Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Us - Aiming for Sixty

It's the first of Spring.

And according to the metaphor of my life as one long hour, I'm about to enter the final minute.

Before I go on, don't put a grim spin on this. Another hour lies ahead, and I fully intend to enter it. I don't really expect I'll see that second hour through – another fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour might be nice.
Would I even want to see that next hour through, and live to be 120? Yeah, probably. I used to not think my 50's would be much of anything, but look at me now! I'll take what I can get, and be glad for it.

But the point is – this isn't any depressed or desperate looking toward death. That figure will make its entrance in its own time, and I'll hope to clasp its hand with some dignity and an abiding sense of gratitude.

Yes, I'm excited about nearing 60. And I like the metaphor of the hour, each minute one year – the sweep of the second hand around the dial, shadowing the Earth's spinning journey around the Sun, hitting that 3, representing March, birthday to birthday, equinox to equinox.

And now I find myself almost at the hour mark, when the second hand will align with the hand whose one sweep represents the entirety of my life so far. What a long hour it's been, but how quickly those minutes are ticked off.

I had an interesting observation: that I moved so often during the first half of my hour. The first quarter of my life took me from Detroit, to New York, to Berlin, back to New York again, and saw me to the start of my life away from home, off to boarding school at Exeter.

That second quarter sweep saw me through Exeter, then to Harvard and Cambridge, and then a bunch of shorter stops, many lasting less than a minute, going by my hour metaphor: Atlanta, San Francisco, Montreal, let's not forget Mississippi! Norfolk, Detroit and Rochester in small doses. Kansas City for almost a full minute, then Seaside, Oregon for almost another. Then on to Seattle. My regret is not having traded some of those roads of North America for pathways through Africa and Asia and South America. Even Europe I've only experienced in brief nibbles. (but there's still next hour).

But look how I've slowed. The entire last half hour in two cities! More than 10 minutes in Seattle, and now, almost twenty in Toronto! Amazing. Never would've thunk it!

But wait a minute. Just that. A minute to go before the hour is closed. One more brilliant dash around the sun before summing up. And what'll I do with it. A minute goes by so quickly. And – as though to compensate – each is denser, richer, fatter and more over-layered with meaning, and with intent that spreads in every direction.

I'm intoxicated by this hour, by the quickening spin of the dial, the excitement of this symbolic minute that, in reality, means no more than any other. I sense that as the hands come around, to meet in some unbelieving supplication, they will generate some vibration that will shatter something in me that has waited all this while. Something will finally and fully ripen. Something will truly come full circle. Maybe I do mean some kind of dying, after all; but if so, it will be the birthing that matters, because even the last minute leads to the next.

My friend Gerry begins his 60th spin today. Mine starts just next week. Zik's will follow. And Debbie and Donna's later this summer. And Thomps, and Greg, and Lucie, and John, Lauren, Rachel and Tom, Joan, Faith and so many others, will be a little ahead or a little behind. The sky is full of us Sun Spinners. Going round and round, coming full circle, tying up loose ends and discovering what's next.

Happy Birthdays to Us All!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Today, I learned of the death, on Saturday, 9 March 2013, of Lois, a former client, at the age of fifty-five. Lois was probably the most difficult person I ever housed. She was a practicing addict and alcoholic who turned tricks to supplement the disability payments she burned through. She was a survivor of multiple traumas, including the loss of one husband in a fire and a second to a heroin overdose, as well as the loss of a seven year old son. And she suffered from acute cognitive impairment and other mental/emotional health issues which, due to her personality and lifestyle, were not thoroughly diagnosed and often went untreated. Judy, a colleague who worked in a Community Health Centre, asked me to work with Lois after watching her tear through one housing worker after another, and determining that she might well be beyond help.

During the nine months or so that we worked together, Lois was given to spontaneous outbursts of venomous, verbal abuse and other forms of gross behavioral inappropriateness. She would forget appointments, or decide in the middle of a meeting that she had to go and get a drink. I was told that once, during an interview for housing, she kept excusing herself to use the washroom, where she progressively drank herself to a staggering intoxication, leading to the housing offer being withdrawn. With another worker, while on the way to another interview, she jumped out of the van at a stoplight and couldn't be found for the rest of the day. Because of such antics, I knew that preparing Lois for interviews would be a slow process.

