Archive for May, 2010

Many claim that America has the best health care system in the world. If this is the best, God help the rest of the world. I will admit that a friend from Canada once told me he had to wait six months for an arthroscopy on his knee because he wasn’t considered a “primary” candidate for the procedure, but hey, a scope is a scope is a scope.

Perhaps my view of our health care system is colored by the fact that I’m over 65…well over 65, and that I happen to be on a Medicare supplement. To the uninitiated, that means that my primary insurance isn’t with Uncle Sam, but with someone else…I think. It also means that I am at the mercy of someone called my primary care physician. When I was working full-time and had private insurance, this person would see me willingly; I’d call, we’d set up an appointment, usually within 24 hours or less, and he’d take care of the problem. If it was some situation requiring a specialist, I would tell him the name of the specialist or he would suggest several and I would choose the one I thought best fit my needs.  Then, I retired…from full-time work…from private insurance… from the luxury of selecting my own specialists or going to specialists I had used in the past…from even being able to see my primary care physician except as a last resort, or when he stops by to “stick it” to me as part of my annual physical exam…no further explanation of that is required, I’m quite certain.

Admittedly, I can have one visit per year with an eye doctor of my choosing…phew! Said eye doctor recently suggested that I have a cyst removed from one eye and a biopsy taken from “something unusual” on the other eye. She set up an appointment with an eyelid surgeon – now that’s what I call specializing – and things seemed to be moving along nicely. Oops, not so fast. My primary care told me that I would have to see “his” specialist; someone in “his” circle of medical care specialists. His office set an appointment. I could either keep it or pay out of pocket the $650 to see the person of my choice. I don’t know about you, but at this time of year…hell…at any time of year, that’s big money for someone who is living on a fixed income and supposedly health insured.

To tell you the story of my four-hour ordeal in Boston would just get you laughing hard enough to have “an accident,” something that you’d probably rather not do. Suffice it to say that we arrived at the medical building, which by the way, is immediately adjacent to the Wang Center, just as the buses were arriving for the matinee of the NYC Rockettes Christmas Show. This, in itself, posed several problems, eg, making the turn onto Tremont Street from Kneeland. That, however, is a different story for a different time.

Yes, my doctor had called; yes, he told ‘someone’ why I was there; yes, I was to see a corneal transplant specialist (right away, I should have suspected that something was – in Shakespearean terms – “amiss.”) After spending a little over an hour with a technician, going through the form that I had already completed, but that she then transcribed onto another form – “We’re never certain if people will complete the one we send them, so we just go ahead and ask them the same questions and fill in the answers while they’re here”…oy vey – I was then given an eye examination. “Look,” I kept saying, “I don’t need an eye exam; I had one less than a month ago. It’s not necessary. I just want this cyst removed from my right eye and this ‘thingie’ biopsied that’s at my left eye.” I was told that this would not be possible until I was given a complete eye exam. The question, “Why,” appeared to completely stump them.

Following the eye exam, my eyes were filled with dilation drops. “Can I get the anti-dilation drops later,” I queried. Of course, you can, I was told…lies, lies, lies. I then had to see a resident who was to ‘prepare me’ to see the DOCTOR. I gather this means that God was coming down from Olympus and that the underlings had better not mess up or they’d be sent to optometry hell Here, too, I was asked what brought me to these hallowed halls. Cyst, biopsy, right eye, left eye, I kept repeating…it was my afternoon mantra that did not seem to penetrate. “Can I get the anti-dilation drops later,” I asked again. Of course you can, I was told…more lies. Finally, I met THE MAN, who asked, “Why are you here?” It’s obvious that these people don’t really communicate with one another; they merely pretend to do so. Either that, or they’re all stone-deaf and just smile a great deal. “Oh, I don’t remove cysts…and I don’t biopsy.” Well, no kidding, Dick Tracy; I didn’t think you did. You’re a bloody corneal specialist. “But we’ll fix you up with someone who can do that. You just have to make an appointment to come in and have it done.”

The “kill reflex” is growing stronger by the nanosecond. My mantra is beginning to fail me. I just know I’m going to snap and launch several people through the ninth floor window to land on the unsuspecting crowd that is now exiting the Wang Center from the matinee. I have been in optometry hell for more than three hours. Even the Rockettes below have finished before I have. I can kill these people. It’s my duty to kill my tormentors and escape from this place, despite the fact that no one seems to have the anti-dilation drops; my pupils are the size of dinner plates, and the edges of my vision are a cloudy shade of milk…or milky shade of cloud if you prefer.

I’m home now. They’ve released me and removed that funny jacket with the sleeves that buckle in the back. The psychiatrist says I’ll be fine if I just don’t go near the Wang Center for about six months; something about ‘triggers’ and 21st Century health care. I don’t really seem to be bothered by it…the pills are very good.

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A man was sitting in church one day, as some men are wont to do. He was chatting with his God about this, that, and the other thing, more making statements than asking questions. Finally, he did ask, “God, life seems at times to be so long, and at other times it seems so short. What to you, for example, is a million years?” To the man’s surprise, a quiet voice, which seemed to emanate from everywhere in the church, replied, “I’ve been listening with interest to all that you have had to say. I’m not particularly busy at this time and so I will tell you that a million years to me would be but what a single second is to you.” The man was obviously awed that the Lord would take the time to speak to him or that he could even envision an answer to his question. However, he decided to press on. “Lord,” he said, “and on this earth, in this place, we use money as a form of exchange. Are you familiar with that? There was a gentle chuckle and the Lord replied, “Yes, my son, I’m quite knowledgeable about the concept of money.” The man thought for a moment and asked, “Lord, if you are familiar with the concept, how much would a million dollars mean to you?” Quickly, and a bit sharper, the Lord answered, “A million of your dollars would be less than a penny to me.” “Lord,” the man responded, “I have never been a wealthy man. If money means so little to you, would you please give me a million dollars?” “Why certainly,” replied the Lord, “You stay right where you are, and I’ll be back in a second.”

