Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poverty and "The Hunger Games"

I was reading The Hunger Games

Owning a car, I could go beyond city limits to the big mall on the bald prairie. (Cross Iron Mill) Having two coins to rub together, I could, within that mall, sit in the Tim Hortons coffee shop to think and read. I went there right after spending a full hour looking at expensive hunting jackets at the Bass Pro shop: I needed to think over whether buying a “fanatic jacket” by Sitka would be worth it… It has prima loft, nice pretty pixel-like camouflage, and the zipper goes up diagonally to leave room for central pockets and a pouch for a laser range finder.

To ease my middle-aged eyes, I was reading not the paperback but the expensive hardcover version of The Hunger Games, with a mutant bird on the cover. The photo for the movie version, coming soon, shows an adolescent girl with her hunting bow. At the table next to me—hey!—a Filipino teenage girl had bought the same book. “Everybody’s reading it!” she said.

It’s a page-turner, about a girl in an impoverished coal-mining district who risks the death penalty, poaching to keep her family barely fed. It’s no secret the plot is somewhat like the Japanese story Battle Royale, where the kids go in to fight and only one comes out. What intrigued me was not the hunting, not at all. Rather, I liked how the narrator, when she goes to the affluent Capitol City, keeps seeing everything through a sort of “double vision.” She keeps comparing the decadent, filthy-rich city-folk to the poverty she has known every day of her life. I can relate.

After I was raised in poverty, and then spent my formative years outdoors with blue-collar workers, I found myself one day, in my mid-twenties, indoors amongst rich university students. They were nice enough, one young man told me if I wanted a really good dentist I could see his dad, but they seemed to barely know they were middle class, and they had no clue they were rich. One of the student clubs even put up posters for a “trailer trash” party. They took the posters back down after it was pointed out that some students would have grown up in house trailers—something the young scholars were not smart enough to think of on their own.

Of course I wanted to “do the student life” by joining a club. Passing by the ritzy ski club, I found my way to the student newspaper, a club supplying typewriters and pulp yellow typing paper. I quickly discovered that the volunteer journalists there, although a little smarter than the average students, were equally oblivious about being rich.

For example, a few times I saw an incident where heads snapped around in agreement: I knew by the “snap” that something psychological was going on. What would spark the head snap? Some one saying not to review a certain movie, two weeks or more after it opened, “…because any one who wanted to see it would have seen it in the first two weeks.” I always kept silent. I think the reporters were pushing away from their minds any image of an impoverished student, a student who might see a movie at most every second weekend, fearfully counting his change and waiting for at least a couple of weeks to check out the buzz, to think over whether the film would be worth it…

Alone, I slowly reasoned it out: These students had been kids raised with a weekly allowance, who would (yawn, stretch) go weekly to see “a” movie, rather than a particular movie. These students, some of them, saw shows so often they no longer had an excited hush when the curtain whisked back, but would instead (yawn) peer during the movie to notice the lighting and props and stuntmen. They were the living embodiment of the boss singing, “Fifty-seven channels and nothing’s on.”

As it happened, student entertainment writers could review a movie for free. Of course it was common for sophomores to write witty, catty, scathing reviews. One day Lisa Hobson curiously asked me why my reviews were always so nice. I said simply, “I see movies so rarely, that when I see one, I always like it.” Besides, even to this day, I still don’t do catty. And, years after leaving poverty, I still have a ghostly double vision: I’ll have it for life, I guess.

Today our economy is more productive than ever before; hence our society is more affluent. It takes less work-time than ever to manufacture, or to earn the money for, a loaf of bread. Affluence shows up on TV: The props and sets for the TV series Enterprise look like sets for a fancy movie, when compared to the simple sets of the original Star Trek. This is surely from affluence, because the TV audience-percentage is still comparable to the original series.

Amidst this affluence, as Jesus had predicted, the poor are still with us. One day I was volunteering with the Boys’nGirls Club, with elementary-aged kids after school. The other leader said that for Thanksgiving people have a roast turkey. I hastened to add, “Or a chicken.” A young girl announced proudly, “We have a chicken!” The gap in price between a chicken and a turkey can be as vast and insurmountable as the curb before a wheelchair.

