Archive for August, 2010

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 1: Bakersfield

Posted in Boyhood, History, Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

“I tell ’em like I write ’em, in one long continuous paper streaming across the sky, man, that’s my map, that’s what I’m doing, that’s where I’m going. You coming too?” — Jack

Jack’s not my friend, he’s an acquaintance. At least, that’s the published version. But Jack is a pretty engaging guy, and a good guy too. That’s who this story is about.

Have you ever met someone who only felt comfortable when he was hearing the sound of his own voice? I’m talking about stream-of-consciousness talking. I’m talking about all day, one-way monologues. If you were to hear Jack, you’d notice a certain rhythm to his voice, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but recognize. I’d call it nerve-wracking and downright annoying, if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack is just so dang fascinating.

One foggy evening, as we were walking, and Jack was talking, we fell onto the subject of travel. Jack boasted that he knew California like no one else. “I’m not talkin’ maps, man. . . I’m talking real knowledge – stuff that takes feet-on-the-ground research, not like what you’d see in a dusty old encyclopedia, but brought to life and speaking to you, propelling you, shining on you like the sun, man.”

I rolled my eyes. Jack was on another bender, ‘getting tangential,’ as he called it.

“Yeah, really man, I can show ya, I can show you how to be a giant in California, bigger than the redwoods. You’ll be so big, you can take one step and be standing in the parched bean fields of Bakersfield and take another step and be cool in Salinas. After you wipe that rich dark earth off your shoe, you’re in Mendocino, man, stepping over the old logging chutes that pitched that redwood booty out into the waiting ships way back when. What do you say, man, you in, you wanna be a giant?”

“What are you talking about? Gimme a clue, Jack,” I half pleaded.

What I’m talking about is an emancipation proclamation, man, I’m talking walking papers, carte blanche, an e-ticket that you can’t buy, because you’ll be a giant!”

Oh, brother!

“Oh Brother yeah! If you’re up for it we’re giants tomorrow, swear! But we have to shake on the deal first.”

Jack extended his fist and began his elaborate knuckle bumping, thumb hooking, pinky wiggle with the elbow extension and the wink. Yeah, the wink. Jack had a special wink that was his way of saying that this was an important deal, more important than anything else. So we performed the ceremony that told Jack that, in essence, I had placed myself in his custody.

“Meet me at this crossing tomorrow morning. Bring a coat and a change of clothes and a toothbrush and maybe a sliver of soap, but that’s it because that’s giant gear and if you bring anything else it won’t work. Swear?”
“Swear.” I said, with a little quiver in my voice. “What time?”

“Four-thirty, Amplitude Modulation, my friend. Oh-dark-thirty. Be there with your giant gear and I’ll show you. . .”
“Show me. . .?”

As Jack walked away, he seemed to blend into the fog and the dark, and vanish.

The next morning, as I approached our meeting place, Jack reappeared out of the fog, but now sitting on his backpack, sipping on a cup of coffee in the dark. It was one of those short plastic cups that unscrews off the red plaid thermos, which was sitting in front of him. He held his filterless cigarette with typical Jack-like affectation, between his thumb and forefinger.

“We gotta go,” he said, as he took one last drag, flicked his smoke, gulped his coffee and screwed the cup back on the thermos, all in one smooth motion. “If we’re gonna be giants today, we’d better move like it.”

Now I knew that there was only one thing happening on this corner at 4:30 in the morning, and it was just beginning to dawn on me what Jack was up to when he stopped me and turned his head sideways slightly. Jack heard something, and in the next moment he was running up the gravel covered hill, toward the railroad right of way. I had to run hard to keep up with him.

“That’s it! C’mon, lets move!”

Jack disappeared behind a pepper tree that had grown over the edge of the gravel rail bed.
“In here!” Jack whispered as he ducked down into the foliage. “Now if you do this right, and follow my every move, this is where you’ll take your last step as a little man! Got it?”

That sound that Jack had heard, it was getting louder and closer. It was the 4:47, northbound out of the Santa Fe depot, and just now slowly moving our way. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized what was next.

Jack was wound up like a top, and unwound his explanation: “OK, brother, this is how it goes. First, you jog along beside her, just like you’ve always known her, but making sure that she’s not moving faster than you. When she’s not looking and you’re sure she’s sweet on you and you’re moving together, you grab her –

“And that next giant step puts you in the bean fields of Bakersfield, California!”

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The Profit in Non-Profits

Posted in Life After 50, Uncategorized on August 25, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Recently, I heard a remark that caught my interest and sparked a conversation. My cousin believes that one’s life can be divided into four major stages. These stages include preparation, production, service and retirement. Hearing this, I immediately thought of my own personal situation and attempted to place myself along this four-stage continuum.

UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “When you’re done learning, you’re done.” I’ll agree with that, but I still see the bulk of my education career behind me. At the other end of the spectrum is retirement, which seems equally distant. So in the middle are production and service. We all know what it is to be productive. It seems that, for many years, production is the very substance of our existence. We define ourselves by the jobs we do and make every sacrifice necessary to achieve. But, what about service?

In 2009, approximately seven million California residents volunteered their time. During that year, each one of those seven million men, women and children donated, on average, 134 hours of their time to organizations and causes important to them. I’d like to look more closely at the subject of service, the motivations for it, and how volunteerism affects the volunteer.

We often think of volunteer work as a selfless or even altruistic activity, performed in order to promote the good, improve quality of life, or solve problems. But volunteer work can also be a self-serving pursuit when used for job training, networking, socializing, or politics. And did you know that there are critics of volunteerism? Some post-modernist thinkers believe that volunteerism is just another form of the institutionalization of society that perpetuates an outdated morality of noblesse oblige.

Whatever.

A concept that is much simpler to grasp is that there are many disadvantaged people among us who need our help. There are the hungry, the homeless, the handicapped. There are alcoholics and orphans and runaways and prostitutes. Some are merely the unlucky recipients of troubling times; some are physically unable to provide for their own needs, while others have mismanaged their lives to the point of ruin. To serve this needy population, there are battered women’s shelters, group homes, halfway houses and rescue missions. There are soup kitchens, job programs, medical clinics and many, many more.

Opportunities to do volunteer work abound, and can be found in almost every corner of society. Are you interested in teaching English as a foreign language? After four weeks of training in Prague, Czech Republic, you could be on your way to a job teaching English in Asia, Africa, South America or Europe. Would you prefer to work with children? There are orphanages and foster homes in every major American city. We can’t discuss urban life without including the homeless, and there are organizations dedicated to feeding, clothing and educating these forgotten Americans. If you’re religious, you could train to become a Chaplain of a hospital where you could bring comfort to the sick or injured. Prison ministries are dedicated to building friendships behind bars with incarcerated men and women who don’t have family or friends to visit them.

I’d like to highlight four successful and well-known volunteer organizations that are doing important work.
First, there is the Union Rescue Mission. The mission is a nonprofit organization, located on skid row, Los Angeles, dedicated to serving men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Established in 1891, the URM provides a comprehensive array of emergency and long-term services to its guests, including: food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care, recovery programs, transitional housing, legal assistance, education, counseling, and job training to needy men, women, children, and families.

Orangewood Children’s Foundation began 25 years ago with a vision to build a facility to shelter Orange County children who were the victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Today Orangewood Children’s Home is home to over 3200 children a year, with approximately 200 full time residents. The organization is dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse by providing innovative programs focused on prevention, care, emancipation and public awareness. Orangewood offers opportunities for volunteer work, gift giving, internship and employment.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent place to live in dignity and safety. President Jimmy Carter brought this organization into the nation’s consciousness when he and his wife Rosalyn became involved 27 years ago. Volunteers offer their time to help build and rehabilitate affordable housing and also volunteer for specific job roles, such as drafter, software developer, technical writer, translator, and production assistant.

Match-Two Mentoring Outreach specializes in recruiting and screening adults who serve as mentors to youth who are incarcerated in California Youth Correctional Facilities. M2 Mentors build trust that provides a platform from which they influence the young life of someone who may never have had a true friend. Within the scope of that friendship they have the opportunity to encourage the youth and to share their faith in a way that is vital and helpful.

While each one of these organizations is unique, they are all doing valuable work for ordinary people who need a little — or even a lot — of help. In a world where value is customarily counted in dollars, these non-profit organizations seem to turn everything upside down. Profits are exchanged for personal accomplishments by persons who seem to have have run short of opportunity. Company goals are not centered around the next product release, but on meeting the needs of their communities. And where do these organizations get their raw materials and their work force? From you and me. What we’re talking about is time — our own, personal time, something that we never seem to have enough of, even when everything is going our way.

Preparation, Production, Service, Retirement. In my cousin’s scheme, service is 25% of the picture. While we’re so desperately searching for a sense of fulfillment in our professional lives, it might be useful to look under the next stepping stone of Service. While that warm, fuzzy sense of fulfillment can be as fleeting in volunteer work as it is everywhere else, it isn’t about feeling, it’s about knowing. You know when you’re doing the right thing, and there’s plenty of fulfillment in that.