Tuesday, February 21, 2012

not what it seems?

garbage         For years, contemptuous relatives and liberal thinkers who, seemingly, have always controlled the higher ground (mainly by adamantly refusing to debate), have regarded my dislike for radical Islam as if it were a sign they could rely on to identify me. “That’s all he talks about,” they’d say. “He’s a single issue guy,” they’d accuse, despite not wanting to hear the complex discussion I was and have long been willing to arrange.

 Indeed, those who choose to dismiss my thoughts and concerns as they might any matter unworthy and lacking merit, have never answered questions that have become more and more difficult to ignore. Yet those questions, not just ones I have been asking, are being raised by thinkers from all sides.

Among them are these: in Muslim majority countries where Islamic rioters attack Christians and burn their churches, who answers to and apologizes for those crimes? The imams? The government? The rioters themselves?

When innocent foreigners are attacked in those same countries, when women there are clearly subjugated, who claims responsibilty? Who neglects those issues with impunity despite controlling those governments?

And who decides what’s fair? The ones who aren’t committing atrocious acts yet are not stopping or preventing them? In a recent incident involving the destruction of Korans supposedly used or abused (since they were defaced by Muslims who wrote in them) by terrorists, our American Army general apologized for burning those texts. Rather than an apology, perhaps an explanation was in order.

What Muslim general has ever made a similar apology? Why haven’t we demanded such for crimes of omission as well as commission?

There is a reason, a reason that is crucial to understanding America’s dilemma. Borders are of little concern to devout Muslims. Instead, they are committed to Allah, to the ummah, to the caliphate to come. Muslim leaders may be labelled as Turkish or Pakistani or Egyptian, but they all maintain a higher allegiance to their religion (as opposed to their country), to their Islam that they want to dominate the world.

When they act as if they are aloof and unresponsible for deadly terrorist acts or that they have nothing to do with vile and reprehensible jihadist villainy, we are at a loss to assign blame. Who do we lambast? Although they would demean our country and weary our leaders with claims that they have been mistreated, misunderstood or abused if we retaliated, we are left asking, “If it’s not you, then who is it?” Then we beg them to please tell or explain away the destructive act of some Islamic miscreant. Indeed, we are left to aim drones at elusive followers of bin Laden and others like him. We dare not take aim at Islamic fundamentalists, leaders who play hide and seek with us from the thrones of their Muslim states.

Is it frustration with being dumbfounded that causes our State Department and our President to strike out at Israel instead? Do we hope to prove how fair we are to Islamic leaders by imprisoning brave men like Jonathan Pollard and 1st Lt. Michael Behenna?

It doesn’t work. We are being played like fools who deny grizzly history and the many shredded lives pictured almost daily that provide current proof of murderous Muslim wrongdoing. Instead, WE apologize to the likes of CAIR and other groups with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood if we mete out justice, or, like the NYPD, try to learn how to defend ourselves.

This excerpt from a New York Times op ed, Uncle Sam Is No Imam,  2/20/12 by Samuel J. Rascoff, associate professor of law at NYU, clearly expresses our dilemma:

The relationship between the national security imperative and a great religious civilization [my emphasis] is inevitably fraught. Reconciling the two won’t be achieved by allowing officials to become more active in espousing theological alternatives to radical Islam — or in training law-enforcement and intelligence professionals with hateful caricatures of Islam. [my empasis] The government’s efforts ought to be guided instead by the wisdom of the First Amendment and the values that it enshrines.

Rascoff obviously assumes that Islam is a “great religious civilization” as if there were no proof to the contrary. Compared to modern democracies, theocratic Islam remains brutally medieval. Its brutality, openly practiced in the name of Allah (please see the koranic surah 9: 111) encourages pathological behavior that is suicidal yet considered praiseworthy and martyr making by even Islam’s moderate believers. One of the obviously uninformed, Rascoff invites Muslims to claim that any of us who oppose Rascoff are being unjust.

“It’s not us!” they insist. But it is. Not admitting it is their tactic, their taqqiyah, their way of keeping our leaders so confused that they don’t know how to avoid disaster.

After 9/11, my greatest concern is not just the likes of Rascoff, but those who have never answered this question, “What will it take for them to understand?”

