Monthly Archives: October 2021

The Nouveau and Real Poor

There was a time when a family’s having meager means was an embarrassment, something to hide. Nowadays, it seems that just about everybody was “born by the river in a little tent.” 

With pride, the nouveau poor assert that their family was really poor, but they didn’t know it. What the just-discovered-that-they-were-poor need to know is that real poor people know that they are poor. Indeed, having always lived in a house and had enough food to eat qualifies one as rich in the eyes of real poor people.

When I hear the nouveau poor tell sad stories, then, about what they describe as a hard life, I sometimes wonder if these stories are just a way for people to boast and pat themselves on the back for overcoming. And because of this overcoming, they seek praise, respect, admiration, and perhaps your vote.

When these rags-to-riches bootstrapping stories seem inauthentic to me, I think how real poor people don’t have anything–not even their stories.

Seeing Humanity Through Film

Recently I saw two memorable films: MAID, a Netflix limited series, and Mass, shown only in theaters.

I’m not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of films or the quality of the performances of the actors. Here, I want to briefly share what struck me hard as I watched these films.

In MAID, we watch as a young woman, Alex, attempts to escape from what she feels is an emotionally abusive situation. She is living with the father of their two-year-old daughter, Maddy. Along this road to freedom, Alex cleaned 338 toilets, had 7 types of government assistance, made 9 separate moves, and spent 1 night on the floor of a ferry station. All of this happened during the entire third year of her daughter’s life. And not only is Alex a mother, herself, but she also feels responsible for her own mother.

Watching Alex on this journey is exhausting. But beyond all the hard work as a maid and the toll taken by complicated relationships, her journey exposes a world that is impossibly complicated and restrictive when someone in need attempts to access government-funded programs created to assist people in situations similar to the one portrayed by Alex in MAID. Although Alex had a hard way to go, her homelessness was not nearly as humiliating and terrifying as it is for most people who can’t find a safety net when they fall into this category.

The movie Mass is about two sets of parents meeting six years after a tragic mass shooting at a school. The parents of the school shooter agree to the conversation, which is hoped to be therapeutically healing for the parents of one of the victims of the shooting. As the conversation unfolds, it is obvious that feelings of profound grief have been devastating for both sets of parents.

As we witness the excruciatingly painful toll the tragedy has taken on both sets of parents, we begin to understand the essence and the core of what it means to be human. These actors show us naked humanity. Naked humanity experiences a range of feelings such as anger, blame, and hate tumbling over one another in order to be recognized as the priority. And yet, in the course of a conversation, we also witness that intangible unique aspect of humans called grace. Indeed, we have the capacity to change powerfully negative feelings into something that resembles sympathy and empathy.

I Can Laugh Now

A couple of weeks ago, I laughed out loud when I saw the Dairy Queen “Sweeter” Vest on CBS This Morning, and I knew that I had to have one. I immediately went online to order one and they were already sold out. Though disappointed that I couldn’t order this goofy sweater vest (especially when it likely turned out to be more of a marketing ploy than actual merchandise), I was happy for the laugh, especially since it wasn’t at anyone’s expense.

It seems that most things that make us laugh are at the expense of another’s misfortune. We tend to laugh when someone is socially awkward in some way. In silent films, the funniest scenes were when someone slipped on a banana peel, ran into a door, or in some other way did something that would make them feel embarrassed.

People also find it funny when someone does their best but ultimately fails or “falls on their face.”  I have fallen on my face in many areas of my life.   

For example, I’m a terrible cook. I love cooking, but it is not intuitive for me. Some of my most embarrassing moments have been associated with my cooking.

When our son brought his then-girlfriend (now spouse) home for dinner for the first time, he prepared her for my cooking by telling her, “When Mom cooks, it’s a lab experiment.” 

A glutton for punishment and foolhardy at best, when we have guests, I usually try new recipes because I want the meal to be special. Everybody knows not to do this. I can’t resist.  

There was the time when I invited a colleague I really wanted to impress to dinner. I was going to roast lamb accompanied by mint jelly, as I had read that mint jelly made the dish extra special. I’d never had lamb before and had no idea how it was supposed to smell as it roasted.  As the roasting progressed, I became more and more distressed by the intense and unusual aroma. Luckily, I had a chicken that I could roast.

Upon entering our house, my colleague gleefully exclaimed about the aroma of the roasted lamb and said roasted lamb was her favorite dish. As I placed the roasted chicken on the table, my colleague asked about the lamb that she had smelled. When I told her that I had thrown the lamb in the trash because the aroma made me think there was something wrong with it, the look of shock on her face indicated that I had certainly made an impression…just not the one that for which I had hoped. I can laugh now.

On another occasion I invited a colleague and his family for Sunday dinner. They had two young children who were impatient for dessert because they could see the beautiful pound cake on the sideboard. They were excited when I told them that there would be ice cream, as well. I was excited about this cake because I used the recipe from a dear friend who made the best pound cakes ever. As we grown-ups ate my very, very dry cake in silence, their 5-year-old screamed, “This is the worst cake I ever taste!.” I can laugh now.

Even when we were not having guests, cooking a meal was never routine. I had a library of cookbooks, collected favorite recipes from friends, and even had an onsite tutorial from a friend on how to make the best brown gravy.

My best dishes were by accident. I would make a dish that was praised but would have no idea why the dish turned out the way it did. Invariably, wanting to replicate what was previously praised, I would try to improve on it when I made it again. Apparently, I had been successful in pleasing our son on a simple dish—green beans. Trying something new, I added whole green peppers to the green beans to spice them up. Unfortunately, if one were not paying close attention, one could have both green beans and peppers on the end of one’s fork. When our son got the pepper surprise, he abruptly stood up from the table, threw his napkin down beside his plate and asked accusingly, “Why did you have to ruin them?” I can laugh now.

My husband never wanted to hurt my feelings about my cooking, but I knew when the meal was an ordeal for him. On these occasions, while holding his fork with his right hand to eat, he would have his left forearm on the table with his fist clenched tightly. During one of these fist-clenching times, after taking two bites of one of my “lab experiments,” he looked at me with the saddest expression on his face and in a soft plaintive voice said, “Hon, I just can’t eat this.” I can laugh now.

Whatever happened to…?

I have always been an inveterate memory keeper. In addition to journals, I kept appointment calendars of the kind where one wrote with a pen or pencil on paper. On these calendars, there are names of both people I do not recall and those I recall vividly because we had a close relationship.

It’s a fact of life that people enter and exit our lives, and there is not always a good explanation as to why either occurs.  Whether or not the relationship is a cherished one, it’s a price well worth paying for the experiences that contributed to my understanding of myself, others, and relationships themselves.

Curious to know what happened to some of the most interesting people on my calendars, I Googled them. Some had no presence on the web. Others, I discovered, went on to do impressive things, such as having books published, producing art, working at prestigious law firms, being college presidents, holding high-level administrator roles in colleges and universities, and starting or leading nonprofits.

Some people were still in the same place as when I knew them and, from what I could glean from their online presence, did not seem to be the worse for it. I know I’m certainly not the worse for having spent some time with them.