On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

SnapChat Moments


So I’m trying to figure out this SnapChat thing.

We downloaded it onto my iPhone on Thursday night after two of my nieces made a casual reference to the app and I demanded to know what I was missing out on.

I had never heard of SnapChat, but you know how it is, technologically challenged Uncle Guac is usually the last one to get jiggy with whatever the kids are into.

Well, today I was perusing The New York Times online and, whadyaknow, there’s an article about how Facebook is no longer the hot stuff it once was and how teenagers seem to be moving off in new directions.  Heading to places like Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, videos on Vine and, you guessed it, SnapChat.

The Times article suggested that Facebook is no longer the crucial social media tool it was just a few years ago, at least partly because it has become so mainstream.  Teens tend to be drawn to apps that are more edgy and have not yet been commandeered by prying parents and their Aunt Rosie.  Another Times article points out that teens, a key social media market, tend to be “fickle” and flock to the latest and the greatest.  Facebook is old hat and (who knows?) could eventually go the way of MySpace.

Just as Zuckerberg created Facebook in a Harvard dorm room, SnapChat came into being as Evan Spiegel’s project in an undergraduate mechanical engineering class at Stanford.  SnapChat gained traction at high schools in Los Angeles, where it became something of a modern-day equivalent of passing notes behind the teacher’s back.  Except you didn’t have to be in the same classroom and you could show off your goofiest face while you were at it.

I am reading that Google offered to acquire SnapChat for the princely sum of three billion dollars and that the Snap turned them down.

Which brings me back to figuring out how to use an app that I had never heard of two days ago.  I have to do this, you know.  I never even had a cell phone until I realized that the only way I’d ever have any hope of keeping up with my far-flung nephews and nieces would be to learn how to text message.

So last night I jumped right in with both feet, hoping my dear ones would not make too much fun of my missteps.  I forgot to check the date on a loaf of French bread I had bought at the supermarket; when I tore off the first chunk, I found that it was stale.  Aha!  A SnapChat moment!  I took a photo of myself looking positively disgusted.  My poor wife was trying not to laugh at me as I turned the phone around and tried not to get my hand in the picture while my index finger estimated the location of the shutter on the other side.  Um, apparently there’s a little camera icon with swivel arrows at the top of the screen that reverses the lens to allow selfies.  Oops.  Suddenly, I feel this small. #uncleisadork

The problem with my disgusted face portrait was that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to add a message to the photo.  I had gotten the Snap part down, but the Chat part continued to elude me.  I pressed whatever buttons I could find to no avail.  So I figured maybe I could write a message on the photo with my finger, just like painting back in kindergarten.  And it worked!  Tracing each letter of “eating stale bread,” my shaky writing even looked like it had been the work of a kindergartener.  But I got the thing sent to one nephew and two nieces, and to me, that was what counted.

A minute later, all three sent back goofy-face photos of their own to indicate that stale bread is indeed pretty gross.  I couldn’t figure out how to save or retrieve their photos, and I could only view them for a few seconds.  If I held my finger down, the “countdown” would start, the photo would appear, and then, bloop!  Disappeared into the stratosphere.

Not long after, my nephew sent me a smiling SnapChat photo of himself behind the wheel.  “Driving home from FoodMaxx.”  Cool!  “See?” I told my wife.  “We’d have no idea what he was doing if not for this thing.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Why do I need to know that my nephew is on the way home from the grocery store?  I suppose I don’t really need to know.  But it’s nice to know that he’s actually buying groceries and has food in his house, which is not something you can automatically count on with this guy.

I snap a smiling photo of my own.  “What’s for dinner?”  Wait a minute, I don’t want to do the finger painting thing again.  How do my nephew and nieces get all this perfect white type overlaid on their photos?  I ask my wife for advice.  “Google it,” she suggests.

Sure enough, Google has all the answers.  Apparently, you have do swipe your finger downward, as if pulling down a keyboard to type.  Not at all intuitive.  But hey, it worked!  Well, sort of.  I have to abbreviate and make my message very short.  Not the easiest thing with my verbose tendencies, but it only takes so many characters.  This is worse than Twitter!

Another photo.  He’s making Hamburger Helper.  I respond with a photo of my popcorn.  He sends back a smiling face of approval.  I assume a pensive pose in the manner of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and express a very truncated wish that I had a good movie to go with my popcorn.

And then this morning, my nephew is at work and SnapChats me his bemused face in regard to the fact that there is some type of anime event going on in the breakroom.  Later, my niece sends a photo of her sandwich and fries at a local restaurant.  I reciprocate with a photo of the batch of guacamole I just finished making.  And so it goes.

On Thursday, when I first downloaded this app, my 17 year old niece grabbed my phone and created a SnapChat handle for me.  I have been dubbed “unclecool59.”  You have no idea of the extent to which I am blushing to even type this.  At least now I could show you if I wanted to.  But first I’d have to access My Friends and add a couple hundred of you.

You wanna?

NaBloPoMo November 2013