Saturday, July 26, 2003

“Barbara” – An Update

Just when I was settling
into my ‘comfortable’ cynicism, my daughter, Kandi,
appeared on the proverbial doorstep with “Barbara,” a
woman who drew a poor hand of cards, in need of
immediate assistance to avoid being put into the street
or having to seek refuge in a shelter that would accept
she and her two disabled children. Kandi took up her
cause, as she often takes up the causes of others, and
asked for help which led to the posting last week, “Just
When You Thought You Had It Tough.”

My hopes were
not high. With millions of Americans fearing loss of
their jobs and facing unrelenting pressure from the
media that reveres brazen selfishness and unmitigated
wealth, I assumed even those socially responsible might
wish Barbara well, but would observe that there are a
lot of people in this world who wonder where they will
sleep tonight, or suggest the government’s need to
intercede, and in my darkest moments I even anticipated
a few to blame the victim.

To label myself “dead
wrong” would be to give myself too much credit. My
cynicism was tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper,
with dozens of people responding, not only with gifts of
clothes, food, toys, gift cards, and cash, but
thoughtful observations that reflected their vision of a
more humane, sustainable, and functional society. I
received notes that were both sensitive and intelligent,
many urging our need to work together as a community
toward a society in which all people have equal worth, a
society in which being dealt a poor hand of cards, or
simply being poor, is not criticized, explained away or
left for government to handle. Rather, I read notes that
illustrated genuine empathy, acknowledging the universal
truth that no one makes it alone. It will be my sincere
pleasure, once all the ‘votes’ are in, to share with you
many of these inspired replies to that simple

In the meantime, though, I am certain that
many of you would like to know how “Barbara” is faring,
and rather than summarize Kandi’s last “report from the
front,” I am posting it here in toto:

thanks to so many kind people, Barbara has finally seen
a light at the end of the tunnel. I have watched her
change through this experience, and I understand how
important it is that each of us knows someone else
cares. While this is not the first time I have witnessed
the kindness of others, this has been the most

“Barbara began receiving help the very
first day after your article appeared. She was shocked.
She told me, "Kandi, all this can’t for me and my
children. These people don't even know me! Why would
anyone who doesn't know me want to help me?" I explained
to her the best I could that others do care, that they
have put themselves into your place and tried to feel
what you are feeling, knowing that but for drawing a
better hand of cards just how close we all are to the

“Through donations her bank account is
positive again, there is food in her cupboard, clothes
on her children's backs, and both kids have new
backpacks which they display proudly. The gifts continue
to arrive, and I want everyone to know that each is
valued and appreciated. One gift I would like to tell
you about is the "wish pearl" necklace Barbara received.
The legend of the wish pearl tells us that the gift of
an oyster shell is the gift of a wish. If you open the
shell and there is a pearl inside, whoever discovers it
will have their wish granted. Before opening the shell,
Barbara, who has not had many wishes granted in the last
several years looked at me anxiously. “What if there is
no pearl when I open it up?” she asked. I smiled and
told her to give it a try. Of course, there was a pearl
inside, and she cried. I saw the power of hope and how
we will hang on to the smallest thread if hope is
extended by others.

This morning I was over at
her apartment when the kids woke up. Bobby walked into
the living room and looked around, a bit overwhelmed
with all the food and clothes, his new backpack and a
football. He said, with no embarrassment, "Mom, we are
poor. Where did all of this come from?" Barbara replied,
“Well son, there are people out there who want to help
us. They don't want you to have a hungry tummy at night
or wear clothes that don't fit. They are called angels
and they are helping us.” Ellie, her Down’s child, was
so happy with her backpack, cheese and crackers, and the
S\mores pop tarts. She looked up at her mom and
whispered in a tiny urgent voice, "Magic mommy,

Barbara knows that this help is an
interim step to getting back on her feet. I am working
with her now to complete social security and disability
paperwork, and checking with the State and various
private organizations to determine what they may have to
offer. I have also looked into a support group for
parents with Down’s children and she is planning to
attend her first meeting next week.

