that would have kept this aging housing stock in prime condition.

But that doesn't mean the urban poor haven't developed their own types of community within America's inner cities.  The urban poor may have been marginalized in the eyes of relatively affluent suburbanites, but they never disappeared.

So now, imagine how indignant the urban poor are to see new, white hipsters and empty nesters eagerly invading city neighborhoods; neighborhoods through which most whites wouldn't have dreamed of driving ten years ago, let alone purchasing a home.

It sure looks like another racial attack on minorities, doesn't it?  Except this time, in reverse?  Instead of whites fleeing "invading" minorities, the whites are now the invaders.

For folks who see racism behind every tree, that's the obvious scenario.  But what we want to see isn't necessarily reality.  Because at the root of gentrification lies not racism, or skin color, or ethnocentrism, but economics.

Think about it:  If whites who are moving back into the inner cities were such racist bigots, why would they be willing to live next-door to people who don't look like them?  Wouldn't whites instead be moving into heavily-fortified gated communities surrounded by moats and turrets?

Besides, while gentrifiers today may be mostly white, many are also black, Hispanic, and Asian.  They're not "invading" urban America to reclaim it for their particular race, they're moving back downtown because it's closer to where they want to work and play and live - and THEY CAN AFFORD TO.

Ka-ching!  It's about the money, folks.  Not racism.

Still, some folks seem almost eager to paint this new-found popularity of formerly dying cities as some sort of pall on the very urbanity in which newcomers are obviously eager to reinvest.  In a way, this sounds like a new form of reverse racism, in which some blacks and Latinos seem unwilling to admit that whites can be less sensitive to skin color and ethnicity than they are.

Witness the newest trendy term to preoccupy gentrification's opponents:  "Genteficiation."  In Spanish, "gente" is the word for "people", and the inference here is that Hispanic gentrifiers can be intrinsically more beneficent to the "indigenous" people populating inner city America than whites.

According to The Dallas Morning News, "the center of gentefication is the idea that Latino entrepreneurs may be more likely to preserve a barrio’s integrity, the cultural institutions of a neighborhood."  Experts on gentefication have even contrived further terms like "Chipster," an abbreviated form of "Chicano" and "Chicana" hipsters.

Gentefication is believed to have been coined in Los Angeles, where young, entrepreneurial Latinos - the "Chipsters" - are being either blamed for or credited with fueling rapid gentrification in Boyle Heights, one of the city's largest Hispanic neighborhoods. 

Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and member of the Clinton administration, says gentefitication involves “respecting the people who are there and their heritage, their right to be there" in these aging urban neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.  He claims Latino entrepreneurs have an incentive to protect the cultural distinctives within their neighborhoods from the type of sanitized gentrification whites apparently perpetrate.

Funny how anybody who said similar things about whites protesting the black and Hispanic integration of previously white-majority neighborhoods were called racists.  What makes that same attitude less racist today?

White flight involved the premise that blacks and other minorities were inferior to whites, and therefore a destructive force that decimated property values - a theory that seemed to prove itself because it evolved into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yet today, with whites predominantly portrayed as the prototypical gentrifiers, is it fair to paint whites in a similarly disparaging brush?  Who's to say that a thirst for economic victory is somehow blunted in Hispanics, whose love for some intangible nostalgia for their barrio is curiously stronger than their desire to make money through increasing property values?

There's no obvious reason to postulate that Hispanics are somehow more virtuous when it comes to gentrification.  To claim so betrays an ignorance about the phenomenon that only perpetuates racism against whites.

Remember, gentrification is not a racial dynamic.  It is an economic one.

Gentrification can appear to penalize a particular race or ethnicity that may be dominant in a neighborhood being affected by gentrification.  But the phenomenon itself is colorblind.  So, in terms of trying to couch such neighborhood change in trendy nuance, why should Hispanic gentrifiers be more beneficent than Anglo or black gentrifiers?  What is it about the economics of gentrification that should make Hispanics less eager to realize a profit - because that's what new urbanists are implying.  Will comparatively wealthy Hispanics feel more personal conviction at pricing out long-time poor Hispanics?  Will Hispanic entrepreneurs price their new products - whether it's restaurant fare, housing, gym memberships, etc - within reach of longtime locals, or more affluent newcomers?  Or should they offer discounts to long-time Hispanic residents?

Or will they operate within our new urban dynamics as free market players, looking to optimize every opportunity?

How could you explain doing business any other way to your lenders?

You see, the big angst over gentrification isn't that crime rates tend to drop, or that city services tend to improve, or that economic redevelopment often results in more jobs, albeit in the low-paying service sector.  The most significant impact of gentrification is that long-time residents of an aging community - often poorer, less-educated, and more reliant on city services than gentrifiers - get forced out of their long-time neighborhoods.

Before gentrification results in a renewed sense of neighborhood stabilization - which does ultimately happen, when the new demographics are once again economically homogeneous (now at the higher end of the scale) - there is a painful transition period characterized by destabilization, as poor residents get displaced by wealthier ones.  It's a transition that nobody has been yet able to tame.  Because at the end of the day, it's all about money.  Dinero.

Remember, this is not a racial issue.  Landlords raise rents not to attract newer, whiter tenants, but because they want to exploit the rise in property values gentrification triggers.  Landlords also stop renewing rents so they can sell out to redevelopers who want to create higher-priced housing for newcomers, whether they're white, Latino, black, or purple-polka-dotted.  Money is doing all the talking here, and the accent isn't cultural, it's green.  As in greenbacks.  Dollars.  Bucks.

It's all about money.  And, speaking of money, where do these long-time residents go, especially if they can't afford higher rents?  And if they can afford higher rents, how well will they integrate with newcomers who have a much different lifestyle and standard of living?

These are some of the legitimate drawbacks to gentrification.  And they need far better answers than what we've currently got.  AND continuing to play racist cards resolves nothing.

Even if a Hispanic landlord might want to keep rents artificially low, to help their low-income tenants, what happens when rising values cause property taxes to rise?  And why should a poor Hispanic family, after spending years in their little old house, surviving high crime rates and a dearth of local amenities, refuse to capitalize on their newfound fortune, suddenly owning a property that is worth so much more than they ever hoped it would?  Just because they're Hispanic?  If you're talking racism here, couldn't that be seen as a double-whammy against them?