              B. Koplen 2/21/12

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Unexpected treasure...

A real find        I shouldn’t have. But I did. Almoat every time I venture to Hillsborough, NC, I visit Matthews Chocolate Shop and/or the Hillsborough Gallery of Arts. Both are irresistible sources for tasty treasures. Only original and hand made items are placed in bins or shelves, on tables or walls. Never have I been bored at either place; artists at both sites are willing to converse in a manner that is always exciting and informative.

But this time, this past Sunday, I was disappointed. Matthews was closed due to an expansion that wouldn’t be complete until early March. To alleviate pangs of dark chocolate withdrawl, I stepped into the Gallery of Arts. Instantly, I felt better; surrounding me were walls full of new pieces. A few grabbed and held me.

“Have you been here before?”

Just behind me came that kind voice, from one of the artist-owners of the gallery I hadn’t met.

“Hi! I’m Jude Lobe. Those are mine,” she said, pointing at the twelve 8” X 8” enamellings I was trying to resist.

“I love this one,” I said. “And this one.” I pointed to another. “And  these two,” I added. “But I didn’t plan to buy anything today.” That was the truth; I’d left my check book at home.

“They’ll be here a while longer,” she said. “Maybe when you come back...”

No pressure. Not that I needed to be pressured. If I’d had the money with me, I would have bought at least two of her pieces. I wanted to. I told her about the one I appreciated most. It was her most expensive, one of her most expressive, and, it seemed to me, creative. “How did you get this color?” I asked.

Her detailed explanation made it even more appealing. I asked for her card as I turned to examine a stunning stained glass sculpture of a whippet like creature. Immediately, I knew who’d created it, from the style and craftsmanship of the work. “I have one of her pieces,” I told Mrs. Lobe.

She handed me a card for that artist, Pam Isner. On it was a picture of the piece I had purchased.

Seeing the picture, I exclaimed, “That’s the one I bought!”

Mrs. Lobe brightened. “Are you from here?” Then, “Are you an artist?”

“Photography and writing,” I said, “and I’m from Danville.”

“I’ve been there,” she said, “submitted some of my work to the juried exhibition at the museum.”

“Me too,” I said. “I’ve written a book about the times when that place was displaying little more than controversy during the Civil Rights era.”

She asked about my book.

“No Gold Stars,” I told her, “based on my memoir about my desegregating the Greenville, South Carolina school that was Rev. Jesse Jackson’s alma mater.”

She wrote the name of my book on a slip of paper. “I remember those times,” she said. “In fact, I was in the Peace Corps in the late 70’s, and our group was sent to work ona farm in Epps, Alabama to learn about agriculture. From there, we were going to be sent out of the country.”

I mentioned the movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. “Was Epps like that?” I asked.

She was pensive. “We worked with black farmers there on a 300 acre farm. A few times we went to visit a white Episcopalian minister. Very strange. On his walls were of pictures of him, in Germany, with Hitler.”

She paused. I was more than a little surprised.

“He tried to get us to stop working with the black farmers. But we didn’t. Then one night he and a small bunch of other white men burned a cross in the yard of the place where we were staying.”

Riveted to her expression, I studied her face to see if she recalled the fear she must have experienced.

“It was frightening,” she told me. “I really didn’t understand it. But we never went back to see that minister again.”

I asked her to come to my class to tell my students her story.

“Don’t know whether I can remember enough about it,” she said.

“But it’s so important.”

She seemed to agree. “One of my friends who was with me then may recall more details. I’ll call her,” she said.

“Thanks,” I replied, as we traded e-mail addresses. I knew I had something extra to look forward to the next time my class and I viewed Mockingbird. Or the next time I visited Hillsborough.

B. Koplen 2/20/12                                              

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

What to see on Turks and Caicos...

Gem by the sea    Exploring Turks and Caicos on a cloudy Sunday proved to be a worthwhile adventure. Although we were determined to find two of the island nation’s south facing beaches, they weren’t that easy to find. That was surprising, especially because the driving time to get from the island’s north west point to the ferry dock on its south east end was less than forty minutes.