“Dad, I want
to thank all those who have helped, and that those who
did not choose to remain anonymous will be receiving
personal thank you notes from Barbara and from me. I
really didn’t even know myself how bad it was until I
went with her to buy toilet paper the other night. She
was super excited. You would have thought she won the

What all of this teaches me is that
every little thing we do for others is appreciated and
even if no one knows that you gave anything except
yourself, we are all able to sleep better knowing that
someone else is sleeping better because of you. I also
discovered children know ‘magic’ when they see it. It is
only we adults who sometimes forget that it really

Kandi was not the only one who learned
from this opportunity. What this cynic has learned is
that it is easy to be dark and critical when we look at
a world filled with violence, poverty, and greed, best
reflected on TV which advertises the asinine excesses of
our commercially driven culture. But, that view,
ironically, fails to see the trees for the forest. It is
easy to be a social critic these days, what with the
ball being teed up so high. It is more difficult to
examine the hearts of individual human beings who still
care. Yet, while more difficult, it is eminently more

Thank you.
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Thursday, July 17, 2003

Just When We Thought We Had It Tough

Barbara was kicked out of
the house at 17, was pregnant by 19, had her first child
at 22, and married at age 25. She decided more than once
to leave an abusive relationship, and the night she
garnered the courage to try, she was confronted at the
door with a pistol and a clear instruction to “never try
that again.” A week later, she discovered she was
pregnant. Her first child, a boy, was born severely
asthmatic and has spent time in and out of the hospital
ever since. In short order, she gave birth to a little
girl, a special child, a child with Down’s syndrome. Her
husband, married before, brought his son by the prior
marriage into the family, a child who had lived in more
than 50 locations by the time he was 9 years old with
about as many “Daddies.” Barbara caught him abusing her
son twice, and her insistence that he leave or get help
went unheeded.

In the end, Hubby was not up for
the strain -- a child in and out of the hospital gasping
for breath, another wholly uncontrollable, a child who
did not understand the consequences of her actions, and
he walked out, leaving Barbara, now 31, with two
chronically ill children, a tiny apartment in a poor
neighborhood, an apartment on which the rent had not
been paid, a petition for divorce, a $600 a month child
care obligation, and her job as a temporary which pays
$12 an hour.

Barbara has no money, as in none.
Her rent check bounced a week ago and her landlord has
been to her door twice with a not-so-subtle suggestion
that she needs to come up with the rent or move.
Regrettably, she has no where to go, no one to turn to,
and so she drops her children off at day care and goes
to work where she often cries silently in her cubicle
wondering what comes next. Her employer provided the
traditional Employee Assistance Program which provided
three sessions of “counseling.” She is on food stamps,
works all the overtime she can get, and goes without
lunch so her children can eat. They closed her bank
account yesterday because it reached the overdrawn
limit. She goes to court on Friday for a ticket because
she had no money for car insurance, it expired, and the
ticket is $1,000.

Just when you thought you had
it tough, hey?

At her darkest moment, she was
befriended by a co-worker, a young lady 21, who is
trying to help. When I was in Des Moines, Iowa, last
week, I spent a little time with this young lady, who
had to cut our dinner short in order to watch Barbara’s
children while Barbara shopped for food. Before the
young lady dropped me off, I saw a small package in her
car. In it were 3 candles, “a small gift” the young lady
told me, but one which she said represented “hope.”
“Barbara never treats herself to anything, and I want to
give her something personal, something to bring a smile
to her face.” This young lady spends time on the phone
with various social agencies each day, and so far none
have funding to help. It seems that the new tough
federal policies put into place to keep the welfare
abusers off the dole has caught the legitimately needy
into the net, a social net has been shredded to the
point to where it no longer exists.

I reflected
on this last night as I watched a story about the new
U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, another piece of war machinery
that will cost taxpayers billions. I see the aftermath
of a war the tab for which is $4 billion a month. I see
huge tax breaks and subsidies have been going to
corporations and the rich. I see government policies
standing Robin Hood on his head -- shaking down the poor
and middle class while handing over the proceeds to the
wealthy. I see corporate EAP’s that are unhelpful, not
because many companies don’t try, but because many
obviously don’t know what their employees really need in
times of need.

