Sunday, December 25, 2011

reflections on Christmas eve and beyond...

Timely gifts  “Nice chairs,” said my neighbor, when he spotted my pair of yellow art decos I’d placed at the tuxedo rental section of my store. We had passed by the chairs on our way to see where I’d planned to build a rear entrance with a steel door near the back of my store. “Let me know whether you can use some help with that,” he’d said.

A month before, a painting job I’d offered him at the building my partner and I were renovating next door was canceled due to a communications glitch. This time I was clear; I told him I knew how to do the work on the door and its opening, but I’d trade him for a painting job next door for the two yellow chairs. “Take ‘em,” I insisted.

That pre-payment sealed our agreement; he would paint office doors on the first floor. This time, I was sure there’d be no misunderstanding. I felt good about that, in part because it seemed an inadvertent wrong had been made right. I knew my partner would be pleased. Like me, she’d been upset about the earlier misunderstanding.

She’d also been concerned about unexpected costs due to new demands issued by the building inspector. Worried that our expenses were getting out of hand, both of us questioned whether our investment was getting to be too costly.

While pondering that, I returned to work at my not-so-busy store on Christmas eve. To each of our customers, I extended holiday greetings. I suspected many who would have been shopping were at home watching professional football games that had been switched to Saturday due to Christmas on Sunday.

Rather than grumble, I worked to ensure that my few customers were exceptionally well treated. One of them was a basketball coach at a high school in the county. Each year, his Mom would buy him a suit at Christmas. This time, he was looking at two, two he had picked out while I was called away to help answer a question about another purchase.

When I returned, I anticipated that he would tell me which one he wanted. “This one’s less than half price,” I told him when I was close enough to identify the suit. Although it had been altered for a customer the week before, the customer had returned it for another suit. Knowing that an altered suit might not fit anyone else, I lowered the price so that he was interested enough to try it on.

The coat fit perfectly. “Now the pants,” I said, with my fingers crossed. Again I was called away.

Minutes later, I returned to find him wearing the pants, staring into our three way mirror in disbelief. “I’ll take it!” he exclaimed. The trousers seemed to have been tailored for him; they fit that well.

Feeling good that he was happy with a suit I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to sell, I thanked him and his mother as a couple from nearby South Boston sauntered in.

They were friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year. “Just came by to say hello,” he, C.G. said. “What’s new?” he asked, as we shook hands.

I told them about my amazing daughters, about living upstairs at the store, and about selling my house.

“How’s the insurance business?” I asked.

“It’s O.K.,” he said, “but I think it’s time to return to real esate. Within one to three years, it’ll be stronger than ever.” He spoke with confidence. “I may do it soon,” he said.

Until the real estate market crashed, he’d been successful with mostly commercial sales. I asked whether he would like to see my project next door.

When I was called away, just as he said “Yes!” I knew he understood. While in high school more than thirty years ago, he’d worked for our store on Saturdays.

I tossed him a key. A woman who’d been in the store earlier had returned. Although she’d decided to buy a leather jacket she’d considered a few hours before, she had questions about our return policy. Until C.G. returned, I attended to her.

Leaving her “for just a minute,” I’d said, I retrieved my key from C.G.. “How’d you like it?”

He quipped, “unbelievable! Great space!”

Hearing that, I couldn’t resist asking him what it would cost to duplicate that 7300 square foot building with land enough for parking. “And a freight elevator,” I added.

It didn’t take him long to answer. “About 1.2 million,” he said, “at least.”

I couldn’t wait to tell my partner. We’d spent about ten per cent of that, in total. Smiling broadly, I thanked C.G. as we said goodbye.

“Could you gift wrap these? In separate boxes?” My customer had decided to buy two leather jackets and a hat. I fetched wrapping paper and a tape dispenser.

Since she’d called to ask me not to close before she arrived from showing a house for Prudential Realty, I asked how she did. “They were definitely interested,” she answered. “Since there’s no power on at the house, they brought flashlights!” Suggesting that she thought that to be a good indication, she continued, “I’ve sold seventeen houses this month,” she said, without boasting. ”I’ve been blessed.”

I agreed. And I told her about the difficulty I’d had selling my home. “It took almost three years,” I said, then told her what I’d sold it for.

“Are you kidding?” she asked.

I assured her I wasn’t. “I had no choice,” I said.

She seemed stymied. “But your home was beautiful,” she told me. “I showed it myself,” she said, as she handed me her business card. “You may remember this. I left it on your kitchen counter.”

I did recall that, just before I sold it, my realor had told me about another interested couple and their realtor.

