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Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia
Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia

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Thích Nhất Hạnh
Thích Nhất Hạnh

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Henry Ward Beecher
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College of Professional Studies
With thanks to the students who graciously allowed us to use their work and to
Maureen Aggeler, Kim Connor, Fran Ferrante, Jim McCauley, Norma Quan, and
Jane Swigart for submitting the essays.
August 2005
Autobiography: The Hills of My Life……………….....................................................3
Autobiography: Story Person………………………………………………………….15
Theology: Spiritual Autobiography: Spiritual Evolution……………………………31
Theology: Spiritual Autobiography: Standing at the Gate…………………………..42
Theology: Spiritual Autobiography: A Journey of Beliefs and Values……………..54
Theology: Spiritual Autobiography: Life and God from My Perspective…………..64
Theology: Death and Dying: A Time for Guidance…………………………………..77
Marketing and Sales: Sales: The Field of a Dream……………………………..……86
Communication: Public Speaking: Communicating a Message Clearly……………99
Communication: Adult-Child communication: The Gender Issue………………..113
History: Race and Ethnicity in U.S. History: Experience in a Gang Culture…….123
Computer Science: Computer/Network Operations: Birds and the Demise of a
Fighter Pilot……………………………………………………………………………134
The Hills of My Life
At age eighteen, my long journey to El Norte (The North, USA) was just
beginning. An old milk truck was waiting for me at the school to take me to the
next town, from where I could take a bus to Tijuana. My mother was sobbing as
she packed my raggedy clothes that fit into one torn, small, duffle bag. With
sadness, my father told me to be careful and to come back home soon. When I
was leaving town, I turned back to wave to my parents one more time. I am not
embarrassed to say that a couple of tears fell from my eyes. Suddenly, I felt like
a little child who has been taken away from his parents. I was afraid of not
returning home. I contemplated the hills that surrounded the town as if it were the
first time I had seen them.
A grown boy was on his way to the new adventure he had long wished for.
My thoughts kept getting interrupted by the bumpy gravel road. For the next few
days on the road, I felt lonely and depressed. I could not depend on my mother to
cook my meals or to remind me that it was time to go to sleep. The sleepless
nights on the bus to Tijuana were making me think twice about leaving my home
and seeking my new lifestyle in El Norte, but at the same time, I was overjoyed
about my journey. Finally my dreams were turning into reality. Finally I was
moving to the land of opportunity.
I was born and raised in a small village in Mexico with no electricity or
running water. My first house I clearly remember living in was made of adobe
brick. It had only two bedrooms for our large family. My parents would sleep in
one bedroom with my three sisters, and I had to share the other room with my six
brothers. We basically had to sleep on top of each other. To support the family,
my father would work in the fields growing beans and corn. We lived in poverty,
we were malnourished, and the working conditions were harsh. Every year, we
all prayed for a good rainy season because we lived off the harvest.
The place where we grew the corn was a couple of hours away from
home. It looked like a morning parade, my father and his seven boys going to
work before sunrise, walking through the dirt trails. It was a long walk before the
actual work began. I remember that most of the time I was half asleep walking to
work. My mother would bring us lunch in the afternoon. Many times that would
also be our breakfast. No cereal or Eggs Benedict were on my mother’s
breakfast menu.
One specific day when my dad sent me early in the morning to throw the
corn grains on the plowed land before it started to rain, I felt very lightheaded
from being so hungry. I worked very hard to finish my task before the arrival of
my dad with some lunch. Eagerly, I opened the lunch bag to see what my mom
had sent me for lunch. In the bag were a Coca-Cola bottle filled with warm tea
and some plain tortillas. After eating my lunch, I became hungrier than before.
How can a twelve-year-old boy work more than eight hours a day without being
fed properly?
When there was no food in the house, my parents would send us hunting.
We would hunt all sorts of animals: squirrels, quails, pigeons, and possums.
Pigeons were my favorite birds to hunt. To hunt pigeons, we would go just before
dusk and wait for them by the dam. These birds like to drink water before they go
to sleep. I remember how we built ambushes from tree branches to hide
ourselves, and we would wait for hours until the pigeons came. That was our
survival in the dry season when the corn did not last all year.
The economic pressures on our growing family drove my father and my
oldest three brothers to leave town every summer in search of work somewhere
else. My dad needed to generate some cash to buy us the essentials for the
house. After the corn harvest, every January, they would leave home and return
back in April just in time for Easter Sunday. My dad would come home with bags
full of bread. My mother would make capirotada (bread pudding) and arroz con
leche (rice pudding) that would last us the entire Holy Week. Easter Week was
the best time of the year for me. I was raised Catholic, and we were not allowed
to work, ride horses, or play during Holy Week. We simply stayed home, ate
capirotada, and prayed all day long.