Hey, there's very little piety to go around when it comes to rising property values.  Even though, yes, it sure would be nice if somebody could find a way of cushioning the impact of gentrification on a neighborhood's tenured and poor.  But genteficiation is simply sloppy wishful thinking.

Dallas already has proof of that.  Just last year, in the city's hyper-gentrifying Bishop Arts District, long a gritty enclave of poor Hispanics, a historic Mexican restaurant building was torn down.  The building had been owned by the Cuellars, an influential Hispanic family, purveyors of the well-known El Chico Tex-Mex brand.  Who better to preserve a beloved icon of Hispanic heritage than the Cuellars?  They were already wealthy, and could have easily afforded to absorb the costs of maintaining their old building, even if they didn't want to keep a restaurant in it.

But no, they sold out to CVS, the national drugstore chain, which is building a modern yet generic store.  City leaders pleaded with the Cuellar family to at least keep their building's quaint character intact and force CVS to customize their store within the building's 1940 exterior.  But the Cuellars couldn't be bothered, and CVS didn't want the hassle of fitting its corporate operations within a unique venue.

So much for gentefication.  Hey, money talks - even to Hispanics.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friends I've Made Who Don't Know Me


Lately, some of the most interesting people I've been getting to know are residents at Autumn Leaves, the dementia care facility here in Arlington, Texas, where my Dad spent the last ten months of his life.

And let me tell you, not all dementia patients are alike!  Dementia manifests itself in each of its victims as uniquely as each of these dear folks were in their pre-dementia life.  For proof of this, consider the individuals I've already blogged about, like Miss Mary, Mr. Laurel, and Shirley, one of the most legendary residents ever at Autumn Leaves.

Let me introduce you to a few more of them here.  And, by the way, to respect the humanity each of these people still posses, and since they can't give their consent to me talking about them, their names have been changed.


Bob

A friend was remarking on the challenges of dementia care, and it got me reminiscing about Bob, a short, emaciated, wiry little old geezer who, from what I learned of his stubborn pre-dementia days from his proud son, would likely approve of the term "geezer!"

Of all the disturbing behavior Bob displayed at Autumn Leaves, one of his most memorable was when he gummed the shear curtains in one of the facility's activity rooms.

He didn't eat them - he gummed them and left strips of thread hanging from curtain rods. Caregivers had already taken away his dentures because he bit people. So without any teeth, and with his raw gums, he shredded the curtains one afternoon - we watched him, perched on the top of a sofa - no blood or anything. We don't know how he did it, but the staff just left him alone, since he seemed content, and wasn't hurting himself, or anybody else. 

And David, the maintenance guy, simply ordered another set of curtains when Bob was done.

In his dementia, Bob hated curtains. Before he died (at Autumn Leaves) he'd ripped down EVERY set of curtains in the facility's public rooms. He kept pulling down curtains along a hallway leading to the two dining rooms (it's a hall of windows), so staffers finally stopped re-hanging them; David removed the curtain rods and spackled everything up to look like there had never been any curtains to begin with.

Once, Bob ripped out a fire alarm box with his bare hands - and those are bolted into studs, not simply affixed on drywall. He ripped out electrical sockets, completely immune to the shocks he'd get. His arms and legs were a patchwork of open sores (covered by bandages that caregivers could barely keep him from pulling off) and bruises in various stages of healing.

One day, there was one caregiver tasked with following him around the facility, cleaning whatever surfaces he touched (and left blood).

He was CONSTANTLY in and out of the hospital, mostly from his many falls. One time, his son (a police officer) told me that although Bob allowed himself to be placed on an ambulance stretcher calmly enough, an EMT was otherwise invading Bob's personal space a bit too much. The son had been called by Autumn Leaves staff, so he was on-site when the ambulance arrived, and Bob's son told the EMTs not to handle Bob more than they had to, and certainly not to get into his personal space, particularly around his face.

But one of the EMTs didn't obey. And Bob, laying flat on the stretcher, limp and barely alert, somehow summoned enough strength to reach up and pop the EMT full in his face, knocking him out cold.

Did I mention Bob had been an amateur boxer in his younger days?


Miss Polly

Even when she's down, Miss Polly rarely seems to have a bad day.

She's one of the higher-functioning dementia residents where my Dad used to be. When she first arrived, less than a year ago, she was walking, but now she needs a wheelchair most of the time. Yet she's always dressed smartly, in coordinated outfits, with either a wig or a Pocahontas head covering. (I had to Google that! My paternal grandmother in Brooklyn used to wear them when she hadn't had her hair styled).

She's exceptionally friendly, even though she has no idea who anybody is. And it's relatively easy to have a brief, reciprocal conversation with her.

One day, she was sitting with some other residents at a table of crafts, and she was quietly mumbling something to the woman sitting next to her. Miss Polly saw me, and she broke off what she was saying, looking up at me like she was Miss Innocent.

"Oh, Miss Polly!" I teased. "What were you gossipping about?"

Her face blanched, and she quickly retorted, "I wasn't gossipping. I was just telling it like it is."

Yesterday, during snack time, a caregiver wheeled her up to a tray displaying a variety of cookies. The caregiver gave her one, and I commented, "Oh, it looks like white chocolate with Macadamia nuts!" Another caregiver glanced over and said, "No, I don't think those are nuts; we don't normally serve food with nuts to avoid any allergy problems."

But Miss Polly was too impatient. "Well, let's just see what it is," she interrupted, stuffing the cookie into her mouth. She chewed a couple of times, and apologized, "I'm a mess with sweets."


Sharon

Increasingly, Sharon is lost in her own fog that is dementia. Everything about her now seems to be quieter, dimmer, and a bit more disheveled than when she arrived at Autumn Leaves a couple of years ago. 

When I walked past a group of ladies at my father's dementia facility today, however, Sharon took full notice of me.

Although she is slowing down, Sharon remains the resident vamp of Autumn Leaves.  Tall, relatively slender, and relatively young, compared with most of the residents there, Sharon displays the classic dementia hallmark of an eroded social etiquette - particularly, um, when it comes to her feminine wiles.  If I told you some of the stuff she's done with a couple of the male residents in full view of many other people, let's just say that you would be incredulous.  But her behavior is all part of the grim world of grown adults whose propriety filters have been destroyed by dementia.

And some of it simply ain't rated PG.

"WOW!" she exclaimed this morning, summoning from within herself a gusty enthusiasm that we haven't heard from her in a while. "Look at that MAN."

