melanoman: (Default)
I saw this post thanks to [personal profile] stoneself and it got me thinking.

Last night my kids and I hosted a gathering of friends for some social boardgames. I didn't have to think twice about the cost of dinner out, even though I haven't worked more than part time at what amount to volunteer wages in over a year. My children have never known poverty and I hope they never do.

My own experience with poverty began when I was three years old and my father was shot nine times. He and the man who shot him had been in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam Conflict, but my father had already received his Honorable Discharge, so this was not considered a military-related injury, even though my father's assailant was suffering from PTSD-like symptoms. No one was particularly surprised that the man had snapped and turned violent, but most were perplexed the my father was the victim. Much later I'd discover that he had a list of everyone who had ever been in command of him in the military, however briefly, and had an arsenal compiled to execute his lunatic mission with. As far as I can tell, he couldn't manage to get at any of his targets higher on the list because they were affluent and tended to work in secure areas.

After being denied VA benefits, with most of our finances consumed by the rehabilitation process as my father relearned to walk, with my mother spending a huge fraction of her time providing the rehab services we couldn't afford, poverty became a tangible thing. Sometimes a benefactor would bring us a casserole, and that would be our food for several days.

Without that charity, I expect that my brain development might have been stunted, so I wouldn't have enjoyed the kind of IQ that produced the scholarships that got me into the University where I learned the skills and met the friends that got me the jobs that I made my fortune with. The chain seems horribly fragile after seeing how quickly one can slip into desperate circumstances.

The post that stirred this was all about compassion and paying things forward. That's wonderful, but it isn't what I'm focused on right now. When I was working at Sun back in the good times just before Java came out that would be followed by the incredibly, unbelievably great times after we pushed it out the door and rode the dot-com boom, I met someone who was a Stanford graduate. (Don't worry, this isn't going to be a Cal-Stanford bashing) He knew I was on the UCBerkeley fencing team in college and was bragging about how Stanford dominated Cal in the sport even though Cal was a larger school. I made a comment about how expensive fencing was, and how most students at Cal couldn't afford to be on the team. I wouldn't have been able to without my scholarship. I was working 24 hrs per week and carrying 18-21 units per semester as it was.

His response astounded me. He went into a dissertation about how the students really could afford it if it was a priority. He made a comparison of how their annual USFA dues and such weren't any more than a single payment on a Nissan 300SX (or whatever the letters were on that car).

I didn't argue with him, which was unusual for me back then on any topic. I was too busy wrapping my head around his assumption that everyone had cars, and that scraping up money for dues was just a matter of priorities. He didn't even see that the TIME to practice for fencing instead of working full time on top of a full time class load was more of an expense than the nominal fees. What mostly stuck me is that he SINCERELY believed and/or was oblivious to these things. Poverty just wasn't a part of his worldview.

Before that, I had sort of assumed that wealthy people were selfish and hateful when they said terrible things about the poor. This was the first time I understood that these people were profoundly ignorant and started to believe they could be educated. Over time, I've shaded that position with the experience of several people who had selfish hatefulness in earnest to go along with that ignorance, but the core insight for me goes back to that one conversation.

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melanoman

March 2013

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