During the summers, drinking water would become scarce. The entire
village depended on the rain for its water supply. I recall my mother would wash
our clothes at a creek which was an hour away from home. She would take me
with her so I could help bring water from the creek to the wash stone. The
drinking water needed to be dug from a deep hole. People would stand in line
and stay all night long just to get one cantaro (clay pot) of water. Some people
would lose their cattle because of lack of water.
Of my early school days, my memories are vivid and emotional. Since
there were no public schools in my hometown, a priest taught people to read in
his house. He would teach the older children so they could help him in the class.
My oldest sister was one of the main teachers in the school, and she could hardly
read. I learned to read only the alphabet, but I wanted to learn more. I remember
that when my uncle came from Mexico City to visit us, he brought with him the
daily newspaper. When he was done with it, I picked it up to look at the pictures. I
recall thinking about what the words said about the images printed on the paper.
I desperately wanted to go to a better school.
When I was about seven, the public school opened and a teacher was
sent for the entire community. He divided all the children into age groups. Eight
years old, I was in the first grade group. I only made it to fourth grade. I repeated
many years because I did not want to leave school. I wanted to move to another
town so I could go further than fourth grade, but my parents could not afford it.
However, I knew that there had to be a way to prevail. I was inspired by my
grandfather who was a heroic figure in my hometown. He had lost his life fighting
to get a school, a cemetery, and land for the people in the village. He was able to
accomplish his dreams before he was shot and killed.
As the years went by, I felt that I was just wasting my time working and
not learning. Two of my friends were able to leave town to get educated. It was
then that I became more serious about pursuing my dream in America. I kept
asking my parent to let me go to El Norte. I called my older brother, who was
already in the USA, and asked him to send me a book to learn English. I needed
to prepare myself for my journey. The little English that I learned was very useful
when I arrived at the border.
As a young child, I had often heard about El Norte as an endless land, a
paradise with beautiful orchards and fields that extended from one hill to the next.
I visualized the vineyards, with beautiful green leaves and flowers. My father
would tell us about the endless cotton fields that appeared like hand-painted land
with striking colors. He told us about the beautiful houses where Americans lived;
the houses were made only from wood and not adobe brick. I recall thinking that
one day I would try to cross the border and be one of those famous Norteños
(Northerners). I knew then that my day would come soon. On Sept 17, 1977, the
day finally came to leave my town, my friends, and my parents in search of a
better life. From this day on, my life would never be the same.
I consider myself very lucky; I did not spend a long time in Tijuana,
searching for someone to help me cross to the US. Many people have died in the
process of crossing the border. After many struggles, enduring hunger, and
sleepless nights, I arrived in Fresno, where my older brother was living. I was
fascinated by the nice surroundings on the roadside, the town, and the hills. But
to my surprise, the place where my brother was living was a barn. The rooms
were made out of hay bales, and the kitchen was outside the door. These were
not much better conditions than where I had just come from! Thank God, I only
stayed for a couple of weeks. It was then when I felt sad and sorry about leaving
my parents and my hometown. My future was not looking any brighter, but my
strong spirit kept me going. I did not want to turn my dreams into a
disappointment. I wanted to succeed in El Norte, just as many of my friends had.
I knew that the values that my parents had taught me when I was a child would
give me strength and courage.
After a few weeks of picking oranges, grapes, walnuts, and olives, I
moved to Ukiah, where another of my brothers was living, along with most of my
cousins. I worked in the fields, picking grapes for the next two months. I was
living in a two-bedroom trailer along with twelve other people. The job was hard,
but I was getting paid. Finally I had some money to buy as much food as I
needed. The bad thing about working in the fields was that after the job was
done, we had to go to look for another assignment. That same year, I moved to a
place near Upper Lake to look for a job. I found work pruning pears trees and a
place to stay. For the next few weeks, I was isolated from the rest of my relatives
and my brother. I was living with three other strangers. None of us had a car or
knew how to drive. It was difficult to get someone to drive to town to get
At the beginning, everything was so strange to me. I had to move around
from job to job. I had to move back to Ukiah the next year for the same reason, to
find a job. I was unemployed for months before I was able to find work. Most of
the jobs I found were just temporary. I had to live with people I had never before
seen in my life. I needed to adjust to their customs and their cooking. We all had
to share the cooking job. The same cycle repeated every year, but new
challenges arose. I had left my culture and my parents, and integrating into a
new society was difficult.