Have I ever mentioned that sometimes, dementia patients can be really good for your ego? Of course, the other ladies sitting with Sharon - fellow residents of hers - merely looked at me with a mix of confusion and utter disinterest.

Which, frankly, is more the story of my life!


Flo

Flo is always a delight.

She's an even higher-functioning resident at Autumn Leaves than Polly.  Slender, of average height, with dyed brown hair, some jewelry, and makeup applied appropriately, it took us a while before Mom and I realized Flo is a resident at Autumn Leaves, and not visiting a loved one like we do.

Many dementia residents, including Polly, develop a strange look in their eyes that seems to reflect their disconnection from reality, but Flo doesn't have that.  The only way I know Flo has dementia is that day after day, week after week, she can tolerate eating in dining rooms with other residents with dementia.  And let me tell you, watching a dementia patient eat is not for the faint of heart.

Well, I say Flo eats with the other residents... but there's a reason why she's so slender!

Last week, for example, it was lunchtime, and caregivers were helping residents into the dining rooms, but Flo just stood in the hallway. Actually, most of the residents have to be taken to eat - dementia somehow robs them of their ability to process hunger as their body's prompting for nourishment. So I encouraged Flo, "Hey, it's lunchtime! Time to get something to eat!"

Flo's face blanched. "I can't eat this food," she confided to me. "You know, I'm Italian, and the stuff they serve here just isn't any good."

"Are you a good cook?" I asked, fully aware that mine was a useless question to ask an Italian.

"Listen," Flo retorted, putting her hand on my arm. "If I had cooked this, it would be FABULOUS!"

Today, Mom and I were visiting a resident at Autumn Leaves who is on hospice. We were chatting with the spouse of another resident in the main living room, and Flo strolled by. We welcomed her into our conversation, and then Madge trudged through, in her wheelchair, looking for trouble.

After angrily instructing us - pointed finger and all - that somebody had to get their act together (we don't know who, or what they'd done wrong), Madge started to wheel herself along.

Looking at the departing Madge, Flo shook her head.

"With some people, I have to count to 30!" she muttered.

We all laughed, and I clarified, "you mean, to diffuse a situation, you normally count to ten before saying something, but with Madge it's thirty?"

"You got it, boy!" she affirmed heartily.

Flo usually carries a book around Autumn Leaves with her, even though it's usually the same one, and it's doubtful she remembers the plotline.  I once asked her what the book was about, and she gave me an uncharacteristically blank face, her wit apparently unable to make something up on the spot (which is a common tactic of dementia patients).

Today, however, Flo was sporting a new book.  "Such a suspenseful page-turner, you can't put it down," gushed a blurb on the bookjacket.

"So," I asked Flo. "Is it such a page-turner that you can't put it down?"

She looked at the book, sitting closed on the table, next to her cup of coffee.

"Not yet," she chuckled!


Mr. Zack

Technically, I broke the rules.

Miss Polly had one last cookie remaining after snack time this morning, and she told me she didn't want it.

Mr. Zack, on the other hand, still seemed hungry. He was sitting next to her, his head down, his eyes closed, like they always are. His left hand rested in his lap, but his right hand was still drawing circles on the table. It was like his big hand was some sort of automated machine that hadn't been shut off. Both his hand, and the spot on the table, were wet and sticky from him occasionally stuffing some fingers into his mouth, his "cookie-transfer system" from table to mouth missing a vital component: a cookie!

Mr. Zack doesn't talk. He'd lost that ability before I'd ever met him at Autumn Leaves, when we brought my father. He never opens his eyes, either. I've seen him during visits with his family, just sitting; eyes closed, mouth agape but not talking, yet somehow transmitting an air of pleasure at being in the company of loved ones.

Dementia is strange, indeed.

So I suggested to Miss Polly that perhaps Mr. Zack would like her unwanted cookie. After all, the spot on the table being circled by his right hand wasn't going to generate a new cookie for him all by itself!

And, to my surprise, Mr. Zack grunted loudly at my suggestion! It was an obvious affirmation that my idea sounded pretty good to him! I confirmed with Miss Polly that it was OK to give her cookie to him, and she drawled, "well, if he wants it."

It was on a napkin, so I scooted the napkin and its sweet cargo over to the messy spot on the table, right underneath where Mr. Zack's right hand was now hovering. He reached down and tried to pick up the cookie, but his big fingers don't move very well - the man has enormous hands - and the cookie slipped onto his lap.

Instantly, his left hand felt for it, found it, and grasped firmly onto it. He reached up and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, fingers and all, reminding me of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street!

Technically, I'm not supposed to give food to any of the residents at Autumn Leaves, but Mr. Zack certainly won't report my misdeed!


Ricardo

Ricardo is a slim and dapper gentleman. Quiet and reserved, he sports a well-trimmed white mustache and wears his graying hair slicked back in an elegant man-about-town fashion.

It's tough guessing the age of dementia patients, since the disease can wreak strange havoc on its victims' personal appearance, but I'd estimate that Ricardo is in his late 70's.

Today, he was lounging in his wheelchair near a large window, our cheerful Texas sunlight washing across him. And a young, attractive, female caregiver was massaging his hands with lotion.  During wintertimes, especially, the staff rub lotion into residents' hands to help moisturize them, as dry skin can help spread germs.  Some dementia patients can't stand having their hands being gripped by another person, which obviously is what happens during a lotion massage, but most dementia patients love the sensations of being rubbed and feeling their skin soften.

Ricardo clearly is one of the latter!

I leaned into him, and slyly whispered, "So, you're letting her hold your hand now, are you?"

And Ricardo, as if suddenly transported back to his prepubescent life, burst into goofy giggles that he couldn't stop!



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Naughty, Naughty; You Guns, You


Perhaps you've already read the most recent New York Times hit piece on guns.

It came out yesterday, and is full of sweeping presumptions and rapid-fire conclusions about the evils of guns based on an arsenal of gun statistics from around the world.  At one point, its authors, Max Fisher and Josh Keller, actually claim that "the guns themselves cause the violence."

Wow.  And this from none other than the auspicious, venerable New York Times, which seriously expects us to believe that all of these guns - America has far more of them than any other country - actually get up, load themselves, pull their own triggers, and spray bullets from their barrels.

Kinda like a freaky form of automatic weaponry - the real "automatic" guns that work without anybody touching them.