I see all of this and I am both
angered and ashamed. I understand that business is in
business to make a dollar. I am not different. But, as a
nation, as a people, we must decide what is important.
Everything is a choice, which means when we choose to
have something; we choose not have something else. I
don’t understand money being available in the billions
for that which we may want, but do not need, when money
is not available to the Barbara’s of our nation and our

If government can’t or won’t help those in
need, then we, the people, need to give some thought to
who we’re putting into office and why. In the meantime,
we need to step up to the plate and help those who need
help. Barbara is one of those people. And, so for the
first time on this web page, I am going to ask you to do
something. I asked the young lady in Des Moines what
Barbara needs. She wrote me an e-mail and said the

“She won’t take money. She is too
proud. But, I know Ellie (her daughter) needs clothes
(summer, fall, winter, whatever and a winter coat). She
wears a size 6 in girls and a medium top (or a 6X or 7)
top. Bobby (her son) wears a 16 Husky pants and a XL in
kids or a small in men's tops and coat. When I asked her
what she (Barbara) needed, she told me, “Nothing, I’m
OK,” but I know that’s not true. I know she could use
some white cotton panties, size medium. I know because
she joked the other day that hers are falling

There’s one other important point I
failed to mention. The young lady from Des Moines who
told me this story, and who has taken it upon herself to
help Barbara and her family, who has made this credible
connection, is my daughter, Kandi, and I am proud of
her. I have changed the names of Barbara and her
children if only because she is proud and is not looking
for a handout. She is but one of thousands who has been
a dealt a poor hand of cards and is trying to play it
the best she knows how, and she is blessed to have a
co-worker who cares.

So, that’s it, and that’s
where you come in. If you would like to reach into your
heart and into your wallet and send an item of clothing
or perhaps a small gift card, please contact me. I will
provide you any additional information you need,
including an address.

I haven’t learned many
lessons in this life, but here’s one of the big ones I
have learned: When you help others in need, you help
yourself. No one else may know, but you’ll know.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

How To Divorce Yourself

I never return to the
United States without a trip to Barnes & Noble. The
reading habit was inculcated young. As a child in
Canada, it was the comic book rack at the local
drugstore. Every Saturday morning, without fail, I would
collect returnable bottles at construction sites on my
way to pick up the new Superman or Justice League Of
America issue for 12 cents, or 6 bottles as I evaluated
pricing at the time, and I would spend the day reading
and re-reading the adventures of those who were gifted
with special powers. Then, I would go home and talk for
hours with friends who read the same stories, learning
as much from them as I did from the stories themselves.
As I grew older, my Mother, too an avid reader, bought
me the Hardy Boys mysteries, and after finishing those,
I moved on to Jane Withers. I remember the excitement
the day my grandmother gave me an old encyclopedia from
her closet. I knew it was old even then. The planets
described ended at Uranus. Pluto had not been discovered
yet, and I didn’t care. When there was nothing new to
read, I read the dictionary.

Last week, I
traveled to Dallas, St. Louis, and Des Moines. I spent
leisurely afternoons in Dallas and Des Moines inspecting
the racks and sipping coffee while I read introductions
and selected chapters, all in an effort to make my
selections worthwhile. Like a junkie, I can never get
enough. One book leads to another, to another, and on ad
infinitum. There is something about reading that is
eternal, akin to walking by the ocean and wondering how
many waves have come and gone that I have missed. There
is never enough time to see all the waves that elicit
awe or time to read all the books that bring us to
places we have never been.

While in Dallas, I
wandered to the back of the store where comfortable
chairs are arranged to sit and read. As I happened onto
one of these nooks, I noticed a young man, not more than
30, slouched in a big, overstuffed leather chair,
reading. His was a large, paperback and I noticed the
title: “How To Divorce Yourself,” a title I found sadly
amusing, a dismal euphemism for “How To Divorce Yourself
From Someone Else.” Over his book I saw his face, sad,
not tearful, but filled with remorse. I sat down and
watched the young man reading carefully and I saw his
finger move unconsciously to passages he felt
particularly relevant, and his face gave away those
passages he found particularly painful.