It’s a long way of telling a story that some see as a joke. Others see it as having no humor at all. No matter how you react to it, there are a number of morals to the story. One of the foremost to me is that you cannot expect your Lord, Allah, HaShem, or whoever to bestow upon you that which He, She, or It would not bestow on all.  Another thing that I consider in the story is the truth of the man’s first statement about time. When we are young, we can’t wait to become older…old enough to drive, old enough to get a job and make money, old enough to drink, old enough to defend our country, old enough to vote, old enough to do whatever we want without having our parents on our case. Perhaps we marry the girl of our dreams and have children. We can’t wait for the kids to be old enough that we can “do things” with them. There’s an old joke that goes, “We spend the first two years of our children’s lives trying to get them to walk and talk; then we spend the next sixteen years telling them to sit down and  shut up.”

As the children grow; as we watch our parents and sometimes even our contemporaries die, it begins to dawn on us that this thing called “life” really isn’t all that long. Things can happen…illness, accidents, stupidity, all can turn what should be longer periods of time into sudden or sufferingly long deaths; a relative dying of a slow-moving cancer; a thirteen-year old standing on her porch and becoming the victim of a drive-by; too much alcohol at a party and thinking one can fly from five stories above the ground.  Any, all, and more of these can cut what might have been a productive life shockingly short. We begin to realize this; we begin to understand that life is not infinite; we recognize that we are not invincible, inviolable, immortal…and we recognize that we may not get to do all that we wanted to do as we were “growing up.”

Although I was young and stupid at the time, I realize now what a fantastic opportunity I was given to be allowed to drive across the country in the summer of 1953. I was nineteen years old. We were in a 1949 Oldsmobile, a mother, her son, and I, driving to Spokane to see her dying sister. Our first night was spent at Niagara Falls. We drove though Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and into Spokane, Washington, where we stayed with the family of the dying woman.  Looking back on the things we did as we “crossed the states,” I wish that I had kept a journal of all that we saw; I wish that digital cameras were available that I might have captured the sight of Old Faithful spouting in Yellowstone National Park or the beauty of the Idaho forests, or hundreds of other sights I now recall with the eyes of age…which are not always accurate. Our return trip took us to the Grand Canyon, the Arizona desert, Oklahoma, Texas, and more of the southern states. The other beauty of the trip, and this I remember vividly, was that it cost me a grand total of $68.00 from my own pocket. That included the cowboy hat I purchased in Cody, Wyoming and that my children later wore…before it became so ragged we had to throw it out. Yes, my trip was paid for, lock, stock, and barrel, by the mother of my friend. It was only later that I realized the magnitude of the gift she had given me.

You can’t drive across the United States for $68.00 today, not with three people. Even if you moved the decimal point a couple of places to the right, you might still have a tough time, what with the price of gasoline, rooms, and food. I remember that gasoline at the station in the Grand Canyon was forty-nine cents a gallon and we thought that was highway robbery; yes, those were different days.

There are two points with which I’d like to leave you: First, life is very short and very unpredictable. Enjoy every single second of it to the best of your ability. If you’re working at a job you absolutely hate, find something you absolutely love. It may not pay as much, but can you survive on what it does pay? I’m not asking if it can pay enough that you can buy a new car every few years or have a bigger house. I’m asking if money or love of life is more important to you. It’s your choice. When he was dying, my Dad admitted how much he’d hated his job, the job he’d held for nearly forty years. “I wanted to work with my hands, “he told me, “but I wasn’t sure I could make a go of it.” Can you imagine having to go to work for forty years and hating every minute of it? What does that mean to your life? What does it take from you…physically…mentally? I was fortunate. Yes, there were times when I was pissed off at a boss or at a task, but in the overall, I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing. Am I in the minority? Perhaps, but I worked at finding ways to make my job a pleasant one.

The second point I’d like to make is that working so hard that you make million or billions of dollars isn’t that important. Bill Gates made billions because he has a gift. If you hadn’t noticed, he and his wife are sharing their wealth. Soichiro Honda made hundreds of millions because he loved what he was doing and he was good at it. He died penniless, after ensuring his family’s well being. Why, because he wanted to. He shared his monies with those less fortunate, giving away millions. The Madoffs, Milkins, Boeskys, and others of their ilk may have made huge chunks of money, but at what price? The key is to understand that you will never have everything you want in life, and if you do, your life has been lessened by that achievement.

You don’t have to agree with me. I cannot and will not ask that. I will say that the past 75 years have been very interesting. I can only wonder what my next 75 will bring.

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            It started out simply enough. I planned to write a piece questioning the rationale of a Kansas group to picket the memorial service for the 12 miners killed in West Virginia. If you haven’t seen the movie, “The Laramie Project,” you may not be familiar with this particular organization. They call themselves the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) and it seems that they are against anything and everything, anyone and everyone, who doesn’t believe as they believe. It appears that the word, ‘tolerance,’ is not a part of their vocabulary.