My lifestyle in El Norte was not what I had expected. I had to work harder,
and my parents did not take care of me anymore. A new person inside of me was
emerging. I was becoming independent. After more than three years of working
in the fields, I found a way to go back to school to learn English. The turning point
of my life was when I left the fields to begin my education. In January, 1980, I
was able to enroll in a program sponsored by the California Human Corporation
that helps farm workers to learn English to get better jobs.
Years went by without my realizing the differences in my lifestyle; I was
becoming more Americanized. When I began an attending school to learn
English, my outlook toward life had a positive change. I was yearning for
knowledge. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. My English classes
were every day for six hours; I was having fun. I was sitting in a classroom
getting educated. I liked it. I no longer had to work hard in the fields but could
focus on new opportunities. I knew that I was going in the right direction, even
though it was hard to survive because I was living on a part-time job. I recall the
day I left the fields for school. My boss applauded me for having the courage to
take a chance and not settle for less. He was very happy for me.
After a few months of intensive learning, I moved to Santa Rosa to take
more advanced classes at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) and to find a
permanent job. I remember walking in the hallways at SRJC with my backpack
on my shoulders and feeling as if I were a little child who is going to school for
the first time. My dreams were becoming fulfilled.
After three years in El Norte, I returned home to visit my parents. During
the time that I had been gone from home, not many things had changed. It was
same everyday routine for everyone in the village. Parents took their children to
work instead of sending them to school. Women had to walk to the hills to find
water to wash the clothes. No improvement had been made in the schools for the
children, and no jobs were available for the parents to support their families. It
seemed as if the years did not go by in my hometown. It was the same town with
no future. Most teenagers older than fifteen would migrate to El Norte. It was
their only choice; they had to improve their lives. I saw such huge disparities
between the two societies into which I was integrated: my original uneducated
background and a culture with many opportunities. Six months later, after being
with my parents, I came back to El Norte to continue pursuing my goals. I came
back energized and eager to pursue my dreams. More than ever, I knew what I
needed to do.
A year later, I met my first wife. Born in San Francisco as a thirdgeneration descendent from a Mexican family, she could hardly speak Spanish,
and I was having trouble with my English. It was difficult at times to have good
communication. A year later, my first-born son, Angelo, was born. At the age of
twenty-two, I had to become responsible and independent and support a family. I
definitely was not prepared for that. I stopped attending school during the day so
I could work in San Francisco in construction, but I continued taking classes in
the evening at SRJC. It was not just to get a better job but to have better
communication with my family.
For several years, I worked in construction and landscaping. I persisted in
attending school at night and worked during the day. It was my only way out. I
was meeting educated people with different ideas. I listened to what they had
done to improve their lives. I was expanding my network. I could set new goals
and achieve them. I was able to seek and find higher-paying jobs. For the first
time, I realized that reaching for the stars was possible. I was getting through one
the biggest obstacles an immigrant faces here in El Norte, the language barrier. I
was coexisting with diverse people and not just with members of my own culture.
I believe this is what makes us stronger. In May, 1984, I was offered a job in one
of the most prestigious companies in Sonoma County, Hewlett-Packard.
While working at Hewlett Packard, I met many people from many
backgrounds. I learned from them about their own survival. Everyone had his or
her own struggles. Many of them came from different countries, but with the
same type of aspiration. I loved my first indoor job. I was hired as an entry-level
assembler. For the first time in my life, I was part of a big corporation with great
fringe benefits. I was able to do my job from a comfortable chair. “What a life,” I
thought. Suddenly, all my hard work was paying off. I had the luxury of working
all year round, inside a place where I did not get wet from the rain or burnt by the
sun working outdoors. I felt disheartened that my brothers were still working in
the fields. They refused to go to school. They thought they were too old to go
back to school. I remember that I encouraged them to take classes in the
evening so they could learn English and get better jobs. I tried to convince them
that English is a vital part of our lives and that it becomes essential in our
everyday life in El Norte. I was not very successful with them, but I knew what I
had to do to achieve my dreams.
It didn’t take me long to realize that working as an assembler, I would not
be able to make enough money to support my family. After my second son,
Marcos, was born, I decided to go to school full-time and work at night. I needed
to earn more money to provide for my family. I enrolled myself in the Electronics
Technician Program at the SRJC. In June, 1988, I graduated from Santa Rosa
Junior College with an AS Degree. With my academic achievement and excellent
job performance, I was able to move up to a high-level technician job.
