Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a special request

Cure from an unexpected source    Although I hadn’t seen him in years, he stopped his truck when he spotted me leaving my mother’s house Sunday after Thanksgiving. Seeing him immediately brought memories of when his younger brother and I were on the wrestling and football teams during high school. Sadly, I reflected on the visit I’d made to his Mom’s house when his Dad had passed away. Like her, he and his younger brother, now a physical therapist, were stoic Presbyterians. Although I recall hearing them assure me that death had come at its appointed time, I was shaken, less supportive of their grief than they of mine.
“How’s your brother?” I asked.
“Fine,” he’d said, “he’s ready to shift to parttime work.”
“And you?” I asked.
“Mostly retired,” he answered. “I’m here visiting my kids. They’re in Mom’s house.”
I knew the house well, but didn’t know he’d inherited it. We talked about a range of things that included updates on my daughters and his, and the possibility of teaming up with him for duplicate bridge. As smart as I knew him to be, I figured he’d make a good partner. We exchanged e-mail addresses, promised to stay in touch.
Although I couldn’t imagine we’d erased a distance created by more than twenty years since seeing each other, I sensed we made much more progress when he appeared unexpectedly at my store the next day.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” he told me. His plans had been to meet a friend the day after. Not until he’d gotten to Danville, an hour after leaving home, did he realize his mistake. “So I thought I’d drop by,” he told me.
Customers came and went, momentarily interrupting our conversation each time. We talked for more than two hours, long enough for us to explore topics neither of us thought of approaching the day before. In detail, because of his ties to the medical profession, I explained my bout with colon cancer; his questions were ones a physician would know to ask. He inquired about the naturopath, Dr.  Phenius P. Vincent Buyck, who had treated me almost eleven years ago.
“He passed away, “ I told him, “but I may have a book he wrote about his methodology.”
Unlike most who had heard more sketchy details, he wanted to know much more. “He may have something that’ll work for me,” he’d said.
He went on to describe an illness, renal failure, that had begun its progression toward being terminal. I rushed to hunt for the book. 
Because of my recent move, I knew that finding it was unlikely. Although I needed to be downstairs in my store instead of up where Dr. Buyck’s book may have been hiding on one of my many bookshelves, I didn’t hesitate to pursue my search. Hadn’t I seen it a few days before? Where did I set it?
I couldn’t remember. That wouldn’t do, I told myself. His interest was genuine; he’d told me about a trusted physician who practiced naturopathy in Mexico, a man, he said, he trusted implicitly. That man, my friend told me, had been persecuted, forced into hiding, disappeared. What I sensed was that my friend needed the Mexican doctor as much as I had Dr. Buyck eleven years ago. What I hadn’t realized was that my friend may have been disguising his desperation. 
Instead of finding my only copy of Nature to the Rescue, The Root Doctor Speaks (The Naturopathic Treatment Guide Series, Volume One, Part One), I found a copy of what had been a lifesaving text for me years before my colon cancer. That book, Good Health Through Special Diets by a world class herbalist, Hannah Kroeger, had been the text that had led me to being pro active regarding serious issues of personal health. Thanks to my brother, I had met the saintly Kroeger at her herb shop in Boulder years earlier. Like so many others, I had waited in line to see her, to talk with her.
Although I was cured completely thanks to her advice, my condition and my friend’s were different. Still, I thought her book would stimulate him. “Try this,” I said, “I’ll let you know when I find the other one.”
Eagerly he read through the book as I helped customers. Thirty minutes later, he handed it back to me. “I’ve found something I think will help,” he told me.
We shook hands, said goodbye. It wasn’t the same as the day before. There was an urgency I hadn’t expected to find. From then, until now, I couldn’t stop thinking of locating Dr. Buyck’s book. Adding to my dilemmawere Dr. Buyck’s final words as he lay dying. “Where I’m going,” he told me, “I’ll be able to help a lot more people and with a lot less trouble.” He’d been hounded by the AMA and by exorbitant increases in his malpractice insurance although there’d never been a claim filed against him.
All of that has followed me for the past thirty hours. Occasionally, I’d review my search. Strangely, I was less and less frenzied. Ten minutes ago, I discovered why.
On a crowded shelf between a few unrelated books, I found Nature to the Rescue!
B. Koplen 11/29/11
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Sunday, November 27, 2011