“I had a couple that loved it. At least she did. He wanted to be closer to Ridgeway. But that’s changed. They want to be near Danville now,” she said. After she explained why, she told me that they were in the market to buy a house, that they were thinking about mine, that they wanted to pay for it in cash.

Although I had no regrets about having sold my home, the thought of the extra $40,000 I’d taken off the price to make the sale shook me. It took its toll; the package I’d wrapped looked lousy.

“Allow me,” she insisted. She finished wrapping her packages. I was asked to hand her pieces of tape. As we put on the last pieces, I thought of tieing up loose ends, how I’d been doing just that all day.

I told her what I’d been doing next door. She was interested. “I have a client who may be looking for a place like that,” she said.

We agreed to meet after Christmas. And that was reason enough for me to feel merry about all of the good news the holiday had already brought, and, I hope, for us all, will bring in months to come.

B. Koplen 12/25/11
   Have a merry, merry Christmas!                                            

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

an almost priceless gift

A Time for Giving    Because the young black clerk at the post office had told me the amount of my postage stamps on my manilla envelope was short by $1.73, I’d returned to my store to find and stuck four more to my pattern of six alternating American flag and Statute of Libertys I’d already attached. Why I liked the look of them, neatly arranged on my envelope, is hard to say. I usually don’t care. But this time, since I hadn’t brought folding money or change with me, it didn’t concern me that I was determined to use only stamps rather than a sticker the clerk would have printed and used. However, what she told me as I handed her my envelope a second time, now with ten stamps, surprised me.

“You’re seven cents short,” she said.

“But I added $1.76 worth of stamps,” I pleaded, more amused than upset.

“It’s the added weight of the stamps,” she told me. “Don’t worry, I’ll use some change I have in my little box.”

Before I could thank her for her kindness, a man in line behind me, the only other person there, and just as friendly as the clerk, handed me the change. “Use this,” he said, with a smile on his face.

After I passed it to the clerk, I greeted Ed, the lanky 6’4” man who had helped me.

“Still playing golf with Tyrone?” I asked.

“Played yesterday, at Goodyear.”

“He still hitting the ball long and straight?”

“Yes, Freddy was with us too,” he said,  as he handed the clerk his letter.

“I’d love to caddy for you guys one day,” I said, and meant it. Their threesome, among the best golfers in our area, were black. Years ago, I’d invited them to play with me at our segregated club’s member-guest tournament when I was making a stand for integration at the whites-only Tuscarora Club. We’d had a great time, although, as a very high handicapper, I was a detriment to our team.

I said goodbye, then stepped out into that bright Tuesday morning before Christmas, ready for whatever came my way. First, however, I returned to my apartment for my wallet. Minutes later, I left for RDU on a route through Hillsborough for a short stop at Matthews Chocolate Shop, the only place closer to Danville to find exotic handmade chocolates than the fudge makers near Gatlinburg.

To say the least, I was excited, like a kid, well, in a candy shop. And my reason for going, other than I really wanted to, had to do with my conversation with my mother the night before.

”Forgot to get hot choclate,” she’d told me, “and marshmallows.”

She was reviewing her grocery list, found that item hadn’t been added. “She started drinking it when your Dad did, near the end,” her sitter said. “Your Mom and I have some almost every night.”

“I’ll get it,” I said, happy with an excellent reason to return to Matthews Chocolate Shop. “It’ll be your Chanukah present,” I said. “You’ll love it!”

When she asked how I knew about the hot cocoa there, I told her that I’d been to Matthews on Sunday, “To get some for gifts along with bags of their scrumptuous hand made marshmallows.” I told her that I’d sent them as gifts to my brother and my sister for Chanukah.

What I left out telling her was about the note I’d included. It explained my reason for choosing to send what I did:

Since this is our first Chanukah without Dad, I tried to think of a gift that would remind all of us of him, and of his influence on our family.

That proved difficult not just because of budgetary constraints, but also because an expensive gift wouldn't have captured his significance to all of us, to the sacred unity he dedicated himself to nurturing and preserving. In all honesty, I didn't know what to get. Nonetheless, I never worried that I would find something that was reminiscent of Dad's goodness and sweetness, his constancy and love.

How I wished I could build each of you a warm fire in your fireplace on a cold Chanukah night. To each of us, Dad gave such warmth, so pure and simple and direct.

What I'm sending is something I hope you'll share and enjoy sharing as your menorah's candles brighten your nights.

Little did I know then that Mom’s gift would serve the same purpose.

                      Happy, happy Chanukah!