Not everything went so smoothly for me. I had to overcome many diverse
obstacles at work, and I was facing family crises at home. When I was promoted
to higher positions, there were conflicting issues among my coworkers. I had to
prove myself over again. No one likes to fall behind. In 1991, I had a severe
accident that ended my martial arts hobby. After more than ten years of
marriage, my wife and I were divorced in 1993. Confused and disheartened, my
kids had to share homes. My four year-old-daughter Veronica felt it the most
because she did not understand what was happening to her family.
Even through these tough times of my life, I continued working toward my
goal. Determined to move up in my career, I enrolled at Sonoma State University
in the Computer Science Program. I became energized again with the
encouragement and support from a beautiful and compassionate person,
Rebecca, whom I later married. I met her while I was working at HewlettPackard. With similar backgrounds and goals, we soon became bonded. She
wanted to become an Electrical Engineer, and I wanted to get into the field of
Computer Science. She has fulfilled her dream; I am still working on mine.
Education gave me many opportunities at work. I moved up from an
entry-level position to a software developer. I was able to take business trips and
get reimbursed for all the expenses. The company sent me to technical training
seminars; I was learning and getting paid at the same time. I could not help but
think about the times when I had wanted to go to school in Mexico and I had not
been able to. Now I was getting paid to go to school!
I now go back to visit my hometown and my parents as often as possible.
More than ever, I want to share my success with my relatives. My dad and I take
the same trails that I took many years ago to go to work. Every time I go to see
my parents, my dad celebrates my arrival. He invites all his brothers and my
cousins for a big fiesta at my house. My parents have always been proud of me.
The most enjoyable moments of my vacations are when we take family picnics.
We take plenty of food, refreshments, and games for the children. The favorite
place for me is the hills where I spent my younger years.
It is incredible how time changes life! As a child, I did not want to go up
those rigid roads, carrying my hoe on my shoulder and a bottle of water in my
other hand. How ironic that now every time I have a chance, I love to go back
and spend time on those hills. For the past twenty-six years, time after time, I
have gone to my hometown, back to the land of my childhood. When I am in my
home village, I love to walk or horseback ride and reminisce. Most of the
mornings, I take longs walks up the captivating hills. I sit on a rock contemplate
the beautiful mountains far away. I close my eyes and see myself as an eightyear-old, looking at the same path, to the north, and wishing I could fly over the
mountains where I could find the beautiful land of my dreams, a land where
everything is peaceful and there is no hunger. This is the inspiration that drives
me to be involved and help the Hispanic community in El Norte.
A few years ago, I saw myself at a point where I could help others in my
community. I got involved in many community outreach programs. I am now a
volunteer for Junior Achievement and Habitat for Humanity. I am on the advisory
board for Mathematics Engineering Science Advancement (MESA). Through
Junior Achievement and MESA, I motivate and encourage students to explore
new educational opportunities and to pursue their dreams. The most rewarding
feeling is when I work through these programs to help children from Mexican
families who are going through the same struggles that I went through. When I
was interviewing the families for a Habitat house, I saw their inadequate living
conditions and their financial disadvantages. This reminded me of the road we
immigrants go through to succeed in El Norte.
Story Person
I am a story person. I usually cannot remember times or dates, I often will
not remember the names or even the exact places, but I always know the story.
Everything that happens means something to me and I have been around long
enough to know that there is no such a thing as a coincidence. At thirty-three
years of age. I find my life to be enjoyable; in fact it's pretty cool to be me these
days. In the following pages I am going to attempt to show you who I am and
give you an idea of what my life has been like. Please bear with me if the journey
seems a bit haphazard or random; that is how I learn. I was born in Yonkers,
New York, on February 20,1969. My family moved to Tarrytown, New York,
when I was two years old. My brother X (my only sibling) was born in January of
1972. We moved to Summit, New Jersey, in 1982, when 1 was thirteen years
old. We moved again to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1985, when t was sixteen years old.
All of these moves were prompted by job opportunities for my father as he
climbed the corporate ladder. In January of 2000 I moved to California on my
own because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I now call Oakland my
home and I have no desire to live anywhere else.
The first time I had my recurring dream I lived in New York. I was ten or
maybe thirteen. The dream always takes place in a swimming pool but not
always the same exact pool. The scene is completely deserted, just me standing
by myself in the shallow end of the pool. I am in approximately four feet of water
and everything is completely quiet. There is no movement in any direction, not
even a breeze. It is never clear how, but I always end up becoming submerged
in the water and I realize that I cannot get back to the surface. I am two feet from
the surface but for some reason I cannot break free of whatever it is that is
holding me under. I quickly become frenzied with the desperation that
overcomes a person when he can see death. I struggle frantically, but it is no
use. AII I want is one more breath of air; that is the only thing, air. I am trapped.
