Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Best or the Worst: Our Choice

A little over eleven years ago, the film, Bobby, was released in Europe—my home at the time. Media interest in his contribution to history had been awakened and I, as the resident American, had been invited to give an interview with Wedi Saith (=After Seven, a Welsh language television program) about my experiences on the day that Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (RFK) was assassinated.

This gave me an opportunity and a very good reason to research his life so that I had something of value to contribute to the interview.

What I learned was amazing—if what had been written about him was true—and bewildering. Sirhan B. Sirhan was a Palestinian Christian who became fixated on Robert Kennedy before the Six Day War in June 1967. What about Kennedy then triggered his hatred?

RFK was a powerfully motivated man from his earliest days in government in the 1950s. His contribution was already huge before he was murdered: civil and human rights, anti-Apartheid, fighting organized crime and rogue unions. He would have worked to end America's involvement in the Vietnam War much sooner than Nixon—a good 5 years before.

There was no evidence that RFK supported Israel in the Six Day War, but that is the reason Sirhan B. Sirhan gave for his action.

Yet, RFK most likely would have put human rights at the center of the foreign policy of the United States and this may likely have made a significant difference to developments in the Middle East.

How much different would the world be if not for a 24-year-old obsessive? This question rings as true today as it did in 2007.

How much of our personal interests are given as excuses for our obsessions? How deeply do any of us delve into the “bigger picture” to look beyond personal opinion, our particular world view, to consider the exponential ramifications of our actions?

Very few of us will have the impact on the course of history of either Bobby or Sirhan but we sometimes act as though we do. If we have a purpose at all, I believe our greatest contributions are in our personal relationships and especially those with our offspring.

The psychologist, Brenda Wade, when asked what parents should tell their children about tragedies and crises in the world, said to the effect, “Why should your children know anything about these matters?” She enjoined parents not to allow their children to watch the nightly news.

In today’s atmosphere, some parents think nothing of exposing their small children to violence and mayhem for the sake of their own jaded  beliefs.

Childhood should be a time of innocence, wonder and limitless possibilities. When we teach our children to hate and fear and judge, we limit their potential to live fully, grow to their greatest expectations and contribute to the best we all can be.

Each new generation can be the greatest or we can spoil their chances with our own blighted vision. If we do that, are we not fulfilling our worst fears for the future?

Writers have always had a role to play, as story-tellers and myth-creators, to enlighten and clarify, not always to expose the worst in us, but to bring a greater vision forward, to stand for the best and the true—the bigger true than the squalid, narrow “real” of the evening news.

In memory of Mollie Tibbets, Kate Steinle and too many others.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

12-Step Meetings, Jail Style

When we started The Good Way program (an A.A. affiliate) in our part of the Navajo Nation, we were willing to serve, but woefully ignorant. How best to go about it? Realizing our program could benefit probationers assigned to 12-step programs, we went to a local judge and the probation office as well. Both approved our program, but added, "Can you go to the jails?" Thus began the most intense and most rewarding part of what we do.

On any Tuesday, you will likely find us working the twelve steps with participants in four or five different sessions in the Kayenta Jail. Groups include three to twenty-three people. On Thursdays, we do the same thing with five or six groups in the jail in Tuba City, usually in groups of eight to twelve.

When we add in our evening meetings, open to everyone, in Monument Valley, Kayenta, and Tuba City, we can see 115-120 people in a good week.

Although taking pictures is very strictly NOT allowed, we got permission to shoot a few photos of our meetings, so long as none of the inmates' faces showed. If you've ever wondered what such a session might look like, here is one answer.

We love what we are doing. Our participants in the jails quickly become our friends and we're always thrilled when we meet one of "our" people on the outside, especially when he or she is eager to report on their weeks or months of sobriety and success. Today, August 21, marks our anniversary. With 11 months to go, we look forward to even better experiences in the future. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Summer of Loss - and a Lesson Learned

Summer's almost over. Most of the time, I say those words sadly, but this year I'm more than ready to begin a new season. For me, there have been few days to celebrate in the summer of 2018. If you live in the northeast, you may be nodding your head, thinking about the weather - hot, humid, sticky, and generally miserable. But my sadness has little to do with weather.