It was a
minute, perhaps two, before he sensed someone was there
and he looked up. I wanted to look away, but I could
not. He stared at me for a moment, his eyes tired and
dull, and I remember wanting him to see empathy in the
eyes that stared back at him, if only because I had
figuratively sat where he was sitting some years ago.
When his eyes fell back to the words, I began reading,
but found I was not reading. I was remembering -- the
divorce, the pain, and I felt distress and sadness in
how his loss was marginalized when reduced to simply,
“How-To.” After all, it’s different than “How To Get
Rich,” or “How To Rebuild Your Motor.” “How-To” books
should be about things you want to do, like build a deck
or soothe a soul. Reading should be something you want
to do, too, delivering information about something that
excites, pouring over words that deliver emotions that
you want to feel, thoughts that make your life better,
or perhaps just a story about those who have special
powers, stories which you can share with others who have
read the same words. “How To Divorce Yourself” surely
accomplished none of these.

I spent a few more
moments trying to read, getting nowhere, then rose from
my chair and I wanted to say something, anything that
might help this young man deal with a life situation far
more significant and difficult than can be answered by
“How-To.” Yet, I said nothing. There is an absence of
trust inherent in the efficacy of such gestures by
strangers. And now, after a few days of reflection, I
regret not having special powers as I used to read about
in the comics, or at least asking him if he wanted to
talk and then suggest that his next read be one that
provides him some solace and understanding that goes
well beyond the blueprint of “How To Divorce Yourself,”
perhaps a book that spoke of building a relationship,
rather than destroying one.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003


I have been giving a lot
of thought to Stuff lately.

You know what I mean
by Stuff, don’t you? Stuff is what we want, the things
we aspire to have, what we buy when we have the money to
buy it. Stuff is the things we’re told we Need in order
to “be successful,” to have “arrived,” to be “state of
the art,” to impress our friends and neighbors, assuming
we have friends and know our neighbors. Stuff is the
stuff we need to assure ourselves that we’re more worthy
than others who don’t have Stuff.

Today’s crop of
Stuff, as far as I can tell from reading The Robb
Report, an $8 magazine with nothing but ads for Stuff,
includes the $10,000 Viking gas range – a stove that
spews out enough natural gas to seam weld an I-beam, but
cooks likes the $199 Kenmore model. Stuff is the $60,000
Hummer complete with machine gun mounts and bullet-proof
tires, but gets you to where you’re going in about the
same time as the $9995 Neon, before rebate and 0%
financing. Stuff is the $4,995 back yard billet aluminum
BBQ grill that can roast an entire Texas Longhorn on a
spit run by 4-cyclinder gasoline engine, but that cooks
a few pieces of chicken for the kiddos much like the
$59.95 cast iron variety. Stuff is the $2,495 SubZero
refrigerator capable of keeping nitrogen frozen at
absolute zero, but keeps your lettuce from wilting long
enough to eat it, as does the Sears model at

But we learn early on not to confuse
Stuff with imitation stuff. Cheap stuff is not Stuff.
It’s like Stuff, but it doesn’t count. Used stuff
doesn’t count, either.

Computers are Stuff, but
only if you have the new 100 gigahertz model with enough
memory to store everything ever written in the English
language. Unfortunately, even though computers speed up
every three months or so, you don’t. My guess is the
software writers are in cahoots with the hardware
manufacturers, making the software bigger, harder to
run, and thus requiring us to upgrade to the new
fire-breathing models just to be able to do the same
things we did when we measured speed in megahertz. The
idea is to sell us new software to put on our old
computers which then slow down to about the rate of
3-fingered monkey on an abacus. This raises our
frustration levels until we have to buy a new Stuff
computer so powerful that it requires dry ice to keep it
from incinerating itself. Then, we sell the one we paid
$2,995 for a year ago for $11.50 to a neighborhood kid
at a garage sale.