I sense that the force is inescapable, but I don't really accept my fate so much as
a new idea occurs to me. It somehow occurs to me that if I lie perfectly still, if I do
not move a single muscle, I might be able to breathe under water. It is not a
deduction or experience based on trial and error; I suddenly just know this is the
answer. I lay floating two feet beneath the surface of the water completely
unclenched and I begin to breathe. It is not the same sort of greedy gasping that I
would be doing above the water. It is calm, slow, even breaths. I am suspended
in some sort of inertia, in complete silence, looking up at the perfectly blue sky.
There is no movement, no sound, nothing except my breathing, my thoughts, and
the sky. When t was younger I thought this dream was a nightmare. Now I am
not so sure.
It always seemed to me that I was the only person in the show who didn't
get a copy of the script. Everyone else knew their lines, but I was just making it
up as I went along, taking my cues wherever I could get them. I don't know if it
was my parents, society, or some sort of spiritual malady but I was frazzled as far
back as I can remember. Certainly there are the memories that I hear other
people relate in their stories about playing, running, laughing as a child;
searching for toads and turtles, chasing fireflies on endless summer nights,
skating on the frozen ponds in the winter. But I never felt quite right. Those more
positive memories are overshadowed by the far more powerful memories of fear,
confusion, frustration, and pain. Somehow I just wasn't good enough. I have
always felt less than other people but it was more than a feeling. To me it was a
fact. I was the only square peg in a world full of round holes but I desperately
wanted to fit in anyway. My assumption was that people don't like me and I have
to find a way to make them like me. I developed the idea that the key to life was
learning how to fake it. Some people set out to prove to the world that they are
somebody. My principal goal in life was to hide from the world as many of my
heinous flaws as possible and to try and have a life anyway. I had no concept of
self and yet I was convinced I wasn't any good, so I had better come up with an
acceptable persona that I could show to the world. Living In fear is extremely
painful; living a lie is much more appealing when the truth is unbearable. Practice
does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. I suffered for years at the
hands of a severe case of bad ideas.
I have always been a stubborn, rebellious, non-conformist, an instigator,
and possibly, above all else, an extremist. These were my defenses. I thought
they were protecting me from being exposed as the worthless loser I believed I
was. These defenses were not attached to any rational thought; I simply had no
perspective on myself. One of my earliest ideas about life was that I needed to
be a tough guy. Tough guys were cool; they were strong and nobody messed
with a tough guy. This notion has been responsible for more problems than any
other single factor in my life. The principle tenets of being a tough guy are that
you never cry and you never ask for help, regardless of the situation. As a child I
would go to the dentist to have the cavities in my teeth filled. I always refused to
accept a shot of Novocain or any other anesthetic prior to having my teeth drilled.
Time and again I sat in that dentist chair and endured pain that was nothing less
than excruciating because I thought the experience was beneficial. A tough guy
must have battle scars, and I was determined to have mine. Most of my scars
ended up being self-inflicted, but I took them however I could get them.
Approaching my family is never easy; in fact I usually prefer not to. I have
learned to love my parents but I would be lying if I said I am comfortable with
them. To this day a visit to their house is usually accompanied by insomnia and
nightmares. I have realized that my parents are not evil (which I used to think),
nor are they saints (which some people think and they definitely think). My father
had no father of his own, so he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and climbed
to the top of corporate America. The only thing he understands is business and
work (not an exaggeration). He was a seven-day-a-week guy until the baby
boomers invaded the top ranks and put him out to pasture. As much as I hated
the fact that he was never home (he would often go in to work on a Friday
morning and come home on Sunday evening), it is hard to see him now stripped
of his identity.
My mother is cut from the same type of workaholic cloth, but she has three
times the intellect that my father has. I remember walking into her study one day
when they lived in Ohio (I was eighteen or maybe twenty five), to find her crying
behind her desk. This was incredibly unusual because I wasn't the only one not
allowed to cry in our house. She looked up at me and blurted out that her mother
had been dead for (some number of) years and she was still trying to please her.
