Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chapel on the 29

"How many of you are ready for 2012?" she called out in a loud voice. Those of us on the 29 bus were startled to hear someone shouting on the relatively quiet bus line. "Barack Obama is going to be your last President-- there won't be a President in 2012. 'They' are challenging Jesus the Living God and there is going to be mass destruction. Jesus is getting ready for them because he knows what 'they' are going to do."

This woman preacher had made her bus seat into her own private pulpit and us passengers were her captive congregation. One passenger smirked to a friend, another turned up the volume on her iPod. A toddler stared at the woman with his mouth agape and the bus driver peered curiously at the woman in the rear-view mirrow.

Undaunted by our passivity and our disinterest in pending doom, the speaker started singing in a surprisingly strong and beautiful voice. "How great is our God; how great is our God..."

"COME ON, SOMEBODY SING IT WITH ME!... How great is our God..."

She continued singing her contemporary chorus while our multi-cultural, traveling chapel on wheels roamed the streets of the city. While I don't quite follow her theology, I believe that her zeal, courage, and sense of the sacred came closer to "church" than many a congregation I have visited in my time.

Easter In San Francisco

Returning to San Francisco after visiting family in Stockton, I wearily rode the N-Judah on the last leg home. I perked up when two men came aboard- both wearing clunky hiking boots. They both also wore bright colored, form-fitting knit dresses, and adorable Little House on the Prairie calico sun bonnets were tied in neat bows under their stubbly chins.

As I observed them from the precarious safety of my peripheral vision I concluded that they looked like Laura Ingalls had left the Banks of Plum Creek to join the lumberjacks near the Little House in the Big Woods. At any rate, I'm certain that Pa would have offered to play fiddle for them, and Ma would have most definitely disapproved.

Reflecting On $1 a Day

Originally I had three reasons for wanting to conduct this experiment in truth:

1) To reveal my compulsions- yes, this experiment revealed the things that are completely out of control in my life. In fact it did more than that. It wrote my compulsions in big, bright letters and posted them on a 50 foot marquis with rotating spotlights shining in all directions and signaling “Look here! Look here at all the things that Melanie doesn’t have a handle on- chocolate, morning comfort in the form of coffee, the desire to fit in, buying things I don’t need…”

2) To be in “training” for a day when I may be called to go “all in”- on a scale of 1-10 (10 being super radical), this experiment was about a 5 for me. It’s all relative. Some people thought what I was doing was unfathomably crazy, and others yawned and resolved to wait for future blog entries about wing walking. But whether people were inspired or not, I stepped out and was in training for something bigger in my life. If an opportunity that requires obedience and sacrifice is offered to me, I’m one step closer to saying “yes” even if the opportunity may be somewhat uncomfortable or scary.

3) To better identify with the poor- I was able to live in a little solidarity with the poor in that people who live in poverty were greatly on my mind and heart for 40 days. But the exercise was one of considerable futility because of the privilege and power that I was born into. My friend Sarah gamely took my challenge and lived on $1 a day for one week. She blogged about her similar experience of privilege and class here.

I’m reluctant to make some grand statements such as:

However, this experiment had a profound affect on me and I am not going back to business as usual. There may be some permanent changes, but for the time being I am remembering the words of Jesus to his disciples- ‘the poor you will always have with you". Most people think this just means something like “hey, there are always going to be poor people around. That’s just how life is. Do what you can, but don’t sweat it too much.”

But after my 40 day experiment I’m getting the idea that by saying “the poor you will always have with you” maybe what Jesus meant was that I am always going to have them on my mind, or in my life work, or maybe even literally by my side. I’m open to any and all of those things.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Celebratory Meal

My celebratory meal with friends-- during which I spent considerably more than one dollar.

Thanks to vicki!, Chris, and Elizabeth for helping me put a symbolic period on the 40 day sentence.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Day 40- $1 a day

"We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it."
- Dorothy Day

That about sums it up for me.
But stay tuned-- I'll be posting some more reflections about my $1 a day experiment within the next week.

Day 39- $1 a day

On this day before the end of my experiment I am experiencing two feelings.