            One of the WBC’s press releases reads, “Thank God for 12 dead miners,” and “God is laughing, mocking and deriding hypocritical, fag-infested West Virginia.” The Record Delta, a newspaper in West Virginia, notes that the WBC release also states, “They died in shame and disgrace, citizens of a cursed nation of unthankful, unholy perverts who have departed from the living God to worship on ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and who have replaced the Bible with ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”

            Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read something like that, I become just a wee bit concerned that there are people in this country who are filled so completely with hatred of others. You might wonder who follows them; who can actually believe the garbage that they are putting forth? Unfortunately, there are all too many people who are willing to jump into bed with these people – probably a poor choice of words there, but you get my drift. In addition to protesting the trial of two men accused of killing Matthew Shepherd, the gay college student from Laramie, these idiots have also picketed the funerals of soldiers who have been killed overseas, claiming that, “…the killings are a manifestation of God’s wrath over homosexuality in the United States”; now they’re going after West Virginia coal miners. Their logic, or lack thereof, is unbelievable.

            The more I explored hate groups, the more disturbing the issue became. For example, would you believe that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there are eleven active hate groups in Massachusetts as of 2004. Six of these are Neo-Nazi groups, three are Black Separatists; and two are classified as ‘other,’ meaning, I guess, that they’re just plain pissed off at the world. The function of the SPLC is to monitor hate groups throughout the country and to bring lawsuits against those who violate the civil rights of others. Considered by some extremists to be radical in its own right, the SPLC has been responsible for a number of progressive movements in the area of civil rights, including equal benefits for women in the military and the elimination of several white supremacist groups through lawsuits which bankrupted the radical organizations.

            As I was doing research about hate groups and questioning how his might apply to the Westwood/Medfield area, I remembered that shortly after we moved to this area, a cross was burned on the lawn of a black family in our neighborhood. Several people with whom we spoke ‘justified’ the action by making derogatory remarks about the family, some of which might well have been true; however, when push comes to shove, it was an act of racial hatred against another human being and one that should not have happened.  Not long before we moved to Westwood, the town’s only Synagogue was burned and if that doesn’t qualify as a hate crime, I don’t know what does. The point is that the argument, “It can’t happen here” or “It was deserved” just doesn’t work in Westwood or anywhere else, particularly in the year 1986! It can and it does happen in every town throughout Massachusetts, New England, and the entire United States.

            Before you think I’m on the “holier than thou” trip, let me say that each and every one of us is biased. It’s a part of the human condition. After all, religious persecution has been given as the major reason for the founding of our country, and our past is riddled with examples of how bias and hatred have been tolerated in America; just ask any Native American or any black who is descended from slaves. During World War II, Japanese Americans were objects of scorn; following Viet Nam and until very recently, Asian Americans continued to be the targets of hate crimes. After 911, Arab Americans, Muslims had and continue to have an increasingly difficult time.

            Every hour someone commits a hate crime somewhere in America. Every day at least eight blacks, three whites, three gays, three Jews, and one Latino become hate crime victims. Every week a cross is burned. This isn’t something I’ve made up. This comes from reliable sources…and it scares the hell out of me.

            More often than not, hate crimes are committed by groups rather than individuals. People who hate this violently are often cowards who need the support of others. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “A hate group is an organized group or movement that advocates hate, hostility, or violence towards members of a race, ethnicity, religion, or other sector of society. The term, hate group, is not used by these groups themselves, but rather by those who oppose them, and sometimes by sociologists or historians who study them. Many groups described this way disagree with the term as misconstruing their motives or goals.”

            There is some good news to report. All around the country people are beginning to stand up to hate, promoting tolerance and a spirit of cooperation, and taking control. Bullying, an early indicator of potential problems, is being attacked and the school children in Westwood and Medfield are to be congratulated on their joint efforts in this regard.

            In the next article, we’ll talk about how hate groups work and the stages they go through.

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            “Hate is like a cancer. It doesn’t matter if you have a little cancer or a lot of cancer – it’s still cancer!” The author of this quotation is unknown, but whoever she or he is, they’ve certainly summed up hatred as simply as possible. If you ask the question, “Why do people hate,” on any of the Internet search engines, you’ll find nearly eighty thousand sites mentioned. When you go to 99% of these sites, you find that the question doesn’t end with the word, “hate.” It’s, “Why do people hate”…America, Jews, Muslims, Christians, gays, Martha Stewart, trolls, Wal-Mart, Windows, Macs, and yes, even why do people hate me (that’s a generic ‘me’ by the way)? That’s a very small sampling of the listed sites. In other words, the Net, for all of its many wonders, cannot provide an answer to why people hate. 

           Put in its simplest terms, people hate because they can – they have choices – and they’ve been taught. In the musical, South Pacific, Bloody Mary sings, “You’ve got to be taught…to hate all the people your relatives hate; you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Frankly, we’ve all done a pretty damned good job of teaching. And when those who hate find others of similar persuasion, a hate group is born. It’s just as simple as that.

            One definition of a hate group is that it is “…an organized group or movement that advocates hate, hostility or violence toward members of a race, ethnicity, religion or other sector of society.”  Of course, the people in a hate group don’t think of themselves in that way. Many of them feel persecuted and misunderstood. Gee, all they’re doing is ‘dehumanizing’ or ‘demonizing’ the target of their hate. That’s because their targets are all conspiring to tear down the fabric of the nation…or some nonsense like that. Many claim to be a minority that is actually speaking for the vast majority of the population, those too timid to speak out, and they have their own “authoritative” publications to prove how correct they are.

            John Schafer and Joe Navarro, a pair of FBI agents wrote, “The Seven-Stage Hate Model – the Psychopathology of Hate Groups,” in the March 2003 edition of the Law Enforcement Bulletin. “Haters,” they say, “pass through these seven successive stages without skipping a stage. In the early four stages, haters vocalize their beliefs. In the last three stages, they act on [those] beliefs.” First, the haters gather, seeking and finding others who believe as they do. This helps to strengthen their self-worth. It also enables them to do things as a group that they would never do alone, thereby reducing their accountability. Next the haters define themselves as a group. Identities are formed through symbols, rituals, and mythologies, which enhance the members’ status while simultaneously degrading the object of their hatred. In steps three and four, the group first verbally attacks the object of their hatred. These attacks then escalate to taunting and offensive gestures, designed to instill greater fear in the victims, thus instilling a greater sense of power in the haters. This latter stage is where one might begin to see graffiti in areas where the haters congregate.

