Friday, March 11, 2005

Consumers

Mark 8:22-25 (New International Version)

The Healing of a Blind Man at Bethsaida

“22They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
24He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
25Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”


We spent the day in Kansas City yesterday. For the most part it was very, very enjoyable.

We took Nancy’s mother to the Macaroni Grill to celebrate her 86th birthday. The food was excellent, especially when you compare it to the Italian food that’s available here in Emporia. Velma really enjoyed the attention, especially having a young waitress sing happy birthday to her in Eye-talian. Will wonders never cease?

We also spent some time after lunch visiting with Nancy’s aunt, Velma’s older sister, who is in what appears to us to be the final stages of Alzheimer’s. It’s difficult for all of us to watch, but I think it’s especially difficult for Nancy. She’s always been very close to her aunt.

There may be some time when I’ll write more about Nancy’s aunt, but today there’s something else on my mind.

Nancy has two brothers still living, James and John. They’re twins. John, his wife Cathy, and their daughter Rebecca live near Kansas City, in the house Nancy and I once lived in. He’s an interesting guy. I think he might be the most well-read truck driver in the world. John is conservative to the core. Now there are times I’d like to consider myself a conservative, but I spend some time with John and realize that I’m little more than a pretender. In time we’ve gotten to understand one another and even learned to appreciate each other as well.

There may be more about John in the future as well. But today’s subject is James, Nancy’s other brother. James lives at home with his mother, partly by choice, but partly by an unfortunate life circumstance. He contracted spinal meningitis when he was about six months old and that profoundly impacted his life. The end result, beyond the physical impact, is that James is “developmentally disabled,” “retarded,” however those in the know classify these things nowadays.

James and I took an instant liking to one another when we first met twenty years ago. We just hit if off. I recall a Sunday afternoon in those days when we went to Nancy’s mother’s place for dinner. Nancy brought her old Macintosh, complete with “Hyperdrive,” with her and James was fascinated with it. In the course of the afternoon she taught James how to type his first and last name and have it appear on the monitor. I could see the pride on his face when he saw the letters etched on the screen - JAMES CATRON! After a few minutes of sitting mezmerized, seeing his name in lights so to speak, he asked Nancy how my name was spelled. “It’s P…..H…..I…..L,” she responded. About ten minutes later he called us over to where he was sitting. “Look, Phil,” he said beaming, “I can do your name too.” Nancy and I leaned over his shoulder to survey his completed work. There emblazoned on the monitor was the name “PHIL CATRON.” I think at first Nancy didn’t know what to make of it all. But I did. It was Jimmy’s way of saying that I was a valued member of his family. It was his way of saying that you’re a Catron too and I’m proud to have you in the family.

James, like any of us, is a real mix. There’s so much about him that’s endearing. He’s got a smile that will absolutely light up a room. Whenever we get together he has to be sure that Nancy and I know that he really loves us. We’ll often sit in the kitchen and talk about things in general, about how he’s doing and how things are at work and he’ll say, “Okay,” and then come over to give us each a hug and tell us, one by one, “I love you.”

His tastes in life are pretty simple. He loves puzzles, bubble wrap, balloons, and sitting around talking with us. Some of these simple pleasures are by-products of his condition. I think they call it a “mental acuity thing.” But some are quite normal, the things we all love to have, human interaction, telling someone that they’re loved unconditionally, and hearing that others love you unconditionally as well.

I’ve often wondered how much more Jimmy is really capable of doing. I once offered to teach him how to drive a car and he told me, “Oh, no! Oh my no! I can’t do that. I’d get arrested. I’m retarded.” I suppose he’s right, but there are those times when I’m really right-minded and think, “What could the harm possibly be? I mean, look at the folks out there on the road today. There’s road rage and people flippin’ the bird. Jimmy would be a breath of fresh air on the highways, waving as he drove along telling people that he loved them.” But my theory will never be tested. The State of Kansas has seen fit to give licenses to more “able” folks.

Now I know that everything with James isn’t sweetness and light. He has his moments. But then don’t we all?

This brings me to yesterday afternoon at the Macaroni Grill. Nancy’s mother had gotten a large envelope with a series of “bad behavior” reports from the workshop Jimmy spends his days at. Of course, Nancy and I, along with her mother, were concerned. We took the reports to the restaurant with us so that we could look at them and try to make some sense of them. At a point between the main course and dessert we began to pore over them. It was an exercise in real enlightenment about how “systems” work.

The first report noted that, “James told a supervisor that he didn’t have to do this shit.” As I read the report I tried to stifle my laughter, in deference to Nancy’s mother who has modeled Christianity to James for his entire life. But the more I thought about it the funnier it all became. I’ll admit it. I’ve thought that in more than a workplace or two, and I’ve said it once or twice. Haven’t you? My Lord, some guy made a lot of money once writing a song about where his boss could shove his job. These guys must think that spending a day putting stickers on paper or bows into boxes is really amusing. I wonder how they’d feel if the worm were turned and they were stuffing the meaningless crap into the meaningless boxes. I think if they looked at things a bit more closely they’d be far less inclined to file meaningless reports about a “consumer’s” behavior.