1) I feel excited about the things and experiences I can purchase after tomorrow—cheese, cocktails, new socks, a haircut, iTunes songs, Warriors tickets. It’s not that I didn’t eat well or that I didn’t experience pleasure while my experiment was in process. It’s just that on Thursday night I will have more options to choose from of things that are fun, tasty and pleasurable.

However, I must admit that I have been sitting in my easy chair tonight staring out the window with a heavy heart, a stray tear occasionally welling up in my eye.

2) I feel sad for the billions of people in the world who live on less than $1 a day and for whom this is not experiment. It’s brutal reality. Very few of the world’s poor are waking up tomorrow morning and saying, “Well, thank goodness those 40 days are over! Where shall I dine out with my friends tonight?”

I see my ending point. For people living in extreme poverty there is no end in sight. I can call it all off anytime I want. They can’t. This makes me profoundly sad.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 38- $1 a day

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

-Dom Helder Camara, former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”
- Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Day 37- $1 a day

I ate out twice today. For lunch I spent $1 on a cheesy, greasy, McBurger-something, and for dinner I spent $1 at a dim sum place on Clement- ordering two shrimp ball things and a pork bun. The dim sum was good, but the burger tasted pretty gross.

Today I committed to eating off the "dollar value" menu of a fast food restaurant because those are the places that many lower-income American people are likely to eat. I have found the opposite to be true in developing countries-- the rich have the option of eating at fast food chains and the poor eat the 25 cent meals cooked by sidewalk vendors.

I actually did some unofficial research on this during my travels around the world a few years ago. In every country where I visited, if I spotted a McDonalds I walked in and looked at the price board to see how much a Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal cost. Then I converted the currency and recorded how much the meal was in U.S. dollars. This is what I found:
• In Paris- $8.00
• In Prague- $7.00
• In Australia and New Zealand- $5.00
• In Budapest, Zagreb, Istanbul, Dubai, - $4.00
• In Bangkok- $2.50
• In India- $2.00

Of course in India they don’t have beef burgers on account of the sacred cow thing, so there I compared a chicken or fish “burger” to a Quarter Pounder. But in India and Thailand I especially noticed that only upper-middle class and rich people were in McDonalds nibbling on French fries and slurping down shakes.

I usually steer clear of national fast food restaurants partly because of the documentary "Super Size Me", partly because of the book "Fast Food Nation", partly because I don't own a car in which to "drive thru", but mostly because in my neighborhood there are so many inexpensive, family-owned, quick restaurants that I don't feel the need to seek out a national chain.

But it’s crystal clear that the convenience, the marketing, and the relatively low cost of taking a whole family out to dinner are all factors that appeal to people who frequent fast food chains. It is reported that Ray Kroc (franchiser of McDonalds) “did everything he could to keep costs down so that even low income people could afford a meal out at McDonalds.” In the 1950’s that was considered a good thing. In 2009, I’m not so sure Mr. Kroc has done the poor a favor.

Here is a photo of an art piece that I bought in a Nashville gallery last year. I love it! It took me a long time to notice that the stripes are french fries...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Five Dollars Well Spent

I was walking to a store two blocks up Judah to purchase a small loaf of bread so my faith community could participate in Eucharist (if you are Catholic)/ Communion (if you are Protestant) together this evening. I passed two men with two dogs sitting on the sidewalk. One of them asked me "Can you get me something to eat?"

"What do you want to eat?" I asked. He told me a burger or an omelet from the cafe up the street would be good, but I informed him that I only had $5 to spend and could probably get him something at the cheaper Mexican food place up the street. So he stood up, we shook hands and introduced ourselves, and we walked to the restaurant together as we chatted.

His name is Joe and he told me he is from Virginia, but he went to Washington State to visit his parents only to find out they had died in a car accident. He is a military veteran with some neurological disorder. His hand was bandaged because his girlfriend's parents don't like him and they sicced their dog on him. "You've had a rough few weeks" I observed. He mumbled, "yea, life is a mess right now."