            The next three stages take the hatred to an entirely new plateau. The hate group begins to search out vulnerable targets and physically assaults him or her. Interestingly, this is physical assault without weapons. It appears that beatings also introduce an adrenaline high to the haters; it can also be called ‘thrill-seeking’ violence. At step six, weapons become evident. These may be guns, knives, broken bottles, baseball bats, screwdrivers, and any manner of tool that can be used to inflict serious harm or death.

            In the final stage of this seven-step model, the hate group destroys the target of its wrath. The hater feels that he or she has been given the power of life and death. As the authors write, “…in reality, hate physically and psychologically destroys both the hater and the hated.” Hate groups destroy their victims, themselves, and the communities in which they reside.

            That’s the bad news. The good news, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), is that throughout the country, people are speaking out against hate, developing and implementing programs that encourage tolerance and inclusion. The Center, founded in 1971 as a small civil rights law firm, is internationally known for, among other things, its tracking of hate groups.

            More often than not, the SPLC notes, when hate comes to town, love rises up against it, usually in greater numbers. For example, when the Westboro Baptist Church hate group decided to picket the memorial service for the 12 miners killed in West Virginia, the Patriot Guard Riders – www.patriotguard.org – a motorcycle group that originated in Kansas, contacted the West Virginia memorial organizers and indicated their willingness to form a picket line around the pickets. To date, more than 1,200 riders have assisted families of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose funerals were threatened by pickets. “We are not a protest group,” insists Chris Brocksmith of the Patriot Guards. “We show up only when requested by the family or organization. We turn our backs on the protesters, but the one thing we won’t do is confront them. They want you to lash out; then they sue and put money in the bank. We know how they operate and we don’t want to build their bank account.”

Next we’ll talk about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ten principles for fighting hate. We’ll also discuss what Westwood is doing to reduce hate in this community. That’s right, dear readers, hate in Westwood is alive and well. However, a small group of men and women are taking definitive steps to diffuse that hatred.

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            Whether it’s gay bashing in Boston, New Bedford, Chicago, or Laramie, Wyoming, anti-Semitism in Newton, Baltimore, or Coeur d’ Lane, Idaho, or white supremacist hate crimes in more towns that I care to count, hatred and its consequences are everywhere. Westwood has not been immune. From anti-Semitic slurs and gay bashing in the high school, to a cross-burning in Islington, this town has known its share of hatred. Westwood, however, is doing something about it. Reporter Priscilla Yeon attended a recent meeting of the No Place for Hate committee. I hope you’ll read her special report regarding the community’s plans to reduce and, hopefully, eradicate ‘hate’ in Westwood.

            What happens when hate does come to town? All too often, we hear, “Yes, but I’m only one person. What can I do?”  The answer is, “You’d be surprised at just how much you, as a single person, can do.”  The Southern Poverty Law Center has put together a guide with ten principles for fighting hate. It wasn’t long after I read it, that I learned just what one person can do. Let me explain.

            The first principle put forth is “Do something.” It doesn’t have to be drastic. Just say or do something that demonstrates your opposition to prejudice toward others because of their race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or other differences. Recently, a friend began to tell me a ‘gay joke.’ When I mentioned that I didn’t appreciate that kind of humor, she said, “C’mon; lighten up; this is the gym; you’re losing your sense of humor.” I don’t believe I’m losing it, but I have a number of gay friends, both men and women. I’ve become sensitized by them regarding what they have to endure…it’s not a pretty sight. They’ve made a lifestyle choice, and I accept it. Making light of that choice or criticizing it is as bad as making racial slurs, something my joke-telling friend would never do. So speak out when you hear or see bigotry or hate. When you do nothing, your apathy is interpreted as acceptance. It reminds me of the statement by Protestant Pastor and former head of the World Council of Churches, Martin Niemoller, “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”  Speaking out is doing something.

            The second principle is to “Unite.” There are others, just like you, who are opposed to hate and hate groups. In Westwood, it was Reverend Peter Lovett and a few friends who got together and said, “Enough.” It was no big deal. They saw a problem and united to find a solution. The upshot has been the formation of a committee, working with the Anti-Defamation League to build Westwood into a community in which there is No Place for Hate. From those early beginnings have emerged some of the most dedicated and hardworking people I’ve met in a long time. I’m honored to be on the fringes, working with them. Perhaps you’d like to become a part of that committee…just ask.

            The third principle put forth by the Center is to “Support the Victims.” You don’t know any victims? You might be surprised. How about that kid at the Downey, Deerfield, or Thurston School who’s been a victim of bullying? How about those kids in the high school who are never asked to be a part of “the in group” because, “they’re weird?” You may not think you know a ‘victim,’ but I’ll bet you do. It’s not confined to youth; it’s anyone of any age or ethnicity. It’s someone who is different.

            What constitutes a hate crime? Principle number four is, “Do Your Homework.” You have to understand the difference between a hate crime and a simple matter of bias. I’m so sick and tired of hearing, “Oh, boys will be boys,” when it comes to bullying, that I want to vomit. Bullying is the formative stage of hate. If not intervened in its early stages, it’s been shown to escalate into behavior that is not appropriate in a civilized society. We aren’t born filled with hate, filled with disrespect for others. We are taught, and the only way to break that circle of hate is to reverse those teachings by “Creating Alternatives,” which is the fifth principle. Remember one thing: People who preach hatred have as much right as you do to oppose them. The First Amendment to the Constitution gives them that right. As much as you might like to retaliate, confrontation only serves the purposes of the perpetrators. When one group of white supremacists attempted to rally in Pulaski, TN, they found that the town had closed for business, including McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. They couldn’t get a burger or even find a place to go to the bathroom.

