Saturday, August 18, 2012

Food Fight

Today I was disheartened by the state of nutrition in the people I see all around me, not limited to my field.  Point in case; today Pat tells me he wants to get breakfast at Wawa.  Now, Wawa is a fine establishment with many healthy options, so I encouraged him to look for something healthy.  He returned with a small low fat chocolate milk.  Not bad.  Then, a large, pre-packed cinnamon, glazed strudel.  I say, "Thats not healthy in any way - sugar, fat, nothing good."
He interjects, "It's my money.  It's my choice."  He is absolutely right.  He has the same God given right to make bad choices as the rest of us.  We all make some decisions that are not in our best interest.  It's the paradox of the overweight doctor or the nurse that smokes.
Personally (true confessions:) I drink coffee everyday, hardly ever go to the dentist and haven't had blood work done since I was fifteen (mainly because I feel strongly that there should not be metal objects in my body extracting vital juices for prolonged periods of time).  I have no idea what my cholesterol is. This is a number I should know when I'm pushing thirty.  (As I write this I'm anticipating the call from my mom.)
I said, "You're right, but it's my job to help you understand what a good decision is and what a bad one is.  That's a bad one, but let me help you find something good."  We walk past a pastry case.  She pauses, "I'm sorry.  There's nothing healthy in there.", I explain.
"Not even muffins?!"
"Not even muffins. At least not these.  Most muffins are glorified cupcakes.  Substitute the icing for cranberries or apples, but still loaded with sugar and empty calories."
I'd had this same issue with Joey not long ago.  We were at the grocery store and he was about to purchase a snack - a single serving apple pie (before noon).  He asked if he should get it.  I told him the same thing.  He exclaimed, "It's made of apples!" His anger was demonstrative of his feeling of having been lied to, or deceived by some greater food force.  I explained that the apples were really more of a coincidence than a core component of the dish.  However, this did little to reconcile his frustration.  Really, rightfully so.  There is a lot of deception in the food we eat, because food is a business.  Food will always appeal to trends and slant views toward the incentive of a profit.  That's how business works.  It's full of half truths and euphemisms.
Back at the pastry case in Wawa Pat felt the same level of frustration as the previous Joey.  He threw a hand up in my face to silence me and walked away.  I pursued the point by highlighting the yogurt, fruit, eggs and cottage cheese all on display a few feet away.  he circled back around to the damned strudel and claimed his autonomy.  There I accepted my defeat; pre-packaged and all - 500 calories, 26 grams of fat and God knows how many sugars and carbs.
I went to my car and waited.  There, straight in front of me stood a father, smoking.  His two kids (maybe 5 and 7) stood beside him scarfing down a giant hot dog and kool-aid each, at 9:30 in the morning.  The truth is I dont' know the context of this.  Those kids might live off of everything from the garden six days a week and this just happened to be "super-special hot dog and kool-aid for breakfast day!", but something tells me that's not the case.
While the dietary choices of some families can be distressing, I feel more empathy for the people like Pat and Joey.  Their struggles are the norm in my field.  They may have grown up being told, "Eat this.  It's good for you." or "Don't eat that!", but even the families that make good meal choices don't always have the ability to explain why.  Nor do their kids have the desire or, sometimes ability, to hear why.  So, often times they continue through adulthood eating whatever they grew up eating for better or for worse.  Then, they develop their own patterns or eating, not knowing if it's healthy or not or why.  Obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and so much more are rampant in my field.  For some people it's so complex to understand how and what makes a person overweight, exacerbates diabetes and raises cholesterol.  It's my job to help them understand these issues, but by the time they reach me, they're so established in their routine, it takes mountains of self-determination to adjust.  Joyfully, some truly do have an overwhelming desire to do what it takes to be healthier.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Put The Cat Down

