“Start Something.”

I was near tears through much of the service today, unable to join in the singing (which I think for the people sitting close to me qualifies as a plus) and getting lost in thought about the shooting. Not that the service itself was a downer, quite the contrary. Leslie’s musical taste was impeccable as usual, Zoe’s reflection demonstrated once again what an articulate young woman she is becoming, and Chris had enough light moments in the sermon to provide good balance to the more serious parts of his message. No, the emotion was inside, still present enough to break through given the right mix of external circumstances.

Today was the last day of the Grainger County Tomato Festival; sales had been minimal for my books, which isn’t all that unusual; my books aren’t about sex, or the Vols, or the hiking trails in the area, or impossibly cute puppies or kittens, or inspirational stories of faith, so most of the time I get a quick glance and the person next to me gets the sale. I had decided on Saturday night that I would bring my hammered dulcimer with me on the last day so I would have something to do. Veterans of the festival had told me that Sunday was a slow day. So after the above-mentioned church service I made my way to Rutledge and found a place to park.

I was only an hour or so late and it was in fact pretty slow, so I set up my dulcimer and played a few tunes, stopping to answer questions about the instrument. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Then a woman walked by and said something about enjoying the music and I said, “Are you a musician?” She shook her head and pointed to her daughter, who had a hard-shell violin case strapped to her back. I asked her if she played, and within a few seconds she had the fiddle out of its case, the bow was in her hand, and she looked at me and said, “Start something.”

I jumped into “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and had not made it through the A part the first time before she was right there with me, and by the second go-around she was solidly in the groove. We played that through a few times and when we finished she said “Play something else,” so I started “Road to Lisdoonvarna” and again she was with me almost from the start. By this time both of us are grinning ear to ear, her mother had her iPad out recording, and people around us are smiling and tapping their feet.

She didn’t have time for more songs; she was heading for the outdoor stage to do some clogging. I found out her name is Emily, she’s from Texas, and she’s a UT student, studying to be a musicologist. Never met her before, probably will never see her again, but that ten minutes or so lifted me up and what I needed this afternoon was something to lift me up.

This is the power of music.

This is Where We Stand

This is the essay I wrote for Karen Krogh’s excellent photographic portrayal of the year following the shooting (ten years ago today). Her photos, along with this and two other essays, all very different but each powerful and compelling in their own right, comprise the book “Love is the Spirit.”

 

I suppose it’s fitting, given the format of this book, that one of the ways I think about the shooting is how it has altered the lens through which I view the world. 

Everyone has markers in their lives; some are planned, anticipated, celebrated, preserved in photographs and videos: births, weddings, graduations, retirements, and so on. Some are unanticipated and may be more indelibly etched into memory as a result.

For me, July 27, 2008 falls into the second category. Because of those few minutes I have a clearer understanding of the word chaos and a different sense of the word sanctuary than I did on July 26th. The memories seldom arise unbidden and overwhelming any more, but they’re still there. The woman sitting right in front of me, her white blouse spotted with red after the second blast. The gunman and someone, I’m not sure who, wrestling for control of the shotgun. Brian at the center of a circle of people out on the lawn. A man with his arm in a sling being hustled along the sidewalk to a police car, officers on both sides of him. The crowded fellowship hall, the detective’s voice nothing but a burst of static, Jenny’s eyes meeting mine for just a moment as she walked by. There are more, but you get the point.

There are also other memories, from the days and weeks immediately following. The church so full the next Sunday that I couldn’t get into the sanctuary, or even into the fellowship hall. The outpouring of love, both from those who knew us and those who had never heard of TVUUC until that Sunday morning. The creation of a web of support and healing that came, it seemed, from everywhere and lifted us up and held us together, erasing those artificial lines that separate one faith tradition from another. The group I joined that allowed those of us gathered in the room to experience a glimpse into the depth and richness of one another’s experience. The fact that what drew us together was an attack on the church and all it stood for did nothing to lessen the beauty of that sharing, though that beauty is clearer in retrospect.