            Principle six is, “Speak Up.” You have as much right to denounce those who are spewing hate as they have under the First Amendment. Don’t try to debate with haters; they’ll always turn it into a confrontation. Let your voice and that of others who believe as you do ring out in the media.

            The Westwood No Place for Hate committee is following the seventh principle to the letter by “Lobbying Leaders.” Mike Jaillet, the Town Administrator, a representative from the police department, and other community leaders are all pitching in to build partnerships that will ensure the success of the program.

            Hate doesn’t generally begin from outside the community. New Bedford, a No Place for Hate Community, learned this the hard way not long ago. However, because their committee had already “Looked Long Range” – principle number eight, by the way – their response was immediate and strong. Within hours after the attack at Puzzles Nightclub, plans were well underway, and a large group of concerned citizens turned out the following evening for a candlelight vigil to protest the hate crime.

            The ninth principle, “Teach Tolerance,” is something that is being done in my town and a number of communities. Unfortunately, I don’t see the message sinking in that well. If you’re a parent, discuss tolerance with your kids. It’s only through frank and honest discussion that we can learn what everyone is thinking.

            Finally, “Dig Deeper.” Friends know that I’m not some kind of religious nut; however, I believe firmly in the statement, “As you do unto the least of these, so you do unto me.” It’s taken me a long time to discover that I’ve had some pretty deep-seated biases. I’m not even certain that I don’t still have some…but I’m trying. I hope that you’ll think about these ten principles for fighting hate, and that you’ll join with others in making your community an even better place in which to live.

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( Joan has been dead for almost two years now. Recently, I came across this piece. I felt the need to put it on my blog so that others might understand.  If you’ve been touched by cancer, you will understand my need. If you’ve not been touched – and I don’t anyone who has not – you may not enjoy this; forewarned is, after all, forearmed .)

            A Cherokee elder sitting with his grandchildren told them, “In every life there is a terrible fight—a fight between two wolves. One is evil: he is fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and deceit. The other is good: joy, serenity, humility, confidence, generosity, truth, gentleness, and compassion.” A child asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The elder looked him in the eye. “The one you feed.”

            Perhaps it came from dealing with people who always had hidden agendas. Perhaps it was from speaking with the more than 4,000 law enforcement officers with whom I dealt over a lifetime in education…the ‘cops’ who attended one of my classes, seminars, or workshops. Maybe some of it came from the ‘characters’ at the gym, people who, like me, had dealt with those who seemed innately evil. Wherever it came from, my tendency was, for the most part, to be guarded around those I did not know well. It was the, “No one likes me; everyone’s out to screw me syndrome.” Cancer changed that.     

I began to see the innate goodness in people; strangers who had heard of Joan’s illness came up to me at the gym and said, “You and your wife are in my prayers;” “Your family is on my prayer list,” and similar words of encouragement and thoughtfulness. One man whom I know came by the elliptical machine on which I was walking and put a book on my gym bag. The book, “Embraced By The Light” by Betty Eadie, was inscribed, “Dick…I hope this book can give you as much peace as it gave me.”  A high school classmate, who I have not seen in over half a century, made a quilt for Joan and brought it to the house.

            How do you explain the ‘goodness’ in people? Am I too cynical? Have I become so hardened that I’ve been blinded to what people really are, to their true virtue? It was Aristotle who said, “Virtue means doing the right thing, in relation to the right person, at the right time, to the right extent, in the right manner, and for the right purpose.  Thus, to give money away is quite a simple task, but for the act to be virtuous, the donor must give to the right person, for the right purpose, in the right amount, in the right manner, and at the right time.” The prayers and kind words, the book, the quilt, and so much more have made a profound change in my way of looking at people. Perhaps it’s God’s way of sending me a wake-up call. If so, I’m sorry He waited so long.

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            Suppose for a moment that a complete stranger walks up to you, stares you right in the eye, and says, “I’m taking your name and everything you have;” then turns and walks away without another word. What would you do? The person has gone. The threat has been made. It couldn’t have been serious. Maybe you just imagined it. Maybe you didn’t.

            Three months after your encounter, when you’ve forgotten all about it, your phone rings. “Hello, my name is Bob Turner. I’m with ‘X’ bank.” Right away you think, “That’s where I have my MasterCard,” or whatever credit card it might be. Then come the questions: “Did you order a batch of checks to be sent to you at…” and it’s an address you’ve never heard of.  “Are you in the process of opening a new account at…” and it’s the same or even a different address. First, how do you know this person is for real? How do you check the reliability of this telephone call? Does all of this sound preposterous? Take it from one who’s been there, it’s not. This stranger or someone has turned out to be your worst nightmare.

            Was it a hacker who broke through your firewall, sent in a Trojan Horse, a worm, or some other virus? Did they somehow manage to pluck your Social Security Number, mother’s maiden name, or some other confidential piece of information that you thought was protected? No, it was not. Well, in all probability, it was not. It might have been a Script Kiddie or a Cracker, or even a “black-hat” – negative terms generally applied to illegal entrants –  but despite what many people think, the majority of hackers appear to be interested in something far more important than breaking your bank. For the most part, they just wish to test their skills and knowledge against a system that is supposedly protected. It’s the minority of cybervandals who will maliciously try to rob you of your identity, crash your hard drive, or just plain give you fits.

