Thursday, November 26, 2009

Consequential Stangers

Yesterday I saw my neighbor Steve return home after weeks in the hospital. My husband and I weren't sure if he had passed away or not so we were happy to see him come home. He was brought home by ambulance. Two hospital supply vans unloaded a wheelchair and various medical supplies to turn his house into a makeshift nursing home. My husband and I have both been there before with our parents. You are happy that your family member is well enough to come home from the hospital but you are also sad because you know that your home life will be forever altered to accommodate your new patient. When we saw another ambulance pull into Steve's driveway this afternoon we wondered if it was all too much for them and Steve's family decided to send Steve back to the hospital. Unfortunately Steve's wife had taken ill and the ambulance had come to take her away. Two car loads of family members followed the ambulance down the road. Some of them carried plates wrapped in aluminum foil with hopes of salvaging their Thanksgiving dinner once they arrived at the hospital.

Steve lives directly across the street from me so it is difficult not to notice things going on at his house. But I make it a point to notice; I have an interest in Steve's well being. I have only had a few conversations with Steve over the years. I'm guessing that Steve is in his early 90's. He likes to sit on his front porch and observe the neighborhood. I wave to him when I walk my dog and when I pick up my mail. We exchange a few cordial words about how great/terrible the weather is now and again but we are essentially strangers.

Steve is a consequential stranger in my life. I heard a story on NPR a few months ago that described a consequential stranger as someone that you barely know who has a big impact on your life. The mailman, your favorite waiter, the guy that waves to you every time you go to the park- these are all consequential strangers. You might not even know their names but they become a part of your life.

When I had storm damage to my house a few months after moving in Steve came over and introduced himself to me. He gave me some pictures that he had taken of the damage, a piece of paper with his phone number and extended an offer for me and my pets to come over to his house if my house wasn't safe to live in. Most of the other neighbors just slowed down and stared at the house as they drove by. A few came over and knocked on the door but it was just to give me their business cards and try to make some money off my situation. Steve was the only one who seemed to genuinely care about how I was doing. Ever since then he has been my favorite neighbor. I have become accustomed to observing his daily routine through my picture window. I missed not seeing him for the past few weeks while he was in the hospital.

Now Steve is too sick to come outside and sit on the porch. We see nurses and family members going in and out of the house but we don't see Steve any more. I know that it is only a matter of time before he passes away. The thought of never seeing Steve again makes me sad. Eventually his kids will sell the house and some young couple will move in but it will always be Steve's house. On this Thanksgiving day, I am grateful for my friends and family but I am also grateful for the many consequential strangers who touch my life every day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Southern Hospitality

Every time I go to visit friends and relatives in the deep south I am reminded of how rude people are in the north. Every where I go, people holding open doors for each other and saying hello to perfect strangers. Complete strangers that we passed on the street waved to my husband and I when we went on our morning jog. The friendliness of the wait staff in restaurants was unbelievable. It actually made me feel a little ashamed of how rude people are here.

While my family is from the south, I grew up in Northern Virginia which isn't very southern at all. It's maily a D.C. suburb with a mix of different cultures from around the world, not just the U.S. But even in my pseudo southern upbringing, I was accustomed to doors being held open for me and people saying hello to me as I passed them. When I first moved to Pennsylvania to go to college I was shocked by how rude the people were. I can remember stopping at a rest stop with my mom and not a single person holding a door open for us. I hadn't even arrived at school yet but it was clear that this was a whole new world that I was entering.

It's been 15 years since I first left Virginia. While I would consider myself to be a fairly considerate person, I know that I am not nearly as neighborly as I once was. In general, I don't think people are as hospitable any where as they used to be. As a society, we have become more brash, more rushed and more self centered and less concerned with helping other people. But there is still a marked difference between how people act in the places that I have lived and the south.