Those beaches, Sapodilla Bay and Taylor Bay, although clearly marked on a map we were given at the airport, had accesses that weren’t. That’s why we drove past both after turning right on what appeared to be a nondescript Chalk Sound Road. It wasn’t ; less than a quarter mile onto its two lanes, we saw Picturesque Lane and turned off to picnic on the lunches we’d picked up at a local restaurant, Sarah’s, that was little more than a cubby hole on the right side of a small electronics shop we’d passed en route to Chalk Sound Road.

Our meal by the sea was delicious. We finished quickly, determined to locate Sapodilla Bay beach; we went looking for signs to guide us there. Wherever they might have been, we didn’t see them. Instead, we followed that road until we spotted a turn that took us to Silly Creek Estates. Beautiful homes and their landscaped yards hid the beach from us until we reached the end of that road.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, as I stopped our Dhiatsu and grabbed the camera. We were at a dead end, the end of that road, but were staring at Emerald Cay, a sprawling Mediterranean style villa that sat on its own island less than thirty feet from our parked car. Getting there meant crossing over a retractable moat. To say that the villa was a gem is an understatement.

I’d never seen a house more beautiful or more alluring. Nonetheless, it appeared to be empty and unused, its beauty wasted. For a while, I stared. Then, as I turned to leave, someone, a caretaker perhaps, walked to the edge of its yard to empty a small bag of what may have been kitchen waste into the clear turquoise water. He watched as it disappeared; fish may have been waiting. As he walked back to the main house, he didn’t seem to notice us.

For a moment, our overcast day had brightened. But we had to turn around to find two elusive beaches. About a mile later, we turned left onto a road that would definitely lead to the sea. Our problem was gaining access. The yards along the beachfront seemed connected; they formed a barrier to explorers. Still, we looked for an opening. Ten minutes later, we sensed there was none.

“Let’s ask those folks,” I said, as we approached the spot where our car was parked. The people looked familiar; we’d seen them at the huge gourmet grocery store, the IGF, earlier that morning.

“It took us three days to find it,” they admitted. “But you’re almost there,” one of them said, as they pointed to a path we had decided, previously, not to try. “Less than a minute’s walk,” they assured us.

And it was. The beach was spectacular, compact and a perfect compliment to the beauty we’d see at Emerald Cay. Less than ten people were on the beach.

Encouraged by our find, we didn’t stay long. We were convinced that we could find Taylor Bay beach on our own. Minutes later, we turned off the main road, found a place to park, then walked to a short street that had villas on one side, villas that appeared to be available for rent.

Between two of those parcels was an unmarked path, an obvious three foot wide trail that led us to the beach.

And what a beach it was! Much longer than Sapodilla Bay’s beach, Taylor Bay was just as exquisite. Its soft sand seemed a carpet that rolled into its clear and shallow water. Despite the overcast sky, the beach was stunning.

We resolved to return to it, perhaps the next day, after we explored the pricey beach front at Grace Bay on the north central face of Turks.

Later that evening, at our condo, we saw an article by Kathi Barrington, “Over the Top” on page 166 of the Discover Turks and Caicos magazine. Its lead story was about a place we had been, a place that could have been ours “for less than $50,000,000.” From the pictures of its opulant interior, we knew we’d viewed something spectacular when we’d stopped to gawk at Emerald Cay.

                   B. Koplen   2/19/12

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

On a good (teaching) day...

Getting it       When teaching presents frightening encounters, I feel that I cannot cower. Nor can I ask my irate student to “step outside” for a well-deserved thrashing. Indeed, in a perfect world, I would push a button that would immediately connect me with an intervention specialist who would appear instantly to diffuse the crisis.

Instead, what happens is usually very positive OR very negative. Recently, a fellow lecturer wrote that a student with an attitude “...gathered her stuff and left slamming the door hard enough to break it.” Because that has happened to me, I knew the feeling that must have prompted.

When I experienced it in one of my classes, I cringed.

Of course, I couldn’t let my students see that I was upset. That may have encouraged more of them to follow a bad example. Transforming such experiences into teachable moments proves to be a better answer.

Especially if I’m dealing with a concept that seems so absolutely simple and so easy to grasp that it can’t be misunderstood. Chances are that, for some, it hasn’t been clear. That was true yesterday when I discussed colonialism as a means of cultural injection. Building on that theme, I was going to give, as an example, America’s transformation from thirteen colonies to thirteen states.