            The terms, “hacker,” and “hack” have their origin at The Model Railroad Club at MIT somewhere in the 1950s. At least, that’s the attribution by author Steven Levy in his book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. There are earlier references but seeing that MIT has been the home to so many remarkable computer firsts, we’ll accept the birth of the hacker as just another feather in its beanie.

            No matter how you slice it, hacker is most commonly referred to in some criminal context. According to Professor Herb Mattord  of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, “It’s come to mean anyone who works their way around legitimate controls in systems.”  Hackers do not consider themselves as criminals. Despite the glamour of hacking, portrayed in such movies as War Games or Hackers, most say that they hack for the intellectual challenge, to gain greater knowledge of computing, or for the adrenaline rush that it provides. Hackers, like many creative people, are not content to know that something works. They prefer to know both how it works and how they can make it work better. If this means stretching beyond the limits of what others consider legal, so be it. Richard Thieme, who has written extensively about computer security as well as lecturing at security conventions, feels that hackers are “…unconventional thinkers, people who are unconventional in every way and who refuse to accept no. If they’re told the machine wasn’t meant to do something, they figure out a way.”

            Am I advocating hacking as something to be encouraged? Absolutely not. According to Information Week, “Hacker is a loaded word. The hacker community – and it’s a thriving online community – includes technophiles, curiosity seekers, cybervandals, and outright thieves and fraudsters.”  Those who fall in the latter categories are criminals and create serious problems.  Industrial espionage can be profitable for those who know how to crack the system. Estimates of the cost to business from computer hackers range from $200 million per year to more than $1.6 trillion. The actual figure is probably closer to the former than the latter. Several companies have offered rewards for information that leads to the capture of those responsible for unleashing virus or worm attacks.

            Believe it or not, there is an up side to hacking. Many people who have been hackers in their youth use the skill to become security consultants and protect others against the less desirable element in hacking. Some, like Marc Maiffret of eEye Digital Security, have founded their own firms to make security software for others.

            Having been the victim of identity fraud and not really knowing whether or not it was computer-related, I use to cringe and clench my fists at the word hacker. Today, however, after doing a bit of research, I’m a bit more tolerant. It’s now much easier to see that hackers actually can be good guys…I think.

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           The story is told of the sun-weathered man sitting at a bar out West. He’s nursing his beer when a woman of indeterminate age walks in, sits down beside him, orders a beer, lights a cigarette, and strikes up a conversation. ‘Wha’ do you do?” she asks. The man answers, “Well, I’m a cowboy. I ride the range all day, lookin’ for stray cows. I mend fences. I herd cattle, take care of my horse, muck out stables and other jobs ya do out here. How ‘bout you?” The woman replies, “I’m a lesbian and what I do is think about women. From the time I get up in the morning, throughout the entire day, and into the evening, that’s what I do; just think about women.”

            The woman finishes her beer and her cigarette, pays her tab and leaves. A few minutes later, a traveling salesman comes in and sits down next to the fella, who is still there and trying to figure out what just happened. “Afternoon,” says the salesman, “I sell auto parts. What do you do?” Well, replied the ranch man, I used to think I was a cowboy, but I just found out a few minutes ago, that I’m a lesbian.”

            There really is nothing off color or dirty about the story. It might, in some circles, be considered politically incorrect – let me change that…in most circles it’s politically incorrect.  It’s a tale of misperception, but also food for thought.

            Recently, someone recommended a book by Joseph Bageant. It’s called “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.”  One of the chapters is entitled Valley of the Gun: Black Powder and Buckskin in Heartland America. It’s a genuine eye-opener. You see, I used to consider myself an opponent of the NRA and a gun control advocate. I can’t say that anymore. No, I haven’t “seen the light” or turned to the dark side, as I like to refer to most members of the Republican Party. I, however, have learned a couple of things: First, there are still a hell of a lot of people out there who depend on game to put food on their tables. These are the American poor of whom we hear very little. They shoot deer and duck and other edible denizens of the forest, and they don’t do it for sport. They do it because if they don’t, if they get skunked, there’s that much less on the table for a few months. The second thing I learned concerns some facts from the National Institute of Justice and the Government Accounting Office reports on firearms: “Citizens use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year—or about 6,850 times a day. Each year firearms are used sixty times more often to protect the lives of citizens than to take lives. The majority of these citizens defend themselves by brandishing their weapons or firing a warning shot. Citizens shoot and kill at least twice as many criminals as police do every year (1,527 to 606). Only two percent of civilian shootings involved an innocent person mistakenly identified as a criminal. By contrast, the error rate for police officers was eleven percent.”

            These stories don’t sell newspapers nor are they the stuff of television headlines. They may not even be something that happens in Boston, Massachusetts, or New England, but it happens, and it happens in America. Yes, we are terrified of the violence we hear about, too much, way too much coming from the minority communities, and we form erroneous opinions about the communities, about minorities, and about guns.

            Am I now screaming, “Arm the populace? Defend your Second Amendment Rights.” No, that is not at all what I’m saying. I am as eager as the next person to see that guns are taken from the hands of those who would use them solely to commit violent acts against others. You tell me how we differentiate between those use guns responsibly and those who use them with little or no regard for others’ lives, and I’ll back you one hundred percent. The problem is…you can’t tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. If you think you can, you’re only deluding yourself. Let me give you a couple of examples: First is the police officer who has a gun because of his job. His marriage is not going as well as either of them would like it to be going. One night he comes home, has a couple of beers, gets into an argument with his wife and winds up killing her and then himself. He needed the gun for his job of preserving the peace and protecting the public. He used it for something else. The second example concerns a rape which would not have happened if the victim had a gun readily available and had been trained in its use. If a mugger or a rapist sees a gun or if the intended victim fires one shot in the air, most criminals are not going to hang around to see if their potential victim is “just kidding.”