a question I hope you will help me answer

Priorities      On a perfect spring day, near Emory University’s quadrangle, our small Humanities class met picnic style. Because we’d expected to have class as usual, in the classroom, none of us had brought refreshments. Nor had our professor, a Frenchman who’d married an American. Since we’d spent much of the quarter discussing books about man’s inhumanity to other men, he felt we needed to discuss our role as Americans who were soon to be faced with fighting the War in Vietnam and southeast Asia.
“I believe in priorities,” he told us. “Your family must come first. Mine does.”
He explained that, if the war didn’t address a threat to one’s family, that it wasn’t a war worth fighting. For antiwar protestors like me, his message was more than encouraging. I never supported that war, had never found justification for our being in Vietnam.
If my former professor’s advice continues to serve as a measuring stick, my pacifism is about to be tested. Based only on his command that family allegiance comes first, and allegiance to country second, I find it more difficult than ever to hold fast to both.
Please understand that I am a devoted family man. If I described last night’s scene with my mom, my sister, and me joined in a careful embrace (due to Mom’s difficulty in moving) and a profoundly touching conversation none of us had anticipated, you’d get the picture. We’re tightly knit that way.
And we’re Jewish; we’re a family of Jews with a history that stretches back many, many centuries, if not milennia. That’s critical, especially now that my older daughter and her husband live in Jerusalem, the place where, beginning in July, my younger daughter will also be living for a year. 
How significant is that Jewish geography? In a word, very. Islamic leaders creeping to the forefront thanks to the bloody Arab Spring conduct rallies that promote hatred specifically targeting Jews, especially Jews in Israel.
Whether I’m paranoid isn’t worth deciding. Judging me that way won’t cause Muslim extremists who happen to be poised to take control of many Islamic nations to shelve their anti-Semitism. Jew-hating leaders want to wrest control of Egypt and Syria, perhaps Jordan. Already, they’re in charge in Iran. They want to replace what has been a more benign toleration of Jews as dhimmis with plans to annihilate all of us, especially Jews in Israel.
Now that my younger daughter wants to begin rabinical studies there, in Israel, I must recall the dictate of my former professor. “Vive la famille!” I can hear his cheer, can remember his absolute certainty that he would bear arms only if his wife and children were threatened.
More than ever, I am forced to reckon with the nature of my commitment. Can I be comfortably aloof in the U.S.? How can I ignore the peril now aimed at my children?
What would you do? How would you protect your children from similar harm? 
Huddling close to my Mom, I am aware, more than ever before, of the safe haven she provided for so long. So much has changed since then. As a parent, there are considerations about the safety of my children that are much different than any my mother faced. For me, thanks to Ahmadinijad and his ilk, there are verifiable threats that harken back to the Holocaust, threats I feel I must find a  way to answer.
Must I do battle with those who would put my children in harm’s way? If you were me, would you?
                                      B. Koplen 11/27/11
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Friday, November 25, 2011

More than I could have expected...