                                       B.Koplen 12/22/11

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

my students and the Holocaust

 Final assignment          As he has done for many semesters, Solly Ganor, Holocaust survivor and author of Light One Candle, the required text for our class, answered my student’s e-mailed letter. From his home in Israel, he responded to these queries, “ I find myself questioning Hitler's mind. What makes a man so evil and brutal? Were there any good German soilders that did NOT want to put you guys through that torture? What kept you so strong?“

My student, concerned about bothering Solly by “...bringing bad memories,” explained that he didn’t have to answer her. But he did.

“It is letters like hers that makes me realize that the decision I made to publish my book was a difficult one , but the right decision,” Solly wrote, then continued,” Most of us who live a normal life don't realize how weak or strong they are until they are tested. I was tested under the most inhuman conditions and found the strength to survive. I had many childhood friends who were murdered and that was one of the reasons I wrote my book. We made each other a promise that the one who will survive this hell would tell their story. I survived and I kept my promise to them.”

By the end of each semester, I know that Solly’s inspirational book will have changed the lives of many of my students. Their final assignment is to write a personal essay that details their response to Light One Candle. For many of them, writing such a deeply personal essay is a profound challenge.

That’s why I’m so appreciative of their efforts at semester’s end. And so is Solly because I send most of their essays to him. For me, sharing some of their insights and revelations is one of the most joyous aspects of teaching.

As ever, I appreciate that as being one of the most worthwhile perks of being an educator. Most of what follows are verbatim excerpts. Some are painful, many are humbling. Thanks to Solly, all of them are heart to heart messages. Should you be moved to respond, please do. I will gladly forward your comments to him.

From my students’ essays in response to Light One Candle:

“It was excellent. Most of the times, I am one of the first ones to sell my books,but not this one. It was a great book.”

“Your book touched and inspired me. I remember the eight grade. My teacher had us talk to someone who was in World War II. My second cousin was a veteran...he got wounded trying to save another person...He told me stories of how the Jews were being made me cry...I went back to school to give my report; I could not give it for crying...”

“The events described in Light One Candle make me look upon my own life in  a new light by opening my mind to how bad things could be...That is why I have a new outlook on the people in my life and everyone I interact with every day.”


“ have inspired me to be a stronger person. I will never forget Light One Candle...I will read this book again especially when I’m down or going through a rough time because I know nothing I’m dealing wih can compare to what you and your family went through.” [This student had recently completed serving a four year prison term for dealing in drugs.]


“...your book has caused me to laugh, cry, be angry, and excited all at the same time. This may very possibly be the most inspirational and informative book I’ever had the pleasure of reading.”


“There has never been a story...that has influenced my life more...If I have learned anything from this book, it is that I must not waste my life, that I must ...cherish every happy moment, because I can never know when that will be torn away from me...I have to thank Solly for writing this treasure of a book...that touched parts of my heart that I have had locked away since the loss of my mother.”


“The events in this book have changed my life forever. I have a different outlook on life now. I will not take life for granted, nor the freedoms and choices that my family and I have.”


“This book has changed my life, as much as I didn’t want to read it at firtst. But as I got into it, I couldn’t believe that these things could have happened.I ...thank God every day for where I live. And what I have. I see now how much I really take for granted...”


“This book really has showed me how blessed we are to live here.”


“The book was very hard for me to get used to reading at first. I had never heard about the Holocaust.”


“Light One Candle has changed a lot of people. I can see it in the faces of my classmates. However, I do believe that this book could change even more people if it were made into a movie.”


“This book should be a mandatory assignment for students everywhere.”


“ Light One the most touching book I have ever read in my entire life. Reading this book ...reallly has changed my life. It put me into a completely different mindset and changed my perspective on so many things, including even simple things such as happiness, sorrow, the difficulties we face in day to day life, and so much more.”


“Being nearly thirty years old and returning to school to pursue a degree was a daunting task in itself, let alone reading a 300 page novel. It was a challenge for me because of a lack of quiet time with six children, two jobs, and now a full time school schedule...

“Finally, this book and the story of Solly and his life changed me personally. First, it changed my view of my personal freedoms. Living in America spoils one to believe that all people live like that and always have (which is nowehere close to the truth). Even at the time of the Holocaust, there were people living in freedom here in America that were unaware, or unwilling to listen, to the fact that innocent people were being treated worse than animals. It caused me to reflect on my own life and how I am not always aware of what is going on in the world outside of the United States. And that is wrong. As a free nation, we should try to maintain lines of communication around the world so that this same type of mass-murder does not happen again while the world sits idly by.”