I see the world now through the lens of someone who has, as they say, been there. Those in power and on the media make statements about this issue and I find myself shaking my head, thinking, you really have no idea, do you? The Sandy Hook parents or the Parkland students speak, and I’m nodding. These days, fewer things are worth commenting on and more things bring tears to my eyes. I put in my hearing aids every morning and they remind me of how many ways that day damaged me, and how the easiest damage to repair is taken care of by a couple of little computers resting behind my ears.

My professional life was spent largely in adolescent treatment centers, working in what most would consider difficult environments. I believe the most important thing I did in those tense and sometimes dangerous situations that frequently arose was to say as clearly as I could, in whatever way fit the moment best, “This is where I stand. This is what is important. Tomorrow I will be standing right here, in the same place. You can count on that, and on me.”

Which is how I feel about TVUUC, why I formally joined this community not long after that horrible day, and why I keep coming back through these same doors. It’s the “Love is the Spirit of This Church” banner that went up immediately after the shooting, the recitation accompanying the chalice lighting every Sunday that expands on that theme, the Share the Plate program, and the FISH food distribution program. It’s Small Group Ministry, Family Promise, the RE program, the practice of connecting with other faith groups in the local community and beyond, and all the other things that go on in this church (certainly more than I’m aware of or could easily list). It’s the knowledge that what this church does is say very clearly, in so many different and meaningful ways, “This is where we stand. This is what is important. Tomorrow we will be standing right here, in the same place. You can count on that, and on us.”

This is where we stand.

 

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of Karen’s book, check with Union Avenue Books in Knoxville. You’ll probably have to get on a list.

New Child, New Parents

I’m back from my trip to Atlanta. Suzanne has been down there since the 8th, in case my daughter’s first child was born early. Turns out Avi arrived three days later than the projected due date. He is four days old now.

Four days old. I’ve lived his lifespan more than 6,000 times.

Avi is my third grandchild, and what strikes me again and again is how my own children change. Watching Lindsey with her son, I see her becoming a mother. The way they look at each other, focus on each other, exist in each other’s spaces is remarkable. The change in my son when his children were born was no less remarkable, but different. There is something very real, but also undefinable, about a mother and her child. One of those things that is beyond language.

Unlike my son’s children, Avi (the Indian pronunciation is UH-vee) will grow up in two cultures. There is a strong Indian community in Atlanta, including Avi’s grandparents and several other relatives. So he has one set of grandparents with deep East Tennessee roots and one set with roots half a world away. I have believed for a long time that there is great strength in diversity, so if he’s smart, and I can already tell he’s an incredibly gifted child, he will benefit from this in ways none of us can foresee.

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There are a hundred different good ways to raise a child, and I can’t wait to find out how Lindsey and Josh will approach this. I have no doubt they will be good parents; they will handle the day-to-day tasks, and my job will be to alternately spoil him and dispense sage advice, and occasionally tell him how much harder it was in the old days. Seems like an appropriate division of labor to me..

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I was deeply honored to hear that Avi’s parents chose my first name to be his middle name. Something for me to try to live up to, since he will eventually make the connection and I’d like for him to think it was a good decision on his parent’s part.

So this interesting and unpredictable adventure continues, with Suzanne and I now with two children, two more family members chosen by our children, and three grandchildren. In the ways that are the most important, I am a very wealthy man.

 

Sunday Musings

I think one of the reasons that I took my somewhat circuitous path through the work force was the pleasure I took in the creative process. Before I stepped away from that world I was fortunate enough to have been part of the creation of four programs: the Behavioral Liaison program, Reflections Treatment Agency, Parkway Academy, and Peninsula Village. Reflections is no longer around, but the other three are, and I would guess that they bear little resemblance to the programs I helped create. This is as it should be. I also had the unfortunate experience of being part of programs which had been in existence long enough to enter the “we do it this way because that’s the way we do things here” phase, which was as a rule less healthy for everyone, staff and students alike. I’ve felt for a long time that “that’s the way we’ve always done it” can occasionally function as a legitimate supporting argument, but has very little strength as a primary one. 

My own preference for creation over maintenance, for asking questions rather than memorizing answers, informs much of who I am now, a little self-examination reveals, from politics (progressive) to religion (Unitarian Universalist) to the way I choose to spend my time now that I’m out of the work force. Writing books, playing music, moving into new circles of friends while I try to hang on to most of my old ones, all of these things are components of what is turning out to be a pretty good phase of my life. The whole grandparent thing is pretty sweet, too.