This was the first time it ever occurred to me that she had feelings. My mother is
the type of person who will tell you exactly what she thinks. I have never seen
her pull a punch. She is a perfectionist by nature, a musicologist by trade, and
there are few subjects in any arena of life that she cannot contribute to a
conversation on (if not dominate). Both of my parents have done and said many
things that were great fodder for the therapist's chair (I have seen six). I did my
best to try and pin my problems on my parents, but that never did anything but
increase my misery. Our house was a group of individuals living together
attempting to defend themselves (usually from each other). It was often a war
zone. When we were together we almost could not stop fighting. Much of what
happened in our house is bizarre or simply sad. I could write for days on this
subject alone. However, there is no time for that, nor any good reason. Suffice it
to say that our family was dysfunctional. Also, let it be stated for the record that
today I honestly believe that we all did the best we could considering the burdens
that each of us was carrying (which were substantial).
I sometimes think that if my parents had encouraged me to give up on
school and become a line cook at the local Denny's that I would be sitting in
Congress right now. I reflexively rebelled against anything I was told to do. I was
a poor student in grade school and became an abysmal student by the time I
reached high school. I thought I was dumb. I felt inferior to the other students so
my solution was to reject school summarily and not even try. School has been a
constant source of anxiety, shame, and frustration my entire life. I just couldn't
seem to get it. I didn't understand what was going on and a strange combination
of fear and pride precluded my asking for help. This was exacerbated by the fact
that I never stayed in one school system for more than three years. I had a hard
time meeting new friends at every stop and I hated having my work judged
(graded). I viewed every criticism as a personal attack and would defend myself
or retreat depending on the situation. A progress report from grade school
generally had NI's (needs improvement) and some S's (satisfactory) and usually
had comments that said something like "X does not play well with the other
children. He is frequently disruptive and cannot seem to sit still." By the time I
got to high school my grades were D's and F's and rather than having me sit in
the hall (usual grade school punishment), I was regularly suspended and/or
expelled. To say the least, I did not excel in school, but that was only
symptomatic of my problem.
One day around the age of eight or maybe ten I was wandering around
the neighborhood in New York thinking about God. I don't know why I was
thinking about God. Maybe I saw something on television or someone had been
talking to me. I was looking up at the clouds in the sky, the trees, the river, and all
of my surroundings trying to conceive of who God was and how he made all this.
I recall it being a pleasant experience, just wondering in all directions about this
all powerful dude who controlled everything. I wondered what God looked like,
what he sounded like, and what he did with his time. As I fumbled with these
ideas I came across a bunch of boxes (full of trash) set out on the street to be
picked up by the garbage truck. There was one box in particular that caught my
eye. It had been a case of Beefeater's gin. There was (and is) on the side of
every bottle (and box) of Beefeater's a very stoic looking Scotsman with white
hair wearing a smart hat and very noble looking garb. This character on the bottle
of gin somehow fit my conception of God perfectly at the time and I decided that
this must be what God looks like. I pulled my first conception of God off a bottle
of gin and it wasn't long before I found my second conception in the bottle of gin.
About this same time I discovered marijuana. I remember in fifth grade the
school brought in a police officer to talk to us (very sternly) about drugs and I was
scared because I had already been smoking pot. Smoking dope seemed like
something I should be doing. I have no idea why, but that is just how it seemed. I
didn't know anything about it, not even how to inhale it properly, but the big kids
smoked it and so did I. To my parents, things like drugs, booze, sex, and
smoking were off limits as topics of conversation. Their favorite tactic for dealing
with any uncomfortable topic that happened to come up was to state that I knew
better than to mess with it, and thereby avoid it all together. Pot (and other
substances) became an important ingredient in my life. A little further down the
road once I discovered my true love, King Alcohol.
I don't exactly remember how it all got started, but by the time I was
fourteen years old alcohol was the most important component of my life. I loved
alcohol more than life itself; it was everything to me. Alcohol changed my life and
for quite some time it changed it for the better. Within the space of a few drinks I
could go from being riddled with fear, chronic insecurities, and social anxieties to
being king of ail surveyed. Alcohol gave me confidence. It gave me courage,
strength, and it made me smart and attractive. Liquid gold. The elixir of life,
alcohol instantaneously converted me from a pointless loser into a bad ass stud
who moved and operated with supreme confidence. Alcohol was my first true
love and I fell head over heals for her. I was willing to do or sacrifice anything to
stay close to her. I was lonely, I was so desperate to feel a part of something, to
be loved and to have friends, that alcohol filled the void inside of me perfectly.
This was truly a match made in heaven and before it was over I would go from
heaven to hell with it. I believe I was an alcoholic before I ever picked up a drink.
The actual physical consumption of alcohol was the last part of the disease to
take its place in my life. I also believe that if I had not found alcohol when I did I
would never have survived my adolescence.
