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Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Janitor and The Child

I was sucked into a political discussion in my beloved runner’s forum. I’d rather avoid political debates because I find them so vexing. I have my strongly held beliefs, as do others. Admittedly, there are times when someone opens my eyes to other possibilities, explanations or solutions. Usually not. Too often, I’m simply bombarded by slogans, partisan rants and the regurgitated pap that's become our daily fare.

I’m irritated by the libertarians /conservatives/Republicans who pound their fists on the table exclaiming it’s all a matter of living virtuously and taking “personal responsibility” for one’s own success or failure. As if that were simple. As if that were all that is needed. I’m always left wondering if my opponent is naively blind. Perhaps the blindness is a convenient excuse; or, worse yet, thinly veiled prejudice. One never knows the truth of another’s heart or soul.

The Janitor

I spent a college summer working as a janitor. I worked 2nd shift, usually, sometimes the graveyard shift. Whenever I worked the graveyard shift, my path would cross that of a fellow janitor who was permanently assigned that shift, despite his seniority. He was a black gentleman.

He was in his late-fifties. A thin, quiet man. He only spoke when spoken to, and when he opened his mouth it was obvious he had let his teeth surrender to rampant decay. I liked him. I would always stop to chat a spell, usually because I would observe him being taunted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways as we cleaned the union workers’ locker room. That locker room scared me. The workers were, without exception, poorly educated white males. Some pretty big and ugly dudes, to boot. I always figured he could use a bit of moral support. Hell, with my long hair, I too, received my fair share of abuse. I felt a certain kinship with my fellow mop-wrangler.

I never really got to know him. What little I learned was this: he was the son of an alcoholic share-cropper who had booted him out of the family shack at age thirteen, asserting that he was a “man” now, and had to make his own way in the world. And so he did. He had no high school diploma, couldn’t even read, but he ventured alone into the world and found himself a woman who blessed him with two children and he, in turn, made a home for them…as a lifelong janitor…mopping up after others…

He wasn’t bitter. He never spoke with resentment or outrage. He simply did what he did, lived the only way he could figure out how, and took it all in with a certain detached bemusement. He was stoic. He was honorable.

The Child

My wife had befriended a family and, through her, I came to befriend them, too. The entire family was blessed with striking good looks…every one. They were good people. They were hard working and spiritual. Their youngest daughter (18 years old) was an absolute knockout. She was tall, lean, shapely and radiantly beautiful. She had the softest, kindest, most innocent brown eyes I had ever seen. The innocence wasn’t feigned, either. She had the mental maturity of a five year old.

Having met her, one couldn’t help but obsess about her fate. Her parents were aging rapidly. Despite a lifetime’s worth of special education and training, she functioned no better than a five year old, and never would progress beyond that stage, although she had blossomed into a ravishing woman with biological needs and wants she could scarcely understand or manage. She exuded the sweetness, charm and innocence of your typical kindergartener as she stood on the threshold of a waiting world.

* * *

Personal responsibility. Yeah…that’s the ticket.

I’m not a big fan of Darwinian societies exulting in the survival of the “fittest.” I’m even more put off by the recent wave of Neo-Calvinism (i.e., personal wealth and success are proof that you’re virtuous and that God loves you). No, I prefer a society filled with helping hands. Hands outstretched to lift up all who need a lift.

Really...what would Jesus do?

* * *

What For
By Garrett Kaoru Hongo

At six I lived for spells:
how a few Hawaiian words could call
up the rain, could hymn like the sea
in the long swirl of chambers
curling in the nautilus of a shell,
How Amida’s ballads of the Buddhaland
in the drone of the priest’s liturgy
could conjure money from the poor
and give them nothing but mantras,
the strange syllables that healed desire.

I lived for stories about the war
my grandfather told over hana cards,
slapping them down on the mats
with a sharp Japanese kiai.

I lived for songs my grandmother sang
stirring curry into a thick stew,
weaving a calligraphy of Kannon’s love
into grass mats and straw sandals.

I lived for the red volcano dirt
staining my toes, the salt residue
of surf and sea wind in my hair,
the arc of a flat stone skipping
in the hollow trough of a wave.

I lived a child’s world, waited
for my father to drag himself home,
dusted with blasts of sand, powdered rock,
and the strange ash of raw cement,
his deafness made worse by the clang
of pneumatic drills, sore in his bones
from the buckings of a jackhammer.

He’d hand me a scarred lunchpail,
let me unlace the hightop G.I. boots,
call him the new name I’d invented
that day in school, write it for him
on his newspaper. He’d rub my face
with hands that felt like gravel roads,
tell me to move, go play, and then he’d
walk to the laundry sink to scrub,
rinse the dirt of his long day
from a face brown and grained as koa wood.