There is even Stuff for sex,
which used to be pretty simple and straightforward, and
gratifying, if I do say so myself. But sex, too, has
been co-opted by Stuff. It’s a natural. Like driving a
car, nearly everyone does it, so why not make some Stuff
to make it better, or at least more expensive. There’s
not a day that goes by that my e-mail box is not filled
with advertisements for Stuff that will make my penis
the size and tensile strength of a galvanized telephone
pole. There’s Stuff that will let you bang long enough
to make your headboard into kindling. And, there’s Stuff
that takes the work out of sex – like the Vibrating
Panty Turbo-Wand or the Muff-Diver 8” Tongue that plugs
into the dryer socket for ladies who are tired of
waiting for hubby to come home, but take self-inflicted
pleasure in the fact that their man is out there working
hard for some new Stuff. And, guys aren’t left out of
the high-tech sex equation, either. They shouldn’t be.
They’re half the market. Hence, we have Doc’s Classic
UR3 Vibrating Vagina, which sounds more like a
high-flying spy aircraft than a sex toy.

when it comes to TV Stuff, there’s a whole load of new
Stuff -- TiVo, Xbox, ReplayTV, UltimateTV, each so
complicated you need an advanced degree in electrical
engineering in order to never miss the same mindless
drivel you can watch on a $99.95 12” Sanyo and become
dumber and angrier that an Okie in a trailer park fire.
There are stereos with sub-woofers that can weld your
retinas together, and tweeters so shrill that they will
decalcify your spinal column at 100 feet. At normal
listening levels, however, the new stereo Stuff sounds
remarkably like the $199.95 Sony system you can buy at
Sam’s, which, of course, is not Stuff. Rule: Stuff
cannot be bought at Sam’s or Costco. That’s imitation
stuff for those who can’t afford Real Stuff.
the most desired Stuff today are the houses we build as
monuments to ourselves, the ones we wander aimlessly in,
complete with requisite granite countertops capable of
sustaining a direct nuclear hit with minimum damage, but
on which you can cut lettuce like you once did on
Formica, which, by the way, used to be Stuff, a long,
long time ago, but now is old stuff and thus has to
ripped out and taken to a landfill where it will sit for
the next 10,000 years.

That’s the problem with
Stuff. It’s in a constant state of flux. It’s a
perpetually moving target. I remember when Stuff was a
microwave oven, a Kitchenaide mixer, a Cuisinart food
processor, and a three bedroom, 2 bath house in the
‘burbs. But, those things aren’t Stuff anymore. That is
old stuff. Old stuff is irrelevant. Old stuff was once
cool to have, but now that everyone has it, it’s not
even Stuff anymore. Clothes are the best example. You
might keep your Viking Range for 10 years and it may
still be Stuff, but not so with the rags you wear. Last
year’s Versacci suit and Kate Spade handbag are this
year’s garage sale mark-downs, and don’t even think of
trying to fool those who know their Stuff. They
recognize the difference between Stuff and old stuff,
even if old stuff has only been worn once. Men’s
designers haven’t (yet) been as successful as their
female counterparts in getting guys to throw away their
stuff. Men can still get away with a three year old $200
Zegna tie, $2,400 Oxxford suit, and a pair of $550
Church’s shoes, but my guess that won’t last long. A
review of Gentlemen’s Quarterly indicates there’s a
whole new crop of clothes that don’t appear to have been
made for people on this planet. They’re made for
bulimics who look angry and disinterested in what’s
going on around them and about life in general. I often
wonder why these models always look so pissed off, and
judging by their sizes, I write it off to being hungry.
Someone needs to feed these people.