Julian has a habit of teaching me lessons about myself and about life, unbeknownst to him.  Even if it was beknownst, honestly, he wouldn’t give a damn.  He leaves a lasting impression, though feeling no need to bestow a greater wisdom on this world – the antithesis of my over reaching attempts (self-righteously) to exit this world handing out parcels, perfectly wrapped with Ghandiesque golden wisdom nuggets.
On one of our walks through town to the 711 Julian walked with the determination of a dictator on conquest to a weaker nation with an invaluable natural resource.  Only the weaker nation was 711 and the natural resources were salt and vinegar chips, Coca Cola and Ebony magazine (Ebony magazine is whole other story in itself.). 
We were less than half way, when up ahead I spotted a helpless ball of fur on the sidewalk of this busy town, feet from the bustling cars.  What a perfect opportunity to teach Julian about compassion and patience.  This for a person who sees a pause in stride as a major monkey wrench in the progress toward the Holy Land of convenience stores. 
Knowing he’d need preparation, I told him to look ahead at the cat.  I pointed out the danger that would inevitably befall it if we didn’t intervene, inciting obscure references to moral obligation as we neared it.  He listened, quieted momentarily and simply offered, “Kristen, leave the cat.” in that forced, over enunciated tone we all have when we’re truly emphatic.  Clearly it was my duty to help him navigate the emotional context he could not fathom. 
We were nearing the lost soul when it ran to meet me.  Excellent.  Undoubtedly, it sensed my protective nature and ran for my immediate rescue.  I stopped in my tracks to give it some much needed love, stroking head to tail.  This stop in our pilgrimage made Julian doubt my dedication to the chips and soda conquest. 
“Leave the cat.” He said.  Then repeated it immediately to punctuate his point. 
I scooped the cat up and it reveled in this attention.  Sammy Davis Jr., the tag read. 
“Julian, this is Sammy.” Holding him out toward Julian, so he’d confront the face he was rejecting, “He’s a lost cat.  He belongs to someone.  They are missing him.  Look over there.  That is the road with cars going by quickly.  This cat will get hurt.  The owners will be sad.  We can do a good thing and help the cat go home.  It’s important to help animals and people when they need help.  Then we can go to 711.”
At this point I should mention that in autism there are several stereotypes.  One of which is that they all have a Temple Grandin connection with animals.  As if everyone with autism has some sort of metaphysical understanding of the animal spirit.  That is a myth.  People with autism tend to be very good at very specific things.  Sometimes that’s connecting with animals.  For Julian, that was NOT his strong suit.  His attitude toward the animal kingdom landed somewhere between, “Live and let live.” and Darwinism’s survival of the fittest. 
“Put. The cat. Down.” clearly annoyed at this point, he strung out the words as they exited his lips.  You would’ve thought the beast was made of plutonium or assembled out of various diseases. 
“Look, it’s tag says ‘4 Liberty Way’.  Lets go ask someone where that is.  It can’t be far.”
“Put the cat down, Kristen.”
We march off together with Sammy in tow toward the 711.  This movement eases Julian, but that’s offset by the unwelcome presence of this new traveler.  I know his thought process was that surely, Sammy would ruin everything. Cats cannot go into 711.  Or at least he’d never seen one go in.  This equation didn’t add up and most of all, it wasn’t in the plan.  No.  It had previously been:  Kristen + Julian + walk + 711 = Plan.  Not, Kristen + Julian + stupid cat + walk + find home + 711 = x(?).  That just didn’t make sense.  There were too many factors to add up and several unknown valuables. 
We made a few steps toward the light at the intersection.  Julian continued to demand, “Put the cat down.” 
Suddenly, we heard someone from behind call out, “Miss?  Miss?  Can I have my cat back?”  I stop in my tracks.  Outside of the store where Sammy ran to meet me stands the owner, a bit miffed with a, “This always happens.” look on his face.  Chagrined, I stammer, “Oh.  I thought it was lost.  I’m sorry.  He was on the sidewalk.  His tag said another address…”  I trailed off.  The clerk gave me a knowing nod of the five millionth time someone’s tried to run off with his cat. “Yeah.  He wanders around here, in and out, but never goes in the street.”
Julian was beside himself.  Not only was there a cat, but we’d stopped again and back tracked in the opposite direction.  Plus, we were talking to a stranger who clearly, in no way shape or form, was affiliated with 711 or anything equally or more interesting.  In distress he cycled over our conversation like a background broken record.  “Put the cat down.  Put the cat down.  Put the cat down.”
I heed his advice this time and placed the cat in the owner’s arms, sheepishly giving up my crusade.  We moved on with a new found determination not to be swayed by anything in need of saving.  I’d tried to bestow some great life lesson on Julian, but really it was me who walked away with the understanding: get over myself and my savior complex.  Not everything needs to be saved.  I don’t need to spend my life looking for the vulnerable, damaged, lost and making my goal to fix what ails them.  I’d spent my entire adulthood trying to fix people or their broken pieces, but truth be told, nobody wants or deserves to be viewed as something that needs fixing or  to be conceptualized as a project.  I was just beginning to learn that balance of empathizing enough to toss in a life raft and pull the rope when someone is drowning, but not so much that you jump in with them and drown together.  Julian was right.  Sometimes you just put the cat down.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Roman Salute