Of course, there are more. But all of them would make this too lengthy. Indeed, the similarity of the responses would draw most to one conclusion, that Solly Ganor, in their eyes, is a hero. To me, that came as no surprise. For many years, he’s been a hero to me too.

                                              B. Koplen 12/18/11

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

near Christmas, a timely story

Visitors          “Frank called. He’ll be here in an hour!”

Almost in choral unison, my staff announced a visit I had least expected from an old friend, a traveling salesman who, for years, had stopped by my store every three months. Then came startling news, his diagnosis of leukemia. Not seeing Frank had been like losing my ear to the ground of retail; he is or was that well-informed.

Of course, we’d talk about our sons and daughters, their plans and ours. But we seldom, if ever, talked about leaving the schmatta (clothing) business. Being in it was a given, it had seemed, for both of us. We’d never discussed retirement, an issue too closely connected with mortality.

“Not supposed to shake hands,” he told me, as he backed away from my ordinary greeting that had always included a hug and a handshake. “Doctors orders.”

Thanks to, I’d followed his battles with chemo and radiation, his tortuous comeback. “It’s under control,” he told me. “Treatments should end in late February or March. Then it should be easy to control with new drugs, even though one that I’m taking was developed by my brother, a doctor at Johns Hopkins!” He said that with pride, then assured me he’d be OK for the next 5-7 years before he’d need more treatments. We talked about his son, from whom he’d been separated since his son was an infant. “Unlike me, he was raised Jewish, by  a family in Israel. It’s taken him years, but he found me.”

We worked for a while; I bought his Stacy Adams ties; we kibbitzed. Seeing Frank again was reassuring. Retail was sick, but it hadn’t died. He and I were proof of that. That we were able to share again in commerce served as an antidote for predictions of gloomy Christmas sales.

Just being able to see Frank again served as a needed boost, and, also, as a reminder to do or say things I might have been putting off doing or saying. That’s when Bishop H. walked in, smiling as usual, but, unlike him in the past, with slight limp.

He needed shoes; his old ones were part of his problem. In our shoe section, he sat down. Quickly, I fitted him while I asked a question I’d put off that now seemed timely. It was about the Civil Rights era, about his relationship with Reverend C., a leader, known and respected throughout the south.

“You were with him, but you parted ways. Was that hard to do?” I asked, although I wasn’t sure I deserved an answer. He could have said it was none of my business.

But he didn’t.

“Yes. I left his church after he sent me to Winston Salem. He’d told me that the church would buy me a house, build me a church. After six months when nothing happened, I came back to Danville.” Here he started his own church, named it to honor the vision that lead him back here. And his church has grown ever since.

He loved his shoes. And he seemed to welcome my prying questions. We shook hands; I felt radiant, the way I do when I’ve stumbled on something worthwhile.

Just as he reached the door, his brother, C.G., owner of a gospel radio station, came in. Both were surprised, greeted each other heartily. They were my only customers.

When I finally asked C.G. what he needed, he answered quickly, as he always does, “a new pair of shoes.”

Coincidentally, the pair he bought was exactly like his brother’s. When he left, a feeling came to me, a feeling especially familiar during past holiday seasons when business was better, that I’d been given a sign. That day, three important visitors, unexpectedly, had brought their good tidings.

 B. Koplen 12/15/11

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

a mentor most dear to me

My Steinbeck       “You should have banged on my door,” he said, in a way that let me know how concerned he was for my well-being. Small wonder that I thought of him as a second father.

He’d been the one to encourage me to write, to live the life of a disciplined writer. That’s why he’d found me, asleep on the mat of his doorstep when he’d taken a break from his daily routine of writing to get his morning paper near the stoop of his basement apartment in Chelsea. On the sidewalk, one concrete flight of stairs above me, my British motorcycle was parked.

I’d driven through the night after departing the Dover ferry to England from Calais, France. Rain-soaked and too weary to take one more step, I’d found peace where I lay, near collapse. My Jacob’s pillow was his doormat.

He’d written about his escape from Communist China in his book, A Man Must Choose, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection on a nationally known list in America. He wrote that well, was that brilliant. He’d named his oldest son after Earnest Hemingway.

But Eric Chou and I never talked about Steinbeck. Or that author’s approach to writing. To Hemingway, he’d felt connected as a warrior feels connected to another warrior and his stories of danger and heroism and their emotional components.

Steinbeck championed the cause of Americans who’d lost everything to the dry winds and dust of the Great Depression. Then he disconnected from their travail before writing East of Eden. But his writing discipline never varied. He wrote what he had to write, then opened his doors to friends and family, the rest of the world. Like my mentor, he knew no other way.