I had a conversation with an old friend yesterday, and in the course of our time together this man, usually very optimistic, said that he now has periods of deep despair and anger when he looks around. I had no easy answer for him, and still don’t even after thinking about it for a day, but I think Bucky Fuller had it right when he said that what seems to be important at the moment is never what is really going on. The predilection of the media for one type of story (“If it bleeds, it leads,” as the old saying goes) makes my friend’s anger and despair seem to be a reasonable reaction. There is more, though, much more, and some of it is a strong counterpoint to the forces pushing us into anger and despair.

Annette said during her message today that “a loving curiosity” is a good stance to take in the world (I’m paraphrasing, or more likely riffing on her original thought). When I saw her later I told her that a loving curiosity was a tough gig sometimes, and I think that’s true. I also think it’s a stance worth striving toward.

Birthday

Since I’m 66 now, halfway to 132, I thought I’d see who my contemporaries are. Turns out it’s a rather varied crew:

Born in 1952:  Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya!), Dan Ackroyd, and John Goodman, but also Harvey Weinstein, Pee Wee Herman, and Vladimir Putin. Mr. T. and David Hasselhoff share my birth year as well.

Mark Harmon and Sting are 66 but, more importantly, so are Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) and Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter). Superman (Christopher Reeve) would have been on the list, but unfortunately he is no longer with us.

Other items of interest from my birth year — “Singing in the Rain” was released in 1952, as was “High Noon.” Hank Williams was big in ’52, with “Jambalaya,” “You Win Again,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” 

“Charlotte’s Web,” “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “East of Eden” were all published in that year; “Diary of a Young Girl” was published (in English) in 1952 as well.

Mr. Potato Head was patented in the year of my birth, the polio vaccine was created, and Princess Elizabeth of England became Queen.

I’ve already lived longer than Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Caligula, Stephen Crane, Keats, Shelley,  Pocahontas, Otis Redding, and King Tut.

If I live as long as my grandfather I have 34 more years left. Accordingly, I’m going to have to start pacing myself; I’d hate to run out of things to do and still have a couple of decades ahead. And, as I’m heading into official old man territory, I have some important decisions to make. Serene or irascible? Wise or irrelevant? Pining for the good old days or embracing a future I barely understand? Curmudgeonly or faintly amused? Up to date or anachronistic? So many decisions. I think I need a nap.

A Gathering of Friends

We hosted a dinner party last night, partly because we hadn’t done much entertaining in a while and partly because Suzanne is going out of town for an indeterminate period. Our daughter is  expecting her first child in a week or so, which means any time now, and my wife decided she would prefer not to have to drive to Atlanta after Lindsey was already in labor.

It was a potluck, as our meals usually are. We provided the main dishes — barbecued ribs, grilled salmon and grilled vegetables — and our guests brought appetizers, sides, drinks, salads, and dessert.

We sat at the table, a group whose members were, in a phrase Walter used today, “previously young.” All friends for several decades, they ranged from people who knew each other well to those who met each other for the first time last night. Around the table sat a railroad engineer, an employee of a local news station, a couple who ran a landscaping business, another couple who ran a construction/remodeling business, a clinical psychologist, a teacher at a community college, a social worker, and me. There were several retirees, a couple more edging in that direction, and the rest actively in the work force. 

It was a thoroughly delightful evening. Everyone agreed that the food was good, the conversation never lagged and moved from serious to playful and back again easily, we spent hours together and, unless it happened when I was away from the group, did not discuss politics at all. As I said, a delightful evening.

I think that the creation of the internet is an enormous, world-changing step forward, allowing us to research, communicate and interact in ways not possible even as recently as twenty-five years ago. The fact that not all of the communication is positive isn’t really unexpected. I have known angry, spiteful, morose people my entire life; their relentless insistence on emphasizing the dark side of things is nothing new. I believe that as we become better at using this new tool, become more discriminating and critical in our thinking, those who champion all that is wrong with the world will assume their proper place, as will those who make outlandish pronouncements, offer to make us younger, bigger, longer, stronger, richer, and so on. Freedom of speech is messy, no doubt, but essential to an intelligent, forward moving society.