Julian stood at the crosswalk of a historically preserved, upper-middle class inhabited, suburban town. Just down the street from the synagogue he raised his right arm in a Roman Salute, or HitlergruB or you might call it, “Heil Hitler!”.  He wasn’t trying to commemorate a ruthless dictator or initiate a riot.  What he was trying to do was get to 711 the safest way he knew how.  In Julian’s reality stopping at the crosswalk begins with a pause in stride – a halt in recognition of the hand, flat, palm up.  Then this image could quickly be replaced by a distraction – a catch of the eye to a biker’s leather gloves that reminds him of Michael Jackson which, in turn, reminds him of the Thriller album, released December 1st 1982 - a sunny day, like today, and a good day to walk to 711.  Then the thought would continue, “Oh. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing!”  This memory would prompt him to impulsively resume his stride.  His original thought about the "Do Not Cross" sign would me millions of links behind in his never-ending conscious strain of thought.  In reality, seconds would have gone by and the light would remain unchanged.  So, to avoid becoming a hood ornament, he must improvise.  Thus, the mimicking of the hand as seen on the crosswalk reminds him why he’s stopped in the first place. 
He thinks he’s a dead ringer for the sign, but the raised eyebrows, gasps and mothers covering their childrens’ eyes don’t resonate with him.  It’s hard for me to refrain from laughing at the irony of is own Jewish Heritage.
I didn’t push his arm down quickly or rebuke him harshly. That would just be my embarrassment of others thinking he was being controversial when they really don’t understand the context.  They have no reason to jump to conclusions and I have no reason to be embarrassed.  I do gently pull his arm to chest level as if he were a six-foot ken doll.  I flatten his hand in a “stop” position and quietly say, “Like this.”  He doesn’t fight it.  I want to offer him an explanation of the correction, but history doesn’t resonate with him the way it does for many.  I realized any accounts would seem trivial and silly.  I imagined his query, “So, why does one asshole get to ruin a salute that predates his own existence?”  I knew why.  I could speak to it, but it still does strike me how we lump together the inconsequential details surrounding what is truly evil with the pure evil itself.  Though they’re not the heart of the matter, those pieces to the puzzle can be enough to send someone on a very dark trip down memory lane. 
I attempted, “Not so long ago a very bad man hurt a lot of people.  People who followed him and some who didn’t were forced to put their arm in the air like you were just doing as a sign of respect.  So, we don’t do that anymore."  He seemed interested as he processed this new information without question. 
I didn’t bother to tell him that tiny mustaches and fist pounding speeches were out too.  I figured why cause more confusion when he’d never really showed a propensity toward either.  Though, I myself was a little pissed about the latter as I’m prone to giving psychopathic motivational speeches to my dog and boyfriend while pounding my fists on the kitchen counter.  I felt slighted that I’d never be able to bring it to the masses.  

Friday, March 2, 2012

Esther Takes The Kitchen Sink...Or Tries

I had been warned about Esther. I’d just begun working at the food pantry recently and in learning a new job’s rigamaroo I discovered that seniors receive a special voucher. Randy came in to volunteer on Mondays and Esther would try to take everything – the kitchen sink if possible.
However, when I first encountered her I didn’t put two and two together. I didn’t know this was her. She was a force to be reckoned with though she stood a slight four foot, ten inches and had a demeanor that oozed of sweetness so viscous it gave an instant emotional cavity to all present, make no mistakes when she shuffled in with her two bags, sweet smile, and general expression of awe and confusion, she knew exactly what she was doing. It was amazing to watch.
Everything was a question. If she incurred a social worker or anyone that could be perceived as a social worker her frail body pinned them to wall with a series of, “Do you have any sandwiches? “
“No. Esther, I’m sorry. Not today we don’t.”
“Tuna sandwiches? “
“Nope. No sandwiches.”
“Ham sandwiches?”
“No. We really honestly don’t have any sandwiches, but you know what? There’s plenty of groceries to choose from on the shelves in the pantry.”
“Jell-o? What about Jell-o? Pudding?”
“No. There really isn’t any Jell-o or pudding today, but I can assure you there’s much to choose from on the shelves.”
“I just really wanted a sandwich and…”
“No. I completely understand, but we just don’t have that today and if you’ll excuse me there’s some people waiting…”
“What about mayonnaise? I have some tuna and I’d really like to make a tuna salad, but I’m out of mayonnaise.”
“You know, I’m not sure. You’d have to look on the shelf - the one that I just spoke of right in the other room. Now, I really do have to…”
“Esther, I’m walking away right now.”
This was the cycle: endless and exhausting.
She’d come for the meals and stay past closing. The rules were all the same for every patron. So, while we all attempted to remain flexible, there was definitely a line that needed to be maintained. When the soup kitchen closed everyone needed to leave so it could then be converted to the food pantry where patrons would shop. Small, cramped spaces required this. So, a social worker or coordinator would notify lingers that he/she appreciated them clearing out so this conversion could take place and that they were always welcome at the next meal. Esther would stay and stay some more. Finally, a supervisor would say, “Esther, please go, but you’re welcome to come back tomorrow.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course.” She’d say as if this were the first time she’d ever heard these words. She remained stagnant.
A few moments later, “Esther, I really need you to leave. The rules are the same for everyone. Thank you.”