In John Steinbeck: Working Days:, The Jornals of The Grapes of Wrath, (1938-1941), edited by Robert DeMott at Ohio University, (ISBN: 0 14 01.4457 9), on page 46, Steinbeck discusses his work in his journal entry #40, July 20, 1938:

“...I wonder whether I’ll ever finish this book. Of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work. Some days I think I am getting sour but I don’t know. Then comes a good day and I am lifted up again. And I can’t tell from the opening. Often in writing these beginning lines I think it is going to be alright and then it isn’t. Just have to see. I hope it is alright today...The work must go on day after day until one day it will be finished...”

All of us who write know such feelings. Were it not for you, our precious readers, such an emotionally fraught trail would be difficult to follow, might appear to be as unattractive as sleeping on a bed of concrete.

  B. Koplen 12/13/11

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

gift from an auto mechanic

A joyous revival    What makes Dad’s old car so special? Its dents and dings? Its faded Sheriff’s Association decal? Or the ones my daughters and I have added? My community college parking permit hanging from the rear view mirror? Maybe not. After all, those are the superficial indicators of layers of ownership, almost like new colors a den might be painted.

However, describing the feel of Dad’s 1996 Buick Skylark does require an embrace of the ivory color its worn since it was new. In fact, that’s a key to what it conveys. Almost 250,000 miles old, it’s more than a relic. It’s a memorial on wheels, a likeness to Dad, his consistency, his predictability, his reliability, his lack of pretension.

In a very real sense, as its current owner, I’ve regarded it as a companion on wheels. That’s why a recent conversation with its mechanic saddened me.

“To repair the front window will cost $281,” he said. Nothing in the tone of his voice indicated whether he thought I should or shouldn’t spend as much as the car is worth on fixing its driver’s side power window. That consideration was mine to make. His dispassionate estimate made that very clear.

If I also had told him about the leaking radiator or if I had inquired about reviving its air conditioner that had expired years ago, he might have pointed me to a junk yard. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t ask.

Indeed, I’d thought of preparing a ceremonial goodbye with my daughter’s help. Chances are that she’d follow me to Chapel Hill to donate it to the public radio station at UNC. I can imagine tears in her eyes for the end of our shared Skylark era.

A week ago, while discussing the immediacy of its demise with a customer, I was surprised to hear him say, “That’s easy to fix.”

The man wasn’t bragging. He mentioned a friend’s junk yard where he would find the needed replacement. “Just a matter of a few screws. Easy work. My Dad taught me.” Knowing that he was a second generation professional helped even though he admitted some would call him a shade tree mechanic.

He loved doing what he did. And while he was at it, he installed new brakes and new rear shocks. For less than $150. I felt rejuvenated.

“What about the radiator?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. It had begun leaking so badly that I had to park the car pointing uphill to prevent the water and antifreeze from draining out. Since he’d made my window work so well, I figured he might have a solution.

“Let me take a look at it,” he told me. I tossed him my only key (my daughter has the other one).

Before the end of the day, he presented his analysis. “Because your cooling fan doesn’t work, your radiator overheated and the plastic frame pulled away from the metal...”

Although I understood what he was saying, it sounded too major a repair to justify. “I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he said cheerfully. He seemed to appreciate that I was allowing him to do the work, that the work itself was a joy for him that he would miss out on if I said no. I wondered whether his Dad had owned a Skylark.

I didn’t ask. Instead, I held my breath when he said he’d found a used fan and radiator and one other part that had something to do with both. Timidly, I asked how much I owed for his work.

“Parts were $80,” he told me. Then he shrugged, as if he didn’t know how much to charge. I didn’t either, so I waited as he calculated.

“How about fifty?” he asked.

I gave him seventy.

And I aksed whether he could fix the air conditioner.

“Tuesday,” he said, smiling.

We shook hands. An hour later, I closed the store, got in the car, and drove. My Skylark felt perky, smooth, warm. On that cold night, I enjoyed my short trip and the heater that now worked so well and so quickly. I rolled down my window. Then up. I parked, facing downhill.

And I imagined my Dad, the time he took me with him to his barber, the two blocks we drove to get there from his store. I was much younger, but I remember how cozy I felt with him behind the wheel. Now I was getting that feeling again, one that my generous mechanic had made possible. I’m sure it’ll be there for me again, on my next trip.

                                         B. Koplen 12/10/11

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

now it's time

A class I didn’t take      Wheelchair Vans 101. It wasn’t offered, but, even if it had been, I might have chosen to take a course related to lifesaving tactics instead.  Until recently, I’d thought of those vehicles mostly in terms of first responders and medical transport services. Indeed, I’d seen the latter in use each time I’d taken Dad to dialysis.

