Monday, June 21, 2010

The new reality

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I have been teaching a course entitled "Ending Homelessness: how can we work toward social change?" this summer. Last week, Sarasota City Commissioner Richard Clapp came to visit with my students to discuss a legislative response to homelessness. First of all, I must say that Commissioner Clapp is exactly the kind of person I want to have as a community leader. He listens, he cares, he volunteers to help the homeless, and he does research into the kinds of programming that he thinks might work. He has a plan to get downtown neighbors involved in one-on-one mentoring of the homeless who live in their community, and he truly believes it will work. It's such a simple, honest, and thoughtful plan, I have to agree.

Among the things he mentioned during his visit is that he thinks that many of the homeless are people who have not been able to meet with success and lack the coping mechanisms to face that reality. As he said, no one thinks as a young person that they wish to grow up and be a homeless person. I started to contemplate our culture's notion of success. What happens to people who cannot meet the challenges that come with achieving success? And who decides what success should mean?

This made me think about a few examples from programs I watched on television recently. First, the Tonys were broadcast last week, and many of the night's biggest winners, Scarlett Johannsen, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are familiar presences in Hollywood. I didn't see any of their performances live, but I did watch what I considered a butchering of "Send in the Clowns" by Ms. Zeta-Jones during the telecast. I wondered whether the Tony voters were influenced by a desire to reward the big-name stars for gracing the Broadway stages with their presence. Katie Finneran, a Broadway staple, won for her performance in "Promises, Promises," a show that was panned by critics. She delivered a heart-felt speech telling young people to do what they love regardless of what anyone tells them and said that this will lead to a "blissful life."

That's great advice for a young Katie Finneran who has yet to be discovered, but what happens to all the people who ignore the advice of parents, colleagues, and peers, who are not certain they have the talent or the stamina to withstand the massive amount of rejection that is often, and very frequently, part and parcel with pursuing one's dreams. What happens when they don't end up on the Tony stage? What happens when the deck is stacked in favor of a Scarlett Johannsen, and you are relegated to understudy to an understudy? Do we give young people the tools to not only pursue their dreams but to cope with the reality that they may not always get what they wish for? This got me thinking -- are there people sitting in a homeless shelter who once showed promise in their chosen field, but who didn't have the opportunities or the support that they needed to deal with the failure that often, and actually almost certainly, will occur on the path to achieving some measure of success?

Also, this week, I caught the first season of the television show "Hung" on HBO. I was intrigued with this show, because early reviews said that the creators tried to deal with the new reality of a post-economic meltdown. Premiering on a channel known for celebrating excess with shows like "Entourage" and "Sex and the City," this show instead depicts the life of a man whose life is on a steep downward trajectory. The show is even set in Detroit, among the cities hardest hit by the recession; and the opening credits show the lead, played by Thomas Jane, walking past run-down, dilapidated, and burnt-out buildings as he slowly removes his suit to land in the lake behind his house, fully in the buff. This show comically depicts the stripping away of the life of a man, who once showed so much promise, lettering in three sports in high school and going pro, before coming back home to coach basketball. After his wife leaves him and his house is engulfed in flames, he turns to the oldest profession to try to supplement his meager wages to pay for his second mortgage (which we learn was a balloon mortgage), home renovation while he lives behind his gutted house in a tent, and child support. This measure is certainly extreme and not to be tried at home; but it is rather refreshing to see a prime time television show eschew the usual designer cars and clothes, and focus on characters who are struggling financially. Jane's character, Ray Drekker, has some support from his twin teenagers and his quirky friend, who is similarly situated, so he manages to survive living in a tent during a Michigan winter. But in the season finale, as work continues on his home, he learns he is being laid off and must rely more heavily on his financially lucrative avocation.

As we continue to explore the roots of homelessness in my summer class, which I intend to offer next year as well, we must consider the fact that we all started out life with hopes and dreams of what we might someday achieve. The "American dream" ought to be something within reach of all Americans. But how we define that American dream seems to be changing. Are we ready to relax our definitions of success to let more people in? Are we willing to help people find the tools they need to be self-sufficient and self-reliant? Can we avoid judgment in doing so? These are the questions we must face in our new reality. A mentoring program to help people get back on their feet may well be a great way to begin.

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