A Home for Everybody

In Door County, Wisconsin privilege, middle income and poverty share zip codes. Average annual income across the area is artificially inflated by a significant population of retired individuals, many with healthy pensions. Average annual median income is under $40,000 reflective of an economy dependent on tourism and agriculture. Thirty to forty percent of school kids  are eligible for free breakfast even with many parents reluctant to apply.Poverty may not be obvious like in disadvantaged city neighborhoods, but signs in gas stations offering free gift cards to those who can’t afford travel for doctor appointments tells the story.

I grew up in Door County’s neighboring county in a skinny old house on Main Street in one of those farming communities. My father had a good job, my mother worked seasonally. Our grade school didn’t charge for hot lunch. That tells the same story.

Affordable housing is a pressing issue. On an average annual median income of $40,000 minus expenses like healthcare or a car payment, ideal rent is $600. Traditional calculations for how much house a $40,000 income covers suggests less than $100,000. Good luck finding either of those. Homelessness is not visible, but people do live in buildings never meant to be housing, in trailers without water or power, in crowded apartments with too many roommates, or rotate through campgrounds from May through October.

At an informational meeting one township presented purchasing a land tract for about $2 million with intention to develop part into affordable housing. In the packed room emotion and fact clashed. A housing builder wanted first dibs on the space promising $340,000 “affordable” units. Neighbors shared what they were promised about the vacant land when they purchased their homes. More than one person asked why affordable housing was taxpayers’ responsibility.

A social worker and a skilled craftsperson spoke of their inability to find places to live or house their families. One thirty-something white collar professional said he has lived in thirteen places in about ten years, most of them crap holes. His employer often loses employees after they spend months looking for any kind of apartment. He reminded everyone that affordable housing does not only mean home ownership, but also decent apartments. There are jobs to be filled here, but not places to live. Business owners are nervous about being able to keep their doors open.

Privilege, middle-class, and poverty share this zip code. No telling who in the blue jeans and t-shirt crowd shared a two bedroom former cottage with five or more people, commuted one hundred fifty miles daily, or lived alone in 3,000 square feet. Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. If this township, rooted in European ancestry, cannot accept responsibility for the need to house its members, what is its future?

For someone whose primary home is in a city with homeless individuals living in tent villages, sleeping on mass transit, or huddled in too few shelters, this feels like a no brainer. Taxes support communities, communities are made of members residing in a specific locality, localities require teachers, shop owners, EMTs, shop workers, builders, children to have a future. And all those people need healthy places to live. This is why we live in community.

Blog May 2019

 

 

 

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The New Peer Group

Recently I joined the YMCA, tried a yoga/Pilate combo class then attended the orientation session required before a personal trainer consultation. I made my reservation, studied group offerings, and put together a few questions.

What I missed was the message that this meeting existed for adults fifty-five and over, complete with handouts and a discussion of course offerings that didn’t require doing anything on the floor. During introductions I shared my interests and mentioned an interval training course I thought might be a challenge. Chair yoga, gentle stretching, and a couple of special aqua classes were presented along with a building tour and treadmill demonstration.

Bundling all adults over fifty-five into one peer group makes as much sense as organizing only one social activity for school children between ages five and eighteen. The year my mother turned fifty-five she decided it was time to sell the house and move into a building built just for their peer group. They were in the prime of their working years, still building retirement accounts, dancing and traveling.  She believed the developer’s advertising about making new friends who were also unencumbered by children and building a rich social life.

My father noted the assistance bars in the bathroom, the lack of entertainment space in each unit, people my grandparents’ ages in the lobby. He refused to move into a senior citizen facility called something more attractive. And continued refusing for the next quarter century.img_5048

It appears that decades after my mother’s attraction to the advertising of an over fifty-five condo, marketers are still lazy about how to identify the needs of those who check the last box in the age question. How about adding a few more boxes? I am glad to be beyond tampon days but am not ready for Depends. I just wanted to know if a personal trainer would think that the interval course was going to be too much of a challenge.

The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

Shopping? Let Me Grab My Laptop!

When I received a gift of money recently, my first impulse was to grab my laptop and shop online. Maybe there are some summer tops on sale. Wait. What? I’m going to shop online despite having a stack of 30% off and $10 off coupons from local department stores? Even though I might have to pay shipping charges? Um, yeah. For me, online clothes shopping is more fun than in-store shopping.