”Yes. I was just wondering if you had any…” and the cycle would reoccur.
“No. You can come back and shop later, but now I need you to leave.”
A supervisor would leave the room. Several minutes would pass and there she would remain. Finally, a stern, “Esther you need to leave now.” was expressed. She’d put her hand on her bag talking all the while about all the things she wanted or needed, meekly uttering how unfair she was being treated. She moved slightly toward the door, which began the process of literally corralling her outside. Since our volunteers altered from week to week and their encounters with her were few and far between, there was little way for any social work not to look like a complete asshole when they eventually laid down the law with her. She had the “elderly person card” and man did she know how to play it. What’s a volunteer going to think, “Man, that’s a sweet little old lady and that social worker’s a bitch!” or “There’s another old woman taking advantage of the system! There are so many these days!” I mean, really, we didn’t stand a chance.
What was amazing about her assertions of being treated unfairly was that she came (and if not succeeding, attempted) way more times to get food than any patron was permitted. (Whenever a client of the pantry expressed or displayed a genuine need for more food, there was no question about it. They were going to get it. This wasn't the issue for her. She just wanted - needed to take anything available constantly.) When she did get food she’d never follow the card given to each patron describing how much they could take according to his/her family size. So, she’d just snag things off the shelf without limits. It was difficult for volunteers to call her on it, on account of her looking so damn innocent. She only brought a bag or two with her though the rule was to bring a sufficient amount of bags for the food you need to take home. Finally, she’d ask volunteers to help her carry said bags home for her. The problem was she knew all the rules. She new what she was supposed to take and not, that volunteers weren’t permitted to walk patrons home, that she needed to bring bags, etc. Yet, every time she came she presented a look of wonder on her face, as if it were her first time hearing this and muttered protests of her suppression. Even in all this, one really couldn’t help but love her and look at her with the same portion of wonder she gave to the volunteers and social workers. She was amazing and an adventure to encounter. Quite frankly in my own masochistic way (and the way of nearly every social worker) I genuinely looked forward to seeing her. She was what she was and she wasn’t going to change. I was just there to ride the coaster with her and keep it from crashing, if possible.
This all led to my piece de resistance. One night she came in, as usual, right at the beginning of the food pantry shift, which lasted for an hour and a half. She accosted me with questions about marinara sauce and pudding as I made my way to the office where I checked patrons in. I checked her in first and continued the night; checking in patron after patron. Nearly an hour and a half later I went to the pantry to check on volunteers and discovered Esther still shopping and volunteers wide-eyed and unsure how to move this unstoppable force of a 95-pound woman. She weaved in between and all around of other shopper's paths mumbling an interest in various items and pulling them off the shelf with little regard to those around her. This created quite the cluster fuck. There really was only room for two shoppers at each of the four stations. She wasn’t looking for social interaction, just stuff. Everyone tried their best to continue in confusion or in pitying glances her way, but I knew. This was her routine.
So, with five minutes before closing she lagged behind and the others cleared out . I said, “Esther, you have five minutes to complete your shopping, then you need to go.”
“Oh. Okay.” She submitted. Then, “Maybe, I’ll have one of these”, randomly grabbing a can of artichokes from the shelf. “What are these?” concerning another can.
“Canned Pineapples.”
“What are these?”
“Canned olives.”
“Can I have these?”
“No. The items on the very top shelf and bottom shelf along the floor are for the soup kitchen’s use.”
“What about these? Can I have these?”
“Those? They’re paper plates for the soup kitchen. No.”
“Please. I really need paper plates.”
“Seriously? How many do you need.”
“I don’t know.”
“Here are four paper plates. Now we’re closed. So,...”
“Can I have those?”
“Tupperware? No.”
“Spoons? No. None of this is for taking home. The food pantry is the shelves here, which I’m now going to pull the curtain closed on, since we are now closed.”
She desperately forced her tiny body around mine to snag a couple more cans of things she could not identify to add to a huge pile of goods she did not have enough bags for and not nearly enough man power or strength to carry home.
I turned my back for a second to close the curtain fully. I turned back around to see an amazing sight. Esther had shimmied her foot under the food pantry shelf and summoned forth a gargantuan vat of chocolate fudge. She shuffled it like the cinder block it was, with her feet, toward her cart. I watched, stunned. She bent over and tried to lift it, but could not. All the while she grunted, “I (huff) don’t know (huff) what this is, (huff) but I’m just going to take it with me…”
I stooped down and calmly said, “No. Esther, you are not going to take that home. It is a giant vat of chocolate and what use could you possibly have for this? How will you carry it home?” Honestly, I didn’t even know what possible use we had for it - Ice cream social? Whatever. I scooted it back to its home. No sooner was she at the freezer selecting frozen dinner to bring home.
“How do you make this?”
“350 degrees in the oven for thirty minutes and you need to go home right now.”
The volunteers had begun to tidy up the place for closing and were about to bring a dinner to the fridge, which she was blocking.
“Esther, I need you to move. The volunteers are coming with large containers of food to put in the fridge.”
“Okay.” No movement.
At this point, I literally had to physically move her. I gently pivoted her away from the fridge as she didn’t lose a moment looking in the freezer.
I slowly closed the freezer, handed her a bag and took the other, physically guiding her out of the pantry as she began the cycle,
“Do you have any sandwiches?”
Not indulging in her persistence she turned her ambitions elsewhere and asked, “Can you carry my groceries for me to my apartment.”
“No. You know the rules.”
Her frustration grew as she saw she was running up against wall after wall in her endeavors. Under her breath she made her protests known as she carried her bags down the sidewalk.
She was a sweet woman who was going to work any angle to get as much as she could as often as possible. Most people are the way they are for logical reasons. The way they were raised, a disposition they were born with, a series of life events and/or choices all make a person who they are. I’m sure Esther is no exception, but it is interesting that we form stereotypes about who we think takes advantage of the system and who we think doesn’t. No one ever suspects the sweet, tiny, elderly woman. Yet, I’ve found, more often then not, it’s not the people who are stereotyped as freeloaders that are such. Most people truly are doing the best they can with what they have, even Esther, who, for whatever reason, felt the need to carry home enough chocolate for a diabetic comma. What was she going to do with that chocolate?

