Thursday, January 26, 2012

what they point to...

Signs       Strapping and jovial, clean shaven, the 240 pound young man, dressed biker style, in jeans and a black t-shirt, approached me. An earring jiggled slightly as he stated, “A copy of No Gold Stars, please.” Since I’d assigned my book as extra credit reading for my students., he’d come to my store to buy a copy.

“That’s my great-uncle,” he said, pointing at the man with his back to me, my assistant manager, Herb, of more than twenty years. Herb turned, saw my student, grinned, and said hello.

“What’s that on your t-shirt?” Herb asked. “Those three green stripes. What do they represent?”

I didn’t know either. But I did recognize some of the images and symbols that decorated my student’s shirt.

“It’s the logo of an energy drink,” he said.

Herb seemed disappointed. He’d thouught it meant something more.

I was amused. At 6’2” or 3”, my student appeared to be an imposing advertisement. Politely, he thanked me for my book, then left.

Although he’d not been wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket, another young man, about the same age, but almost a foot shorter, who’d approached me the day before, had been.

“Can you help me?” he’d asked. “I can do any kind of clean up work, anything for a few dollars.”

Daily, I get similar requests. Often I try to help. But this young man seemed to want to explain why he needed money.

“See this bill? They’ve turned off the power at my wife’s apartment. She has my one year old  and my four and six year old boys. It’s cold in there.”

I studied the bill, saw that it was dated in December. “She gets assistance, help with the utilities, but she still owes $174.” He told me that he’d been everywhere looking for work. “I’ll do anything,” he told me again.

Business was sllow, I didn’t have anything that needed doing. Again, I looked at the utility bill. He carried it like a white flag of truce. When I read the name on the bill, I recognized it; his wife had been one of my students, or was supposed to be. She never came to class, eventually dropped.

I asked his name. It wasn’t the same as hers. He volunteered that they weren’t married, but were like man and wife.

“Except I stay with my mother,” he told me.

 That surprised me. “Are her utilities still on?” I asked.


“Would your Mom allow your wife and children to stay there too?”

“Yes,” he answered meekly, “but my wife doesn’t want to. She wants her own apartment”

“Doesn’t want to? So your children are having to stay in the cold?”

“Yes,” he answered.

I was upset. “Do you think your children should have to stay in the cold just because their mother wants her own place? Shouldn’t you take your children to your Mom’s? Aren’t they your first responsibility? Shouldn’t they be hers?”

He shook his head yes. “Why don’t you get your mother to call her?”

“She’s deaf,” he said. “I have to sign for her.”

“You know sign language?” I asked.

“I do, but I’m not certified. I need that to get a job. Even so, they wanted me to work at the courthouse with deaf people who had trials there.”

“Who asked you?”

“A woman out on Franklin Turnpike. That was a few months ago.”

“Why don’t you call her? She probably still needs you,” I suggested.

“I will,” he said, as if he were shaking off the effects of an abrupt epiphany. “Thanks for talking straight to me.” He indicated that he was going to get his children.

I took that as a good sign that I, too, may have done the right thing.

               B. Koplen  1/26/12
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

...about custody, continued...

Custody: part two   “You have blood on your hands!”

With that, I began my commentary on judicial (ir)repsonsibility regarding custody determination in the courtroom. Each speaker had signed a list; we were assured five minutes of floor time. In an auditorium of a community college in northwest Virginia, a panel of judges had provided a forum to discuss custody issues.

Important as the topic was (and is!), I had driven three hours to be able to speak. So rare was the opportunity that I knew I had to do it. My perspective had been shaped by a team of knowledgable advisors, volunteers who had guided my research on custody law, child support guidelines, pending custody legislation, pertinent code sections in other states, and authors with Ph.d’s who’s books offered corroborated documentation, relevant studies, and clarity.

With the help of my cohorts, I had gained an education I had never wished for nor wanted. Prior to the forum, I had been an invited guest on Roanoke’s Public Radio station’s (WVTF) for a show that featured me in a debate with a female judge who presided over cases involving custody determination.  Representing non custodial parents like me (then), I battled my well informed adversary; calls kept coming long after the program’s allotted hour.

