Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Life Is A Cliché

I've started a little outreach program in my neighborhood, and if you'd like to help you're welcome. Maybe you can start up the same type of thing where you live? It entails giving away food - items that you were going to discard anyway - to someone who might really be grateful to receive them.

You certainly have my permission to copy the letter or modify it as you see fit. Use it as a template and you'll only need to make a few small changes. It's not the words that are important, it's the idea behind them. I'm christening it Food For Thought, and it will become evident why when you get to that point in this story. It's a serious issue, no laughing matter.

The genesis for Food For Thought, however, is a bit odd and lends itself to levity. I hope you'll permit me license to proceed. Allow me continue.

In January 2007, during recovery from a double-hernia surgery, I had lots of "down" time. That's a change for me, because for the previous eight years I had worked as both a firefighter and a nurse. When people would tell me I needed to take some time off and enjoy life, I had a ready answer for them.

"I love both my jobs," I'd reply, "and if I dropped dead tomorrow I wouldn't regret 'missing out' on anything." I was forgetting the folk wisdom that no one on their death bed has ever said "I wish I'd spent more time on the job." I had been consumed with work and life had passed me by.

I hardly recognized my own sister when I visited her during my convalescence. Part of that was due to my memories of her before she had undergone a dramatic weight loss. But I was shocked to realize that it had been so long since we had visited that I would have been unable to identify her in a crowd. That ought to tell you how caught up in my own world I had become. For years there had been no time to visit, and few opportunities even to talk on the phone.

Having time off from work made me realize how much of life I had been missing.
I'd always thought that I'd be bored with time off. I felt that I needed to work, because after a few of Life's setbacks I felt ill-prepared for retirement. I felt like a squirrel busily storing nuts for the winter, and that my hoard wasn't big enough yet. Or so I thought.

You've heard stories of people who change their priorities after a "life-changing" event? That was me. I was prepared to die on the Sunday before my operation; I had even made out a will. I had to leave a separate sheet of instructions just so my executor would be able to access all the various accounts that I maintain.

I realized that it would have been incredibly hard for someone to come in after I had departed and make any sense of my finances. And not just my finances, but my entire household of accumulated stuff. There was so much of it; I would have felt sorry for whoever had had to haul it off for disposal, donations, or garage sales.

For some reason old adages kept running through my head. I found myself beginning to apply some of those credos to my life. Time is money; a place for everything and everything in its place; waste not, want not; and beggars can't be choosers are four that are pertinent to this tale.

Let's move on. I'd always thought it would be fun to write, but I never seemed to have enough time. As well, I've heard that you're supposed to write about things you know about, and who would want to hear about someone who worked all the time? Anyone who'd kept their nose to the grindstone as much as I did had to be not just squirrelly, but plain nuts.

Some ideas came to me, and it seemed like there were some that were actually good enough to provide plots for fiction. Maybe a short story that someone else might like to read. I think that - possibly - there's a book inside me, too. I have a very important message to get out, regarding a far different topic than this one. But that's a story for another time.

I realized that if I were able to convey my ideas in writing well enough, it might generate enough income so that I wouldn't have to work two jobs. Though I've never had formal training in writing, I could learn by taking some classes. If only I had some evenings off to attend the community college.

I thought about "time is money" in all of its ramifications. Switch that around and you get money is time. None of us truly have enough time to achieve all of our goals. Nor do we have enough leisure to truly enjoy everything we'd like to do. We'd get alot farther down that path if we were driving a jeep, instead of walking. I needed a faster vehicle to get where I wanted to go. It was at that point I realized that if I could develop a talent for writing, I'd have a lot more time off.

But writing, like any serious vocation, takes time. And time is a precious commodity that we all have too little of. One morning as I was about to leave for an appointment, I noticed that my keys weren't where I usually left them. I searched high and low and eventually found them, but I spent a very frustrating fifteen minutes looking for them.

It dawned on me that all my life I had been a very disorganized person. And that if time was money, then I needed to get organized. I was wasting far too much time looking for things. You remember the maxim "a cluttered car is the sign of a cluttered life?"

Well, it wasn't just my car, but the garage that was cluttered as well. Along with every other room in the apartment. Now that I think about it, I'm amazed I could find anything. So now "a place for everything, and everything in its place" kicked in. I started organizing things, putting items away where they belonged instead of having 137 stacks of stuff everywhere.

Next I started throwing away things that I would, in all likelihood, never use. Sure, I could sell them on ebay, but that would probably be more trouble than it was worth. During this process, I began finding things that had been missing for years. Several times in the past I'd needed to buy items just because I couldn't find stuff that I already owned.