Thanksgiving like no other    As Thanksgiving approached, probably like siblings in many families, my brother, then my sister, speculated about the dynamics of that Thursday holiday. For the first time, our Dad wouldn’t be there. 
In a sense, we’d confronted similar hard to grasp emotions more than two weeks earlier. Our parents’ anniversary had come without the normal celebration, with flowers instead that dressed the silence never experienced before on that day.  Unlike Thanksgiving, we hadn’t planned to gather then.
In a month filled with a novel’s twists, days later, on November 12, my mother greeted me, when I came to visit her, with wonderful news.
“I’m a great-grandmother!” She beamed as she relayed the news that my niece and nephew had a 7 1/2 pound baby girl. “She’s Joelle,” Mom continued, “and her birthday is the same as your Cara’s!”
Her joyful announcement of that coincidence was the highlight of both birthdays. However, seeing either of the girls was impossible. My daughter, Cara, was with her husband in Jerusalem; Joelle was with her parents in Colorado. Still, Mom and I cheered in faraway Virginia.
Thanksgiving was different. As soon as my sister arrived the Wednesday before, she joined my younger daughter, Mary Brett, then took over Mom’s kitchen. Hours later, when I walked into Mom’s house, I could smell Thanksgiving before I saw its busy stove, its stack of recipes, and its piles of vegetable and fruit peelings. As a supervisor, Mom sat nearby at the kitchen table, impressed with her daughter and granddaughter who were doing what she had done for so many years.
Energy derived from their enthusiasm led all of us to focus on one question: when should our 24 pound turkey be placed in the oven the next day? That served as a banner of distraction; it worked well until the next afternoon.
On Thanksgiving Day, just before the turkey departed the oven, my sister’s oldest son, Adam, arrived. Bright and personable, Adam’s presence made the warm kitchen even warmer. After hugs for everyone else, he knelt beside Mom. 
“Where should we put these brussel sprouts?” 
“Anyone want wine?”
“I need a container for the extra turkey.”
Final preparations mixed with quick short bursts of questions and commands. Until I noticed Mom. Still in her chair next to Adam, she was wiping away tears.
I knelt in front of her, listened as she mentioned Dad, and, in the same quiet breathless voice,  apologized for her tears. Mary Brett turned from the frenzy of preparation to put her arm around Mom. She stood opposite Adam. With me in front of her, we surrounded Mom with loving words and tears of our own.
For a while, we served as a Kleenex brigade for Mom. Her tears did not diminish that bright Thanksgiving afternoon. Indeed, she helped all of us release our sadness we’d been holding too close.
“Today was his birthday,” Mom said. We hadn’t talked about that either. Now we could.
Minutes later, we crossed into the dining room. In the place of Thanksgiving’s glossy patina, a softer glow filled the room. My sister asked that each of us speak about something we were thankful for, just one thing.
I thanked Mom for her tears, how they spoke more about that day than any words I could say. Then I had to stop; I could feel my tears coming. Again.
Wonderful comments connected all of us at Mom’s oval table, a table that had held so many of our Thanksgiving meals.
When it was time for dessert, Mom insisted on slicing the cobbler she had made, and the pies that Mary Brett had baked, her first ever, she’d told us.
Our Thanksgiving was finally coming to a close, our first without Dad. No one mentioned the birthday cake we didn’t need that day. About the time desserts were being eaten, the phone rang.
It was a call from a Skype phone.
My daughter, Cara, and her husband, Yishai, were on the line from Jerusalem. “How was Thanksgiving?” they wanted to know.
                                                          B. Koplen 11/25/11
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Monday, November 21, 2011

a hard story to tell

In the driver’s seat
NEW YORK TIMES     November 15, 2011   excerpts from
Who’s the Decider?
Driving to the covered bazaar in the exotic western Indian town of Jodhpur last week, our Indian guide stopped to point out a modern landmark. “Do you see that stoplight?” he asked, pointing to a standard green-yellow-red stoplight in the busy intersection. “It’s the only stoplight in Jodhpur. There are 1.2 million people living here.”
The more you travel around India, the more you notice just how lightly the hand of government rests on this country. Somehow, it all sort of works. The traffic does move, but, for the first time in all my years visiting India, I’ve started to wonder whether India’s “good enough” approach to government will really be good enough much longer...
...Yes, it’s true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing — in theory. But at the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.  [my italics]
If asked to write a subtitle for this mostly unremarkable editorial by Tom Friedman, I’d call it The Duh Factor. Concerning leadership, or the lack of it, Friedman figures out the problem, as so many others have, then offers what is tantamount to a mediocre answer. If he’d listen, I’d suggest to Thomas that he take a bold step by sharing his inspired view of a cure for our leadership illness.
Instead, he writes that “someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision” and “Leaders shape polls” and “leaders are in dangerously short supply.” Chances are that, in his next piece, Friedman will write about what parents of Zucotti Park protestors forgot to teach their children about the art of persuasion. 
What I wish he would do is to chat with my dear friend, Dr. Holly Latty-Mann, the leadership maven whose Leadership Trust has been transforming ordinary leaders into extraordinary humans for years.  Her short course that relies on dynamic synergy confronts leadership problems head on. She has her participants discover how to see their own limitations and how to remedy those deficiencies. In short, she teaches a leadership lifestyle that is sustainable and translatable to followers.
And better leaders make better followers. Communication fluorishes; problems are seen as challenges rather than obstacles. Results are obvious rather than being contrived; there is no ideology to defend or support. Instead, what is accomplished is due to the honest pursuit of shared purposes.
That is at the heart of it. An agreed upon purpose serves as a focal point for all to work toward. What is examined are deficiencies or mindsets that interfere with achieving worthwhile goals. Behaviors that contradict the shared purpose are obvious. Therefore, they become reasonably easy to change or reform.
The good Dr. doesn’t own a crtystal ball. She doesn’t need one. But she does have a methodology that even Plato would probably have approved. She teaches leaders how to be genuine and, often, spectacular leaders. With her know how, she could provide the world with more of that commodity, leadership, that  Thomas Friedman thinks is in such short supply.
I disagree. Leaders are plentiful. They just need someone like Dr. Holly Latty-Mann to help them maximize then reach their potential.
                                               B. Koplen  11/16/11
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p.s. this note from Dr. Holly Latty-Mann was received yesterday. Her account tells of a terrible accident that occurred the day after this piece was written:
I am a walking miracle from a 3-car accident 10 pm last Thursday night when I was returning from Wilmington. It totaled my car as well as the other cars. I managed to take a picture of the car next to me while I was trapped in my own car. I was worried because the engine was smoking in their car, and I had just filled up with gas.  You can see one of the deceased in this picture. Both parents died, and their 22 –month old toddler is in there crying. I have been grieving for them since the accident. Everyone either died or went to the hospital, but I returned home uninjured. The red car pictured here jumped the median and plowed into the car in front of me throwing it onto my car.