Finally, the judge, who I had gotten to know and respect during our debate, thanked me for coming. Just before she left, she made a brutally candid remark. “I’ll never get a divorce,” she told me, “ I know about the misery that awaits parents in the courtroom.” She shook her head. “Too devastating,” I thought I heard her mumble.

That’s why, at the community college forum, I began my presentation with such a chilling accusation. Sitting close enough to the judge who had called on me, I could see that his expression had changed. He was rankled, looked to be so pissed off that I thought he might have me removed.

But he didn’t. Instead, he allowed me to site study after study about the harm children suffer when fathers are removed from the lives of their children, especially their daughters. Interesting it was that daughters without Dads in their lives following divorce are five times more likely to have severe emotional, educational, and behavioral problems. Likewise, biological fathers who lose their children to divorce are five times more likely than average Dads to commit suicide.

That’s why I used the “blood on your hands” opening. Judges had access to that information, to sufficient data to support a conclusion that most divorces that involved children should have been (and should be) dealt with by means of mandatory mediation. Doing that would encourage any caring parent to get involved, to find a way to remain a part of their children’s lives.

In such scenarios, each parent would  be required to submit a parenting plan. Living up to that would be mandatory. Such plans would also remedy the greatest problem faced by Child Support Enforcement Agencies, the non payment of child support. Although that subject is all too complex, even the head of Virginia’s CSE admitted to me that he knew that, when fathers (in Virginia who are almost 90% of our state’s non custodial parents) are given adequate parenting time with their children, they pay their child support at a rate of almost 90%.

He (the CSE chief) and I might not have discussed that connection had he not asked me to help his agency find ways to persuade non custodials to do a better job of making child support payments. He chose to ignore studies regarding adequate parenting time; I took that as an invitation to do battle.

Although the story of our confrontation finally had an incredible twist in the favor of non custodials despite odds of 12 to 1 or 13 to 1 against us (due to the composition of the hand-picked panel), the problem persists.

Unlike every other panel member, I was not asked to be a part of the next panel. But that has never stopped me from speaking out against the inequities inherent in judicial and lawyer manipulated custody determination.

That’s why I wrote yesterday’s piece. Many of you responded with  remarks that touched me deeply, pro and con. Although I will not mention your names, I will post many of your messages.

In advance, please know that I thank you for the thoughts and feelings you shared. Such dialog is essential to reaching a meaningful resolution to this (sometimes tragic) conundrum.

I send this with love and wishes for peace to all of you.

Some of your remarks:

I was sorry to read about this situation.  I'm definitely on your side but my experience was different.  I wish my ex-husband had been really interesting in parenting his children of divorce.  It took a very long incarceration (he’s still imprisoned) for him to realize what he lost.  I'm sorry, however, that you who always knew what you would lose were stopped in your tracks from parenting your children.  I hope they have emotionally survived the break.  As per who are we voting for, it's still the lesser of two evils I think.  I look forward to the "change."

I remember having talks with my parents when I was young and first became aware of political differences. My dad was your average working man, got his degree going to college at night, and my mom was a high school teacher who was valedictorian of her high school and college classes. Both tended to vote Democratic, but as the years went by, they became much more conservative in their thinking and now they are both dead-set conservatives. Interesting how things change. I think the entire spectrum has changed. Liberal/Democratic has gone way to the left, and the old time, fairly middle of the road Democrat feels like they lost their place, and they now vote conservative/Republican. I try to keep an open mind and vote in a common sense way. The extremes of the political spectrum are probably not a good idea for anyone.
...I am not a divorce attorney so I may be wrong, but it is my understanding that in FL every parent is entitled to some visitation with their kids absent them being shown to have been abusive or the like.  I will note that I have on number of occasions, including as recently as today ..., stated that my biggest blessing in life is that I have never been divorced.

I don't think government should be responsible for  a "parents" share of what they produced.  First of all there would be lots of people out there having children in order to collect a government subsidy.  I have no faith that government could do it correctly and this would only create another bureaucracy...

I admire your restraint. I'm afraid "Dickie" and I would have had a three legged race to the hospital to get my foot out of his ass.


                         B. Koplen 1/18/12

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Monday, January 16, 2012

what are we voting for?