What I hadn’t related to was another justification for wheelchair vans: they enhance mobility for people who want to travel but can’t because of the difficulty of getting in and out of even a larger, but ordinary, automobile. People like my Mom. More and more often, she chooses to leave her house only when necessary to avoid the strain (for her and her caregivers) of navigating her Buick Le Sabre’s front seat.

With a wheelchair van, she could, as they say, high tail it just about anywhere. When asked about the benefits of traveling that way, she seemed excited about the many options that afforded. Chances are that having a van would allow her to finally visit the Internet gambling facility just minutes away across the line in North Carolina. (One of her sitters had promised to take her there.)

If I seem to be painting too rosy a picture, forgive me. Attaining a van serves only to lessen the constraints of a frail condition that won’t change. Nonetheless, I now have more insight into the ads for these vans. Now I know why each wheelchair-bound person pictured in those ads is smiling.

They can venture out, can go anywhere we can go.

“Should we rent, lease, or buy one?” I asked my brother and my sister. Answers varied. So did questions.

“Where do we find one?”

“How much do they cost?”

“What mileage do we want?”

“Is there a market to re-sell them?”

Most difficult for me was where to begin.

“You have friends in the car business, don’t you?” My siblings asked me that because they didn’t have close relationships with dealers in their towns. In Danville, I did. Or I used to. The man I had bought my last car from was now in prison. (I’ve written about that injustice.)

Getting me to do that also meant that none of us really knew where to start. Although I’d found sites on the Net as well as a few vans on Craigslist, I didn’t know enough to determine how good or bad they were. Directives from my sibs were simple: relatively new, low mileage, and absolutely reliable. Of course, I concurred.

Initially, I was stymied. Dealers in and around Danville let me know that this area is not the place to find a good source for vans. “Call Berglund in Roanoke,” one of them said.

I did; it, too, was a dead end. So I called CarMax in Greensboro. “We have vans,” said a salesman, “but we send them to Ilderton in High Point for conversions.” I thanked him. Than I asked myself whether I wanted a conversion.

“That’s the only way to get a wheelchair van,” said Eric, a salesman at Ilderton. I’d driven to High Point to see his wheelchair vans because he’d seemed so well informed when I called him the day before. “We have dealerships in other parts of Carolina. We share the same inventory,” he said, showing me a list of available vehicles, their age, their mileage, their cost, their stock numbers.

I picked one. “That one was just sold,” he told me. “Let me show you this green 1999 I told you about when we talked yesterday. It’s a Dodge mini van,” he said, while turning the key. On the dashboard were three toggle switches. He flipped the first one. The side door slid open and the ramp extended out onto the lot. “You see how thew van drops down,” he told me.

I did. The incline wasn’t as steep as the ramp to Mom’s front door. “And you hook the wheelchair with restraints there and there, “ he said, ponting to rows of grates in the floor. “This comes with manual restraints, but, for $375 you can get a set that will tighten themselves. Highly recommended,” he said. After seeing both, I agreed.

“There are only four or five conversion companies. We work with the largest, Braun. They could easily buy up the others.” He told me that all of his conversions had been done by that company.

“This is a good one,” he said, as we sat in a Chrysler 2010 van. “You can open it from the outside with your key. He told me that the green van didn’t work that way. “But it’s only $18, 500.” The Chrysler 2010 sells for $39,700.

Although a warranty was available for the Chrysler, he wasn’t sure about the green Dodge. “Maybe we could offer one for $1200 to $2400. I’ll have to check,” he said.

“What about the ones with lifts that go all the way to the ground?” I asked. “Are used ones available?”

“Almost never,” he said,” those are usually bought by transport companies and ambulance services. They drive them until the wheels come off. They’re bigger, with a higher ceiling. But I can get one for you. They’re built from a Ford 250 van. Takes two weeks, about $46,000.“

“But you still have to hook up the wheelchair when the person gets inside.”
“Yes,” Eric said, “ the same as the other vans.”

“What would you do, if you were me?” I asked.

“Our green Dodge is our best value,” he said, “but, if money isn’t the most important concern, that 2010 is the one. Here’s a picture of it.” He’d found it on

“Thanks,” I said.

And I meant it. Eric had been a patient teacher. Every question I’d asked had been answered. He’d done so well that I was sure he could field any question my brother and sister would have.

But I’ll be the one to ask Mom whether she wants her van dressed up with racing stripes.

                                                        B. Koplen 12/7/11

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

a difficult question?