I lost someone I love this summer, someone who had been part of my life for most of my life. I lost my brother. Jimmy had Down Syndrome and, since the death of our parents, I was his guardian. In other words, he was a special needs person. Some people looked at him and that's all they saw. But others looked beyond that and saw him simply as a special person, which he was. Born in a time when there were few programs for people who didn't fit what was considered the norm, his needs were indeed many, but mainly due to the untiring efforts of our mother and a very special aunt, Jimmy enjoyed a life that was rich and filled with a variety of experiences. He worked at a number of different jobs, at first in a sheltered workshop and later in the less protected environment of the general community. He participated in Special Olympics, Exceptional Equestrians, a bowling league, and was active in the music program of his church, thanks to the support of a congregation that practiced love in action.

In the months leading up to his death and during the rituals that surround saying good-bye to a loved one, I learned a valuable lesson. I've always believed that everyone, whatever their intelligence or talents, has a gift to give to those in the world who are ready to receive it. I watched Jimmy win medals and awards and make friends with his sweetness and his unique sense of humor. I saw his accomplishments as his gift, an example of what can be accomplished by pure determination. I believed him to be an inspiration, especially to other persons with special needs and to their families. That belief was confirmed numerous times by people who told me, many with tears in their eyes, what a blessing he had been to them. But the real lesson was something beyond that. I came to realize that his disability was his gift. His need for help and support provided people with an opportunity to give of themselves. He brought out the best in others. Can there be a more important gift than that?

I learned the truth of something my mother told me many years ago: sometimes the nicest thing you can do for someone is to let them do something nice for you.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Scams, Spams, and Nasty Schemes

It’s a jungle out there…and in here, too. I’m talking about the Internet, and right now, email specifically.  You just can’t be too careful when dealing with email.

Because I’m both an author and a web designer, my main email address is pretty well-known across the Internet. Certainly the spammers and scammers know about it.  I currently get 20-30 spam emails a day. Most of them are annoying, but pretty innocuous, trying to sell me goods or services I don’t need. The weight loss tips, get rich quick schemes, special tools, prescription drug, and great rates on shipping from China offers are aggravating mostly by their sheer bulk.

But some of them are less innocuous. By now the Nigerian prince or defecting diplomat scheme is so well-known as to be the butt of numerous jokes. But people fell for it. Plenty of them. And, having seen the amount of money to be made, the schemers and scammers have moved on to more sophisticated tricks.

For a while I got five or six notices a day from various banks that I had an urgent message and needed to log into my account. Generally poor grammar and wording were a dead giveaway that those messages didn’t really come from their supposed senders, along with the fact that I didn’t actually have an account at any of those banks.

The first time I got an email purporting to be from one of my web clients saying she’d been mugged in some foreign country and needed help, I was both concerned and suspicious. I hadn’t heard of this scheme, so I actually responded with a request for more information. The reply I got was so unlike my client, I knew it was a scam and ignored all further emails related to it. I later got four more versions of that scam relating to other friends or clients.

The scammers are getting better at it, though. The emails telling me I’ve won a $50 gift certificate from Amazon look very legit. The messages saying there is a problem with my Paypal account carry the Paypal logo and are nicely worded. It’s only when you put your cursor over the link to see where it’s really going that you can tell they’re trying to get you to enter your Amazon or Paypal login credentials on a page that most definitely isn’t attached to either site.

Any attempt to get someone to click on a bad email link or open a malware-laced document is generally called a Phishing attack. But it gets worse. What are sometimes called “spear-Phishing attacks,” where the link or attached document is tailored to a specific environment, can cause an unfortunate click to produce widespread devastation.