Now "waste not, want not" started to kick in. I realized that if I were just more organized, I wouldn't need to buy duplicates anymore. If I wasn't wasting the amount of money a disorganized lifestyle entailed, then maybe I could buy some things I'd really desired but had put off. I guess right about here "don't buy it unless you can pay cash" would be appropriate.

So by now I've decided that I need to become more organized so that I can have more time so that I can become a writer so that I don't have to work so hard anymore so that I can start enjoying life, because "life is short" and "the clock is ticking." Whew! Talk about a run-on sentence.

You followed m reasoning by way of sayings, didn't you?

1. Cluttered mind leads to
2. A place for everything leads to
3. Time is money leads to
4. Life is short leads to
5. The clock is ticking

My life had become a cliché!

When I began to toss some of the clutter, I had thrown away a huge bag of plastic shopping bags accumulated from neighboring stores. They had been inherited from the previous tenant when she moved out. I wound up keeping them. Now, though, I didn't want to be "the one left holding the bag," so I decided I'd better get rid of most of them. What could I possibly want all of those bags for anyway? Besides, hanging on their hook, they looked like the Michelin Man had been trying to dematerialize through the pantry wall and had gotten stuck halfway through.

So I'm working my way through the apartment, room by room, moving and cleaning, filing and organizing and suddenly I find myself in the garage. The garage is where I park my car, but it's also where I've been keeping my Armageddon supplies. You know, the cases and cases and cases of stuff that I'd bought for Y2K, the bird flu, or Peak Oil?

In my case the supplies took the form of rows upon rows of cans, stacked three high and six deep. Soups and chili. Sardines and tuna. Tamales and Spaghettios. I'd somehow convinced myself when they'd gone on sale that "they're cheap, I like them, and if I don't spend the money on food it just leaves me more to spend on something else." I used to take pride in being able to eat for one dollar per meal, so that I could invest the rest. Starve and get rich; that was my motto.

I had all the flavors of soup that Progresso makes, as well as every Campbell's Chunky. I had a veritable hoard of Stagg's chili, and Hormel wasn't far behind. I had row upon row of Chicken of the Sea tuna, Crider deluxe chunk chicken, and Bumblebee sardines. I had every canned recipe ever devised by Chef Boyardee and, in a moment of whimsy, had placed him side-by-side with Wolfgang Puck's soups.

It took four floor-to-ceiling four-foot wide bulging, heavy-duty Gorilla shelves - crammed - to hold all that food. And I wasn't even a Mormon. I'd kept friends out of the garage so that they wouldn't learn of my shameful secret. I had so much food, stacked so high and deep, that they could have hidden the Ark of the Covenant in my garage and Indiana Jones wouldn't have been able to find it.

Remember Muriel Pritchett, the eccentric character portrayed by Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist? Now, before you haul out your Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - and attempt to label me as OCD - try to at least credit me with the benefit of the doubt. At least I didn't feel the obsessive compulsion to alphabetize all the cans like she did.

But, I'll be the first to admit, I had purchased an incredible amount of food while it was on sale. When they dropped the bomb, I might be irradiated, but I'd be one fat squirrel. The thought made me glow.

Continuing in my organizational mode, I began to check the expiration dates on the cans. The codes were difficult to decipher - many were faded - and I had to apply close scrutiny to read them. At this point, you're probably one step ahead of me, and in this case you'd be right.

About half of the cans of soup were already past the "best if used by" date. It made me want to cringe in dismay. For a moment - gripped by a frenzy of grief - I thought about banging my head in frustration against the shelves. Then I reconsidered. Suppose they toppled and buried me? When my co-workers asked about my absence, I didn't want the boss to have to tell them "Oh, didn't you hear? He got canned."

Now part of me wanted to wail "Noooooooo! I'm not going to waste all that money by throwing them away. I can eat them. I know," I thought, "I'll just grab the cans that are the oldest and I'll start eating them one a day until I use them up. But I'd need the help of Napolean's Army to accomplish that task in less than a year. That's how many there were.

Then I rationalized. I was trying to make myself feel better. I told myself that buying them had been an insurance policy. Since I hadn't yet had to quarantine myself off from the bird flu victims, and Peak Oil hadn't yet resulted in sky-high oil costs such that gasoline prices were so expensive that the truckers couldn't transport goods with the result that the shelves were bare at the neighborhood Winco, then I didn't need them. It was just like buying a life insurance policy. You buy it because you might need it, not because you expect to die.

Removing the "bad" cans from the "good" (is this somehow related to Gresham's Law?) reduced my stash to half its former size. I still had plenty of insurance in the form of un-expired soup cans remaining. I decided that I needed to get rid of the older cans. I also reasoned that the soup had too much sodium anyway. At my age, that wasn't good for me. I'd had so much fluid edema built up in my legs before the surgery that it was like poking your finger in clay. It left a deep dimple that took forever to recede. That can't be good. If I wanted to be around to write my stories, I didn't need to be developing high blood pressure. I didn't want to wind up being "an old salt."