 Too much faith?    It sounded reasonable to me. Coming from a Captain, perhaps I gave his comments added weight. On NPR, Captain So-And-So, in an interview, told about the time he was displeased with a Major’s decision to lead his troops in a Christian prayer prior to a serious encounter on the battlefield.

In essence, the Captain asked, “What about me? I’m an athesit.” Who was there to attend to his spiritual or philosophical needs?

Now the Captain is an advocate for an organization that wants the corps of Chaplains to include members who can commune with atheistic soldiers like him. It’s impossible to argue that their concerns are less important than those who belong to more easily identifiable religious groups.

Compared to the very religious friends I have, the Captain is unlikely to speak knowingly of You-Know-Who. Indeed, I wonder how he uses the G-word or whether, for him, it’s even capitalized.

Probably, I’ll never know. But that’s not the case for those true believers I know and love. Unlike me, they claim to know how God works in their lives, and how they must live to please him. Most often, I’m humbled by their knowing; that’s why I wouldn’t dare tell someone what to believe or how to exercise their faith. From my vantage point, each person has their own work to do in that regard.

If that makes me seem indifferent or uncommitted, viz a viz, religious beliefs, so be it. I listen well; I respect other people’s right to make whatever connection to their divinity that suits them. Indeed, I feel that way even if they choose NOT to tell me about the nature of their beliefs. That’s fine with me because, most likely, I’ll never share mine with them.

And not because I don’t like them. Not because I don’t trust or love them. And not because I’m a commando skeptic. Mostly, it’s because I know two things are true: since I’m neither saintly nor Godly, I don’t know what They know. And the other: I’m not sure I want to.

Recently, a person I know (who says I don’t know them well), included this in a message to me:

Whether or not you know it, all things come from God. He is the One that opens and closes doors as He sees fit. We cannot do anything w/o Him.

That’s not all. There was this too: Our very breath comes from God.

Although I never questioned this person’s beliefs or belief system, I also didn’t wave a green flag for a sermon to begin. Actually, if the person had asked whether I wanted to hear about their beliefs, I would have given a definite answer.

But, like the Captain I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t asked.
Perhaps my opinion didn’t count or wouldn’t have mattered. If so, was the person preaching for their sake, not mine? Are they afraid not to preach? Not to believe?

What role, I might ask them, does fear play in their relationship with God. If they don’t fear God, does that make God less real to them? If so, that’s a sad commentary.

At least for me. But that’s all I’ll say about it. Nonetheless, I’m open to revelations, to the shocks of awareness that come unexpectedly, to that meeting, when it comes, with my Maker.

Until then, I’ll listen to my 90 year old Mom for clues about the spiritual realm. Tonight, when I saw her, I set up an Amazon account for her, ostensibly for gifts she may not be able to shop for.
“Or movies, too, Mom,” I suggested, “movies you may have seen before I was born. I think I can get copies of them if you can recall the titles.”

That idea sparked something, may have served as a key to start the search engine her mind used to be. “We can watch movies that you watched when you and your sister were youngsters. Maybe you’ll remember a few that you and Dad really loved.”

“Maybe,” she said softly. She appeared very tired, profoundly tired. “I’m not sure I can remember,” she said.

“You’ll feel stronger in the morning,” I suggested. “Then you’ll think of something.”

Or maybe Dad, if he’s watching us, will send a message, will give her some hints.

In case you’re wondering, I’m more than ready for him to do just that.

                                 B. Koplen 12/5/11

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the cycle, repaired


Geese wake me, early morning,
as they fly to and from the Dan,
a river I know well.
Years ago they left its sandy islands,
their beaches,
polluted by our mills.
I saw them leave, joined
their protest against the rainbow
our river had become.
Now they trumpet their arrivals
and departures, daily,
just before the Crescent
stops. At times, on its narrowed
rails, I sail north,
cut across trails our geese 
reclaimed. I sense I travel
timeless then, as I return like them
to a river I missed, 
to the home it is to me.

                    B. Koplen 12/4/11

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Part two...

Confrontation   Would he come to my class? I wasn’t sure. I’d invited the V.P. of our community college to join us as we worked to find ways to deal with issues of prejudice and racism that had surfaced during our last class, just before Thanksgiving.

“Hi, Barry,” Dr. Ezell greeted me. It was 7:46 a.m. We had fourteen minutes to get ready.

“You never sent me a copy of your student’s letter,” he remarked, then indicated I should follow him. I noticed that his pleasant greeting faded; he appeared more concerned, seemed troubled. “We take such accusations seriously,” he told me, as I gave him a copy of the letter I had written my students to be handed out when class began. “There are procedures for dealing with this,” he said, gravely, then named the three or four people who were in charge of handling such matters.