“What effect did that change from colonialism have on the citizens’ cultural identity?”

What followed was NOT a perky discussion of America’s emerging personality. One important question blocked that smooth transition. Indeed, I saw the question on the face of at least one student before anyone asked it.

I stopped, looked at the student, and asked her what she was thinking.

Offended, it seemed, by my assumption that the entire class understood what ‘colonies’ and ‘colonolialism’ were, she said “I don’t know a thing about colonialism.” She spoke with a certainty meant to cast blame on me for not making the meaning of that term clear.

“Then consider this,” I said, as I pointed to one of my Spanish speaking students who sat on the front row. “She speaks Spanish and she lives in Mexico. But Spain is thousands of miles away, more than an entire ocean from Mexico. Why is that?”

I discussed the term indigenous to describe languages and cultures that had been replaced by the Spanish conquerors. “She,” I said, pointing to my student on the front row, “speaks Spanish because her country was colonized. By Spain.”

I looked around at one of my brighter students, a woman who seemed to enjoy being challenged. To the class in general, but to her specifically, I said, “Just imagine what languages and cultures the Spaniards replaced when they colonized Mexico.” Then I looked at her directly and asked, “Wouldn’t that be an interesting study?”

She shook her her yes.

“Think about this,” I continued. “What if people could be colonized without the use of arms, without regard for boundaries? What if cultures could be transplanted and replaced instantly rather than the way the Spanish did when they conquered the Incas at Macchu Picchu?” We had seen a documentary about that the week before.

Blank stares met my words. In answer, I said, “Facebook.”

Their haze lifted. “What if I told you about a friend who was a miracle worker, who could cure people by laying on hands? What if I told you that all you had to do was to believe in my friend and you, regardlless of where you were, would have access to his miracles?” I added this: “Isn’t that a form of colonialism? In place of what you didn’t believe to be possible, you now were filled with a belief that it is!”

“I don’t have a friend who does those things,” I admitted. “But what if someone had a belief system that was made to sound so appealing to you that you wanted to replace all that you had believed with the new system? And what if that new system was spreading to the minds of people all around the world? In fact, what if that system had as its goal the takeover of our country just by colonizing our minds?”

I reminded my class about the words I had asked them to define a week before. “How does that relate to hegemony and to caliphate?”

My student who had complained that I hadn’t explained what colonialsim and colonizing meant was the first to answer.

“It’s a form of colonizing our minds,” she said.

“Exactly!” I stated, then asked the class to applaud her realization.

They did. It was time to leave, but I heard a lot of buzzing and chatter. Ideas were being shared and examined. Even my Spanish speaking student had been shaken, but in a good way.

As for the student who might have walked out of the class, I sensed that she was set to earn an A this semester.

                         B. Koplen   2/18/12

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A decision to come...

An answer I haven’t found     “You can’t tell anyone I told you,” said S.,  one of the black barbers on his cell phone from his barber shop across the street. Although it was early in the morning before the other men took their stations, he had seen that I was the only one at my store. “You’ve been good to me and my family,” he said, “ so I felt I had to tell you.‘

More than a year ago, S. had been released from prison for a relatively minor offense. He’d been a fearsome bully, quick to intimidate, unlike any of his siblings; his mother and I had often talked about how to get him to change. Although she’d regretted that his going to prison was his last best hope, she told me that she’d prayed that it would save him from a life of crime.

It seemed to have worked. S. had become religious, wanted to study to become a counselor for other young men who put themselves in harm’s way. When he was released for good behavior, he asked me to trust him, to let him have a charge account. Admittedly, I was hesitant, but I did it. And he’s handled it responsively.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised by his call. One of the barbers had a cousin in a similar situation. Just out of prison, he, Jay, wanted to work, would do almost anything to earn a few bucks and stay out of prison. When I could, I gave him tasks that might have seemed menial to some, but were important to him. He, Jay, wanted to prove himself to me.

And he did. As a relative to one of S.’s cohorts, Jay was being monitored, as if her were a ward of the neighborhood. Others on the block also gave him odd jobs; he seemed a tireless worker with lots of personality.