Life is fragile.
Holly Latty-Mann, Ph.D.
President, The Leadership Trust®
2010 Triangle Business Journal, Mentor Award
Co-Author, Roadmap to Success w/Ken Blanchard, Deepak Chopra, et al.

Impacting Relationships to Impact Bottom Line

New Hope Court; Suite 403
1502 W Highway 54; Durham, NC  27707
Triangle Office: 919.401-8648 / 888.313.2570
Triad Office:  336.288.3336;   Fax:  919.401.8649
drlatty@leadershiptrust.org ; www.leadershiptrust.org

Sunday, November 20, 2011

In a classroom, are there limits to free speech?

Too controversial?    After teaching my class about the history of slavery, about how pervasive it has been, about why anyone would want to enslave someone else, I received a note from one of my white students, a former Marine who sits at a desk in the front row of the small auditorium that serves as my classroom. His message ended with what could be considered a warning: “I feel very offended and am thinking about taking action with the administration.”     
Although it’s not uncommon for him to make wry remarks spontaneously, his quips usually don’t attract responses. Because I encourage free speech, I seldom rein in anyone unless the class becomes disorderly. I stop everything then. “Raise your hand if you’d like to speak,” I say then, sternly.
And they do. Just as they did this past Friday. Two of my black students were having a mini debate about our topic. One, a man in his late thirties, also one to make spontaneous comments, spoke sincerely about slavery as it related to him, to his generation. “It’s in the past,” he said, “we don’t need to dwell on it. We’re all equal now.”
In answer to him, an older female who is one of my more serious students, remarked that the pain of slavery still hasn’t been adequately addressed. “There are wounds that must be dealt with,” she said, then mentioned various groups and organizations she had worked with and created.
To varying degrees, all of my students were attentive, even the one who thinks she is fooling me about the cell phone she never turns off. Just after I described a segment of the movie Amistad that I was about to show the class, she announced that she didn’t want to see the film, that it made her think bad thoughts, thoughts similar to the ones she had when she watched Roots. “I’m not going to watch it,” she said, then returned to her I-Tunes.
For the rest, I prepared them by detailing how global slavery was, how central Portugal and the Islamic countries were to the slave trade, how the trade in slaves was so divisive to the United States and its leaders. I touched on England’s role, its colaborators and Bentham and Wilberforce, a few of its opponents of slavery.
Amistad began. Ms. I-Tunes walked out. No one else did. I skipped through the movie to get to scenes about the drama in the courtroom, to let my class see the nature of those who opposed slavery, those who didn’t believe in slavery as well as more ardent Abolitionists.
At one point, I stopped the movie to read from George Washington Carver’s book, Up From Slavery. Chatter stopped. Carver’s remarkable words held their attention. Emancipated when he was six, he saw clearly the disturbing aspects of slavery, the terrifying challenges of freedom, and the undeniable connections slaves had made with their white (and black!) owners.
Then I returned to the movie, muted it to comment on the nobility of the captured Africans, how they had to struggle to communicate, how they had to relate as strangers in a very strange land.
We watched a little longer until I paused again to read “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea” by Nikki Giovanni. Many seemed moved by its bold lines.
Minutes later the class ended. Although I knew it would continue after our Thanksgiving break, I felt that my students had much to consider before then. Most left the room quietly. My ex-Marine handed me his paper.
As I read it after class, I noticed how carefully written it was. Compared to his work from the first part of the semester, there were very few errors. It was clear, and well thought out even though he was upset.
Another student, a white woman in her late twenties, e-mailed me a day later. Although she suggested other ways to deal with the lingering effects of slavery, she was sympathetic. However, when it came to the woman who left our class, she wrote:
The only other thing that stood out to me that I particularly disagreed with was when the lady mentioned that "Independence Day was not really an independence day for the black people," I find this untrue. Independence Day is not about black people or white people. It is about Americans. We may be able to divide ourselves when it comes to race, but we cannot deny the fact that we are all Americans.
Chances are that I’ll ask her to read those few sentences to our next class. I may do the same regarding the ex-Marine’s note. Fireworks may be unavoidable that day in my Controversial Issues class.
That’s why I may invite a guest to join us, a man I admire, the Vice-President of our community college. Before I begin what I’m sure will be an interesting debate, I will ask for any thoughts about blacks who owned slaves, then will lecture about that. In case you’re interested, please visit this site:
Large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves; in fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in society at large.
Of course, please consider this an invitation to join us for our next class when controversy comes on Friday morning. 
                                                               B. Koplen  11/20/11
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Calling all Jewish grandmothers...