Moderation has never been a part of my vocabulary; this is especially
evident in my drinking. The first time alcohol almost killed me I was fifteen years
old. I had stolen a bottle of Vodka from my parent’s liquor cabinet and taken it to
a high school party. I put the bottle on a table in the middle of the room next to
the only other bottle of booze in the house. I was nervous about leaving my bottle
on the table because there were twenty or thirty other kids there and only two
bottles of booze. I tried to be cool and socialize but I couldn't take my eyes off my
bottle. I was obsessed with it. I was terrified that I wouldn't get enough because
the other kids would drink it all up. I tried to stay composed as I watched a girl
pick up my bottle and make a drink. Finally I couldn't take it any longer and I
grabbed my bottle and scampered off to a bedroom to get my fair share before all
those selfish idiots drank up my booze. I recall turning the bottle up and gulping it
down like it was water. I blacked out before I finished the bottle. My next coherent
recollection was lying in a hospital bed with a doctor asking me questions and
shining a light into my eyes. Evidently someone had found me passed out in the
rain somewhere and they were nice enough to call an ambulance for me. Doctors
came in and out of the hospital room all day reading me the riot act, giving me
facts and figures, ostensibly in an attempt to scare me. They said my blood
alcohol content (BAC) had been astronomically high (.33). My body temperature
had dropped dangerously low and my heart-rate was down to fourteen beats per
minute by the time I was brought into the emergency room. I was too confused to
be scared. I had no idea what had happened. I went to a party and the next thing
I knew I was in a hospital room with my parents at the foot of the bed and very
serious looking doctors lecturing me. I went home that evening and attempted to
reconstruct the events of the evening to no avail. Friends of mine called and
related stories of my behavior up to the point where they lost track of me but I
could remember none of it. I realized that I had drunk too much but I had no idea
what to make of the gap in my memory .I determined not to drink that much
again, but it never crossed my mind to stop drinking simply because I had almost
died. Not drinking was unthinkable. Not drinking was death. I was stuck between
the veritable rock and a hard place. Without booze I was suicidal but the booze
might kill me. I walked this tightrope for the better part of the next sixteen years.
Being young and having a baby face made it difficult for me to acquire my
life's blood through traditional means. I heard somewhere that necessity is the
mother of invention; in my world desperation was the mother of crime. I got into
the habit of keeping track of the comings and goings of our neighbors in New
Jersey. Once I determined that a house would be empty for the evening I would
grab a bag, smash a window, and rob their liquor cabinet. I didn't take a
television or a VCR, I didn't go after money, I just wanted the booze and that is all
took, only eighty proof and up. I despised the taste of alcohol in any form; I
desired the effect, therefore, I saw no point in wasting time with wine or some
syrupy liqueur. I would stash the bottles around the neighborhood so I would
have a reliable supply of booze until it ran out, at which point I would pull off
another heist. This lasted until moved to Ohio where the drinking age was
nineteen and a fake ID was easy to come by.
By the time I moved to Ohio (prior to my junior year in high school) my
drinking was in full swing and I felt like I was on top of the world. I didn't realize it
at the time, but we had moved into one of the strangest places I have ever seen
in my life. Bobsville, Ohio, is the kind of place that many Americans think they
want to live. It is an exclusive old-money suburb of Cincinnati with sprawling
Great Gatsby like estates and absolutely no commercial enterprises permitted
inside of its township limits. It is the kind of place where you will routinely run into
people whose last names are familiar because it is on the products you purchase
at the store or on the stores themselves. Everyone looked good and acted
The day I walked into Bobsville High School my inferiority complex got
turned up to eleven on a scale of one to ten. But I am nothing if not resilient and
soon found a way to get by in this new and intimidating environment; this is
where I discovered what drugs could do for me. This new environment was
loaded with kids who had busy, prominent parents, pockets full of money, and
unsupervised time on their hands. A perfect environment for breeding drug
addicts and this place was loaded with drugs (The recent movie, Traffic, depicted
Bobsville pretty much accurately). I never liked Bobsville very much. I was not
comfortable in country clubs or prestigious social functions. My reputation as a
bad-ass was useless here because the playing field had changed; it was all
about status, power, and prestige now. I felt I couldn't compete in this world and
the feeling returned that I would never be anything but a loser. I began to seek
out oblivion, and drugs provided what I was looking for.