What the internet, with its world-wide reach and ability to connect millions of people, cannot give us is what I experienced last night. The changing tone and volume of voices, the glance across the table, the spontaneous nonverbal communication gone as quickly as it appeared, all of that layers and enriches the community in ways not transferable to electronic media.

I use the internet daily (as I’m doing right now), and appreciate what it can do, even though I’m not able to take advantage of all of it. That’s one of the disadvantages of being previously young. I use it, but I don’t expect it to do everything. It’s great for checking bank balances, shopping, research, and many other things, but it has its limits. Reading LOL on a screen does not remotely approach hearing and seeing a friend’s laughter and having it travel around the table, brightening the whole room as it goes.

In his book, “A Man Without a Country,” Kurt Vonnegut said this: “And I urge you to please notice when you’re happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” It’s a big, complex world, and there is much to do for those of us who would like to see things improve for those who still suffer. There are also moments of joy and excitement and surprise and I agree with Mr. Vonnegut that we should try to notice it when that is going on. As I told the group last night, in every way except financially I am an extremely wealthy man. I’m trying to notice that more often.

Christina

I have seen reproductions and photos of Andrew Wyeth’s work, “Christina’s World,” for many years, but did not know how it came to be. When I recently heard the story behind the painting I was dumbstruck.

It turns out the inspiration for the work was a glimpse through one of the upstairs windows of the farmhouse. Wyeth was visiting a young woman whom he would later marry and they had gone to Christina’s house to see her. He was upstairs, looked out the window, and saw Christina in the field. She was on her way back to the house from either the garden or the family burial plot, depending on which account you’re reading, and was on the ground because she was unable to walk. She wasn’t lying on the earth looking up at the house; she was crawling toward it. When I read that, everything about the picture changed for me; in particular, the distance to the house seemed much longer. 

Christina and her brother, so the story goes, were struggling to stay in the family home for as long as they could. The fact that she had to crawl wherever she went was not sufficient reason to make her leave home. Wyeth could have chosen to visually emphasize her disability and opted not to, which in my mind makes a much more powerful statement. As does the title, which I now see in a number of different ways. I can’t go back to seeing the picture the way I did before, but knowing the whole story behind the painting makes it a more powerful piece for me. 

I’m reminded of the story I was told as a child of a woman driving by a garden where a man sat in a chair tending the plants. Her initial thought was “how lazy can you get, taking a chair to the garden?” until she turned the corner and saw him from a different angle, his right leg missing from the knee down, a crutch on the ground beside the chair.

The rest of the story, as the radio personality Paul Harvey used to make a cornerstone of his broadcasts, uncovers layers of complexity which are sometimes delightful and sometimes disturbing. Knowing that a favorite recording was done in one take rather than multiple spliced together segments, for instance, or finding out that “God Bless America,” now a classic piece of American music, was originally a subject of controversy and prejudice because its composer Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant, sheds new light on things we thought we knew.

Too often, I’m afraid, we see the wheelchair, hear the accent, see the political bumper sticker, notice the torn, dirty clothes, and decide we know what’s going on in a particular person’s world. We should all know by now that life is immeasurably more complex than that.

The Who, sort of

Wednesday we drove to Nashville to see Roger Daltrey and the Nashville Symphony. The tickets were a birthday present for Suzanne; she likes The Who, and Daltrey is touring, performing “Tommy” with various symphonies across the country.

The concert was at the Ascend Ampitheater in downtown Nashville, an open-air venue that we had never been to before. We met another couple and headed downtown, parked, and walked over to the Ascend. We joined the crowd moving up a slight incline, bordered by some low bushes on the right, as we funneled into the checkpoint and were told to empty our pockets.

Having learned my lesson from my trip to the Social Security office a few days before, I had left my pocketknife at the hotel and so made it through the entry checkpoint with no trouble. The variety of food and drink for sale was enormous, from canned beer to craft beer to wine to George Dickel whiskey to hot dogs to barbecue to burgers and lots of other foods. I was surprised, although I should not have been, at the prices. A can of beer was $14.00. Granted, it was a large can, but still. Craft beer was $16 or $17, water was $7, and nachos were $8. You could get a cookie for $4, but I’m not sure how big it was. We passed on all the food and drink offerings, as well as the commemorative shirts and hoodies, which started at $35.00 and went up from there.