 

It wasn’t always this way. A long time ago, in a land far away, when my sister and I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to department stores, it was a fun excursion (for us, anyway). We all had to change out of our grubby around-the-house clothes and into something more presentable. There was a saleslady and cash register in every department. She’d help you find another color and bring the item to your dressing room—so my mother didn’t have to get completely dressed again or send my sister and me on a mission to fetch another size. Sometimes Mom would treat us to Cokes in the store’s coffee shop, while she had a cup of coffee.

Fast forward to today. On the rare occasion when I shop in-store at places like Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Herberger’s, my chances of finding a sales clerk are slim. Plenty of times, I’ve zigzagged through the store before I spot one several departments away. And this bored underpaid person doesn’t look too happy to see me with my question about another size.

To be fair, I have an uneasy relationship with sales clerks. The ones I remember from my girlhood often looked down their nose at me and my teenaged girlfriends as we flipped through the racks. When I was older and clearly a serious shopper, often a saleslady’s “help” turned into pushy upsell.

Today, if I want a snack to fuel my shopping, I can buy bottled water and a candy bar at the checkout. Not exactly the same as sipping a leisurely Coke while spinning on stools at the counter with my sister and mom.

I do get that customers like me helped change the retail experience. We don’t come because it’s no fun, and it’s no fun because we don’t come.

Nevertheless, if I want to shop for clothes these days, I’m most likely to be sprawled on my bed in my nightgown. There I can happily scroll through several store websites at once, checking for clearance items and considering the possibilities. Maybe the blue patterned one. No wait, what about the green one? And my coffee’s near at hand.

Opposing Thumbs

In 1975, as I sat in Miss Bloom’s typing class, I never thought that one day I’d be typing primarily with my thumbs. I’m sure Miss Bloom, ancient even then, couldn’t have imagined a keyboard so tiny that even the end of her thumb would be too large to hit just one key.

I picture myself in her class, feet planted firmly on the floor, my skirt pulled down over my knees, fingers curled over the keys of the IBM Selectric in front of me. Four rows of eight desks neatly lined the room. The only sounds were the soft squish of Miss Bloom’s orthopedic shoes on the linoleum floor as she paced up and down the rows checking our posture, and the hum of the newly purchased typewriters in front of us. (What a marvel those electric typewriters were. How much easier than the 1928 Smith Corona I used at home.)

What were my lonely thumbs doing then? They were relegated to the space bar, waiting for the opportunity to create a void between words. Only my right thumb ever got any business, the left thumb dangled uselessly while all of the other digits pounded away at 65 words per minute.

No wonder that now my thumbs have trouble finding the letters when I answer e-mails or send my daughter a text message from my iPhone. They’re not conditioned for this kind of work. Now they’re front and center, the rulers of the written word while my fingers curl around the back of my handheld device, providing support, but little else.

Occasionally my right index finger can’t stand the pressure and it says to its friends on my left hand “Take over. I’m going in!” as it darts from behind the screen to hunt and peck for the letters, thinking itself faster than my clumsy thumbs.

But even this is unsatisfying, because my right index finger doesn’t know the keyboard any better than my thumbs. The only familiar keys are y, u, h, j, n and m. And what can you spell with only those letters? Eventually, my index finger gives up and returns to its friends behind the screen, letting the thumbs take over because they at least can work together, doubling the speed of my messaging.

Gone are the days of 65-75 words per minute. My thumbs are lucky if they can get in 20. So they’re less creative. A reply that once might have been “I’d love to join you on Saturday evening. A trip to the theatre sounds like fun,” becomes “K” or more likely a thumbs up emoji, but rarely anything longer. It’s just too slow, too cumbersome, too demoralizing to spend so much time pecking for the keys and constantly backspacing to correct mistakes.

I’d like to say my thumbs are happy, that they’re glad for the opportunity to carry the torch after all these years. But I don’t think they are. I think they miss the days of working in tandem with my fingers, resting lightly on the space bar while the fingers searched for just the right sequence of letters. I think they’re lonely out there in front by themselves. Who knows? I could ask them, but they’d probably just reply, “IDK, may b. U D cide.”

 

Guest blogger and WordSister Jill W. Smith is a Twin Cities’ writer. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between; A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosms, in the online journal Mothers Always Write, and occasionally on her blog, The Autism Fractal, which she co-authors with her oldest daughter.