A Message For The New Year


Happy New Year! It’s the start of a new year, the beginning of a new decade, and the world has been wiped clean of human suffering and injustice. In truth, we are no different today than we were yesterday. But we like to believe that things will be different. For some reason, the calendar changing from one year to the next always brings us hope. Why?

Hope isn’t a magical potion delivered to us on a silver platter. Hope springs from the actions of people. Hope is the result of having made hard choices for the greater good of all, not just the enrichment of a few or the one. Hope is waking up in the morning and wondering what you can do to make the world around you a better place. Hope is hard work and sacrifice. Hope is giving and caring without any expectation of personal gain. Hope is the courage to think independently while ignoring the self-satisfying allure of groupthink. Hope is every person on this planet deciding to make a difference in the world, beginning with his or her own actions.

I ask the same questions at the beginning of each new year. Will we ever cast aside the unrealistic personal belief that we are, somehow, better than another individual or group? When will we stop thinking about our own short-term needs and start thinking about the needs of future generations?

As individuals, we need to progress from who we are to who we can be. We need to do this not only for a greater sense of personal accomplishment but because, collectively, humanity will benefit from our progression. We may not be able to correct every incidence of suffering and injustice by our actions, but inaction is not the answer because the countdown clock is ticking, and time may be running out.

I will close as I end each of these blogs — You’re not just a human being; you are a representative of the human species.

The Writer

Homelessness

There’s a saying that there are no guarantees in life. While that may be true, there probably should be warranties because some lives will break down over time, usually due to situational changes or stress.  Most of these lives could be refurbished and returned to a new or like new condition. All too often, we look at these lives as throwaways and that’s exactly what we do with them — we throw them away.

Every day, we encounter people who we, either intentionally or unintentionally, don’t really acknowledge exist. I live in an upscale neighborhood and, over the years, I have noticed more and more homeless people asking for handouts. I don’t usually give anything to anyone asking for money because most of the people asking are young and healthy enough to work at some sort of job. But occasionally, I come across somebody who doesn’t ask for help but could.

I first met Mel after he had appropriated what would become a semi-permanent sidewalk seat about twenty feet away from the front door of my local pharmacy. He appeared to be in his mid to late fifties. His clothes were old and tattered, and his hair and beard were much longer than would be considered comfortable on a day that had become stuck past the century mark since shortly after sunrise. The skin on his face and hands had become tanned and toughened by an unforgiving sun, but the harshness of his body was tempered by the calmness in his eyes.

Still, I might have moved right past him had it not been for a couple of qualities that made him stand out. For one, he was soft spoken. But it was the other quality that set him apart from the crowd. You see, he never asked for anything. I never saw him rant or rave or ask for money. He was always respectful to those who walked past him. Occasionally, he would offer to watch the cars of people who were heading into the store. The cars didn’t need watching, but it was his way of providing a service and feeling useful to a society that had little use for him. More often than not, those same people would exit the store with a cool drink or a packaged snack. He would refuse and then, after some gentle prodding, accept. He was always grateful. It was the repetitive dance of someone in need, but someone who didn’t want to appear needy.

It was on one of those hot and less than humid days that I decided to do more than just hand him a bottled water and a package of cookies followed by “Have a nice day” as I moved on. On this particular day, I decided to get to know a little something more about Mel. I introduced myself and, in the course of our brief conversation, mentioned that I was a writer. It turned out that he loved to read. His favorite reading material was anything by Mark Twain and the Bible. I must confess that he could quote both in more detail than I was able to, and those calm eyes came alive as he did.

After that day, I never saw Mel again. I think about him every time I enter the store. I imagine that he had hopes and dreams, family and friends, and a roof over his head before something changed and he ended up on the sidewalk in front of a drugstore. I do know that there are many more Mels out there. They are intelligent, productive people who are a pink slip or a tragedy away from seeing their entire lives turned completely upside down.