Now, to be clear, I am not a pro-gun type of person.  I don't own a gun, have never owned a gun, don't plan on ever owning a gun, or even want to own a gun.  Of any kind!  But I have friends who own guns - lots of guns - and I'm not afraid of them, or their guns, or to be around them and their guns.  I have friends that always pack heat, and I'm never uneasy in their presence.

Why?  Because I'm not afraid of any gun.  The gun is just sitting in a holster, minding its own business, like any inanimate object tends to do.  You see, it's one of the basic laws of physics:  an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.  It's technically known as Newton's First Law of Motion, or the Law of Inertia.  (One would think as prestigious a newspaper as the Times would hire reporters who'd attended a school where Newton's Laws were taught.  Most ordinary, poorly-funded public schools have taught Newton's Laws for generations.)

Perhaps it's ironic that in the Law of Inertia, it takes an "unbalanced force" to change an object at rest.  And when we're talking about gun-involved violence, that's precisely what happens.  An unbalanced force takes a gun and uses it to commit some sort of crime.

So that makes it the gun's fault that it was used in a crime?

Apparently so, at least according to the New York Times' First Law of Gun Control.

"A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner," Fisher and Keller report, "but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process," and "the discrepancy, like so many other anomalies of American violence, [comes] down to guns."

Well, that's assuming a mugger isn't using a knife, but yes, the presumption that most muggers use guns is probably accurate.  Wouldn't you agree?  But still, does that mean the gun is at fault?

What is it about guns that makes them more likely to be used in a Gotham mugging, instead of a London mugging?  According to Fisher and Keller, it's our easy access to guns here in America.

Our intrepid Times reporters go on to explain how the more a government reduces their citizenry's access to guns, there tends to be a corresponding drop in gun-involved violence.  So I clicked on the link they provide in their article, which is to study entitled What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?  It was published last year and is a surprisingly easy-to-read synopsis of various other published reports on various types of gun-involved violence.  However, it includes things like suicides, which don't directly impact the general safety of the population at large.  Besides, wouldn't one suspect that a person contemplating suicide is probably going to simply use whatever gun is available, regardless of whether their selection choices have been limited by the government?

In other words, it's still gonna happen.  Is a person going to decide life must be worth living after all, 'cause they can't find the perfect gun to kill themself with?

Another type of gun-involved violence included in these studies are accidental shootings, which of course, would also probably be lowered if access to guns is reduced.

Indeed, these statistics may show a reduction in various types of gun-involved violence, but I can't see where they show a decline in mass killings.  Which is what most Americans are concerned about when they talk about gun control.  Besides, the authors of this particular study list a number of other studies that don't show much of a correlation one way or another between gun control laws and some types of gun-involved violence.  The fact of the matter remains that while law-abiding people may comply with government rules for gun ownership, that doesn't necessarily mean that people who are intent on committing a crime won't still find a way to procure a gun.

And another thing these studies fail to prove is that people who are intent on committing a crime, and discover that their access to guns has been limited, don't go and find some other lethal way to commit their crime.

Undaunted, the Times, smugly confident that it's proven that guns are the problem, regales us with a few more statistics in which they compare our broadly heterogeneous society, comprised of many people from all over the planet and all of its various cultures, with sharply homogeneous countries, like Japan, and Finland, where gun ownership rates are minuscule compared to those in our country.

I mean, at some point, how is comparing apples to oranges helpful in trying to prove anything?

But then, towards the end of their article, Fisher and Keller inexplicably unravel much of their previous work.

"An American is about 300 times more likely to die by gun homicide or accident than a Japanese person. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times as high as Japan’s.  That gap between 150 and 300 shows that gun ownership statistics alone do not explain what makes America different."

Bingo!

The light is beginning to dawn.

"Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns, and for the types of guns that can be owned.  Such laws reflect more than just tighter restrictions.  They imply a different way of thinking about guns."

Okay, they're almost there, in terms of comprehending the fallacy of their "misbehaving guns" argument.  But then they miss it again.  They deduce that the problem is that Americans believe "people have an inherent right to own guns."

The way Fisher and Keller word what they consider to be a stunning realization, however, is misleading.  Perhaps in Texas, and in other states where gun ownership is particularly a hallowed concept, the idea of guns as practically a human right runs mighty strong.  Yet across America, gun ownership is a valued right because of how our Constitution has been interpreted for decades.

America, after all, began as a rebellion, and that rebellion involved guns owned by the folks who sought to overthrow the British.  And ever since 1776, part of our national ethos has been our country's relatively unique ability to successfully reinvent itself through an uprising of the populace, not a conventional top-down insurrection led by a disgruntled government or military figure.  In other words, the "militia" language in our Constitution means that ordinary citizens have the right to protect ourselves from a government or military takeover.  It's a fairly unique aspect of America's pre-Revolutionary War history, as well as its history as an independent nation.

And it's not the National Rifle Association that's responsible for making sure that ethos remains robust in our national consciousness.  It's the many individual Americans who remain, to this day, fundamentally skeptical of over-reliance on concentrations of authority from places like Washington DC, and even their respective state capitals.

The fact that a small - minuscule, in fact - number of gun owners exploit this history and commit mass murder isn't because guns are just laying around the house, and shucks, somebody might as well put them to good use.  It's not because a gun just happened to be laying on the ground outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, and inexplicably mowed down a sanctuary full of worshippers.

No, the atrocity in Texas this past Sunday happened the same exact way every other mass shooting happens:  Somebody decided to kill as many human beings as they could, and a gun was the easiest way to do it.

There is no law that can stop that kind of behavior.  Murder is already against the law.  There is something else, something other than guns, or knives, or explosives, or poison gas, or any other mechanism of achieving mass murder, that's the problem.

And I've already told y'all what that problem almost certainly is.  An "unbalanced force," remember?

A guy who cracked the skull of his wife's child, physically and sexually abused several women throughout his life, beat his dog with his own fists, was a prisoner in the Air Force... violence was more of a hallmark in his life than anything else.  I mean, if you don't cringe after reading each of the ways Sunday's shooter acted on his violent temperament, you're likely as accepting of violence as the culture is that nurtured his behavior.

For some reason, the Times prefers instead to blame inanimate objects.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Guns an Easier Target than Violence


A young white guy shot 26 worshippers to death during Sunday services in a small, rural Texas church yesterday.  And it's being said that the only thing still sacred in America are gun rights.

Although this isn't America's first mass-murder in a church, it is the largest.  So far, anyway.  And it's the largest mass-murder so far here in Texas, a bastion for gun rights.