Joe picked out a modest rice and beans burrito and a coke, and I paid for it with the found money that I never considered mine anyway. He returned to his friend on the sidewalk and I walked to the store to get bread. I was rejoicing that I had tucked my five $1 bills in my back pocket as I left the house. I was relieved that I didn't choose to be the priest or the Levite who passed to the other side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I was grateful that the Maker had crossed my path with someone who needed a hand.

I passed Joe on the sidewalk as I walked back home. Two raggedly girls had joined Joe, his friend David, and their two dogs. All four were sharing bites of his burrito and chips and salsa. "Hi Joe!" I called out. He looked blankly at me for a minute as his impaired brain registered who I was. "Hi! Melanie, right?" Yes.

Day 36- $1 a day

What I didn’t mention at the beginning of this $1 a day experiment is that in 2008 I did the same thing--only I lived on $1.50 a day. So I had $60 to work with for the 40 days of the experiment. I’ve been surprised by the big differences between my experience last year and this year.

Last year my focus was on figuring out what I could eat and how my lifestyle was affected by being limited to spending $1.50 per day. The experiment felt like a big sacrifice. The food I ate seemed limited and bland. I felt hungry much of the time. The limits on my social life bummed me out. I was very concerned about other people being adversely affected by my experiment (e.g. not being able to go out for a friend’s birthday dinner). In short, the lessons were almost entirely about me, me, me.

This year my focus--whether it was reflected in my blog entries or not, this is what has been going on in my mind--has been more on scrutinizing my lifestyle to determine how I can keep the plight of the poor and hungry front and center in my life. The experiment hasn’t seemed like a sacrifice. I’ve been pleased with the healthy, delicious food I have been eating. I’ve embraced the extra time I’ve had home alone or walking around the beach and park. I’ve invited other people into their own version of my experiment. In short, the lessons have had a bigger vision outside of myself.

After two years of this experiment I see a progression. I wrote in a previous post that I consider year one to be a 5K race, perhaps this year was a 10K, and I look forward to training my way to a marathon in regards to how I can be used to wipe out poverty on our planet.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Day 35- $1 a day

Last year a book came out by a seemingly unlikely author who is the founder of Vanguard Mutual Funds-- one of the most successful mutual fund families in the United States. John Bogle's book is called Enough. In the book Bogle explains his philosophy that Americans have lost touch with what is "enough" in money, business, and in life.

I can see it in other people. They have lost touch with what is enough.
o Children think they don’t have enough toys and video games.
o Couch potatoes think they don’t have enough TV channels.
o Fashionistas think they don’t have enough clothing.
o Parents think they don’t have enough activities for their children.
o Manufacturers think consumers don’t have enough choices of breakfast cereal.
o Home owners think they don’t have enough square footage.

Here’s a chart that shows the increase in the square footage of homes from the 1950’s to now. Americans used to think that 1/2 the current average square footage of a home was enough. Not now.

I can see it in myself. I lose touch with what is “enough” in my life.
o I don’t have enough books or plants.
o I don’t have enough songs on my iPod, even though I have 4,400 songs.
o I don’t keep track of when I have drunk enough cosmopolitans when I go out to the Mint karaoke bar with co-workers.
o I don’t have enough camping and outdoor equipment when I shop at REI.
o I don’t have enough artisan grapes from the Farmer’s Market in the summertime.

In the dictionary "enough" is defined as “a sufficient amount to meet a need”. When my needs are met, that is enough. Grasping for things way beyond those needs is more than enough.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Day 34- $1 a day

"When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard belongs to the poor."
-Basil the Great

I happen to have 9 coats and jackets in my closet. I have a cupboard full of pasta, rice, tuna, and jams. I have 10 pairs of shoes. I have savings, a 401K, an IRA, and investments.

What to do with quotes like this? On one hand my heart cries out "yes, yes!"
On the other hand my head warns, "yes, but...."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Day 33- $1 a day

There was an intriguing article in the San Francisco Chronicle today about how some people are waiting in great anticipation for the Chronicle's Top 100 Restaurants mini-magazine to come out this Sunday. It is what it sounds like-- the Chronicle food staff compiles a list of what they think are the top 100 places to eat in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But the interesting part is that some people have a contest with their friends to see who can visit the most of these top 100 restaurants in one year.