We can berate, complain about, or completely ignore the homeless. Most people do exactly that. But it won’t make the problem go away. The problem will only go away when homelessness goes away. We need to allocate more state and federal funds to sheltering, training, and mental health treatment in order to help turn these “street people” into productive people. There are some who will refuse this course of action, but most will welcome the help. If we don’t start addressing the homeless situation in this country, it will only get worse because there are no guarantees in life. You’re not just a human being; you are a representative of the human species.


A Random Act Of Respect

I'd like to take a moment to speak about a random act of kindness. I did one today, but I'm not going to take a bow because I don't do them often enough. I had to go to the drugstore and as I was entering the door, a young man said hello to me. He was sitting in the shade, against the wall, with his knees pulled up to his chin. I said a quick hello and kept moving.

I'm pretty lucky. I have my health and a roof over my head, food to eat, friends, and happiness. I thought about that as I went inside. I needed some cash and an oatmeal raisin cookie fix.

On my way out of the store, I stopped to talk to the young man. I gave him a package of cookies (he said that they were also his favorite) and a dollar to get something to drink. I could tell that he appreciated my small gesture of kindness. But it was what I did next, that I think he appreciated most of all. I put out my hand and gave him a firm handshake. It's a good feeling to give someone food and water on a hot day. It's an even better feeling to give respect, on any day. You’re not just a human being; you are a representative of the human species.

The Enemy Within


I met her at the annual Society for Professional Journalists convention shortly after moving to Los Angeles. She was a college journalism student. Having recently ended that portion of my life, I had turned down a job offer from my university and moved to Los Angeles to become a professional journalist. I don't remember exactly how we met. I do remember the night that we met because that's when I realized we were going to know each other for a long, long time.

The SPJ convention started with an awards banquet that brought together some of the greatest writers in the business. My personal favorites were Laurence Gonzalez and Larry Dubois. They were receiving a Distinguished Service Award for writing a multipart Playboy article about recluse billionaire Howard Hughes. They were rock stars of the journalism world, something that I’d mentioned to her earlier that day. Unfortunately, student and not yet professional SPJ members were seated at the cheap tables which were some distance away from the award winners.

We entered the banquet hall pre-dinner mixer and within minutes I found myself standing all alone. Since we had just met a few hours earlier, I wasn't too concerned about her going off to make new friends. I mingled for about an hour until the announcement was made to be seated for dinner. I hadn't even had time to find my table when she came walking up.

“I hope you don't mind that I disappeared," she said, "but I've been having a really nice conversation with Laurence Gonzalez’s and Larry Dubois’s wives. They've invited us to sit at their table. I know you wanted to speak with their husbands.”

From that moment on, she never stopped caring about me. Unfortunately, a few years later, she stopped caring about herself. It isn’t necessary to know the reasons why. Suffice it to say that when her parents looked at her, they saw pain and sorrow. It was nothing that she had done. It was sadness by association.

No longer able to concentrate, she decided to quit school and move back to Northern California. The last time I saw her was straight out of a movie. It was a rainy night when there was a knock at the door. As soon as I opened it, she threw her rain drenched arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss. She was the last person I had expected to see that night. She came in, dried off, and we talked for a while. I tried to get her to stay, but she was struggling to stay focused on the journey.

I was in the middle of a series of preplanned orthopedic surgeries and was unable to travel to Northern California. I called her often and she was always upbeat and positive. That acting job was for the benefit of her parents. Her letters to me told a different story. She was beginning to unravel and although I pleaded with her parents, they preferred to see the acting job as the real thing. They wanted to believe that she was getting better, not so much for her benefit as theirs. In their minds, it was all the same thing.

They continued believing in the fantasy until she disappeared. They called to tell me that she might be headed in my direction. About two weeks later, they called to tell me that the police had located her in a motel a couple of hours south of home.

Those were the days when suicide was discussed in hushed tones or not at all. It's been 40 years and we haven't raised the volume much more than a whisper. I think about her whenever I hear about a young person who has taken his or her own life. These days, I think about her a lot.

I missed a lot of the warning signs and there weren't available resources for the ones that I did see. Today there are, but we must be alert and willing to act. If you or someone you know is fighting the enemy within, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You’re not just a human being; you are a representative of the human species.