What To Do With All That Privilege

This essay also appears on Huffington Post. 


On Saturday night I dreamed I was in the elegant living room of an older wealthy woman. I stood next to her delivering an emphatic, tearful plea, insisting, “When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you.” Man, I was really crying. The scene was so vivid and visceral—from the walnut paneled-walls and red leather Chesterfield armchair to the woman’s gray hair in a neatly trimmed bob, to the dramatic and forceful delivery of my statement—that, unlike most dreams, I remembered every detail of it when I woke up.

“Pay your civic rent” with a gift card with
the request it be regifted to someone in need.

Shaking off the heaviness left by the dream, I went downstairs to have coffee and read the Sunday paper. One of the first articles I read was the “One Nation: I am an American” column, syndicated by the USA Today Network. The person-of-the-week interviewed was Gregg Rochman, a developer in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the first paragraph he said, “I grew up in an affluent area and I could have done anything I wanted. But, because of that privilege, I have a duty to share and to give back.”

Oh, snap! His comments were my dream verbatim. In Rochman’s case, he renovates historic properties into affordable housing. “We have a land with vast resources and a people capable of anything. Our advantages are used of the good of the planet and all its creatures—all people, all living things,” he said, before adding a sobering caveat. “Currently, Americans are divided from one another. We do not do everything in our power to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the cold, educate the poor and support each other with the goal of the betterment of everyone—even though it is within our reach.”

He is certainly right about that!

In addition to creating low-income housing, Rochman volunteers for New Roots, a nonprofit food justice organization that brings farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to food insecure communities. Essentially, it’s an affordable farmers market created because, according to the New Roots website, “Just like air and water, everyone has a right to fresh food” in order to be healthy and happy.

Then, in the business section of the paper, in between the outrage over the GOP tax bill and the Great Recession’s impact on economic disparity between urban and rural areas, there was an article about Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust, who is retiring. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Radia is an Indian who was born and raised in Uganda and came to the U.S. as a young immigrant. While attending Iowa State University, his family fled Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup d’état leaving Radia with no home to return to. He stayed in Iowa, completed his education, and worked his way up to the C suite, achieving the status of “privileged.” The article was a tribute to how he used that privilege to help others. “Pay your civic rent,” Radia said, but not by simply writing a check. A philanthropist long before he had money, he understood the value of volunteering and, in 1976, began giving his time to help United Way. From there, “my feelings of duty, compassion and gratitude have only spiraled,” he said. As a board member in 2010, he visited 51 local agencies that received funding from United Way, with some of those visits causing him to weep in his car after seeing the vulnerable populations first-hand. He is quoted saying, “How can I be so lucky? I’m sitting there in a Lexus and my car’s probably worth more than the building in which the agency is housed. It was very difficult. Your heart just goes out to these folks.” Radia doesn’t only support United Way, he fundraises for numerous nonprofits—from Habitat for Humanity to the American Diabetes Association—and mentors 40 individuals to help them achieve their goals, and to pass along his message about the importance of giving back to the community, particularly to those in need.

 It felt a little eerie to read two articles in a row about using privilege to help others less fortunate—living examples portraying the exact sentiment of my dream immediately upon waking. Was it some kind of psychic message? A call to action? Or was it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as frequency illusion—when, say, you buy a silver Volkswagen and suddenly you see silver Volkswagens everywhere you look?

The examples kept coming. Later in the day I stumbled upon an article online about a Korean couple in Salem, Oregon, who own a restaurant called Happy BiBim Bap House. Hillary Park and her husband close early on Mondays to cook for the homeless, paying for the ingredients themselves. They load their van with vats of prepared food, set up a buffet line underneath a concrete bridge, and serve hot meals of curry, yakisoba noodles, and corn dogs to up to 200 hungry people. Every week.

Another example showed up—in my own house.