Friday, January 6, 2012


Every week I wait outside a packaging business at 3p.m. for Danny to emerge from a long day of assembling boxes, or taping boxes, or applying labels - whatever that week entails. The place is largely employed by individuals with special needs - providing them with a work environment catered to meet the individual's needs. There aren't many places that a person can work and completely lose focus for a moment, wander from their station, have an outburst or simply not show up, but be held accountable and still keep their job. This is one such place. Their approach says, "Yeah. We get it. Life's stressful. Work with us and we'll work with you.".

On any given day I witness an envious display here. At three o'clock, on the nose, a mass exodus bursts forth from a single glass door. In one thrust all are casting the offal of the day from one side of the pane to the other in a near stampede. This is how everyone feels when they leave work, but lack the bravery to display such exuberance. They spill out onto the side walk in a cackle of commotions, yelling to one another, igniting cigarettes with shared lighters, and one - my favorite of all - bursts forth in a flat out run, arms flailing, all the while screaming in pure joy to be done with it. He is my favorite because he most mirrors what I feel every Friday. Yet, he is not the only one in a sprint, a jog, a hustle to something beyond work. They all are and in an impressive tizzy.

Today one 20 something man zipped through the open door way and made a bee line toward me. I know his face. I know nothing beyond that. He, however, came up to me with the self-assured "HEY!" that likened years of well established friendship. He donned a Philadelphia Eagles cap, sneakers... and a three piece suit. He offered me a fist to bump. I was obliged. I considered "blowin' it up", but decided to keep it simple.
"How ARE you?", He queried.
"Good. Good...what about you?"
"Oh. Great!"
"You look sharp. What's the occasion?" I had to know.
"Nothing. Nothing. You know what I mean?" Then he paused.
"Yeah. Right on.". Awesome. Only in this place does a man, in complete self-confidence, wear a three piece suit and sneakers to tape boxes together.
Why am I not wearing gala gowns to file papers? Why don't I throw elbows and sprint for the exit at five o'clock, arms outstretched screaming hallelujah? That's how I feel, sincerely! Why not just "be" how I feel? What a great example.

He continues, "It's Friday! You know what I mean?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I totally do." I offer, and with it, another well deserved fist bump.