That Stuff
changes does not mean it disappears from the face of the
earth. It doesn’t. Stuff mutates. Stuff becomes old
stuff at the moment in time when there is new Stuff to
replace it. There is no cache to old stuff, even though
your old stuff may operate and function just as it did
the day it was your new Stuff. Old stuff is worthless on
the Social Scale of Stuff. Today’s Stuff is tomorrow’s

In each succeeding generation of
Stuff, Stuff gets bigger and more expensive, in
deference to an economy that must grow or die. If there
wasn’t new Stuff that was bigger, better, and more
powerful than old stuff, then we’d be satisfied with our
Stuff when it became old stuff, and that wouldn’t do at
all, because we’re all employed to make Stuff, and if no
one bought Stuff, because we were satisfied with our old
stuff, then we’d all be out of work and couldn’t buy
Stuff. So, our government tells us, not so subtly, if
you want to be a Patriot, a Good American, and employed,
you have to keep up with the Jones’s who, in turn have
to keep up with you as consumers of Stuff.

often wonder what tomorrow’s Stuff will be, but I can’t
know because I don’t know what the manufacturers and
advertisers have in store for us. Based on the current
crop of Stuff, the Stuff-In-Waiting will, no doubt, be
WITH IMPUGNITY. I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see a
1,000 horsepower, 6 mile to the gallon, 2-seater car,
capable of snapping your neck like a dry twig off the
line, but in which we will wait in traffic just like we
used to wait in our BMW 5 Series, which is still Stuff
today, but will be old stuff tomorrow. For sure, new
Stuff cars will be very LARGE and have leather as smooth
as a baby’s butt – the kind you burn your own butt on
after it’s been baking the sun for about 8 hours,
because no one wants a cloth interior anymore. Cloth may
be cool to the touch, but is very old stuff that
followed the Naugahyde interior which was, itself, stuff
in ancient times. No one today would be caught dead with
their buttocks on Naugahyde, because no one even
remembers that Naugahyde was once stuff. The new breed
of vehicles will look like something out of a RoboCop
movie, appearing to have been designed as armored cars
or Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The most common trait of
new vehicular Stuff is that it makes us all look like
we’re all pissed off and we want to kill someone, and
with the Stress of Stuff, we may be.

Most new
Stuff, though, will be high-tech gadgets, perhaps
digital Camcorders implanted in our brains that record
everything our eyes see from DNA up until that
afternoon, stored on an unlimited-capacity DVD that we
will never watch, because our lives are composed of
looking for Stuff and, thus, so boring that not even we
can stand a rerun. Stuff will be television sets that
are three-dimensional wall-size monitors a half a
centimeter thick, because, after all, we don’t want to
waste space in our Monster-Houses which only continue to
be Stuff if they grow and are filled with more new
Stuff. Maybe our new TV’s will be three-dimensional so
we can walk into them and enjoy a night of Friends,
since we don’t have any real friends anymore. We don’t
have time. We’re too busy working and buying

The possibilities are limitless.
possibilities are inevitable.
The possibilities are

Like a herd of lobotomized sheep, we will
continue to watch ever larger, more defined TV’s, and
study magazine ads, paying careful attention to the
commercial breaks that clue us in on what Stuff we must
have. We’ll inspect our neighbor’s Stuff to make sure
that whatever Stuff we buy is newer, bigger, faster, and
more powerful than his Stuff. Then we’ll work harder to
make the money to buy the Stuff we want, sacrificing
more of our time with friends and family so when, on the
rare occasion, we actually see these people, we’ll have
plenty of cool Stuff to impress them

Unfortunately, we’ll always have that
sinking feeling about our Stuff, knowing in our greedy
little hearts that soon, very soon, our Stuff won’t be
Stuff anymore, but just a pile of old stuff we need to
trade in or sell or throw away to make room for the new
crop of Stuff. In the process, we’ll empty our bank
accounts and make a garbage can out of the Earth, use up
irreplaceable and non-renewable resources, ignore our
loved ones, and teach our children, by example, all
about Stuff and its importance in Life. And one day, if
we are very, very lucky, we will be remembered at our
funerals as the guy on the block with the most

I have a lot more to say about Stuff, but
I’ll end it here because the stores are opening soon and
I have a free ticket to the Consumer Circus and I’d hate
to miss it.
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