I’ve gotten emails purporting to be business documents from a co-worker. I don’t work in a corporate environment, but if I did, an email from claiming to have a spending report attached might trick me into opening it or clicking on a link.

Those are perilous emails because a click on a bad link or document can give hackers access to an entire corporate network. Thousands of businesses have been hit with ransomware attacks. The city of Atlanta’s computer network was shut down for weeks when held for ransom. My local church’s computer system was also disabled for several days due to ransomware. Those attacks can almost always be traced back to someone clicking on a bad link or opening a document containing malware. The infamous hacking of the Democratic party started with a Phishing attack.

A few days ago, though, I got an email that topped all the others for me personally in terms of the general nastiness of the scam. It was basically a blackmail attempt. It said that I’d visited a porn site and while I was there, the sender had installed malware on my computer, turned on my web cam, caught me in a compromising action on the camera, stolen all my contacts information and would send the video to all of them if I didn’t pay their demand of sending 3,000 Bitcoin to the sender.

I’m an author. I do research all over the web, including some of its shadier corners. I’ve probably even been to a porn site a time or two, though I tend not to linger in such places. Otherwise I knew that the rest was pretty much impossible (in my case), so I didn’t take the threat very seriously. I suppose there are people for whom some of this might be a real possibility and such a note would worry them.

What did actually give me pause was that the subject line contained my name and an old password I once used in a couple of places.  I imagine the sender got that from somewhere on the dark web, where all sorts of hacked data, including some from famously huge data breaches like the Yahoo and Equifax debacles, is available for sale. And don’t kid yourself. Your information is up there somewhere, too.

I no longer use that password, and haven’t for some time, but this was a good reminder of why you should never use the same password in different places and why it’s a good idea to change those passwords occasionally.

Apparently I wasn’t alone in receiving this email, according to this article I found, which echoes the conclusions about it I came to about it:

Stay safe, my friends!

Some email safety tips:
• Don’t open emails from unknown sources. 
• Never, ever open an attachment unless you’re very sure of what it is and who sent it to you.
• Keep automatic open of attachments turned off in your email program.
• Don’t click on links in emails unless you’re very sure of what it is.  Remember that your friends’ email accounts can be hijacked, and spammers can spoof the names and email addresses of people you know into the “From” field.
• Any time you get an email from a bank or financial institution saying you have a message, don’t click the link. Go to the institution’s site and log in. If the message is legit it will be posted to your account.
• Keep your computer’s virus protection up to date.
• Don’t log into your email account on open, public wi-fi.
• Change all of your passwords periodically and never use the same one at two different places.

Monday, August 6, 2018

On Life, Love and Loss - A Reality Check

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

As writers our job is to create emotions and reactions to those emotions, be it a love story or a murder mystery or whatever. Sometimes we get so used to playing God, creating and manipulating those emotions and reactions in the way we want, that when real emotions from real situations hit us we are blindsided and overwhelmed.

2018 has not been a good year. As you probably know, this spring my long-time, beloved cover artist Dawn Charles was found dead in her apartment. While devastating, her passing was a grief but not really surprising. Her health had been iffy for years, and sometimes it seemed she spent as much time in the hospital as out. Still, we did about 20 book covers together, emailed or chatted on the phone at least once a fortnight - and more often than not a couple of times a week. Though we never met in person, she was closer and more dear to me than a lot of people with whom I share DNA.

Then last week I received the shattering news that Dr. Dirk Huyge had died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Curator of the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels and Director of the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab, Dirk and I had met online when I was casting about for help on information on the Elkab necropolis for THE EGYPTIAN FILE. We became friends, and after a while he thought that I do a book about the dig house at Elkab, which is widely believed to be haunted by the ghost of its builder, Somers Clarke. I thought he was joking, but as time progressed he suggested that The Husband and I come to stay for a while in the dig house - a thing that civilians never get to do.