Not such old news    “Come, I’ll show you.”
Not that I was much of a wine drinker, but I was curious enough to connect my father’s interest in growing grapes to his mother’s ability to make wine that I followed her into her basement. For the first time, I saw that sizable space and its wooden racks, built for storage, I suppose, but empty of all but a small corner where Grandma Bessie allowed her wine to ferment.
“You want a taste?” she asked, although I recall that her “want” sounded more like “vant.”
She examined a few bottles until she found one that seemed to have the right amount of sediment and dissolved sugar. We went upstairs, opened the bottle, and I drank a thimbleful.
We talked about the “old country” where she learned to make wine, but we didn’t talk much. Her limited command of English resulted in conversations that were one or two simple sentences long. Although she had so much more to say, I didn’t know how to access it.
On my short list of regrets, that’s near the top. There is one other that I would have enlisted Grandma Bessie’s help in accomplishing. I say that because I remember how feisty she was. On her tiptoes, she was 4’11”. But to me, she always seemed much larger.
In elementary school, when I mistook the cafteria’s cooked cabbage for her delicious sourkraut, my stomach wretched thanks to my mistake. She came to rescue me, then provided an antidote. Chances are it was Pepto Bismal and that I was playing softball that afternoon.
Even more likely was that I enjoyed at least one of Grandma’s kosher garlic dill pickles for supper. Although she didn’t say much, Grandma spoke with her good deeds. Did yours? I’m sure, if you had a Jewish Grandma from the old country, that she did.
I have two reasons for asking. One is that I want the world to know more about what makes us Jews what and who we are. What may have been learned from Fiddler on the Roof isn’t enough. Second is that, when it came to getting things done, my tiny Grandma was a dynamo, a giant who didn’t comprehend the meaning of no.
For a very good reason, I want to channel the power of all Jewish grandmothers. “Vell,” she might have said, “if it makes for a good cause...” That would have been her signal to get out of her way, that she was about to change.
Perhaps her magic is something I can tap into; I must ask that you do the same. There is a wrong that Grandma Bessie would say, “must be turned right.” In fact, she’d agree, I’m sure, that it’s way way past time for that.  
And it has to do with a famous Jewish prisoner who hasn’t had kosher hand made potato latkes in more than 26 years. He’s in an American prison near Fayetteville, NC, in a town known as Butner, close to Oxford. Smart as a Rabbi trained in a yeshiva, he cleans toilets and, generally, eats traif. He doesn’t curse or drink or smoke or gamble or make trouble. Indeed, he’s like my Grandma wanted me to be.
His name is Jonathan Pollard. What did he do? Had she studied his case, my Grandma would have summed up the answer in one word: bubkes. That translates roughly as nothing, not much, very little, in a word, in retrospect, zilch. He spied against the United States.
But not really. What he discovered, while working for Naval Intelligence, was that America had reneged on its promise to give Israel vital security information about Iraq. Rebuked for trying to correct the situation, he gave the information himself to Israeli intelligence. Then, once caught, he plead guilty in exchange for a prison term of eight years. Or less, for good behavior. He’s been incarcerated for 26.
My grandmother would be shocked to know that, would be enraged enough to start a matzog ball brigade in his support. I know she would want to march up to our President and demand clemency. I know it. Your grandmother would too.
Especially if she’s anything like mine was. Or Jonathan’s Hadassah power house of a grandmother, Yette Klein. Neither of those women are still with us. But, if they were, we’d have a genuine Grandmother’s Revolt to cure this injustice.
Since we don’t, I’m writing to appeal to the next generation of Grandmas. Arise! Speak out! Help set Jonathan free. Please let me know that your Grandma will join Bessie’s Grandmas’ March to release Jonathan Pollard.
Grandma Bessie might insist that such good work will bring many blessings.
                                                           B. Koplen 11/17/11
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Veterans' Day: unfinished business