I will admit that one thing that was apparent in the south was how behind they were in other areas. There is limited recycling so a lot of things get thrown in the trash that would be recylced elsewhere. There is a lot more staring going on when people that are different walk into the room. I noticed a lot more loose dogs and cats running around. Obesity is a much bigger problem. The separation between different classes is defined by race much more than it is in other places. So while I wish people were more friendly in New York, I would much rather deal with rude people than live in a time warp.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Too Busy to Be A Good Dog Owner

I love people who were mediocre dog owners before they had kids who then become horrible dog owners after they have kids. "We can't walk Riley because we have to watch little Max" or some other lame excuse gets thrown around and accepted way too much. Unless you're Octomom that just doesn't make any sense. So you don't watch TV, you don't go out, you don't do anything except watch your children 24 hours a day seen days a week? I seriously doubt that.

I have a co-worker who has two overweight black labs. They are very high energy dogs but very sweet. She keeps them locked in the basement all day long and then lets them out in the backyard when she gets home. She says she doesn't walk the dogs because they don't walk well on the leash but they get so little attention I'm surprised they are even house trained. She goes to happy hour at least twice a week after work. She has two children but they are both in school all day. She is always at the water cooler discussing the latest episodes of Dancing with the Stars, the Biggest Loser, etc. Sounds like someone with a lot of free time to me. Not surprisingly her kids are very bad. Just like the dogs, they receive no discipline or structure and run wild. I find myself playing with her dogs and disciplining her children every time I go to her house.

To her credit, her husband does travel a lot and she is left with managing many of the household duties herself. But he earns well over $100,000 a year and she makes a good salary as well. They lead a pretty lavish lifestyle with frequent vacations, a big house, luxury cars, daily meals out and lots of toys for the kids and themselves. They definitely have the financial means to hire a dog sitter, take their dogs to a doggie day care or invest in some quality dog training.

She gained 60 lbs with her second child but managed to find time to walk on the treadmill for an hour every day while watching TV to take the weight off. It's too bad she doesn't care as much about her poor dogs as she does about the size of her ass. The problem is she had the dogs well before she had the kids and she claimed to never have time to train or exercise the dogs when it was just her and her husband. I think people get dogs because they think they are cute but they don't realize that having a dog is like having a child. It is a big responsibility and it takes a lot of time, money and patience on your part to do it right.

I have volunteered at no kill rescue organizations that were very strict with their adoption requirements. Dogs were not adopted out unless the perfect home was found for each dog. We did home visits, interviewed references and made sure that person's lifestyle matched up to what we felt the dog needed to be happy. Unfortunately this can't be applied to the Humane Society, ASPCA and other public rescue organizations that have limited funding and space. Is it better for two dogs to go to a home where they'll get minimal exercise and attention than for those dogs to be put down? Of course it is.

The rescue groups are not being frequented by this type of bad dog owner. My co-worker and many other people like her get their dogs from pet stores and breeders on a whim. They don't want damaged rescue dogs. They haven't sat down with their family to determine if they have the emotional and financial means to properly care for a dog or what type of dog suits their lifestyle. Many of these dogs end up in shelters once the owners realize that being a dog owner is a lot of work. These are the dogs that I adopt. The dogs that have been abandoned or abused by the only family they have ever known, or worse yet, the dogs that have never known a family.

While I think private rescue organizations are great, those dogs are generally not at risk for being euthanized to make space for additional dogs. There is never a shortage of pure bred dogs at the shelters. Even if you have your heart set on a specific breed you should always check with your local rescue groups to see what dogs they have. Unfortunately my favorite breed of dog, the German Shepherd, is always well represented at shelters and I don't anticipate ever having a problem finding one at my local ASPCA. But if there were no German Shepherd dogs or mixes available within a couple hours of my house I would adopt another breed of dog. I cannot imagine any situation where I would turn to a breeder or pet store to get my dogs.