So lots of Texans are asking lots of questions today.  For example, should people be allowed to bring guns into their house of worship?  Right now, some white folks say that sounds like a good idea, but I suspect they'd second-guess that preference when reminded that such a law would also allow Muslims to pack heat at their local mosque... 

We white Texans are still adjusting to all the diversity joining us here in the Lone Star State.

At the church I regularly attend, we've had armed rent-a-cops present in all services for years.  Many large churches do.  In fact, many places where several thousand people gather for all sorts of things probably have armed guards present.  That's just reality these days.

And in churches particularly, with almost everybody facing the front, and their backs to the rear door, congregants are sitting ducks.

Shucks, as a choir member, I can recall the time, sitting up in the chancel, perched behind the pulpit, watching a grim-faced guy in a dark suit inspecting a certain pew for an unusually long period of time, before disappearing and then, in a few moments, helping a well-dressed elderly gentleman to the same pew.  Then he left, not staying to worship alongside the elderly man.  I figured he was a personal, private security detail for the gentleman, who was not a celebrity, but obviously somebody who figured even a church wasn't an inherently safe place.

Then there was the Sunday when two dark-suited guys stood through the entire service on either side of the wide platform leading to our church's pulpit.  And then, when the service was over, our senior pastor waited until they'd approached him, and then all three of them left the sanctuary in lock step.  I later heard chatter that a couple in the church was involved in a nasty divorce, and that unsubstantiated threats had been made against our church's leadership, so no chances were being taken that particular Sunday.

Our world is full of angry, unbalanced people.  Especially our churches.

Lol.  I didn't even attend church yesterday, when all this shooting went down far to the south of Dallas.  Sometimes I just get tired of the church politics and need to take a break - not just for myself, mind you; but for the folks at church I exasperate!  I'm sure that to some people, I'm angry and unbalanced as well.

But I don't hate anybody.  I have to think that for a person to do what that young man did yesterday in Sutherland Springs, they'd have to be consumed by hate.  Hate, and anger, and a warped disposition that somehow figures violence could somehow reconcile those destructive emotions with an opportunity to be freed from them.

We're still learning about yesterday's shooter*, yet from the various reports that have been posted about him, it's already apparent that he lived a troubled life.  He was court-martialed and received a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force after physically assaulting his first wife and their child.  He had been accused of abusing a dog.  He didn't seem to be able to hold down jobs - as a private security officer - for any significant length of time.  He was currently in a heated domestic dispute with his second wife's family.  His application for a Texas gun license had been denied, but we don't yet know on what grounds.

Incredibly, the Air Force never reported those assault allegations to the FBI, so even though yesterday's shooter was able to purchase guns, he didn't have a license for them.  "SMH" - isn't that what the kids cryptically type in their tweets these days?

President Trump has hinted that the shooter was "deranged" with "a mental health problem at the highest level."  It's unclear if our president, well-known for his hyperbole and speaking out of turn, was simply jumping to conclusions, or if he was privy to the shooter's legitimate medical records.  Nevertheless, if Trump was merely voicing his opinion that only a madman could slaughter dozens of people inside a church, his is a widely-shared belief.

And probably quite valid.

As has become customary after events such as yesterday's, a lot of anti-gun folks have taken to the media, calling for new legislation against guns, hoping against logic that somehow, despite our nation already being awash with all sorts of weaponry, some new law can somehow avert a similar tragedy down the line.

Yet the gun control advocates tend to create a red herring that everybody in America - whether you're pro-gun or not - can focus on, and thereby avoid dealing with the broader issue.

Because the broader issue is one that can't be legislated away.  The broader issue is America's infatuation with violence.

By now, this violence argument has itself become rather time-worn, with many Americans dismissing it as a problem that, even if it did exist, requires too much personal responsibility from people who don't really want to kill anybody.  So most of us are content to let those few people among us with anger issues act out that anger in violent ways, so long as we don't have to admit culpability in our society's infatuation with violent movies, video games, television shows, books, websites, water cooler humor, and the like.

We prefer to ignore the blatantly obvious:  That a display of anger such as with yesterday's shooter likely stems from a culture in which people are no longer taught a socially-approved matrix of what is right and wrong.  And how to right wrongs.  Yesterday's shooter may have experienced a series of disciplinary actions for his misdeeds, but how much training did he receive before them - and after them - to learn the proper ways of expressing himself in difficult interpersonal situations?

For many Americans - and American men in particular - de-escalation is for wimps.  Right?  Fighting is a virtuous way to prove one's point, or exact retribution.  Two wrongs really do make a right, if indeed, you still think violence is wrong.

It's probably one reason why we Americans always seem inordinately eager to fight wars, rather than patiently wade through complex diplomatic channels.  It may be one reason why we can't seem to lower rates of domestic violence, or why racism persists in our country.  Everybody thinks they're right, everybody thinks they're entitled to something, and fewer and fewer of us seem content:  The perfect storm in which violence can erupt.

An easy rebuttal to the violence question usually involves the fact that, in our society, nearly all of us are exposed to it, yet so few of us actually perpetrate such violence, so it can't be society's fault.  Individual agency, right?  It's like the argument that lots of guys view pornography, but not all of them abuse other people sexually.  We're each responsible for our own behavior.

Which, of course, is true.  But still, if the rates of people participating in exceptionally violent acts are low enough, it's OK to ignore probable causal factors?  That's the argument, actually, that gun rights advocates use in their refusal of more gun laws:  Only a tiny fraction of gun owners become mass shooters.

The hole in that argument is that other countries in the world have as great a proportion of gun owners in their country as we do in America, but they don't have the mass shootings we do.  Which doesn't mean that we need more laws, since other countries don't need more laws either.

But
We
Still
Have
A
Problem!

So there must be something else in our American DNA which makes us more prone to perpetrating violence (with guns) than gun owners in other countries.

How about we start with our American infatuation with violence, and then we mix in the military industrial complex that has made America our planet's lone superpower.  Indeed, isn't it more than coincidental that so many of these mass shooters have a military background?  Did World War II veterans come home so lusty for blood?  Or might our modern systems of warfare be corrupting the ability of today's veterans to rationally process their civilian anger?

Remember the famous sniper, Chris Kyle, and how he tragically died?  He was murdered trying to help a marine deal with PTSD, when Kyle thought taking his friend to a gun range would somehow be therapeutic.  It's this naive dismissal of a weapon's association with violence that many Americans continue to perpetuate for themselves.