That’s why I was saddened and surprised when S. told me that Jay had been stealing clothes from my store. In fact, I didn’t want to believe it; he and I were getting along so well. We seemed to have built a working relationship. Always, I regarded him with respect, was generous when I paid him for his labor.

Stealing from me had been the last thing I’d anticipated. Although I wanted to believe S. was wrong, I knew that S. had no reason to lie about Jay’s behavior. I decided to confront Jay the next time I saw him. Usually, that meant waiting a few hours; this time it was a few days because I left town shortly after S. delivered his message.

“Jay came in while you were gone,” my manager told me. “I thought I saw him take something, a very large sized leather jacket. So I followed him and saw him go into the beauty parlor next door. That’s when he pulled out the jacket.”

Rather than confront Jay, my manager waited two days until I returned to tell me so that I would deal with Jay.

And I did. I asked Jay if there was anything he wanted to tell me, if there was anything that he wanted to clear his mind about.

“No, there’s nothing,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

When he denied any wrongdoing with an expression more serious than any I had seen previously, I mentioned that he’d been seen with a jacket that wasn’t his.

“Who told you that?” He sounded indignant. “I’ll find out,” he said, in an ominous tone.

As much as I wanted to believe him, I was unconvinced.

Acting like a frontier sheriff, I delivered what seemed a verdict, one that was bolstered by evidence that was only heresay.

“Don’t come in my store again,” I told him. “I can’t trust you in there.”

As difficult as that was to say, I felt I had to do it. He seemed more angry than hurt. I walked away.

Gradually, after not seeing him for almost a week, I wondered whether I should change my mind about him, whether I should give him a second chance. If not, I knew I might have to do much of the work he ususally did.

Who could I talk to about it? How could I explain that it bothered me that I wasn’t 100% certain? I didn’t like being judge and jury? What if I was wrong?

While lost in those thoughts, a painter I often use had come to see me, had come to ask for any kind of work. Or so I thought. He was laid off and his situation was dire. Unfortunately, I hear that from many who are unemployed. In the case of my painter, I knew it was true. His parents, a very responsible older couple (the painter is in his late forties), had explained his hardships. Their son, the painter, had been living with them. He still had expenses they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cover.

Now he was sitting in a chair across the counter from me. “Can we talk?” he said.

I fugred he wanted an advance for work he hadn’t done despite an agreement that he wouldn’t do that. Instead, he surprised me.

“I saw Jay yesterday,” he told me. “I asked him point blank if he’d stolen anything from you.”

I listened intently, amazed that he may have gotten an answer to a question so simialr to the one I had asked.

“He told me he had. But that he’d only taken one coat.”

Following that incredible confirmation, the painter left. He’d told me that he had asked Jay why Jay was so stupid.

There hadn’t been an answer.

I wanted to tell S. and my manager that I’d received corroroboration, that Jay was guilty. But they already knew that. Even if I were to find a way to involve them in a conversatiuon, I know that they’d ask me what I was going to do about it.

Alone, I’ll have to wrestle with that answer.

B.Koplen  2/15/12

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Are you sure you want to see The Grey?

 Grim  I heard them. Around midnight, dominating the cricket harmonies of a clear cool evening at Cade’s Cove, came the gray wolves. Of course, I couldn’t see the wolves from my tent in that valley ringed by mountain ridges. But I did hear packs of wolves in chorus. From one ridge, a stunning multi-voiced howl answered another that had sounded from an opposing ridge.

Never did I feel threatened; they crooned as only wolves could croon. I realized that when, after only a few years, the wolves were rounded up (each had a tracking collar since they’d been placed in the Park in hopes that the wolves would predate the destructive wild boors) and removed. Their removal was due to claims that wolves had attacked a calf or a weak cow, claims that many thought were spurious because the Park Service usually settled such claims by paying for the supposed loss.

As for wolves native to Cade’s Cove, they are usually red wolves, hard to glimpse creatures that are remarkably evasive. It seems that they don’t want to be seen.

Knowing all of this may help you understand why I really miss hearing the grey (gray?) wolves. It may also assist in understanding my response to the movie, The Grey.

As a fan of Liam Neeson, I was eager to see an adventure flick set in the great outdoors. By the end of the movie, I felt I’d been betrayed on both counts. Indeed, if asked, I would have renamed the movie to The Grim.