I had been in a quandary over holiday gifts for my boyfriend’s family. They always have something wrapped up for us and I feel obligated to reciprocate in kind. Doug, my boyfriend, insists, “I don’t want to spend money on things they don’t need. I always give $500 to Camp Courageous in my family’s name. That’s my gift.” (Camp Courageous is a year-round camp with recreational activities and respite care for the disabled of all ages.)

“I know,” I replied, “but it’s awkward to not have any presents for them to open.”

While I scoured the internet for gift ideas, Doug came up with a solution. “You’re going to Aldi for groceries today, right? Here’s $100. Buy four $25 gift certificates. We’ll give them each one.” I wasn’t sold on the idea until he added, “We’ll tell them to give it to someone else in need. To pay their civic rent.” He smiled, acknowledging that he, too, had read the Sunday paper.

The words of my dream have stuck with me. When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you. I don’t earn much money, but I recognize my abundance of privilege—my college education, my comfortable home, my well-stocked refrigerator, my closet full of warm clothes, my lack of debt, and yes, my skin color. As we go forward into a new year, let’s all check our privilege by counting our blessings—and then share them. Let’s make a single resolution to take responsibility for helping others less fortunate and look for ways to give back, to improve our communities and our relationships within them. If we all do our part, we can begin to repair some of our divisions in the process. Like Gregg Rochman said, “We are privileged to live in this country. We are capable of anything.” There are positive examples to follow everywhere; all you have to do is look.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

As 2010 draws to a close I would be remiss not to mention the things that helped get me through the year, my sources of survival, salves in the continuing healing of my grief. Looking back, there were many people (Alison, Nan, Melissa, Stacy, Sylvia, Susan my grief counselor, and yes, even Mr. X), places (Portland, LA, Park City, and the biggest plot twist of the year, Eldon, Iowa), and things (learning to drive the RV, the making of the pie show, teaching pie baking, being a pie judge at both the National Pie Championships and the Iowa State Fair, moving into the American Gothic House) that contributed to my well being. But out of everyone, every place, and everything there were two constant, daily, unrelenting sources of comfort and joy.

Meet Team Terrier.

That’s Comfort (Daisy) on the left and Joy (Jack) on the right.

IF there is any doubt as to the benefits of owning a pet, I am living proof that a warm-bodied, tail-wagging, four-legged friend is well worth the four walks a day, the middle of the night disruptions, the barking, the trips to Petco for food, and — as was the case this year — the exorbitant vet bills. (Uh,yeah, add to the list stained rugs.) In the face of sometimes unbearable grief, I cannot help but wonder if I would still be here if not for these two creatures who depend so fully on me, who make me laugh until my sides hurt, who keep me in shape by demanding long hikes and stick-throwing sessions, who force me out of bed no matter how down I feel, and who — for whatever godforsaken reason — love me so completely and unconditionally.

Just looking at them makes me laugh. (One of these days I’ll make them pose with the prerequisite pitchfork.)
Daisy is a rescue from Saltillo, Mexico. Little did she know she would end up in Iowa. (That makes two of us!) But she’s adaptable and never complains, even in the midst of a very un-Mexican-like snowstorm.
How can you be depressed with Jack around? His singular love for play is infectious. He brings out the kid in everyone. And has an infinite capacity for a game of fetch.

O, dog of wonder, dog of night,
Dog with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Happy New Year, everyone. May you have a peaceful, prosperous and animal-filled 2011. (And hopefully some pie with that too!)

All I Want for Christmas is…Pie Supplies, Not (Footie) Pajamas

For Christmas, my mom gave me pajamas. These were not your ordinary pajamas. They were not from Victoria’s Secret or Gap Body or Soma. These were bright pink fleece with a dog appliqué on the chest. So far, not soooo bad. I love pink. I love fleece. I love dogs. But the pjs were a one-piece zip-up affair with the feet in them. Yes, footie pajamas. And not just plain footie pajamas — the feet were like built-in doggie slippers, complete with floppy ears and flapping tongue. Now I admit, I loved wearing footie pajamas long past the socially acceptable toddler years, but, um, hey, Mom, I’m not 4 – okay, er, 14 — anymore!