And then there's the whole macho warrior thing.  How many other countries would so glorify a government-paid sniper - a person able to so perfectly focus on precision shooting that they can block out the violence they are so selectively perpetrating?  It's not that what Kyle did for a living was wrong, and I'm as much a beneficiary of his work as any American.  But doesn't it bother you - even the slightest - that we  train human beings to become killing machines, even in the defense of our country?

What is it about guns that so fascinates people, anyway?  I have heard that firing off assault rifles at a gun range, for example, provides the shooter with a tremendous adrenaline rush.  It's visceral.  It's multi-sensory.  It's immediate.  It leaves you in awe.  And all that can probably make it quite addictive.

If you think about it, so much of what so many Americans search for in our lives is a variation of that adrenaline rush - the need for a quick affirmation of power, or authority, or supremacy.  Which, actually explains a lot about our politics, too, doesn't it?

All of which means that by focusing on guns, we let ourselves off of the moral hook of exploring less obvious and more personal considerations.  Gun control advocates like to play a moral card, and that just infuriates gun rights advocates, who dislike having their favorite hobbies - and favorite interpretations of our Constitution - questioned.  Yet America's love of violence crosses all political lines.  Which means the moral card isn't so much about guns, or whether any further legislation could discourage future mass shootings.  The moral card is about the levels of violence we consider acceptable in our society. 

Mathematically, in terms of body counts, the strict calculation in all of this is that mass shootings remain relatively insignificant, compared with our nation's large population.  Mass shootings may seem sensational and incessant, but that's largely because of our saturation today by 24-7 news coverage and social media.  It's still extremely unlikely that you or I will be killed in a mass shooting.  More people die in car accidents, or by suicide, or drug violence, as Chicago's dismal murder rate testifies.

So we Americans will banter amongst ourselves about gun control.  And then the next mass shooting will happen, and once again, as if by hitting the replay button, we'll be asking ourselves "another shooting?"

"Why here?"

"When will it end?"

Experts say Americans are slowly becoming immune to the violence being displayed in our society.  Notice, it's not the guns we're growing immune to.  It's the violence.

The guns are just sitting there.  What we're growing immune to are the motivations of human beings with the capacity to decide for or against using violence in an attempt to resolve their demons.

Yes, we are the problem.

But its easier to blame guns.  So we'll probably do that instead.
_____

*Various law enforcement officials in Texas have asked that media coverage of the shooter omit his name, so as not to somehow provide notoriety for him.  Such notoriety might be used as motivation for attention by somebody else contemplating a similar crime.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Gentrification: Whither (or Wither) Community?

Navigating this 3-part series
- Part One  Gentrification: Some Background
- Part Two  Gentrification: Abandonment Issues
_____


Most people have one of three primal reactions to the word "gentrification."

One group gets excited by it, enthusiastic about new opportunities for redevelopment, money-making, and "new urbanism" usually afforded by gentrification.  Another group immediately recoils, angry about and afraid of the potential for deep population displacement typically caused by gentrification.  And yet another group - mostly middle-aged suburbanites - don't really care one way or another.  They have no immediate interest in living in a big city, and they can't see how the things that happen there directly affect them.

Older Suburbs May Not Be Immune

So, OK; maybe gentrification doesn't directly impact suburbanites.

But if you're a suburbanite living in an older, closer-in ring of suburbs, don't get too ambivalent.  The conventionally urban phenomenon of gentrification may, as you read this, be lapping at your subdivision's doorstep anyway.  After all, gentrification is a trend, just as suburbanization was a trend.  And trends exist by turning the status-quo upside down.  Or at least cross-ways.

And at its roots, gentrification involves simple supply and demand.  For cities that have been - and are currently - experiencing a robust overhaul thanks to gentrification, there may soon come a point at which the urban core will run out of neighborhoods economically eligible for a makeover.  And then, where will all of this renovation momentum turn?

Those folks interested in moving back to the city probably won't simply shrug their shoulders and say, "you know, that farm country in Nebraska looked pretty appealing after all."

Most probably, the folks who continue arriving at the urban party will start to take a new look at older, stale suburbs.  Back in the day, these towns were the first to be built around your closest big city.  By now, however, they are probably pretty dated, with a rapidly aging housing stock and shopping centers that are largely vacant, thanks to the big-box phenomenon which swept through newer suburbs a decade ago.  These aging suburbs may not have the grim sophistication that old cities have, but they likely have the one thing developers love:  under-utilized properties at relatively low prices.

How do I know that?  Simply by applying the basic corollary that motivates most Americans:  Whatever looks dated isn't trendy, and whatever isn't trendy is ripe for a makeover.

So, just because you may be blithely ensconced in suburbia right now, don't imagine that gentrification is something that will never impact you.  Unless, of course, you live in an affluent neighborhood with homes that consistently sell at the top of the market.  Like I said earlier, most wealthy neighborhoods that are immune to most other changes are also immune to phenomena like gentrification.

And no, the McMansion craze currently sweeping most American cities doesn't necessarily count as gentrification.  It just means that some people have more money than taste.

The New Urbanism Zeitgeist Shows No Sign of Stopping

Back in the mists of time, around 1990, I was a graduate student at the urban studies program at the University of Texas at Arlington, smack-dab between Fort Worth and Dallas, when even Arlington was a booming, fast-growing city in its own right.

I had thought that a master's degree in city planning would be an ideal synthesis of my undergraduate studies, first in architecture, and then sociology.  Yet in grad school, all the professors wanted to talk about was how many lanes of freeways were necessary to accommodate all of the explosive growth suburban Texas was experiencing.

That was the seminal issue of the day:  Getting drivers from one part of suburbia to office parks in other parts of suburbia, and back home again.  All while spending as little time as possible in the big, bad cities.

Today, however, freeways are what's big and bad.  Freeways are evil when it comes to city planning.  Freeways are what destroyed America's greatest old cities, and freeways are preventing America's newer cities from becoming fully-functioning urban centers.

New York City's controversial planner, Robert Moses, is the great satan of New Urbanism.  Moses is the demigod who bulldozed residential neighborhoods throughout Gotham for the construction of freeways that have never actually alleviated traffic congestion.

On the other side of America, and completely opposite of New York's design, Los Angeles literally built itself around freeways, yet today, LA can't shake its reputation as our country's most traffic-choked city.