Why would anyone make such a movie? To aggravate PETA?  To ensure that there could never be a sequel since ALL of the characters died?

If you, like me, want an answer, there is one in a piece in the Los Angeles Times’ review.  From that comes this from The Grey writer/director Joe Carnahan:

Carnahan himself told our sister blog, Greenspace, that he wants the wolves to be seen in the right light: “I never intended [the wolves] to be the aggressor; I look at them as the defenders. I think these guys are in a very territorially sensitive place. [The humans] were trespassing and intruders.”

“Never intended”? How could that be when, time and again, different characters found words to describe the scenario. In his own way, each character announced that they, the wolves, were out to pick them off, one (man) at a time.

The only good thing about The Grey? The wolves were not allowed to feast on women and children. How sad that that’s the best that can be said about this grim movie.

           B. Koplen  1/11/12

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Education that works...

Mission Statement      Trying to teach anything without being familiar with supporting theories about what education is (or should be) invites trouble, usually administrative. Education, especially public education, relies on an often perverse chain of command. Here’s why: those at the greatest distance from classrooms control teachers, their underlings, with policy and (often stifling) regimentation.

To argue against either administrators or their rules is usually futile. Tyrannical supervisors, presidents, or principals have mastered the art of control; outspoken teachers are easy targets.

However, enlightened adminstrators settle for results the same way cagey managers celebrate bunt singles. If it works, it counts. Even if it’s not pretty. Or well organized. Or pre-planned. Whether they say it or not, such adminstrators accept that, most often, a successful end justifies the mean.

Dictates from such educational leaders are, usually, realistic and clear: instill a love of learning, encourage students to want to be avid readers, teach them (or inspire them) to be better writers. I can imagine an educator of that ilk saying, “And if you don’t tell me that you can’t do it, I’ll give you all the leeway you want. Just show me results!”

I would argue that such open ended oversight is as likely to work as any that is much more contained and limited in scope. To let teachers teach requires that administrators ensure a suitable environment. If both teahcers and their administrators were ardently focused on their particular spheres, both would fare better.

So would the students; they would know what expectations were rightfully theirs. They would earn their education for themselves rather than to please teachers (and administrators). They would (re)learn how good it feels to learn.

To that end, I announce to my classes that we will function as a group, as if our brains were coupled, joined together in order that we create a dynamic connection. “Together, we can make this world a better place,” I tell them. “I am fortunate,” I continue, “because the school gives me the best minds to work with---yours!”

Finally this: “My goal is to help you achieve yours. Please tell me what your purpose is for being here, in Humanities 165. Together, we will achieve it. I am here to help you attain that goal. If I’m successful, 100% of you will earn A’s this semester.”

Many of them do. Indeed, their term papers discuss the impact that Solly Ganor’s book, Light One Candle, our text, has had on their lives. For the majority, it’s life changing on many levels. They want to become readers again, want to be better writers, want to share with Solly all that they have had to overcome, and all of their dreams that are returning.

When I send those essays to Solly, he confirms the importance of the messages they relay. And I relay his response to my new students. They are amazed; before my eyes, I see their growth take place.

That’s how, in my most humble opinion, education works when it works well.  Messages from Solly, a Holocaust survivor, sustain the learning process. His latest is a masterpiece (to this teacher’s delight):

Dear Barry,

I have read the essays of your students and once again I am overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to my story. They seem  to understand and fully appreciate what I wrote. When I  was writing the book I was constantly groping for words to express the inexpressible. There was so much  more I  wanted to say but felt that my experience during the Holocaust can not be expressed in a
human language. Perhaps because what happened to us was so inhuman. Therefore, I am constantly surprised and delighted that what I did  manage to say in my book provoked so much understanding and insight by your students. I am especially touched  by their personal stories and how my story effected their own lives and gave them  new hope and understanding that no matterhow hard life can be it isn't really that bad.  When I  wrote my book I  was just compelled to tell our story and it never occurred to me what a positive effect it would have on my readers: Their thinking, their feelings and their attitude to their own lives. I am in the middle of writing my third book and am stretched for  time with  my publisher in Germany, but I will write to them. In the mean time, please
express my deepest gratitude to them for writing their wonderful essays,



Koplen  2/02/12

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