There are very limited housing options for those with concurrent disorders (having both an addiction and mental illness), and Lois added to that package a demand for independence of movement and freedom of companionship. Other behavioral characteristics that would make housing in any group setting challenging were her propensity to lose her own belongings, in particular, her keys, and the matching tendency to pick up interesting and attractive items left around by others – a trait that exposed her to frequent accusations of theft. Opportunities for appropriate housing couldn't be wasted.

But the slow pace of application and preparation infuriated Lois. Despite her dysfunctions, she was very bright, articulate, had a great memory that clicked in and out, and was quick to take offense at any suggestion that she was in any way incapable. She was full of accusations that no one – I, in particular – was willing to stick with her and help her. And so she was often intoxicated when she arrived for our meetings, occasionally dismissed me in a screaming tirade, or she simply didn't show up.

And yet, I loved working with her. Despite the miseries of which she so regularly complained, Lois was full of life, and of the joy of life. She enjoyed people and wasn't shy about speaking her mind, so a major challenge involved managing her interactions with others when we travelled together, especially in the confines of a bus or streetcar. One minute she might be complimenting a woman on her handbag, in the next, describing the detached rectal lining that caused her great discomfort, and then screaming at the top of her lungs at an eaves-dropper who turned to her with a raised eyebrow.

Because she was so often consumed by a grievance or a mission, some distress or preoccupation, it could be extremely difficult to move forward with the task of finding housing. So early on, we two devised a tactic for working together, which was to take turns. Our meetings sometimes began with a twenty minute Lois rant about the injustice of being barred from yet another shelter, sometimes with a memory of better times that she wanted to share and relive, occassionally with a song, sung in a soft, childlike and lilting voice. When she was done, she's say, "Your turn." and we'd proceed to business, generally with no more substantial disturbances that day.

As is so often the case, much of Lois's disruptive behavior was both a way of dealing with her own anxiety and fear of disappointment in the housing game, and a rigorous test of workers, to see who would stick. As Lois became assured that I would stick, she revealed more of her fears to me, rather than act out on them. And gradually, a calmer and more focused Lois did emerge. And penultimately, she did obtain housing, in a low-rise apartment building where she had a self-contained unit, and her own key, with staff on hand to give support, and a level of tolerance for residents like her, who'd lived so many years in street culture.

I don't know how things ended for Lois. I continued in a support role for a couple of more months, before handing her on to another community worker she'd had the chance to bond with. Ultimately, that housing situation deteriorated and I learned that she'd been moved into housing in another part of town. I don't know what brought about her death this past Saturday, and perhaps I never will. One of her fears had been that she'd die on the street, and I hope that wasn't the case. It was obvious that her life didn't suddenly become rosy because for awhile she had a place that felt to her like home. But she was proud that she'd survived what had been a long passage of years without one.

I write this memorial of sorts because it brings me comfort. I was able to be a bit of a plus in the equation that was Lois's life. But Lois is also a powerful lesson to me. I started this essay by referring to Lois as probably the most difficult person I ever housed. But she was by no stretch the hardest person or the most difficult case I've worked with. It's simply that hers was the most challenging case that met with a small measure of success.

Lois was in the borderland between what the social net would consider a "workable" client and one who is "unworkable". Lois was bright. That helped to make her workable. She had a solid grasp and a vision of the concept of housing, and a strong, focused desire to obtain it. She had the ability, over time, to adapt her level of drug and alcohol consumption when circumstance demanded it, and to manage her fears. She liked other human beings enough, and was charming enough, that I and others wanted to work with her, enjoyed her, and so were able to stand by her, despite the abuse and sabotage. In some measure, the social safety net has expanded in recent years to take in the Loises. The "Housing First" philosophy – which basically means, provide shelter 1st, then worry about the addictions and all the rest – made housing Lois possible. But essentially, it was Lois who did most of the adjusting that made her housing possible. She found and climbed into the net. Despite being barred at one time or another from just about every shelter, drop in or Health Centre that she depended on, and despite her numerous arrests, and assaults of various kinds, both administered and received, Lois managed to negotiate and survive the system.

A key thing I learned from working with Lois, is that our system of care does not and cannot provide much help to the most dysfunctional and most mentally ill of the homeless. There are so many others who cannot make the adjustments she did, who cannot manage enough of the jumble of requirements that stand between them and access. So many others are so cognitively damaged, traumatized or otherwise disabled that they remain beyond the reach of programs like mine.