Three men on 11/11/11 As a child, I didn’t ask why my Uncle Herman’s index finger didn’t bend. Nonetheless, it bothered me although it didn’t seem to matter much to him.  Then I was unfamiliar with the human cost of war. That would come later during the Vietnam conflict, about the time I learned that my Uncle had suffered his injury while working under cover in the Army intelligence corp in France during WW II.
Gradually, I developed a functional understanding about enemies of good people, about a desire to control others that was unacceptable. Indeed, I was only able to justify the use of force by peace loving people when I saw that, all too often, preserving peace was impossible without meeting an enemy that way. Along with that, I realized that appeasing our most ardent enemies was impossible.
That’s why, this Veterans’ Day, I showed my class Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 movie, starring Henry Fonda, based on Steinbeck’s novel. I wanted my students to gain a perspective about our country and what it stands for, especially in adverse times.
Before they viewed the movie, I had them write about their worst days, their hardest, most demanding time. Then I started the DVD. It began with Fonda coming home after serving four years in prison. What he found was a Shakespearian scene, the family home abandoned, the community’s minister a vagrant who had lost his faith. 
People who would have seen the movie when it was first aired might have been vaguely aware of the war Hitler had started in 1939. Like my students, there were probably many who watched the premier of Grapes of Wrath who had not known war; in my class, I had only one veteran, a former Marine who was absent that day.
“Earlier this semester,” I said at the beginning of class, “we discussed three men we would watch this semester. Two were soldiers. One, Gilad Shalit, had been kidnapped by Hamas and was held captive for five years. Recently, he was freed in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners.”
I told my students about one of the released Palestinians, a women who had failed to carry out her mission as a suicide bomber. Once free, she had said she would try again, would try four times if that were possible. Her preferred target? An Israeli hospital like the one that had treated her after she’d been captured.
Many in the class grimaced. I reminded them that she was typical of those Islamic warriors who believed that the Koran instructed them to kill infidels to serve allah. “If they were killed in that effort,” I reminded them, “according to Sura 9:111, they are told they will go directly to paradise.”
We’d discussed that insidious behavior earlier in the semester when I introduced them to First Lt. Michael Behenna. On the screen in front of the class, I projected a picture of the message I’d received from Michael’s parents that morning from their website DefendMichael.com. 
“He’s another man we’ve been following this semester. He’s about to appeal to a civilian court to end his imprisonment. He’s served two years of a fifteen year sentence for killing  an Islamic militant who had killed two men in his platoon.”
Behenna had lost an earlier appeal to a military court. After attending that hearing, I had spoken to Michael’s parents, had told them that the dead terrorist had wanted to be killed, had told them why.  They were shocked, surprised they had missed that connection. Indeed, it seemed to them that the terrorist had wanted to provoke Behenna, had intended to be killed while doing it.
I read from the parents’ message. “They ask for your your prayers, for Michael,” I said. “Barring an unlikely Presidential pardon, this is his final appeal.”
That seemed a fitting way to engage my students on Veterans’ Day. Although I also mentioned Jonathan Pollard and our President’s deaf ear to numerous pleas for his release after Pollard has served more than 26 years for a crime that usually carries no more than four, I didn’t dwell on that. Instead, I pressed play on Grapes of Wrath.
As we watched parts of that Depression era story, I wondered how many displaced Americans in the 1930’s had become soldiers in World War II to escape impoverishment. Joining the war was preferable to starvation, but also was necessary to stop the evil enemy of millions of good people.
With his permanently pointed finger, my uncle probably would have indicated he emphatically agreed.
                                       B. Koplen 11/12/11
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

a love poem

                    a special delivery
It’s time for a love poem
that works.
Not one that waits like a resting saw
or a card unsent.
It’s time to scuff love’s 
new shoes, to rough up that patina, to bruise
its bark, then make mends.
This poem can do that, can pucker its lines
in anticipation, 
slip into a back pocket
like a paper hand.
This poem can’t be stopped; the mark it makes
cures longing as sunrise
that dark night when questions came
whether this poem
would ever ever 
be written.
           B. Koplen 11/10/11

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

There's time for this...

