Archive for November, 2015



November 26, 2015

gratitude-1I’ve been thinking about gratitude. Yes, because of Thanksgiving, but for reasons beyond that as well.

Thanksgiving began as a gathering in gratitude by one of the original groups of immigrants to this country, people we know as the Pilgrims. To leave the strife of their homeland, they came to a new land knowing nothing of the endemic language, culture, or way of life. Many did not make it. Those who did owed their well-being to a group of residents who made the decision to help these needy newcomers to their shores. Not all of the residents felt the same way, but because some did, the newcomers eventually thrived.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. This scenario has been repeated throughout the history of our nation. There were different times, different groups, and different reasons for leaving their homelands, but it played out pretty much the same way. Some residents made the decision to help, and some did not. Those who did not attempted to create barriers of all kinds to keep the latest group of newcomers out. They used social rejection, making it abundantly and publicly clear that the group was unwanted. They used government legislation to control them or keep them out entirely. Some even resorted to violence.


The sad irony of America, the land of immigrants.

But the newcomers came nonetheless. They assimilated nonetheless. And by and large, they succeeded nonetheless. Just ask your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents because unless you are a Native American Indian or the descendant of a slave, your family most likely belonged to one of these groups. And after great struggle and perhaps some bitterness along the way, they too were able to share in the gratitude of being American.

This continues still. Different time. Different groups. Different reasons.

One of my adult ESL students, a young woman recently arrived from Cameroon, asked me during class what Thanksgiving was. I tried to explain the events leading up to that first celebration as best I could with the somewhat limited vocabulary understood by the class. I told the story of the people who left their homeland, about how they arrived in what was a new world for them ill-prepared to deal with such a different existence than they were used to. Though many were not, some of the native people were kind to them and helped them survive their difficult first year, and they had this celebration to give thanks.

The young woman looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “Just like it is for us.”

Yes. Yes, indeed.





November 19, 2015

slave — n.  [sleyv]  a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person

I was once a slave. My master was insidious and manipulative, the leaf of the plant Nicotiana tabacum. He came to me in the seductive form of a cigarette.

My master fooled me into thinking that our relationship would be a good thing, improving my image and increasing my social status. It was not. My master gave me the impression that it would make me cool like my film idol Jean Paul Belmondo, cigarette dangling from his lips as he swaggered through a scene. It did not. My master did not warn me of the health risks involved, of the constant coughing, the inability to run without getting winded, the potential of myriad cancers. Nor was I warned of the stains on my fingers and teeth, the stink on my breath, the burn marks on my clothes and furniture. I hesitate to even think of all the money squandered because of my master, and all for nothing.

The tools of my master were not chains and a whip but addiction, and it was a powerful tool indeed. Everyone thinks he or she is stronger; no one believes any entity, no less the brown leaf of a plant, can gain a stranglehold on our very being. But we are fools. We become easy marks for this master, willingly enslaving ourselves.

And as with all slavery, there are great profits to be made by the purveyors of the trade. The tobacco industry has countless clever lawyers and powerful government lobbies to protect these great profits. They have exerted their political influence to protect them, they have lied to protect them, they have traded any shred of moral integrity for the almighty dollar. What does the master care if the collateral damage of his trade is measured in human lives? There are always more where they came from.

Oh, and the master is wily at getting them, too. There are the advertisements that entice us with illusions of masculinity or femininity or coolness or — quite ironically — independence. We are convinced to think the fumes of burning leaves taste good or relax us. Even after the government-mandated warnings were included on the packages and the school health classes instituted their educational efforts, we are enslaved still. Even after the TV commercials showing the tortuous path to death. Even after the stories of the afflictions of relatives or friends or neighbors.

I have several stories of my own. When I was a boy, my next door neighbor Teddy, a white-haired Norwegian man, was a smoker. He had bad asthma and had to have a tracheostomy. I remember watching him sneak outside to smoke a cigarette through the opening in his throat. I wondered what kind of power would compel him to do such a thing. I learned that later for myself.

My wife’s uncle, also a smoker, developed cancer and had to have his larynx removed. For the remainder of his life, he suffered the indignity of having to croak his thoughts to others.

My own father became a slave during his army days. Those red packs of Pall Malls were a constant presence throughout my childhood. He was a man of strong will, but it took him many years to finally free himself.

Emancipation comes with great difficulty. Mine came cold turkey upon my return home from overseas. I met my parents and my wife-to-be at the airport. I smoked three packs a day, starting from the moment I woke up until one last drag before bed. I had a pack in my shirt pocket as I made my way through the arrival area. I took it out, threw it in the trash, and walked away. It wasn’t easy — I had dreams of smoking for years after, temptation at every bar at which I sat and party I attended. Each cup of coffee begged for that nicotine chaser, every anxious moment had my fingers reaching for that thin white crutch.

Since the 1970’s, the third Thursday in November has been designated as the Great American Smokeout in an annual attempt to strike another blow at this master. On this day for most of my teaching career, I tried to add my warning to the young teens sitting before me. In spite of efforts to prevent it, I knew full well that within a few years I’d probably see some of them puffing away as they walked downtown.

Some of them may be reading this right now, hopefully free of their shackles. If not, my message for them is that it’s never too late. For those former students who may now have teens of their own, be vigilant and do everything in your power to fiercely guard their freedom from that formidable master, tobacco. Take it from a former slave. It’s worth it.