I tried to assure him that I didn’t think it had reached that point, that my student had overreacted, had helped create an opportunity to teach about something important. In two minutes, the doctor had read my letter. This what I gave him:

                                       December 2, 2011

To my Humanities 165 students-

Today our class has arduous tasks. We must answer tough questions, then create a document.

Creating that document is necessary, in large part, due to a note I received from one of you, a note that expressed a grievance that may have been justified. According to the note, comments were made that sounded racist and/or bigoted. Although I don’t tolerate such remarks in my class, I must admit that I didn’t hear what was said.

Not only did the accuser blame me for being indifferent and unresponsive to such unacceptable epithets, but also I was warned that the accuser was “thinking about taking action with the administration.”

Please know that my letter to you has been sent to the Vice President of DCC along with an invitation to attend this class. If you see Dr. Ezell, it is because he was willing to join us to help with the work we must do.

As you know, I often have you write your thoughts on paper during each class. Doing that is an important exercise that aids in developing critical thinking skills. By formulating your opinions before putting them on paper, you must clarify your thoughts and connect them with your feelings, by means of reflection, to reason and its larger perspective. In other words, instead of just shouting out emotional slurs, you make yourself transform such remarks into often provocative commentary.

That’s what your classmate’s note did.

Now it’s your turn. Before we tackle the document I mentioned above, I want each of you to write, on the back of this sheet, what you would do if you were me, about prejudicial statements made by a classmate. How would you reprimand that student? What would you say to keep such useless remarks out of our classroom?

When you finish, please turn in your paper. Then read the packet of articles I have provided until we begin working on our document.  Thank you.

“We’ll divide the class into two sections,” I told him, a considerate administrator with a doctorate in sociology. “And the student who wrote to me will be with you, there” I said, as I pointed to the empty room next to mine.

Knowing that my student had complained about being called a redneck, Dr. Ezell asked whether I knew the origin of that term. “It relates to the color of scarves that brave strikers wore when they protested against brutal working conditions. That was a century ago, in the coal mines of Appalachia.”

I thanked him for letting me know. “Maybe you’ll share that with your group.”

As I handed out my letter to my students, I asked them to welcome our guest. “Some of you will be working with him today.” I noticed it was 8:05 and the student who had complained hadn’t come to class.

My auditorium style classroom divided my group neatly. “This side will join Dr. Ezell, next door,” I said, “and you,” I said, pointing to the others, then to the first three rows on the other side, “will move down here.”

That’s when the note-writing student walked in. Immediately, I handed him my letter, instructed him to follow the others in Dr. Ezell’s group. As he left the room, I motioned to the doctor that he was the student who had complained.

As a group, we earnestly shared thoughts about a purpose statement. Trying not to seem rushed, I hurried them. Dr. Ezell had a meeting and couldn’t spend a lot of time with us.

My team’s purpose statement was a good one. I told them we’d compare it to the one from the other group, then blend the two.

“Now let’s make the rules that will help us achieve our purpose.” Just as quickly, they jotted suggestions. As each read theirs aloud, we discussed its merits.

“You finished?” It was Dr. Ezell.

“Come on in,” I said, as the last person commented.

We compared purposes, the did the same with the rules each section had compiled. They were remarkably similar. Both the doctor and I were impressed. He seemed satisfied; his familiar smile had returned. “You’re a terrific class,” he said, “wish I didn’t have to leave, but there’s a meeting I have to attend.” He mentioned to me that he had told them about the origin of the term redneck. I thanked him for making the class possible.

Applause followed him as he left.

“Please get out a sheet of paper,” I instructed. “In just a sentence or two, please answer these questions. Are all people equal? If not, why not? If not, what can you do to help bring about equality?”

As they wrote, I inserted a DVD into the computer. Our class would watch the documentary about Passion Works in Athens, Ohio, a collaboration of artists and developmentally disabled people who share a passion for art and the meaning it brings to life. “After you watch this, please answer the same three questions.”

Not a word was said during the documentary. Each student seemed to be moved by witnessing the art that was being created, crafted by people of all colors and by artists with uniquely different abilities.

The student who had complained left quietly. One of the others who may have been one who had taunted him came to see me at my store later. He needed clarification about the term paper that is due in two weeks.

After answering his question, I asked how he felt about the morning’s class.

“Interesting,” he answered. “Yeh,” he said, “it was different.” He nodded his head and smiled as if he were about to say, “in a good way.”

 B. Koplen 12/3/11

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