If you’ve never been to the Ascend, I can recommend it. It’s a large stage, with big screens flanking the stage that show closeup shots during the performance, the seats are comfortable and not at all crowded, and the lawn area behind the reserved seats is spacious. By the time we arrived several people had spread blankets or low chairs, staking out a good view of the stage.

Roger Daltrey brought a skilled band with him: two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboard player, and a drummer. Not The Who, but still very good. The symphony did a fine job creating the orchestral feel of “Tommy,” which is a significant part of the rock opera. Daltrey may be the only performer working today who uses a microphone that isn’t wireless; his was a large, old-style mike and had a long cord, which allowed him to swing the mike in huge circles over his head and around the open area of the stage, a real throwback to the old days. No windmill guitar work by Simon Townshend (Pete’s brother, according to Daltrey) although his rhythm work on “Pinball Wizard” was first rate.

“Tommy” was great, lots of singing along by the crowd, and Daltrey, in fine voice for a man in his mid-seventies, did a couple of The Who’s other hits with just the band. No “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but I would have been surprised if he had tried that one. The scream at the end is not something many singers can pull off at any age.

As we left there were a dozen or so concert-goers bent over the low bushes that formed the border just outside the entry, and it took me a second to realize what they were doing. I wonder if they could recognize their own baggie in the fading light, although if they could remember which bush they dropped it into, that would help. Security was pretty tight, and I guess they realized they weren’t going to be sneaking anything into the concert.

Even though it was a gift for Suzanne, I’m glad I got the opportunity to see the show. It’s getting to that point, with a lot of the musicians who were important to me in my youth, that if I’m going to see them it probably needs to be soon.

Social Security, Homeland Security, Elusive Security

Suzanne and I are at the point in our lives when it’s time to sign up for Medicare. Yesterday morning we drove to the Social Security office in West Knoxville and pulled in about fifteen minutes before the place opened.

There was already a line, a dozen or so people waiting at the door. Before they opened, the line had grown to almost twice that number. A uniformed man who had been walking around the parking lot came up to the door and unlocked it. We filed in and he followed us.

When we got inside he said, “My name is ________ and I’m with the Department of Homeland Security. Line up on the left side of the hallway next to the wall to allow for egress in case of fire or other emergency.”

We did that, and he began going over the rules. No food, no drink, no this, no that, no weapons of any kind, including (and here he went into a list that covered pretty much every dangerous or sharp object that you could anticipate someone having on their person). I raised my hand and said, “Is this the point where I step out of line and go back to my car and leave my pocketknife there?”

He gave me a half-smile, nodded, and said, “You have anticipated my next statement.”

So I went out to the car and left my knife on the console. After I returned he waved me to the front of the line so I could enter my SSN into the computer and get my number. I sat down next to Suzanne, thinking that I should have left the metal bookmark in the paperback I had brought with me in the car as well. Fortunately, there was no pat-down or body scan.

The actual time we spent signing up was negligible. The clerk asked a few questions, typed a lot on his keyboard, and said to Suzanne, “I’ll have to send this form to your last employer to get your final day of service, but that’s really all I need.”

I said, “Do you need my Social Security Number?”

“No, I’ve already got it.” He grinned and said, “I’ve got all that stuff,” and pointed at the screen, which I couldn’t see. I have to admit that was a little disconcerting, having him say that he already knew everything about me he needed to, since he didn’t bother to use the number I had been issued earlier.

I’ve been thinking about that whole experience, especially how the morning started. The precautions could be considered extraordinary, given that we were gathered in an office that deals with data collection and registration for pensions (among other things), as opposed to, say, an office that houses high-ranking officials, or sensitive government policy plans, or weapons, or thousands of civilians. The counter argument, the Homeland Security argument, is that we don’t know where the next threat is coming from, and so vigilance is necessary. 