What they stand for         “It’s the Democrats,” stated my friend, Murray. Without belligerence, his tone was explanatory rather than accusatory. “They have a vested interest to protect,” he told me.

To say the least, I was surprised. As a lifelong democrat, I’d prided myself on being liberal and open-minded. At the time, that was especially important. I’d lost my children after an inexplicable and biased ruling in divorce court. Two things had been against me:

I was the father, and
the law failed to recognize that the very best interest of the children of divorce was that both parents remain meaningfully (equally, if possible) involved as parents.

Until that terrible loss, I had believed that kind of justice would prevail. It didn’t then, and it still doesn’t.

One of the faces I learned to identify with forces opposing my movement for “Equal Parents, Equal Time” was Rep. Dickie Cranwell. Although I never did, some referred to him as a slimeball. Perhaps I should have when he recognized me as I spoke before his sub committee at the General Assembly in Richmond. In his hand was a letter I’d written to him, a letter that pled for non-custodial parents like me to have equal time in their children’s lives.

After I’d addressed the legislators, and before I’d sat down, he mocked me for a word I’d used in my letter. That word, anathema, described how many non custodial parents felt about the disregard the legislators had for them. Dickie laughed at my usage of its four syllables, called me “Mr. Anathema” to the amusement of his democratic colleagues, then dismissed me as a father who couldn’t possibly understand how things were supposed to be.

Not long after that, in spite of Cranwell’s lame rebuke, I became a member of advisory panels on child support guidelines and custody legislation that had been set aside for study. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was surrounded by people who weren’t interested in resolving the crisis of fatherlessness caused by poorly constucted laws regarding custodial determination.

Dead set against me were Cranwell types, Democratic lawyers with vested interests in women having custody and judges who worked in conjunction with them. Not all of them were crooked, but few of them had our children’s best interests in mind (despite a preponderance of studies that proved how wrong-minded they were about the need for fathers to be able to be fathers to their children of divorce).

While working with the child support guidelines panel, I realized that Virginia (like so many other states with backwards and repressive custody laws) was more interested in making criminals of fathers who live at the subsistence level or below when it comes to child support enforcement than in creatively resolving the crises that result in their incarceration.

I proposed that studies be done to determine both the cost to our state of criminalizing (indigent) parents (mostly fathers, by a wide margin) as compared to the cost of paying their child support (in exchange for community work, time spent with their children, perhaps at facilities like the Boys and Girls clubs). By continuously imprisoning them, the state of Virginia was spending too much money and deriving little, if any, benefit.

Despite finding that one-third or more of county and city jail populations are (repeating) child support offenders, I was voted down when I offered a resolution that would have framed this as a cost-saving and parent-saving issue.

The judges and the Democratic lawyers and their supporters (on the panel) didn’t want to be bothered.

Since then, I have scuttled my party affiliation as a meaningless encumbrance. Instead, I have focused on who is running...and why. Especially if he or she comes close to reminding me of Dickie Cranwell.

B. Koplen 1/17/12

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

importance of reaching back...

 When the past comes alive     We waited for news of my daughter, my brother, my sister, and their families. They were various places, all en route to Danville for my Dad’s unveiling. With my mother, at her house, the three of us, including Mom’s sitter, Sheila, and I spent time talking with Mom about the old days. Parkinson’s had yet to cloud those memories as much as it had more recent ones.

“I was the only Jewish girl in Nursing School,” she told us. “We worked twelve hour shifts that included two hour breaks.”

“Did you talk about the War? Aout what Hitler was doing to the Jews?”

“No. We Jews knew about it, but no one else talked about it.”

“No one?” I found that to be incredulous. She wanted to talk about another kind of discrimination.

“The way they treated black people was terrible,” Mom said. “They wouldn’t allow us to list a colored man and wife as being married.”

Both Sheila, a forty-something year old black woman, and I responded as if in unison.

“What?” we asked. Mom assured us she had asked the same question many times.

“I worked with colored people and their babies,” she told us, “but I was disappointed and ashamed that my country allowed such discrimination.”