I don't have time to read or write as much as I'd like. Sometimes I make excuses for not working out or pick up dinner because I don't have time to prepare a meal. I don't have the time or the patience to have children or to keep in touch with all my friends and relatives regularly. But I always make time for my pets. Like brushing my teeth, going to the bathroom and eating, they are just part of my regular routine. I chose to adopt pets. After that I am obligated to everything related to their care.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Dream House

I grew up in a large house that my parents built on a couple acres of land in a northern Virgina. Beyond our property boundary was a pond and woods. Since there were no houses behind my house, the pond and the woods felt like an extension of our property. Since we lived on a cul-de-sac we also benefited from a bike bath that the town had put in to run from my neighborhood to several other neighborhoods and to the high school for kids who walked and biked to school. The bike path also lead to a basketball court and a creek. I have fond memories of riding my bike to my friends houses, walking to school for special events and wading in the water and playing basketball with my friends and family. We always had parties and barbecues at our house because it was a great location. I couldn't have asked for a better living situation.

Unfortunately, developers bought the property behind my house a couple years before my family moved out. They drained the pond and cleared out some of the wooded areas to make room for additional housing developments. The basketball court, creek and bike path are still there but perverts and other undesirables have taken over the wooded area surrounding the path so it isn't safe to explore any more. The man who bought our house ended up putting up a large fence to separate his property from these new unwelcome neighbors. I distinctly remember that the only houses that had fences when I was growing up had pools. It was sad to see that my idyllic little Virginia town now needed fences to protect its citizens from the outside world.

I have lived in apartments, townhouses and dorm rooms of various sizes over the years. I have lived in the city, in a college town, in both rich and poor suburbs of major cities and dealt with all the good and bad things that come with each of them but nothing has come close to the house that I grew up in. The house that I live in now is very close to what I want. It provides more than enough room for my husband and I and our furry family to live comfortably. We have about an acre of land, an in ground pool and live a short drive away from a medium-sized city.

The only problem is that I live in a large neighborhood with hundreds of houses and am surrounded by major roads on all sides. If I could move my house to a more rural location and at least triple our current acreage I would be much happier. Unfortunately, all the areas where my husband and I have visited that fit this mold are not very diverse.

When my husband and I go to events in these towns I rarely see another non-white person and am blatantly stared at by complete strangers. When running in road races in these towns, I have seen people cheering for everyone in the race stop clapping when I pass by and avert their eyes only to hear the clapping start again after I pass. I try to say hello to everyone that stares at me but am often met with a blank stare. Didn't their mothers teach them that staring was rude? And be clear here, I'm not talking about children (while that happens as well) I am talking about adults.

Even people in the neighborhood that I live in now often express their surprise that I am educated and friendly. Apparently I do not live up to the stereotypes that they have collected after years of ignorant media images. The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Fresh Prince, these are all completely contradictory to the lives that some white people seem to think that black people live. I bought my house before I met my husband so the looks and comments that I got from contractors, neighbors, etc, while generally not blatantly racist, were completely ignorant and offensive. I'd like to think that I'm just being paranoid but my husband and friends have noticed these things when they're with me as well. I don't want to give the impression that these things happen every day or that no one is friendly but the ignorant, unfriendly people have a much greater impact on me. I can go weeks without a problem and then will be slapped in the face with such blatant racism that it makes me want to go in my house and never come out.

The beauty of Northern Virgina and many of the Washington, D.C. suburbs is that class is primarily dictated by money and not race. The D.C. suburbs are filled with politicians, diplomats, college professors and various other professionals who want a short commute to the city but don't want to live there. I was exposed to rich, middle class and lower income people among all races growing up. While there were plenty of incidents of people being racist towards me or my friends and family, I never felt like I wouldn't be able to live somewhere because of my race. The general openness of the most people outweighed the negativity of the ignorant few.