The next report read. “James told one of the supervisors, ‘Why don’t you marry my mom so that I can have a daddy?’” This innocuous little question somehow warranted a “report.” Well, stop the presses. James Catron misses his father, who died about the time he and I struck up our friendship. What on earth, I ask, is wrong with wanting a father or father figure in life? Do you think that a mature supervisor might find a way of saying something like, “Well James, I’m very flattered by your proposal, but I’m taken” in response to such an innocently placed question? I’d like to think so, but then I’m not an “authority” on these matters.

The reports seemed to get meatier as we went along. There was one that read, “James started to work and then got up without asking anyone, went over to table near his work-station, pounded on it several time, yelled, then went back to work.” According to the report, the supervisors were worried about the safety of the other “consumers” in the area. I must be missing something here. Has anyone out there ever done meaningless work and felt like doing what James did? You don’t have to admit it, but I will. Mea culpa, yes, I’m guilty. I read the report and thought of a time when I was working for a trucking company in Ohio. I had just gotten a battlefield promotion of sorts. I was a billing clerk one minute, and then when the dispatcher suddenly quit, I got the job. I was told that for my effort I’d get a “handsome” salary. What they didn’t tell me was what the job was all about. About an hour and a half into the job and I understood why he’d quit. It was a miserable enough if a person knew what he was doing. It was even worse for me because I didn’t have any idea about what I was doing. I remember at one point getting up and walking outside the building. I wanted to scream, but didn’t. I made my way to the fuel pumps where the hostler was surveying the long line of trucks waiting to be service and fueled. He took one look at me and saw that I was in bad shape. “Hey kid,” he rasped. “This job’s gettin’ the better of you.” I chuckled. “Yeah, tell me. I don’t have a clue about what’s going on or what I’m supposed to do.”
“You know what you need?
“If I did I think I would have done it by now.”
He leaned over and whispered, “A good scream always helps.”
“Get outtta’ here.”
“I’m tellin’ you, it works. Go ahead over there against the chain link fence, grab hold, and let her rip.”
I thought it over for second or two and decided I had nothing to lose. I trotted over to the fence, strategically grabbed a few links and let go- “Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh!” I shook the fence and did it again - “Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrggggggggggghhhhhhhhhh!” I couldn’t believe how therapeutic it was. Now I’m sure that a “professional” would have had me certified that night, but there hanging on a chain link fence, screaming at the top of my lungs, I felt downright healthy. I was being ground, thanks to my employer, into sausages in “Johnny Levec’s Machine” and I needed to escape the madness. Those primal screams hanging on a chain link fence did the trick. “Whew,” I exclaimed as I jumped down and thanked the hostler for his well-timed advice. “I see what you mean; I feel great. I’m ready to go back to work now.”

Haven’t you felt that way at least once in your life? I think that’s what James was experiencing. He didn’t jump on fence to vent his frustration, he just pounded on a table a few times, let her rip, and then went back to work. His big problem was that he didn’t have a private, discreet place to work out his frustration. If a supervisor had shown him a chain link fence or some other appropriate spot everything would have been fine.

The thing I find amazing in all of this is that these good folks profit handsomely at the expense of James and all the other “consumers” under their care and attention. James gives them a lot of output. He keeps records on how much he produces and I assure you that, for the money he brings home, it’s an awful lot. By the time the government takes its bite out of him and the good folks at the workshop exact their pound of flesh for “services rendered” there’s not much left, not much at all. I’m sure they have a rationale for their thievery. Filing reports costs a lot of money.

There’s one last thing which I believe gets to the heart of what’s wrong in this situation. There was one word that was really conspicuous in all the reports. It was the word, “consumer.” “James called some of the other “consumers” babies.” “James frowned at another “consumer.” Now there’s compassion and understanding in action. James and the other “consumers” are taking up the precious time of the “bosses.” The language really grates on me. It tells me just how little they think of the people who board the busses to come to work in their “workers’ paradise” every day. It’s no wonder James is frustrated.

I am so glad that Jesus, God in human flesh, never looked at people that way. I’m glad He doesn’t look that way now. His language for those who were, and are, ground up in life’s machines was always the language of compassion, of healing, freedom, of God’s favor. It was for the grinders, the compassionless “experts” who fixed unnecessary, heavy burdens on people that Jesus reserved His harshest language. They’re the type of people who refuse to see men as men, but as “consumers.” They, like the blind man Jesus healed at Bethsaida need a second touch.

These good folks have scheduled a conference to discuss Jimmy’s misbehavior in a few weeks. I asked Nancy’s mom if it would be alright if I attended and she said it would be very welcomed. So, in about a month I’m going to be sitting at a conference table with several “experts” discussing my brother-in-law’s behavior. I feel a real need to let someone know that I’m there as a “consumer” advocate, that I’m there to express some anger on behalf of a spindled and mutilated “consumer.” I know that I’m going to have to be dignified and I’m praying that Jesus will put a sock in my mouth if I start to make a fool of myself. I’m trying to search my heart and find the right words to bring to the table for these “experts.” Right now all that comes to mind, borrowing a word James so eloquently used some time ago, “You guys are so full of shit you squish when you walk.” They seem quite anointed now. Maybe they will still seem that way in about a month.

1 comment:

violet said...

Great post Phil! But maybe you should incubate that 'anointed' response just a little longer -- or maybe not :)