Time     Catching Jerry at his store in Bedford isn’t easy. Since retirement as a naval officer, he works when he’s not traveling. And he loves to travel. When he’s not there, the sign on the door doesn’t say CLOSED; at least it didn’t the last time I went to see him. Stuck to the window was a catchy sticker with a one word clue: BEACH. Charleston, SC came to mind. Jerry’s children and grandchildren were there.
Not so long ago, one of his friends, a woman I’d met last New Year’s Day, had minded his store when he left. I remembered her as being a smart and antique savvy 60 something lady who loved to smoke. Last May, she was diagnosed with untreatable cancer; she died almost a month later.
Now the store is closed when Jerry leaves. Visitors to his antique shop, despite Jerry’s cryptic messages, may think he won’t be gone long. Outside, alongside his front windows, is an antique plow caught in a border of potted plants and flowers. I noticed one variety that was still blooming.“That one’s been in the family since 1865. We take slips and grow them,” he said, pointing at one them that was loaded with hanging flowers, tiny as pink flies.
“Looks like a shamrock,” I said. Admiring its apparent durability, I mentioned that I’d love a slip of it if he ever stuck another piece in a pot. He snatched one from his display instead, fist sized, that had been sheltered in the adjacent shadow of a four foot tall Norfolk pine in a five gallon container.
“Thanks, Jerry,” I said, touched by his generosity. As friends do, we shook hands, hugged each other like brothers. “I’ll take care of it,” I promised.
As soon as I returned home, I set it in its place, on a second storey window sill that overlooks the Dan River. Already it feels like part of my family, an heirloom of sorts.
At the end of the next day, when I left to see the movie, In Time, it seemed to wave slightly as I passed.
“7:45, closer to 8:00 p.m.,” the ticket seller told me. Despite the fact that the movie wouldn’t start for almost forty minutes, I bought a ticket. That allowed me time to visit Food Lion to buy a box of Non Pareils. 
“Tony!” I exclaimed, as I was greeted at the checkout lane by a man I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. His medium blue T-shirt was dirty and wrinkled; it seemed he hadn’t shaved in at least a week. But his eyes were clear, and his manner was as kind as I remembered it had been when he worked as a waiter at my friend’s Chinese restaurant. When the restaurant was sold, Tony left, found a job in Greensboro.
“I was there more than twelve years,” he told me, “married with a child and a step son, making almost $100,000 a year.” He fabricated special parts for an auto industry supplier. “My wife left me. Then, five months later, the company let me go. I lost everything, was unemployed for a year and a half. Depressed the whole time.” 
Now he works as a janitor making a fraction of what he once did. “But it’s a job,” he told me, shaking his head. “I still don’t understand.”
“It’s similar to the Great Depression,” I suggested. “It’s hit me, too,” I admitted.
We talked about bygone days when he worked at the restaurant.
“Life was simple then,” Tony said. “So little stress.”
“And time to play basketball,” I added.
“That, too,” said Tony.
We were outside. His car was parked to our right. Mine was two rows away, on the left. We shook hands, said goodbye, promised to get together. Because it was time to get to the cinema to see In Time, I hurried to my car. On the way, I thought about the film I planned to show my class this Friday, Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda, released in 1940.
It’s the story of hard times in America, during the Great Depression, more than 70 years ago. My hope is that the film will provide a perspective for my students regarding their current struggles. They’ll know that things could be worse, that there’s much to be thankful for. Simple things like a flower sitting on my window sill.
Or a friendship with a man who’s found a way to stop everything when it’s time to leave everything behind and go to the beach. He’s confident his store will still be there when he returns.
He’s taught me that I might catch him then.
                                       B. Koplen 11/9/11
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