            “Deer Hunting with Jesus” is not a piece of fiction. The author is not some bleeding liberal with an axe to grind. I bought the book because it had been recommended and I liked the title. The biggest problem with the damned thing is that I’ve been unable to put it down!

            It took me the better part of two days of on and off reading and I finally finished the book. Truly, it was a wake-up call. I’ve driven through the hills of West Virginia and across Pennsylvania. I even stayed a night in Chariton, Iowa and talked with some people who lived there. I was 19 at the time and damn near as stupid as I feel after having read “Dear Hunting with Jesus.”  Now I realize that I haven’t seen America’s poor. I didn’t even know they exist to the extent that I’ve now learned. These are people for whom a high school diploma is higher education because so many of them have to drop out long before graduation to work in the mill or the factory or the mine. If they don’t go to work there, they can’t help their family, and their family is the most important thing in their lives. Let me say it another way: Family is everything to America’s rural poor. They seem to figure that the only thing they have that’s permanent is each other, and damned if I don’t agree with them.

            The ideologues who inhabit our capitols, both state and federal, might wish to consider talking with these people about what they want; not what the government can do for them…that’s the furthest thing from their minds. These are proud people who look down their collective noses at “government handouts.” These are working folks who, for the most part, want an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. They want health insurance that won’t force them to choose between food and prescriptions. They want the basic necessities of life, and frankly, they are being ignored.

            I hope you’ll beg, buy, or borrow a copy of “Deer Hunting with Jesus;” you might, just as I did, get a wake-up call.

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 “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us;

  what we have done for others and the world remains 

   and is immortal.”
                                             Albert Pike

            It seems to me that it should not have taken more than a century following his death before Pike’s words began to make some sense. Perhaps I grew up in a vacuum, was educated by men and women who had never heard of Albert Pike; or just happened along at a time when “doing for others” wasn’t considered chic. There is no doubt in my mind that there have always been men and women who have gone out of their way to help those less fortunate and who have done so purely for altruistic reasons.  Sad to say, that for most of my life I could not count myself a member of that group. Oh, sure, I collected tinfoil to aid the war effort in WWII – most readers haven’t a clue what that means, and frankly, I’m not certain I knew why I was doing it. And yes, I was a regular blood donor until a couple of heart attacks put a stop to that. I’d even made my annual contributions to the United Way and a few other charities, but probably resented giving the money to others away rather than spending it on something I either didn’t need or probably shouldn’t have coveted in the first place. C’mon, admit it; when we’re young, we’re selfish.

            Today, the concept of community service, volunteerism, “doing for others,” giving back, or whatever label you wish to attach is not only in vogue, it’s an absolute necessity, particularly in most high school curricula…and I find that unfortunate. When schools make “community service” a forced activity – something you have to do to graduate – those who “have” to complete their obligations do so with a whole new set of eyes. I question whether or not they fully comprehend or appreciate the true meaning of their efforts. I also wonder if, perhaps, they resent being “commandeered” for this activity or that, to the point where, once their obligation is fulfilled, they will reject future attempts to get them involved. Is this cynicism? It may well be so. Is it a reflection of my own feelings? No, not at all. The volunteer activities in which I participate enrich my life more than I ever thought possible. In a way, it feels like cheating: I’m supposed to be doing something for others, but I wind up getting twice as much in return. Volunteering makes me feel more complete as a human being. My regret is that a stupid thing like earning a living prevented me from “making a life” and getting more involved at an earlier age.

            Unfortunately, I have worked with a number of young people who are “working off” their community service obligation. Too many have said things like, “I’ll be glad when this is over,” or “At least I won’t have to something like this again.” That last was a classic. He didn’t enjoy offering cookies and juice to blood donors who had just had a needle stuck in their arm to give a “pint of life” to help save someone else’s life, perhaps even a relative of my young, misunderstanding friend.

            To be fair, I have seen the other side of the volunteer coin. A young woman from Canton, working for the first time at the American Red Cross said, “I didn’t even realize we could do stuff like this…this is great!” I’ve also seen “cool” high school students crying at the Pan-Mass Challenge when they watch the hundreds of riders take off on their lengthy bike rides. Several have even approached me and asked, “Can I do a little more next year?” That, in itself, is satisfying to me.

            Many of us think of volunteerism as a relatively new phenomenon. However, in a commencement address to the class of 1928, Babson Institute’s president, George Coleman, said, “You are going out to make a living. You are not likely to forget that. At the very same time, you will be making a life. Very likely, you may overlook that. You are bent upon business. What you really want is life. Business is only a means to that end. The fullness of life will not be yours if you have no thought but to get all you can out of business for yourself. Make your business serve life, your life, the other fellow’s life, the life of society, and you will not only find the wherewithal to live, but you will also find life worth living. Many a man who has made money wants to know what it all amounts to. If he has added something to life, he is satisfied.”

              On the occasion of her 70th birthday, Maya Angelou was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. When asked what she had learned, she said, “I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.’” It seems that “wise people” come in every era, and Dr. Angelou is certainly wise for these times.

            Chances are relatively good that you and I will never have all of the material things that we desire. Hell, I’d like to take flying lessons, but I doubt that will ever become a fiscal reality. We can, however, help to make better the lives of others. It may be something as simple as helping out at a blood drive, offering your wisdom to a child in a tutoring program, or reading to a senior citizen from whom the gift of sight has been taken. It might be working in a food pantry, preparing or delivering meals on wheels to those who are incapable of preparing their own. Former Salvation Army leader, Evangeline Booth, said, “It is not how many years we live, but what we do with them. It is not what we receive, but what we give to others. ”Put in more contemporary terms, comedienne and actor, Whoopi Goldberg noted, “If you don’t look out for others, who’s gonna look out for you?” You tell ‘em, Whoopi!