I know she was proud of her purchase because all of my siblings had heard about them long before the Santa wrapping paper was ripped off the box. When I talked to my brother Patrick in Seattle, he immediately asked, “How’d you like your gift from Mom?” I groaned loud enough for him to pull the phone away from his ear. Still, his laughter came through the receiver loud and clear.

“I wouldn’t want to be caught dead in them,” I said. And I meant it. I always think about how Marcus died so unexpectedly and so suddenly, he didn’t have time to pick out a stylish outfit or groom himself before the paramedics rushed in. In his case, it didn’t matter. He was wearing what looked best on him, his birthday suit, which made it easier for them to hook up their defibrillators and needles anyway. But, yeah, I do think about how I will go out when my time comes, what situation I’ll be in, and what may or may not be covering my body. I can tell you this: it definitely won’t be pink fleece footie pajamas with built-in doggie slippers.

“You could be like Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story,’” Patrick said.

“I’ve never seen it.”

“You’ve never seen ‘A Christmas Story?’”


“This kid gets pink bunny pajamas from his aunt, and his parents make him wear them. That’s what your pajamas remind me of.”

“Well, they’re not going to be my pajamas much longer. I’m taking them back. Mom enclosed the gift receipt. She must have known I wasn’t going to like them.”

“Yes, I figured,” he said. “But she had fun buying them for you.”

“Yeah, and telling everyone about them.”

The pjs were from Target. I love Target. And while Southeast Iowa isn’t exactly a shopping Mecca, it does have a Target. I had decided that I was going to use the store credit to buy new underwear.

Someone either told me recently, or I read it somewhere, that they were tossing out all their old undies and getting new ones to symbolize a fresh start. I liked this logic. After all I’ve been through the past 16 months, I could definitely stand to get rid of the dingy old boy shorts and threadbare thongs, and kick off the New Year with some new lingerie. Yeehaw.

The trouble is, I got to Target and I just wasn’t in the mood. Or, perhaps, digging through the sale bins of black lace and white cotton and plaid and flowered and polka dot and everything else in every size all mixed together killed the mood. It wasn’t just the disorganized display though. The prospect of buying underwear made me contemplate my future. Will anyone ever see me in these? Will there be new love on the horizon? How can I even meet a man when I live in such an unpopulated place? And anyway, does the style or color of underwear really even matter in the scheme of life? Even if these new ones are marked down to as little as $2 a pair, do I really need to throw out the old ones which are perfectly fine?

I got so fed up with myself I threw the ones I had already picked back into the bins and walked off in a huff.

I had two other things on my shopping list:
1. Silver polish. I use my grandma’s silver as everyday flatware and her beautiful cutlery is due for a cleaning.
2. Detangler. For my hair, which is getting harder and harder to comb seeing as I haven’t cut it since July.

I wove in and out of the aisles, and somewhere in between Cleaning Supplies and Hair Care I stumbled upon Kitchen Gadgets. There I was, as instinctive as a Golden Retriever sniffing out a tennis ball, homing right in on the pie supplies. Perfect! I’m waaaaay overdue on getting a Christmas present for my niece, the 16-year-old beauty who I taught to make pie last summer. In an instant, I knew just what to get her. My adrenaline pumped, my pulse quickened, my mood lifted as I grabbed not one, not two, but five Chop N’ Scoops. I could send one to Lauren and give the others as presents later. They were $2.99! (I got ripped off paying 10 bucks for mine at that BBB store.) I also put in my heretofore empty basket a set of paring knives (my favorite for peeling apples) for my niece — they were a crazy 99 cents — along with a set of pastry brushes for $2.50. What a score!

As I drove home elated about buying the pie supplies (you know how I love a good bargain) I forgot all about my underwear buying mission. I figure I don’t have to really think about it again until spring anyway because as long as I’m spending the cold winter in an Iowa farmhouse the only kind of underwear I need are long ones. As for the pajamas, I shouldn’t have to worry about those again…until next Christmas.

Thanks anyway, Mom. It’s the thought that counts!