These days certain technology is everywhere; even families on welfare have a color TV. A few years ago, my sister was a leader for Brownies and Girl Guides. She told me how if the girls had a sleep-over, perhaps as part of a trip down to the big city, then one thing was certain: VCRs were so ubiquitous that no matter what movie my sister rented, the girls had already seen it… I am reminded of a newspaper cartoon where two kids build a snowman. Then one says, "That’s our obligatory childhood nostalgia moment, now let’s go inside and play Assassin’s Creed!" (Video game)

Our new “social media” technology is not yet everywhere, even though it's in the news so much. Not quite a Frankenstein’s monster, not angelic either.

I’ve read newspaper accounts of girls using various types of tech to horribly bully other kids. Luckily, my nieces, born out of wedlock, were born early enough to miss all this cyber-bullying. The girls grew up with a “single parent family” scarcity: I noticed when we went to see a movie how they never suggested popcorn. If they were growing up today, poor and vulnerable, would they be cyber-bullied? …No… Because they wouldn’t be able to afford the technology!

The journalists who write those glowing accounts of the wonders of teens “all doing social media” with tablets, handhelds and computers, are the same reporters who seem to forget about the kids in our city needing yearly donations of school supplies, packs and winter jackets. The reporters seem awfully oblivious to the economic facts of life: Divorce statistics are grim, single parent means “seventy-five cents to the male dollar” single mother, and some people can’t afford a personal computer, any more than they could afford skis. Should I be angry at the journalists, or despise them, or what?  Maybe I could forgive the reporters for simply being members of a community content to forget about poor people, to push them out of mind.

… I decided, over my coffee, to go back and buy that camouflage jacket. Now I can hang it up to gaze on it so proudly… but beneath it is a ghost image: I see a thrift store sweater, under a zipped cotton hoody, under a thin fleece pullover, mismatched, all worn together in desperate hope of adequate warmth.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains,
2012 A.D.

Speaking of bullying, I just found a 2014 book by Carpenter and D'Antona called Bullying Solutions full of true stories, where, according to the back cover, "the readers" will gain practical user-friendly advice. Unfortunately, "readers" will mean parents, because judging by the more than 40 case studies, teachers are still mostly useless. 

I am reminded of a feature-length movie documentary where the teacher confronts a student, asking why he didn't tell teachers, only to have him say that nothing happened last time when he told her. She hadn't done her job—and didn't know it. And where not one of the teachers at the school would lead by example by sharing with at least the faculty, if not the students too, having been bullied as a student. I find such lily-white innocence statistically unlikely.

I knew a teenager, not-so-recently now, who was utterly, ferociously savage in girls field hockey, yet not one teacher ever wondered if she had been sexually abused or bulled at home. In fact, she had a gun held on her. She and I don't respect teachers.

~I keep this blog site free of any photographs or bells and whistles. This is because according to the newspaper many Americans still use the cheaper, slower dial-up internet. So does my sister. She lives on a rural street without any TV cables.

~A related essay is A Poem For Richard Cory, archived January 2015.

~Science fiction author John Scalzi received many replies on his blog when he posted Being Poor. 

~Scalzi too respects folks on dial-up. Near the bottom of his post, before a long list of ping back comments, he stops the comments, (at 350) so the post won't be too hard to download, and he then has a link so comments can be continued in another place. (I think he got 150 more)

I'm not important enough to get trolls, but if ever I did, I hope I could be as gracious and effective as Scalzi is. …Oh ya, one more thing: his brother and sister are among the commenters.

~I've just learned that Scalzi lived in a trailer while going to school. Today, ten years after the above essay, he posted a followup, and in the comments all sorts of people thanked him for his original.

~As a teenager, after we went from a party line (normal then) to a private line, (normal now) I talked for hours on the telephone, so I respect teens wanting social media. But as for older folks, I get bloody impatient: see my November 2010 piece Fluffy Social Media.

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