My husband and I have discussed moving closer to Rochester or Buffalo, much larger cities in upstate New York. Aside from the increased racial diversity, living close to a bigger city will also account for some of Syracuse's other shortcomings. The short list includes: bigger airports with cheaper flights and more possible destinations, a better selection of concerts and cultural events, a bigger selection of national restaurant and retail chains, black hair salons and stores that sell ethnic skin and beauty products, more job opportunities, alternative medical facilities and more social groups and clubs. We frequently drive for 90 minutes or more for many of these things.

Sadly in making this decision we will never be able to live as far from the city as we would like. I'm getting tired of being the ambassador for black people. Just once I'd like to move somewhere where people don't consider me a credit to my race, the exception to some rule, not like other black people, etc. It's hard to convey to other people how difficult it is to go through life listening to people talk about how racism is dead when I still deal with it on a regular basis. No matter how successful I am financially, I will never be able to live any where that I want without serious consequences to my emotional well being and that is depressing.

Friday, November 6, 2009

One Uppers and Fake Questioners

You know the people that I'm talking about. The people who couldn't listen if their life depended on it. The people who are so geared up to respond to what they haven't listened to you say that they often start talking before you're done telling the story. I can't stand these people but I am surrounded by them and, at times, I admit that I am one of them.

I am not a person who opens up to people very easily so when I decide to confide in someone it hurts my feelings when they don't listen. It makes me less likely to confide in them or any one else in the future. The most recent situation that I encountered was with another German Shepherd rescuer. He complimented me on my dog and asked me where I rescued him from and what his story was. I barely got one sentence out before he told me about a German Shepherd that he had rescued that was in worse shape than my dog at the time of rescue. He might as well have said "Oh yeah, I can do better than that." If you just want to talk about yourself then go ahead but don't try to justify it by pretending that you care about what I have to say. This is a pretty mild situation but it is a perfect example of the one upper. Everything that he has been through is worse, more difficult, more gruesome, more trying that anything that you could have ever been through.

This annoys me a little but what really hurts me is when its more serious topics. My weight, my father's death, his illness, racism, sexism and abuse that I have suffered, person tragedies that my family and I have been through, etc. These are the topics that people frequently steamroll me on to tell me about their dad who died from cancer or how their babysitter hit them when they were a kid. I'm not saying that your feelings are less valid than mine but I'm not going to talk about myself when you need a shoulder to cry on and you shouldn't either. People often claim that they are empathizing with me by telling a story that they think relates to my situation but they aren't. They are one-upping me and not being a friend.

I don't understand why its so difficult to just listen to what someone else is going through. If you have some unresolved issues that you haven't dealt with then do that on your own time. If I come to you to cry on your shoulder then you should be available to listen to what I have to say. Nothing that you say in response should be about you. How you dealt with a completely unrelated situation does not help me deal with my situation. It devalues what I'm going through and that is not cool.

The fake questioners are a little trickier to spot. Sometimes it seems like they're asking a question that is harmless like "Do you always rinse your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher?" But really its just setting the stage for them to criticize you. When I responded to this question from my former roommate she went on for 5 minutes about how wasteful it was to wash the dishes before putting them it in the dishwasher and why did I have a dishwasher if I was just going to wash the dished by hand and how her father did this and it was a completely obsessive compulsive behavior that drove her mother crazy, blah, blah, blah. My former roommate is the queen of the fake questions. Everything to how you drive, picking up your dogs waste, the type of clothes you wear, etc. are all subject to her criticism because she is perfect and everything she does should be emulated. She will usually try to comment on it in a joking way so that if you tell her she's being an ass she says "Oh I was just joking, why are you so sensitive?"

I've gotten pretty good at preempting the fake questions by shutting down the line of questioning the moment it starts and calling the person out for their behavior. If you want to criticize or make fun of the way that I do something then have the nerve to do it without any false pretense. But be aware that what you think about how I live my life is not important to me. You live your life the way you want to and stay the F out of mine. If my habits are so annoying to you that you can't spend time around me without being critical of me then go be somewhere else. Your lack of self esteem and need to be critical of others is your problem.