We as a people and many of us as individuals are trying very hard right now to make ourselves more secure, whether it’s through the passage of laws, the acquisition of weapons to keep in our homes or on our persons, the restriction of people who belong to one group or another, the willing (or unwilling) surrender of our privacy, or the repetitive insistence on the part of the media, both mainstream and fringe, that bad things and bad people are all around us and we should be constantly on alert. I find little security in any of these measures. I know from experience that laws, or machines, or barriers can only go so far in creating the security we are searching for, and I believe that the more we give up in the name of security, the poorer and more limited our lives become. Barriers operate in both directions, and if we say over and over in many different ways, “Stay away from me! Keep your distance!” there will certainly be unanticipated consequences. 

The poet Jane Hirschfield once said that Zen comes down to seven words: Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention. I believe there is truth in that, and while recognizing the changeable nature of life and its interconnectedness, and setting aside regret about the past and worry about the future to allow ourselves to attend to what’s going on right now does not usually function to give us a sense of external security, it can work to reintroduce us to the world. It’s not easy, at least not for me, but I’ve found it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

People in Distress

Yesterday I was about halfway through a particularly busy Tuesday morning volunteer shift, greeting visitors, answering questions, and running the cash register. A young woman who had been standing a few feet inside the entryway came up to the front desk and said, “They told me I could use a phone here. I don’t know where I am and I’m kind of freaking out here.” Before I could answer her one of the waiting visitors standing nearby handed her his phone and, after she made a call, his wife stepped up to her and started talking to her. They walked out the door together. After I finished with the next group of customers I saw that the woman was sitting down on the bench outside the main door, and some time later the person who had helped her came back in and said, “Did he come and pick her up?” I’m assuming that she was able to make contact with someone, thanks to the kindness of a family of strangers.

Late that evening my wife and I were on our way home from dinner with friends when Suzanne said, “Stop, stop the car!” A man was standing in the middle of the opposing lane of traffic and when I rolled down the window he said, “Can you take me somewhere?” At least I think that’s what he said; his speech was badly slurred, and he was unsteady on his feet.

“Can you take me to sunrise?” he said, and kept on talking, but I could only understand a little of what he said. We got him around to the passenger side so he wouldn’t get hit. Cars were few and far between on that road at that time of night, but even with my flashers on we were at some risk. We decided to put him in the back seat of the car and try to figure things out from there. 

He told us his name and said that he was brain damaged and tried to give us directions, but they were contradictory and confusing. He couldn’t remember his age but could remember the year he was born, couldn’t remember his mother’s phone number even though he said he lived with her, and Suzanne and I were becoming more and more worried about him. 

Should we try to follow his directions? That didn’t seem like a good plan, since that would have taken us further out into the country, and his directions were confusing at best. Stop the car and put him out? Then he’d be back in the middle of a rural two-lane road with no streetlights and no shoulders late at night. During his ramblings he mentioned one of the main state highways several times, so we took him to an intersection that had gas stations and convenient stores that were open and let him out and gave him some money. Pulling away, we decided to call the police and explain where he was and what little we knew about his situation.

I was and am deeply troubled by these two seemingly unrelated events. It would be easy to dismiss it as coincidence or see it as a metaphor for the times we live in or make it into some kind of political statement, but I don’t see it that way at all.

There are people moving through their lives right next to us who are scared, or hurting, or lost, or damaged in some significant way, and most of the time we don’t even notice. Usually that’s because either we are occupied with tending to our own priorities and, in some cases, fighting our own demons, or those people are able and willing, for whatever reasons, to keep their struggles hidden. 

What happened to me yesterday was that two of those battles came into view and presented me with a decision about whether or not to step into their world for a moment. We all have those decisions on occasion. 

Do we go to the aid of the attractive, frightened young woman in a brightly lit public area in broad daylight? Do we go to the aid of the dirty, poorly dressed, barely articulate man stumbling around in the middle of the road late at night?

Some decisions are easier than others but, in any case, consciously or unconsciously, we fall back on whatever moral compass or set of principles or core beliefs that we live by to figure out what to do, and in that way I guess the people in distress tell us as much about ourselves as they do about their own troubles. I know for myself that fear is interfering with my moral compass a lot more than it used to; so far it hasn’t kept me from helping, and I guess that’s a good thing, but the thought of just walking on by does occur to me now and then.