Most of the people hit the more affordable restaurants first, and they make reservations far in advance for special occasions at the higher end dining establishments. One man gamely ate at all 100 restaurants last year and printed t-shirts to commemorate the experience. He also admits to spending $18,000 on dining that year, which according to my calculations is an average of $180 per meal. I'm sure some of the restaurants cost far less than that and some--like French Laundry (prix fixe meal $240 without wine)-- cost much more than that.

Needless to say, online readers posted plenty of comments on this article.

Readers highly in favor of this quest:
"I'd rather eat out and keep a business alive, than add more people to your beloved food banks and dumpsters. Some people actually know how to spread the wealth around productively."

"The people featured here who are doing this are doing their part to stimulate the economy."

Readers moderate on this quest:
"Even though I can't afford going out to eat anymore, I'm glad others can."

"Some people like to accumulate stuff (cars, DVDs, electronics, clothes, knickknacks, books, art, shoes) and others appreciate things like good restaurants and travel more than things."

Readers highly opposed to this quest:
"As they're eating their way through these 100 restaurants do they ever wander around the back to see the truly hungry digging through the dumpsters looking for their scraps?"

"I can't help but look at the article and picture and feel angry. I work 3 jobs, and I'm lucky as I am paying the mortgage and my children aren't experiencing any real hardship."

"I do not see what kind of achievement it is to spend tons of money in high class restaurants. If this is your claim to fame, you might want to rethink your priorities. Like, donate that money to charity and no, do not brag about it."

"Insensitive and outrageous in these hard times. Don't these people have anything better to do than stuff their faces? Maybe volunteer at St Anthony's soup kitchen?!"

Gee, does anyone detect any judgmentalism in these comments? Careful readers will notice that the writer of the article casually mentioned that the fellow who spent $18,000 on dining that year also spends quite a bit of time volunteering in New Orleans. She was no doubt neutralizing the venom that was to come from judgmental people intent on telling other people how to live their lives and spend their money.

Who among us hasn't dropped pretty penny on a meal, sports equipment, a vacation- and asked themselves afterwards how many people they could have fed with that Prime Rib, or their ski equipment, or the money that went *poof* at the blackjack tables in Vegas? The people featured in this article will spend more on dining than I will spend on rent this year. But I harbor no judgement towards them for their decision. I'm more focused on what I am supposed to do with my money, and how I can be a good steward of the resources I have been blessed with.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Day 32- $1 a day

Yet another chapter in the Chronicles of Things that Melanie Gets for Free When She’s Trying To Be Poor.

I was rambling down the Civic Center Farmer’s Market this afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and listening to the hoards of lunching people exclaim to one another, "Man, Spring has sprung!"

With 9 days to go I only have about $5 left to spend and I decided to eat my Top Ramen and potatoes and carrots instead of buying something fresh at the market. So I wandered through the stalls and sampled freely from the generously proffered wedges of oranges, mandarins, asian pears, and the nibbles of butter toffee almonds.

A man came up alongside me and handed me a plastic bag, which I took automatically without thinking. Thankfully it was nothing contraband.

As I looked down at the bag in my hand he inquired “Do you want this?”

“Uh, yea, what is it?” I asked, peering inside at some green leafy vegetable.

He said, “I don’t know. I bought it by mistake and they wouldn’t let me return it. Will you use it?”

“Yea, sure, thanks!” I smiled at him, and he took off.

So I walked back to work and after inquiring around a few cubicles I was informed that I am in possession of a fine-looking bunch of chard.

Suffice to say that I've never been handed a bag of something free at the Farmer's Market. The free stuff just keeps coming. I find that very interesting, and will have to make some heads or tails of it by the time the end of my experiment comes around.

In the meantime, for dinner I've made a nice angel hair pasta with sauteed chard and diced tomatoes. Yum. I took a photo of it but chard is rather un-photogenic, so you're just going to have to trust me on this one.