You may be unaware of this, but New Urbanists have created a religion now followed by city leaders around the world, and this urban faith is placed not in the automobile, but in walking, bike lanes, mass transit, light rail, buses, and telecommuting.  New urbanism is all about environmentally sustainable connectivity and, ostensibly, community.  It's about sharing.  Reducing the individual human footprint (except when it comes to walkability).  It's about living as closely together as humanly possible, a concept for which high-density city life should be ideally-suited, right?

Meanwhile, the automobile is not about our environment, sustainability, high density, sharing, or community; it's about individuality.  One person ensconced in a multi-ton transportation pod is not community, not even if people are carpooling.  Community is everyone sweating it out in bike lanes, or sharing personal space on a sidewalk, or crammed into trains and buses to commute between centralized concentrations of shared activities.

Remember, all of this community is most easily accomplished with greater densities.  Greater densities of homes, businesses, schools, and people.  And guess what?  The older a city is, chances are it was built for greater population densities than almost any suburb, before the proliferation of the automobile.  Which means that the older an urban neighborhood is, the greater its chances that New Urbanists have already targeted it for gentrification, because that's the best way to evangelize for the progressive city.

Older urban residential lot sizes are generally smaller and closer together, most neighborhoods probably have sidewalks, and zoning probably still allows for mixed-use developments that have been anathema in suburbia.  Streetscapes are probably more grid-like, another feature that suburban developers sought to avoid, with their curving subdivision "drives" and cul-de-sacs.  The benefit of a grid-based street system is that mass transit is generally easier to deploy, and it's harder for pedestrians to get lost.

All of which is good news for cities that have been struggling to keep their oldest neighborhoods relevant and vibrant.

Yet...

Company's Coming, and It's Staying Beyond Dinner

Most old urban neighborhoods never were abandoned, remember?  And "relevance" is a relative concept.  Whites left them, yes, but people of other skin colors moved in.  These newer residents may be poorer, but we can't forget that these are their neighborhoods now.  Just as they were white neighborhoods in an earlier time.

It's not racist to acknowledge the reality of a community.  But we should be respectful all the same.

So how would you feel if a group of new people started coming into your community, and driving up the cost of living simply because they can afford to pay more for things, and they don't balk at doing so?  Maybe where you now live is where you've raised your family.  Maybe you own your home, but you can't afford to pay more taxes on it if its value suddenly increases.  Maybe your rent is currently the highest you can afford, but your landlord could get a lot more for the same space from newcomers.

Newcomers.  They're the folks who didn't stick it out all those hard years in your beleaguered neighborhood, like you did, when crime was at its worst.  Newcomers who act much differently than what you're used to, dress much differently, and seem to be flaunting their wealth in front of you, even if they don't mean to.  After all, in an urban environment, where privacy is scarcer than in the 'burbs, it's harder to just blend in, or disguise one's differences.

After all, that was part of what fueled white flight back in the day.

So, how would you feel?

If you can afford to make financial adjustments to accommodate such cost increases, maybe you'd actually be happy that your property values are appreciating, and that better restaurants are locating near your home.  And granted, not everybody in neighborhoods being gentrified are upset at all of the improvements taking place around them.  Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find anybody complaining about better street maintenance, cleaner parks, better litter control, better policing, better street lighting, fewer blighted properties, lower crime, and improved public schools.  Many urban neighborhoods that, for generations, have been "food deserts" are now welcoming brand-new, clean, full-service grocery stores.  Suburbanites rarely get excited about a new grocery store, but for the urban poor, fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats practically signify a revolution.  Their diets no longer consist mostly of processed foods or produce from local dingy bodegas, sold far beyond their suburban sell-by dates.

Without gentrification, it's unlikely that most major-chain grocery store companies would be investing in these neighborhoods.  The economics just didn't work before gentrification.  Fresh food is far costlier to stock than other basic commodities such as clothing, hardware, cell phones, and the like.

For the past couple of generations, urban dwellers were mostly dependent on government food stamps, which isn't much of a profit incentive compared with suburbanites with broader purchasing power.  In addition, urban crime rates posed significant profitability challenges to supermarket companies concerned about loss prevention and theft.  With gentrification, it's simply easier for retailers to make money, because more money is flowing into old urban neighborhoods.

You see, it's not that gentrification is a bad thing.  Gentrification actually pumps new resources into old neighborhoods and helps to iron-out some of the economic disparities that previous existed in urban centers.  Politics may have given the urban poor a feeling of power, but economic vitality is really the only thing that makes genuine, productive change happen.  Obviously, there are severe economic and social problems that gentrification itself cannot fix, but in the sense that a rising tide can lift all boats, gentrification represents just such an opportunity for both long-time residents and new ones.

At its best, gentrification is an expression of property rights, and the ability of people to get the fullest fair market value they can for properties into which they've dutifully invested.  Granted, the concept of "fair market value" is entirely subjective, depending more on what a person is willing to pay, rather than on what a property's materials and location are actually worth in raw figures.

How Can We Make Gentrification More People-Friendly?

Where things get bitter - and sometimes nasty - during gentrification is the speed with which it happens, or the degree of change it introduces, along with a corresponding lack of opportunity for input from long-time residents.

Oftentimes, developers assemble parcels of land subversively so that property owners don't realize that a new, game-changing project is being planned.  The reason for this is simple enough - if a developer announces their plans before purchasing the necessary property, land values would soar in anticipation of new development, cutting into the project's profitability.

Other times, individual newcomers with an adventurous spirit "discover" an older urban neighborhood at attractively low price points, at least compared with far more desirable and expensive neighborhoods.  If demand for in-town moderately-priced real estate is strong enough, other urban pioneers soon follow, combining to change the look and feel of an entire block, and eventually, even a neighborhood.

There's no set point at which newcomers switch from being urban pioneers to gentrifiers, but it usually happens around the time when long-time residents begin to notice that their neighborhood is fundamentally changing right in front of their eyes.  And that is when tempers begin to rise, anxiety begins to percolate, and even resentment begins to set in.

Then again, maybe all this sounds mostly esoteric to you.  Maybe even anti-capitalistic?  Maybe you've read this far and now you're angry, thinking that anything less than full-blown market-rate redevelopment is just socialism in disguise - not allowing free markets to work out for the most profit at the exploitation of opportunity?