I wanted to, I really really wanted to, but we had been traveling a lot and The Husband was on one of his periodic 'we're spending too much and we have to cut down on expenses' kicks. I don't give up easily, though, so after telling Dirk I would see I sat and thought for several hours. marshalling every argument I could think of about why this would be a good thing. By the time The Husband came home I had a huge and cogent presentation ready. He walked in the door and I started in - 'Darling, Dirk has asked us to come stay at the dig house and I think...'

That was the end of it. He looked at me and said, 'Sounds great. When do we go?'

Now it is a long and expensive way from Dallas to Luxor to Elkab, especially for less than a week, so The Husband I decided to make a real holiday of it. We contacted Jane Akshar, who rents luxurious holiday flats on the west bank of Luxor for what to American eyes is a ridiculously low rent, and arranged to stay with her. I met Jane online at the same time I met Dirk, and she too has become a dear and beloved friend (as well as a gifted and creative webmistress for my website) as well as my go-to reference about the minutiae of being in Egypt.

Dirk invited us in the middle of January; on March 15th we boarded the plane for Egypt. We didn't get to stay as long as we liked at the dig house (don't know how long that would be - I'd like to be there still) but the house is not all that large when a full dig crew is in residence, and we had to be sandwiched in between the visits of our dear friend Salima Ikram and a film crew from the BBC. And in order for us (non-professionals in the field of Egyptology) to come to the dig at all Dirk had to work his way through several layers of mind-boggling Egyptian bureaucracy to get us permission to stay. The Egyptians are very protective of their antiquities, and as a consequence very few civilians get to see archaeology from a dig house perspective.

When the day came for us to leave Luxor for Elkab, we had agreed to call Dirk on the way to the train station and he would come get us, as we would never be able to find the dig house on our own. He was right about that; to reach the dig house involved a long drive through a road-less wasteland populated with a few mean little huts, a couple of dead cattle and two enormous cemeteries.

But that was to come. We called Dirk from the pre-arranged spot on the road, and just as we pulled into the train station a big old and sort of battered Land Rover pulled in beside us. Out of it stepped a tall, ruggedly handsome man of a mature age (think an older Indiana Jones type) who started walking toward me. 'Susan?' he asked. 'Dirk?' I replied. Then he swept me into an extravagant, MGM type of embrace.

Now make no mistake and don't misconstrue this story - Dirk was married to a lovely woman whom he absolutely adored. I am more happily married than most to the most wonderful man in the world - and he was standing not ten feet away from us. But... that enthusiastic hug in the dusty parking lot of a small-town train station in Egypt is STILL one of the most romantic moments in my lifetime, and I will always remember it fondly.

Our stay at Elkab was magical and much much too short. The crew was welcoming, helpful and a great deal of fun. After we went home Dirk and I stayed in contact by email - not as much as perhaps we should have been, but then we had no idea that time was so short. We had begun to play with the idea of doing a mystery with him as the sleuth - but only after he retired. We had talked about it when A KILLING AT EL KAB was in the inception stages, but I didn't want to risk casting any kind of a shadow on his excellent reputation as an archaeologist and a scholar... but I did want him in the book. So, he became the only 'real' person featured in the book, but only in two quick appearances. Now the Dirk-as-sleuth idea in a future book is permanently retired, as I couldn't do it without him.

One final, bittersweet note. On Sunday I received a sweet email from Dirk's wife, telling me how much he enjoyed A KILLING AT EL KAB and asking permission to use my description of him in the book at his memorial service. I don't mind telling you that made me weep, and of course I gave my permission. Her request is a lovely tribute to both of us.

We always think we will do whatever-it-is tomorrow, but sometimes it is brought forcibly on us that we are never guaranteed a tomorrow. So - embrace your friends, tell you family that you love them, do what is important to you today. Sometimes there is no tomorrow.

RIP, Dawn Charles.
RIP, Dr. Dirk Huyge.

The world is poorer for your absence.