another way

Concerning a just equality      “You must take her to see this specialist for a diagnosis. Your daughter may be developmentally delayed.” Whatever else I was told about my daughter’s condition, I didn’t hear. At 18 months, she wasn’t talking, at least not more than a few words. “Here’s the address and phone number,” I remember being told.  
A month later, after our appointment with a nurse in Henrico County, I knew how far behind the norm my daughter was. “She should have an CAT scan,” the specialist advised. 
“Here’s the problem,” the pediatric neurosurgeon told us, pointing at a sizable X-ray sheet. “It’s cerebral palsy. She has an inoperable cyst in her right temporal lobe.”
That also explained the cluster of other problems, partial deafness and amblyopia, a weak lazy eye, we would discover later. As I reviewed her maladies, I berated myself for not noticing them earlier. As a best guess, I was told that my daughter had suffered a pre-natal insult to her brain. Outraged, bewildered, and tearful, I held my daughter close to me, vowed to find ways to help her attain a normal life so that she could be a fully functional and happy child.
Although I never lost sight of that purpose, I never forgot what determined the intensity of my commitment to enable her to eventually be an independent adult. For almost twenty years, she and I waged a war against naysayers and unfavorable odds.
Eventually, with help from family, friends, and godparents, and by using hard-earned skills, she won. She is my child no longer; she is a woman equal to any of her friends, a joyous and trustworthy companion for her husband.
What I learned from her taught me that there were many children who could, with appropriate encouragement and guidance, radically and positively alter their lives. Putting that knowledge to use when I was President of our Optimist Club, I initiated a campaign to sponsor a willing individual to study with Dr. Glenn Doman, near Philadelphia, at his Institute For The Achievement Of Human Potential. Although it would cost thousands of dollars, I convinced our club to foot the bill.
My plan was to level the field, to bring about an equality of opportunity to children of families housed in the projects. By teaching a dedicated volunteer how to apply Doman’s techniques, I knew we could train parents of infant children to be able to foster intellectual gains so as to grow their offspring to be academic superstars. Doing that, I figured, would enable that generation of children to compete so effectively in the work force that they would be able to lift their entire family out of poverty’s cyclical grip.
Conversations with Dr. Doman and his lieutenants were encouraging; they were willing to do the training. Prior to beginning my search for a suitable volunteer, someone who would fervently commit their time and energy, I thought to ask the one question that was absolutely pivotal. As soon as I heard the answer, I was heartbroken.
“It’ll take four years,” the Institute representative told me, then repeated, “about four years.”
Unfortunately, I had only persuaded our small Optimist Club to fund the project for four months. Paying for four years of study and living expenses was impossible for our club. Finding someone to spend four years as an unpaid intern, even for this most worthy cause, was even more unlikely.
My vision of sewing seeds for a society that would become absolutely equal and equally competitive went the way of so many narratives that sought to impose their perfection on the messy free world and its inherent imperfections. Despite Montessori based methods that had worked so well for my brain damaged daughter, methods that would have produced, I believed, similarly significant results if applied to less advantaged communities, I knew that my idea was more a dream than a reality.
That’s why, since then (after I ended my Presidency), instead of gearing up for profound social changes, I have, much like teacher Jane Elliott (please see A Class Divided, ISBN 978-0-300-04048-7), aimed at success one classroom at a time. 
As for my daughter and her younger sibling, my younger daughter, I taught them to prepare for life, to be aware of its many options. I taught them compassion along with the need to love themselves if they were to have love for others. I taught them the importance of literacy and flexibility, to cherish life rather than expectations. With the help of friends and family, they learned that faith could be empowering.
But I didn’t teach them to choose a lifestyle based solely on material rewards. I didn’t teach them to revere noblesse oblige, nor to think that they were members of a class that made them better or  more attractive than anyone else. They learned to work to attain what they wanted; they learned the joy of working hard and the achievement it brought. They learned to take care of themselves, that no job was so menial as to be beneath them.
What has that yielded? My older daughter is a much sought after caregiver by families with very young children. She has a part time job as an editor of a small magazine; one day soon she will begin her study to be a nurse. 
My younger daughter works for Hillel as she completes her collegiate degree. She’s an inspirational and most caring motivator; she’ll probably be Phi Beta Kappa due to her diligence, her commitment to hard work. As a career, she’s considering being a Rabbi.
Neither of my children have joined the Occupy movements. They don’t want what’s not theirs. They’ve learned that their worth and the value of life has nothing to do with other people’s money. It has little to do with wealth; if that is to be, that will come.
But both of my girls, young women now, are leaders who’ve learned to use their precious minds, who’ve learned to follow their hearts. As formulas go, in my humble opinion, there’s none better for gaining the success of a joyful life.
They lead by conveying their clarity, present a kind of wisdom that others can grasp and understand. 
I wonder where are such people among those who populate the various Occupy movements? What essential clarity do they possess? I sense deficiencies in that regard, expectations that have been manipulated in ways that are self-confining rather than expansionary.
Have they been taught that benefits spring from sound foundations, from sparks of creativity, from hard work willingly done, that they seldom come pre-packaged as gifts? Based on what they are asking for, I have reason to wonder.
                                                     B. Koplen 11/3/11
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