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Gee, I’m Dead

            The truth of the matter is, I was dead. Can’t really tell you how it happened, but there could be no doubt; I was truly quite deceased. It couldn’t have been too bad, I guess, because I don’t remember there being any great pain and suffering involved. Maybe that’s what does happen when you ‘wake up’ – ha, there’s a choice of words – to the fact that you’re gone and won’t be coming back. Let me tell you what it’s like.

            There are, I’ve found, a couple of interesting things about being dead. Obviously, you’re conflicted. There are the people you left behind and it’s sad and worrisome to do that. It’s worrisome because when you’re the family breadwinner, you’re concerned about how they’re going to do without you. It’s sad because there are all of those ‘things’ that you’d planned to do but, somehow, never quite got around to doing them. You know the things…the train trip across the country; the ‘making up’ with some people to whom you had no longer been speaking over this stupid thing or that; sticking around long enough to be able to celebrate finding a cure for cancer; seeing the grandchildren walk down the aisle; the saying, “I love you” to the one you loved just one more time with real tears in your eyes. So many conflicts, but they’re all behind you now.

            The other interesting thing about being dead is that you feel as though a very, very heavy weight has been removed from your shoulders. When you first feel that the weight is gone, you have the feeling of floating. You are standing, sitting, kneeling or where you are, but you have that feeling of weightlessness; it is, simultaneously, freeing, concerning, enlightening, joyful, and very frightening. Perhaps that last is because you don’t really know what happens from here. Your mind, or is it your soul, is telling you, “Hey, Bud, you’re a goner,” but some part of you is asking, “If I’m such a goner, how come I still think of me as me?” Obviously, it’s a question for the ages and one on which I can’t dwell too long because other things seem to be happening.

            There are some really great things that happen when you’re dead. One is the light. You’ve heard a lot of talk from people who have died and been saved on the operating table or who have ‘come back’ from being dead. Hey, let me tell you something; you don’t come back from being dead. God, and yes, there is a God, just felt that the person on the table wasn’t quite ready to go home yet. But, back to the light; it’s not that the light is brilliant or bright; it’s that it’s beautiful. It’s a light like no other you’ve ever seen. It’s a light with colors you can’t describe. Perhaps the closest thing those of you still walking around might compare it to is a prism. You know the ones I mean? It’s like the multi-faceted crystals with the sun shining through, but it’s all around you. It even seems to be part of you. It’s warm and bright, fascinating because you can’t put a name to the colors. There’s an almost red, but not quite; a beautiful blue but unlike any you’ve ever seen; the green is the color of fine grass, but not really. There are hues of gold and purple that the most brilliant of artists could never create. Perhaps they’re the color of love, for that’s how I feel. I feel that these colors love me and I, in return, am giving love to them. Is that weird or what? The other weird thing is that despite all of this light, whatever I am doesn’t cast a shadow.

            Another of the miraculous things is the music. No, I’m not talking about a choir of heavenly angels; maybe I haven’t qualified to hear them yet. They’d have to be pretty good to outdo the music that seems to permeate me right now, however. I have figured out that it’s the music of me. Let me explain. Some people – we’re talking the live ones now; let’s be clear on that point – enjoy classical music; for others, it’s heavy metal or whatever the spectrum from end to end happens to be for music lovers. The ‘music of me,’ for that’s how I think of it – think, am I still capable of thought – well, the music of me is me. It’s an amalgam of all of the music that created my life. Can I clarify that for you; is it still too confusing? It’s not the lullabies of my childhood, or the fad music of the years through which I lived. It’s a ‘universal’ sound that ‘feels’ like music. It’s probably, no, it would have to be different for each person. What an interesting thought…back to that word, “thought,” again.

            I feel no aches or pains. The knees that were so painful when I was alive are no longer aching. The back that crippled me in my later years no longer causes me to walk hunched over. Wait…I have no body. That’s it; my shell has been removed. I just ‘am.’ I’m not a being as you who are living conceive of beings. I am an am. Wow, there’s a statement and a half. As I look at me, I am not. There is a me, but yet, there is not a me. Perhaps this is me as a soul, but what is a soul? Oh, boy, do I have some questions of God…when I meet Him…Her…It… if I do. We’ve been told that we will stand before God to answer for our lives; that God will sit in judgment of us…if there is a God. Some believe there is not. I believe there is. I wonder what happens to those who don’t believe. What happens to those who don’t believe as I do? Questions, questions, questions. Some theologians probably think they have the answers; my bet is, they’re way off base.

            All the time I’ve been thinking, I’ve been moving; the me that I am has been moving; at least, it feels like moving. It’s not possible to tell, however, if I’m moving up, down, or sideways. Based on what the Bible tells us, I’d just as soon, the direction not be down; that doesn’t have the greatest of connotations. Although, based on the way I seem to feel about the life I lived, down might be the exact direction in which I’m heading, but we won’t get into that. ‘Feels,’ is another word that has taken on a new dimension. There is feeling and yet there is not feeling. Wow, this has to be the craziest experience I’ve ever had. Hello…dummy…it’s a one-time thing; don’t you get it; you’re dead! I don’t know where that voice really came from, but it did bring me back to reality…whatever that is.

            The light seems to be different now; not brighter or dimmer, just different; it’s a more peaceful light, a light with greater warmth perhaps. And the music, the music seems to have changed, almost imperceptibly. I’m not really certain of what this change is, but I know it’s there. Everything around me seems more…more…indescribable. Oh, wait a minute; now I know; I’m standing before my God.

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