If people can't afford to keep up with whatever changes are taking place in their neighborhood, they simply have to move out, right?  We can't guarantee a person the right to stay in their home if values rise to a point where they can't afford to.  If you want to live in a better neighborhood - even if it's your own - you need to work even harder and earn more money to do so.  That's the American way...

And, yeah... if you want to make this all about money, then the urban poor don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to gentrification.  And the raw capitalists have nothing standing in their way when it comes to redeveloping aging inner-city neighborhoods for wealthier newcomers.

So we just shrug our shoulders and, instead of "white flight," we call gentrification "white fight"?  Or "white bite"?

Or is there a way to better navigate urbanity's new zeitgeist without simply tolerating its pain?

For one thing, let's remember again that this isn't all about race.  New Urbanists aren't exclusively white, just as all the people who "abandoned" the inner city weren't exclusively white, either.  For another thing, plenty of non-white property owners of inner-city properties will make out quite handsomely by selling out to developers at prices that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

We need to look past skin color and focus on motives, and ways that change can respect both the people fearing it, and those pursuing it.

We can't forget that just because urban decay has happened, residents in these neighborhoods have no claim on their spirit of community.  Whites and the affluent don't have a corner on "community."  Remember that whole thing I discussed concerning rap music, and about how it's come to represent the poor, non-white culture of urban America?  I personally don't like rap, but neither do I like the non-gentrified "hoods" rap describes.  Few people do.  Indeed, there's no denying that rap effectively represents much of the ghetto culture experienced by America's minorities.  Which means that even though our ghettos are unpleasant places, they are still considered "home" by many people.

It's not that gentrification is something that must be stopped (even if it could be).  Instead, it's how we treat people during the process that affords the best chances for improving gentrification's results, after all of the upheaval, change, displacement, integration, newness, and learning curves have worn off.  It's how we handle the disparity between greed and need, not just the gaps between different levels of purchasing power.

Not because cities are worth the investment of our concern, patience, and congeniality.  But because our neighbors are.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

John Piper is Wrong on Works


We interrupt this monologue on gentrification to report - or, more accurately, retort - on Minnesota pastor John Piper's surprising claim that salvation by works is Biblical.

Last month, the megachurch preacher, famous within Christian circles for being a Reformed Baptist, surprised many evangelicals by claiming that works (good deeds) are indeed a part of God's plan of salvation.  In other words, Piper now appears to be arguing that for a person's salvation to be Biblically genuine, it's not just faith in Christ that God requires.  Piper says that a person who claims to be "saved" must also perform good deeds.

Which, disturbingly, flies in the face of the historic "Five Solas" of the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary the Protestant Church is celebrating this year.

The "Five Solas" are:
  • Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  • Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  • Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  • Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone. 
One of the main reasons we had the Reformation involved the Roman Catholic Church's insistence that people needed to perform good deeds in order to receive salvation.  But that requirement is nowhere to be found in the Bible.

What are found, however, are verses like James 2:14-26, in which phrases like "faith without works is dead" have been mischaracterized as proof texts for works-based salvation.  Taken in the entirety of Scripture, the phrase "faith without works is dead" means that if a person truly, genuinely appreciates God's love for them, and Christ's sacrifice on their behalf, and desires to honor God out of love for Him and His truth, then a natural outflow of that faith and love will be good works.

But there is no ulterior motive for those good works.  Otherwise, they wouldn't be "good," would they?  Believers in Christ don't do good deeds because we're supposed to.   We can't brown-nose our way into Heaven.  We do good deeds as a way to show our loyalty and affinity to our Savior.

When Christ told the wealthy young man to go and sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, that wasn't so the young man could prove his salvation.  Christ wanted to show the young man that unless his heart had been changed by the Gospel, he would find the prospect of suddenly having no earthly riches distasteful.  Which, indeed, was true, because the young man couldn't bring himself to follow Christ's command.  But that wasn't the reason he refused Christ.  He refused Christ because His heart was opposed to the Gospel, because the Gospel calls us all of us who follow Christ to turn aside from everything else - everything! (gulp!) - and follow Him alone.  That is very hard for any of us to do.  And we all fail at it, to one degree or another.

That's why God looks at our heart.  He knows our motives, and our desires.  He doesn't look at our deeds to determine our worth, or our salvation.  Shucks, plenty of unsaved people who profess no faith in Christ whatsoever do plenty of good deeds all the time.  So, does that mean they're saved anyway?  Or maybe half-way saved?  Can one be "half-saved"?  No.  So why should good deeds play as crucial a role in our salvation as Piper now says it does?

Simple answer:  It doesn't.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."  Bam!  There it is.  Straight from Ephesians 2.

None of this is to say that people who claim faith in Christ don't need to act like it.  Because straight on the heels of "for by grace you have been saved," comes this:

"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

One follows the other.  And to a certain degree, works act as a sort of proof for salvation.  But works aren't part of salvation.

Don't believe me?  Let's think about this for a minute.  Supposing we actually have to do good works as part of our guarantee of salvation.  Define "good works."  Are they things for which I get absolutely no ancillary benefit?  Just purely out of the "goodness of my heart"?  Or do things that benefit both me and somebody else count?

And how much good stuff do I need to do?  Does Piper enjoy a greater degree of salvation because he's led more people to the Lord than, say, Tim Keller?  Or your pastor?  Or me?  Or you?

How much money do you give to the poor?  How much do you tithe?  Do people who give more money than you do get a greater confirmation of salvation?

Remember the Widow's Mite?  Christ said that the widow who gave all she had - two copper coins hardly worth anything - gave a more valuable gift that the large offerings far wealthier people calculated they could afford to give out of their abundance.  How could Christ say that, unless faith is what counts, and not works?

"Good" is a relative concept.  So, actually, is "works."  What about works we don't do, such as sins we're tempted to commit, but don't?  Other people don't see those, so do they count towards salvation?  Do other people need to see what we do for our deeds to count?  Can we bank our good deeds, so an overage can somehow cancel out some of our sin debts?

Do you see how nutty this "works" stuff is to us Protestants?  And do you know why?  Because it was the same type of stuff people like Martin Luther were struggling with back when he ended up nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  On All Saints Eve, October 31, in 1517.

The pivotal moment when the Reformation began.

The Bible doesn't tell us how much good works is enough for salvation, BECAUSE WORKS DON'T GUARANTEE SALVATION.

Only faith guarantees salvation.  Faith, through grace alone.  In Christ alone.

Amen.