She explained about separate water fountains, told us about a family trip when I was a very little boy. “Our maid was with us, and we went to eat at a restaurant,” Mom said, without telling us exactly where we were vacationing. “We sat down to order and they told us that our maid couldn’t eat with us. She had to eat in the kitchen. That wasn’t right.”

“What could you do about it?” I asked. “Others must have felt the same.”

Mom didn’t say anything. I returned to ask more about the Nazi atrocities.

“Did you talk with your fellow nurses about the Holocaust?”

“No,” she said, “we didn’t talk about that.”

She agreed that it was as if the topic wasn’t supposed to be discussed. “I didn’t mention it,” she said.

I felt as if the Holocaust had been regarded like a dirty little secret. “Did you know that Roosevelt allowed only 1000 European Jews to take refuge in America? Only 1000!”
I’d read their story in Haven, a book by Dr. Ruth Gruber. Roosevelt’s attitude reflected that of America’s in general. What I didn’t tell my mother was that 100,000 German prisoners of war had been brought to our country.

That might have shocked her, as it did me, when I read it.

“You talk about these things in your class, don’t you?” Mom asked.

“Yes,” I answered, “I always let my students know that I’m Jewish, that I may be biased because of that, that they need to be aware of that. I let them know that they may likewise have a bias because they are mostly Christians and they see the world through that filter. By the end of the semester, they know how true that is.”

Mom and Sheila listened. “You’d enjoy my class,” I told them.

“We talk about things that people usually don’t want to or can’t discuss.”

“I remember some of what you’re talking about,” Sheila said, when Mom mentioned my experience as a teacher when I integrated Greenville, SC’s school system.

“You’d be fascinated by my book,” I told Sheila, after I told her about the time time I’d been arrested and thrown in jail for driving without a license. “When I decided to tell my students about what had happened, they were intrigued because they knew all about the jail from stories they’d heard from friends and relatives. They identified with me because of that. And it helped me change my approach to teaching,” I told her.

Both Sheila and Mom wanted to hear more. I told them about the Jack Tarr Poinsett Hotel and its Sunday buffets when a woman dressed like Aunt Jemima dished out spoon bread. “Only white people ate there,” I said. “It always bothered me that the woman with the spoon bread may have been the mother or grandmother of one of my students.”

That was a long time ago, in a different era, a time that was still fresh in Mom’s mind. Since she seemed to enjoy talking about those days, I resolved to find more time to talk about them. She’d recalled names and places so clearly that I wanted to hear more.

So did Sheila. As I was leaving, she followed me to the door. “Thanks for talking with us tonight. That was very interesting.”

Although I hadn’t heard her say that before, I agreed completely. The three of us would have to team up again, very soon.

                                            B. Koplen 1/14/12

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

something worth searching for

Settling for paper towels   “Here it is,” Mr. B., a Vietnam vet, said as he handed me a picture of his younger brother whose face seemed pained and angry, a mask, perhaps, for an underlying bewilderment. On the back of the picture, a handwritten note explained “9/11 Pentagon.”

That 9/11. Mr. B.’s brother, in uniform, a career soldier, had narrowly escaped the attack that day. When Mr. B. had told me about his brother and the picture, I’d asked for a copy.

“You think he’d like to speak to my class?”

“Probably,” answered Mr. B., soldier straight, as he touched his Vietnam Vets cap, zipped his faded Members Only jacket.

That was a month ago. At least twice a week since then, Mr. B. a former sergeant, I think, has visited my store. Always alert and engaging, he was especially intense today. “I couldn’t believe what she said, when I spoke to my neighbor about her nine year old son who was already starting to hang out with the hoodlums at the corner store.” He paused, shook his head.

“I offered to take her child to the Boy and Girls Club, to get him off the street so that he could have some clean fun...” He stopped, looked at me, shook his head again. “She asked what was in it for her!”

He was outraged. “I tried to explain that it was for him, not her. But she kept wanting to know what she was going to get out of it.”

I could feel his frustration. “Maybe I could talk to her,” I wanted to say. Or, “Try again, Mr. B. Maybe she’ll allow you if you’re persistent.” But I didn’t. It didn’t seem that he needed that. “Have you called Social Services?” I asked. Chances were that they might have suggestions, may have dealt with his neighbor before.