I wanted to take away the pain
in his legs, the swelling in his joints,
give him back his hearing,
clear and rare as crystal chimes,
the fins of glass that wrinkled
and sparked the air with their sound.

I wanted to heal the sores that work
and war had sent to him,
let him play catch in the backyard
with me, tossing a tennis ball
past papaya trees without the shoulders
of pain shrugging back his arms.

I wanted to be a doctor of pure magic,
to string a necklace of sweet words
fragrant as pine needles and plumeria,
fragrant as the bread my mother baked,
place it like a lei of cowrie shells
and pikake flowers around my father’s neck,
and chant him a blessing, a sutra.

* * *

4 Comments:

Blogger soul_rebel said...

I scanned through the linked thread (political discussions have a way of sucking me in if I read into them too thoroughly, and I have to sleep tonight) and wanted to post a few disconnected and trivial thoughts.

1) You might have seen this before, but the animated version is fairly new - http://www.miniature-earth.com/.

If your friends aren't concerned about the disappearing middle class and the comparatively poorer poor, they should consider enrolling in a macroeconomics course. That's not even a partisan issue.

2) Someone referred to the U.S. as a capitalist society. We're actually hybrid, like most everyone else. Our leanings might be more toward capitalism than say, the UK, but we shouldn't ignore or discount the presence of socialism. It's not a dirty word in my book.

For an interesting look at socialized healthcare, among other things, in successful practice, check out Sweden. Sweden has a much stronger and more stable economy than the U.S. according to most measures...and they're taxing at over 70%. It was the first, and remains the only, country in the world where outside doctors could not determine a child's social class through extensive medical and dental exams. That sounds like success to me.

That said, there was an interesting article in the Times a few weeks ago about socialized healthcare and potentially deadly illnesses. As someone on the thread pointed out, the wait times in most cases are excessive. People are dying faster and more often from things like cancer overseas, even under the most developed of systems.

In addition to wait time, it's important to note the quality of care that is usually received. Because the social classes in say, Sweden, are much closer together, doctors aren't making much more than say, garbage men. This causes a very real, and probably unavoidable, problem - the best specialists leave the country in search of more adequate compensation. When you're losing your best doctors, researchers and whatever else to overseas super-programs (MD Anderson comes to mind), you're left with a pretty sub-par group.

I think the moral of that story is that socialized medicine is great...so long as your life doesn't depend on it.

As far as avoiding it in this country? Well, the government isn't known for its big paychecks. I mean, our vice president is making less than 200k a year. And talent usually goes to the highest bidder, which is always privatization (UPS/FedEx vs USPS comes to mind, as does NASA's weakening grasp on the future of space exploration).

Short of the long, I have no idea what the right answer is regarding healthcare. The liberal in me thinks no one should go without it in a nation as prosperous as ours. The skeptic in me says I'd be on a plane to the highest paid doc in the world if I came down with something life threatening though.

3) This is totally unrelated, but I was really irked by the person who claimed that the U.S. had 100% benevolent intentions in essentially all of its 20th century conflicts. I was particularly peeved over the Vietnam mention.

Sadly, it's a little known fact that when we were "defending" Vietnam from the clutches of Communism, we were actually denying it of its soon to be CHOSEN system of government. As in chosen by the people, for the people. Ho Chi Minh, though Communist, had the support of his followers. Real support, too. Not the "support me or die" kind that people like Stalin enjoyed. He was their chosen man. It's ludicrous to even think the country was somehow "infected" by China's political shift - the two are not historically close friends.

And so we entered into a struggle that was not ours and fought on the side of Premier Diem, a disgusting and violent dictator.

For a more eloquent version of this and more, I'd recommend to that person (Tom L) my favorite Dr. MLK speech - Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. It can be found here:

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

His words are timeless, considering especially our current situation in Iraq.

---

Yikes. I could say more, but as you can see I'm a little longwinded on even my cherrypicked side points. Keep fighting the good fight on your forum, it was certaintly enjoyable to see you in action outside the blogger context.

Oh, and forgive all typos and awkwardly worded sentences. I feel like I just vomited from the top of my head all over your comments page.

Mon Sep 18, 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Vomit all you want, I rather enjoyed reading your thoughts. It does my heart good to know there are those who see the world as it is and want it to be better.

Who will be the leaders, the voices and the conscience of today's and future generations? We need them, now. We need them desperately.

Tue Sep 19, 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger roadsofstone said...

"I prefer a society filled with helping hands. Hands outstretched to lift up all who need a lift."

And how could anyone not ? That's an eternal mystery to me.

Fri Sep 22, 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

"And how could anyone not? That's an eternal mystery to me."

Particularly in a nation that is self-described as 80% Christian.

Sun Sep 24, 11:58:00 PM  

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