Housing resources are so strained – particularly supportive housing resources, that the numbers alone dictate against needs being met. Clients end up competing against one another for spots. Sometimes survival goes to the more needy client, but just as often it goes to the less needy, because the program can only deal with and support the lesser need. And it's a sad trick that, after housing someone like Lois, a worker feels he or she has done something exceptional. Because, after all, why should securing housing for anyone in need be exceptional?

Lois, you are missed. And you will be remembered.

I just received the following update from Judy, the worker who originally connected me with Lois:

"By the way, according to ..., she got into her building but couldn’t find her apartment key. So she lied down outside her door and fell asleep. I think staff found her body later and it was on Saturday. So according to that version of the story, she died inside where it was warm and dry, in her sleep."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Psycho Love

                 When I first heard of the show “Dexter” I was sure I would never watch it. Why would I watch a show about a serial killer? It was such an obscene idea, and clearly some producer’s inspiration for cashing in on the viewing public’s addiction to thrill-kill gore. But a few years later, after hearing the show lauded by a number of friends and co-workers, I gave the show a try and quickly pored through three seasons on Netflix. And yes, when I gave it some thought, I was troubled by that.

                Then, a couple of months ago, I started seeing these intriguing ads for a show called “The Following”. And now I’m watching it too. This time, it’s not merely a binge of indulgence, as with “Dexter”. Because “The Following” is new, I’m consuming it the way it was intended – one episode a week, giving me days of speculation and anticipation of the atrocities to come each Monday night.
                And yes, I’m still troubled.

                I remember that when “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” and “Superfly” came out, there was always a bit of underground grumbling about the glorification of bank robbers and drug dealers and pimps. Generally, I dismissed such criticism as conservative, reactionary, status quo fear-mongering. I considered it the same sort of rhetoric as that which damned marijuana as an inevitable gateway to heroin addiction and ruin.
                But this psychopath thing.... It worries me. Will I stop watching? Remains to be seen. I’ve tired of “Dexter”. The device of making him out to be simply a regular guy trying to get along, while saddled with a psychotic condition he had no part in creating, is wearing thin. The qualifier, that he only kills those who deserve it, feeding into the vigilante soul that lies dormant in us all... well, it only goes so far. But, considering my default position, that I’d never succumb to watching such trash, I bought into it pretty seriously.

                I absolutely love “Breaking Bad”. And a big reason is that it unflinchingly traces a character’s descent from mere moral opportunism to ... well, evil. And I remain convinced that “The Wire” presented us with the best television EVER, because it was so raw and similarly unflinching in depicting an enduring reality of the drug wars as they play out in the economic wastelands of America.
                But “Dexter”? It treats its subject too much as a game; there’s so much winking at the audience for the cute absurdities it presents. Is it well written? Without a doubt. Is it gripping, in some ways even instructive? Yes, that too. But it’s also such an easy-natured, smoothed-over, sanitized presentation of psychopathy, that it winds up being much less clean than Breaking Bad and The Wire.

                And “The Following”? I hardly know what to say. It too is gripping and well-written. And in its probing into the cult mind, and its speculation about the roots of psychopathy, it sparks endless rumination about the nature of being human. But here the psycho-killer is elevated to the status of charismatic guru. He impresses, he charms, he seduces. And he’s brilliant. Far more than Dexter’s boy-next-door, he’s the killer rock star. He’s a Charles Manson with good teeth. Hannibal Lechter with sex appeal. The purported good guy here, who repeatedly invites the psycho’s minions to shoot him (to put him out of his misery), comes off as a determined but hapless stooge in comparison.
                So I’m bothered. Just as I am by the violent porn that is so accessible all over the web. And, on that note, will we next be presented with a cuddly, adorable, charismatic rapist as the subject of a television series? Or how about a pedophile?

                And yet...I’m watching. Or have been, until now. We’ve just decided to give up cable in our home. The shows I’m commenting on aren’t the main reason for that. The reasons have more to do with our priorities, and with the tempting distractions that television offers, in so many forms, and with our woeful lack of discipline, and with our vulnerability to seduction and desensitizing. And I can’t help but think...what of the kids?