I’d learned to accept that not all good battles are mine to fight. This was Mr. B.’s. And I was being supportive. He’ll see the child again. And I’m sure I’ll hear about what happens.

Of course, I didn’t stop thinking about Mr. B.’s confrontation. How could I turn my back on what he had witnessed, the avoidable harm that may come to that nine year old boy? Was it better that I didn’t know or wouldn’t get to know that child?

Instead of finding answers, I found myself stumbling along aisles of CVS looking for a sale on paper towels. My Mom needed them. But I couldn’t locate those either. Perplexed, I asked for help.

“Sure,” said a manager guy, “I’ll take you to them.”

On the way, I noticed a young man whose face was familiar, but hard to identify and recall. I looked up; rain pummeled the roof.

“Mr. Koplen?”

I nodded.

“I was with your father...”

“In your hospice uniform.” I remembered his kind eyes. Taller and heavier than me, dressed in a sweat shirt and jeans, he looked like an ordinary twenty-something instead of an extraordinary hospice caregiver.

“How’s your Mom?” he asked.

I knew he probably knew more about her condition than I ever would. “It’s hard to tell,” I said. “Some days she amazes me.”

He seemed to understand. “Thanks for being with us that night,” I said. “I didn’t know what to do. None of us did. My brother was badly shaken.”

“That happens, very often.” He was reassuring. “But your Dad had left us, long before he passed away.” He spoke like an angel, a good angel who knew death all too well.

I wanted to ask how he was able to do such work. But my words didn’t match the question.

“Here’s my card,” he said. “I’m selling cars.” Toyotas, the card said. “And making music. That’s my first love.”

“What kind of music?” I asked. I was certain it was ethereal.

“Hard to categorize,” he answered.

“I know the feeling,” I wanted to say. I was tempted to tell him about Mr. B.’s dilemma. If I did, I was certain he would share some insight I had completely overlooked.

But he was off duty. And paper towels were at the top of Mom’s list.

Koplen  1/11/12

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

art that matters

Priceless    At the American National Bank’s annual art exhibit, one picture impressed me so much more than any of the others that I wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, on the label that identified the artist, the title of the painting, and the medium, were the letters, in caps, “NFS,” not for sale. To the right of that was the water color image’s blue ribbon for “Best in Show.”

Determined to attempt to meet the artist and discuss the possibility of purchasing her picture in the future, I called Karen Shelton at her home in South Boston, VA.

“I know it’s not for sale,” I said, “but if it were...” I asked what the price would be for her still life of flowers in water set in a clear vase on a wooden table if it were for sale. She told me.

“I don’t want to sell it, because it wins too many prizes for me. Maybe some day,” she said, unapologetically.

I appreciated her honesty. “What if I buy it with the understanding that you can have it any time you want to display or enter it?” I may have mentioned a time period of three years. Because that transaction was more than fifteen years ago, I’m not sure.

But she sold me her picture, then borrowed it whenever she needed it. We did the same with another prize winner. And another. Eventually, her pictures graced many walls in my home. They keep me company now.

I’ve grown accustomed to family and friends viewing Karen’s work, then asking, “How can I get one just like that?”

“Buy one of her giclĂ©e prints,” I answer. “They’re brilliant reproductions. And very affordable.”

Countless times I’ve pitched her prints that way. And without hesitation. Her work is that good. If ranked, I’m sure she’d be considered one of the finest water colorists in America.

Over the years, we’ve become friends. Now and then, she and her husband visit me at my store. Occasionally, the three of us have enjoyed lunch together. That’s when we talk about family matters and the joys and business of art.

Yesterday, she dropped by, as always, without calling first. She wanted to hear all of my good news.

“Our building next door is finished! About an hour ago, all of the work was completed. Would you like to see it?”
She did. Her timing could not have been better. I had incorporated alcoves for hanging pictures, pictures like hers. Indeed, the day before I had spoken to an artist friend about hanging his work there.

Karen loved the space. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said, “having my work there. But you know I haven’t been in my studio very much.”

Caring for her husband had become her focus. And he had been the one who helped transport her work from show to show.

That had changed due to his grave illness. Months ago, she’d told me about it.  That’s why, when I first saw her, I’d braced myself for sad news.

But she was upbeat.