Notice how much rationalizing I was doing? It's hard to change old patterns, and for a pack rat it's even harder. I wanted to hang onto my hoard, but I knew it was time to say goodbye. But it was like sending your kids off to college, you know they're destined for better things, but you still hate to see them go.

Finally, we get to the point. I realized that I was going to have to throw the cans away. That was when it dawned on me; food centers might not be willing to accept them because of their expiration dates. Perhaps it would expose them to some form of liability if someone became ill?

Best by dates are recommendations for optimal appreciation of flavor. The nutritional content remains virtually intact and does not degrade, far beyond the expiration date. But food centers might not be aware of that. I didn't want to give all that food to a distribution center only to learn later that the items had all been donated to a dumpster.

So, "beggars can't be choosers" came to mind. I decided that the homeless guy on the corner with the "will work for food, please help" sign might not be so choosy. He might, in fact, be very grateful just to have a free meal. "Waste not, want not" kicked back in, so I retrieved all the disposable plastic bags from the big grey trash container.

I started to fill all the bags with cans of soups, crackers, and Quaker Oats granola snack bars. I also had old bags of popcorn. Ultimately, I decided not to include these. The recipient might not have ready access to a microwave oven. They might view these, not as a boon, but instead a cruel hoax. Everything I placed in the bags were items that I had far too many of, because of my tendency to go to extremes at times.

I even included a gigantic chocolate candy bar in each bag. I'd purchased them at Lake Tahoe the previous summer. The local Albertson's had been going out of business, and they had been priced at ten percent of their original cost. They'd just been sitting in the back of my refridgerator - gathering dust - ever since. I'm trying to lose weight. I don't need that temptation laying around. If I see it, I'll just eat it - "out of sight, out of mind" - so best just to get rid of it.

I'd taken candy bars down to work before, to share with co-workers. But those people at least have an income. Thus developed the idea to give the food away. To share it with others more needy. Don't credit me with noble motives of altruism though. In every action I've taken, benefits have accrued to me. But I figured, "why not help someone else out of a mess if I can?"

I included the same letter - which you can read in the other blog, Food For Thought - in each bag. Because merely providing a meal is not enough. If we can give someone less fortunate a helping hand when they need it, we'll all be better off.

Food For Thought

I owe you an apology, and I'm going to explain why.

I've seen you on the streetcorner with your sign. It must take a lot of courage for you to stand there. It's tough to admit you need help.

I don't know what kind of trouble you've had. I just know it must have been bad. So you finally get up the nerve to step up on the median, and then what happens? I drive right on by.

You know it's true. You can see people rolling up their windows as they approach the turn lane. They sit there idling, stone-faced, and they won't even make eye contact with you because, at some level, they feel guilty.

They want to believe there really isn't a problem, so they'll make excuses. They'll say "I'm not going to give money to that guy, he'll just spend it on alcohol or drugs."

But, even if that were true, it must make you feel invisible. No one should have to feel like that, it's just not right.

So I owe you an apology, and I hope you can forgive me.

People tend to forget that we're all the same. The only difference between us could be that I have a job and you don't.

But you're one of God's Creatures, a human being worthy of respect and deserving of dignity. In fact there's even scripture in the Bible that refers to this:

Even as you would do unto the lowliest of men, you do so as unto me.

Now, there's a reason I've included this note, aside from my apology.

You need to know that there are people, agencies, and organizations that can help you, no matter what kind of help that you need.

Sometimes it's hard to ask anyone for help, I know it used to be for me. For some foolish reason I'd gotten it into my head that asking for help was a sign of weakness. I'd always prided myself on my self-sufficiency.

But I was wrong. I can admit that now. It was just my ego talking. I think now that I was just trying to avoid feeling embarassed. Don't let that happen to you.

Here's what you need to do before things can start to get better. You need to examine your life. Admitting that you have a problem that you can't solve alone is the first step. Until you are willing to recognize that, no one can help you.

Once you've taken that first step, you're ready to begin. All it takes is a phone call. I'm providing a list of phone numbers for people who can help you in the Fresno, CA area.

If you are homeless and in need of shelter:
Fresno Rescue Mission 268-0839

If you need help with alcohol-related problems:
Alcoholics Anonymous 221-6097

If you need help with drug abuse problems:
Free 24Hour AddictionHelpline 1-800-559-9503

The first step is recovery. If that doesn't apply to you, and you just need to find work:
Employment Development Dept 230-4188

Good luck, I hope things get better for you.