“He’s on a new medication that seems to be working. And he’s not experiencing side effects!”

I felt like cheering, although I knew his condition was still very serious.

“We’d love to see you,” she said. “Will you visit us?”

“When is a good time?” I asked. I considered it a good sign that he wanted a visitor.

“In a week or two,” she suggested.

That would be when we’d talk about hanging a few of her pictures. For the three of us, it would feel like old times.

I’ll probably ask what they would think about hanging one of her prize winners. And whether it should wear one of her NFS labels. “Of course.” I’ll tell them, “that’ll make it irresistible.”

B.Koplen  11/25/11

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What if we hadn't gone?

2012!   Especially on New Year’s day, it was impossible to know what would be available at Two-fers, the ticket selling location in the center of Times Square that sells seats to Broadway shows at about half price or two for the price of one. Although there’s a list on display, the lengthy line that snakes to and then past it causes any who want tickets to accept that the tickets most desired may be unavailable by the time they reach the ticket seller.

“Make sure you have a second and third choice,” shouts one of the many who hand out flyers advertising specific shows. “You’d love this one,” he says to me, about Rock of Ages.

My partner agreed. “That could be fun,” she said.

We’d been in the line almost thirty minutes and were a little more than half way to the tickets. “Rock of Ages sounds like a good way to begin our New Year.” That’s what I was thinking, although what I said was, “I like Rock better than Memphis,” a musical we had initially decided to see.

I’d changed my mind about Memphis. Without knowing exactly why I’d lost interest, I had. After all, I didn’t know much about Memphis other than it was a powerful, driving musical that was set during the time when Memphis, Tennessee was in the grips of segregation.

Chances are that I sensed a musical about those hard times would have been emotionally draining. Indeed, its setting recalled my book, No Gold Stars, and the brute force of racism that it exposed.

By the time we were six people away from purchasing tickets, I was sold on beginning 2012 with a dose of live goldie oldies. “Let’s do Rock of Ages,” I asserted. My second choice wasn’t Memphis. It had fallen to a distant third.

“Two seats for Rock of Ages,” my partner said.

“Yes, we have two, but they’re far apart, the only two that are left,” said the seller.

We didn’t want to be separated. And the other show was sold out. My partner shrugged. She didn’t inquire about Memphis.

“Maybe we’ll see a movie,” I said, untroubled by the fact that we’d been in line for an hour and had nothing to show for it. Literally.

Of course, we had seen the empty stage where, the night before, Cee Lo and Lady Gaga had performed. Our last lap in line had passed by the metal struts that serve as its supports.

And we had been in the center of Manhattan in the midst of hundreds of other would be theater goers, part of a parade of sorts. We’d been surrounded by foreigners who spoke in languages we couldn’t identify, had been next to a male couple embracing and kissing, had been part of the throng that energized the Big Apple.

But we had no tickets. My partner was upset. She had definitely wanted to see a show, even if it had to be Memphis. By the time we reached the ticket seller, the thought of even asking about tickets to that musical had left us.

On the first day of our New Year, that was a huge Oops! A fumble, as it were, on the one yard line. We’d lost our chance to see a play or a musical because, well, because...

“It’s my fault,” I said, “I should have...”

She said the same, in different words. We’d cast ourselves into a situation that was new to us where each of us had tried so hard to respect the other’s wishes that neither of us got what we wanted.

So we got back in line. At the back of the line.

This time, the wait was only forty minutes.

“Yes, there are two great seats in the orchestra, five rows from the stage. You want them?”

We got them, then made it to the Sam S. Shubert Theater with ten minutes to spare. Midway through the first act, I was in tears. One of the characters was a black man so damaged by a terrifying experience from his past that he wouldn’t or couldn’t speak. Watching him move silently amongst the often raucous cast reminded me of the star of No Gold Stars, my brightest student, Mary. Like the character in Memphis with no voice, she didn’t speak either.

By intermission, I was worn out from sobbing. I loved it. Great theater moves me that way.

Despite the fact that the second half was anticlimactic, I was ready for that too. My partner felt the same way. She told me that as we held hands.

Indeed, our New Year had gotten off to a great start...

                B. Koplen 1/3/12

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