By the time I was finishing high school my patterns were established. If I
was awake I needed to be taking something and I usually started right out of bed,
often before I even got dressed. I loved drinking, but I couldn't control it. Once I
started I had no idea how much I would drink or what would happen; blackouts
were frequent and often humiliating. If I had to be somewhere or be functional I
could not afford to start drinking. Drugs were the only things that I ever found
that were helpful in controlling my drinking. Without them I tended to drink
around the clock. Drugs turned down the volume in my head (resentments
fueled by screaming insecurities) and made it possible for me to show up and
tolerate the day. Alcohol provided self esteem in the form of an exaggerated ego,
while drugs provided apathy in the form of a bad attitude. Alcohol helped me to
feel good, drugs helped me to not care about feeling bad. My graduation
ceremony from high school was a thorough tongue-lashing administered by the
assistant principal accompanied by a suspension for the last three days of school
and a deal. I had not passed enough classes to have actually earned a diploma,
but the last thing the school administrators wanted was to have me around for
another year (they had tried to expel me earlier, but my father wouldn't permit it).
The assistant principal told me that if I agreed to never let my shadow darken the
doorway of that school again (including showing up for the graduation
ceremony), he would be kind enough to have my diploma mailed to me. This was
fine with me. He no longer cared and neither did I.
I never expected to live to be twenty five years old. Part of me always
knew that my life was insane, but I had become so accustomed to it that I
couldn't imagine my life any other way. I thought the booze and drugs were
giving me a reason to live, but in reality all I had done was opted for suicide on
the installment plan. The previous seven years had been a blur. I had been trying
to put together some kind of a life for myself (in spite of myself) but the booze
and drugs retarded everything. It had not all been tedium, it was more like a roller
coaster ride. There had been fun and good times, girlfriends, parties, and
vacations. A pattern of hope verses hopelessness developed. A new job, new
girlfriend, new attempt at college or other event would provide hope and the roller
coaster would swing up. Generally my drinking (it had become everything all the
time now, it's just easier to say drinking) would ebb and I would begin my new
life. Invariably my new plan would come apar1 for one reason or another and the
roller coaster would begin to plummet. All of the details are basically the same. I
believe the sheer numbers will be sufficient to give you an idea of what the chaos
was like. In the seven years since I finished high school I had been through four
different attempts at college (twice at the university where my mother was on
staff), between ten and fifteen jobs, and three principle saviors (girlfriends), with a
number of possible saviors mixed in just in case. These were the good
memories. Life on the way down the hill was fragmented, isolated, and often
horrific. I almost hate to go back there, but it is impor1ant that I never forget what
it was like.
I woke up one day in November of 1994 in a detox center down in the
projects located off Ezzard Charles Drive known as the "Cat House." I had been
going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for about two years off and on and a
sober member who had befriended me brought me to the detox. I had been there
a couple of days when I found myself sitting on the rubber bed in my room
thinking about my life. Treatment was nothing new to me; I had once spent for1y
eight days in an in-patient substance abuse unit and had run through five or six
different therapists. I had been through a lot, I had watched people around me
commit suicide, get murdered, and go to prison. I had memories of things that I
had done that I hoped would never see the light of day.
I once heard that character is defined by what a person does when no one
else is looking. That statement turned my stomach. I had been getting by for the
last few years by telling myself that I could always end my life if it became too
unbearable. Somehow that thought was comforting during times of extreme
mental anguish. But, alas, I had reached that point and found out that I didn't
want to die. I just did not know how to live. I sat in contemplation of what my life
had been like and of it's current status. There was not one thing I could think of
that I was interested in keeping. My life was just a confusing mess. I also knew
beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would walk out of that hospital and drink
again no matter how much I desired to stay sober. Nothing I had tried before had
worked. My mind was my enemy and there seemed no way out. I felt hopeless
and alone. The AA people always talked about prayer and God, which seemed
irrelevant to me, but I had been going to meetings long enough to have the idea
resonate in my mind. Certainly I was powerless over alcohol and my life was
definitely unmanageable (AA's first step reads: "We admitted we were powerless
over alcohol and that our lives were unmanageable"). But the God stuff (step two
reads: "came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to
sanity") always threw me. I had figured out that God was on (or in) the
Beefeater's bottle and that was the last time I really concerned myself with the
idea of God. Now this fictional deity created by a bunch of self-righteous
assholes was to be my savior? Sitting on the edge of my rubber bed with a past I
didn't want to remember and a future I couldn't bear to think about, I felt I had
nothing to lose. I got down on my knees and mumbled out a prayer to a God I
didn't know or even believe in. I said something to this effect: "God, if you are
there and you want to do something with this life then you can have it. I don't
care what you do with it, I can't deal with this anymore. Amen." I got up and sat
back down on the bed and was overcome by a sense of calm or peace that I had
never before experienced. It is the strangest sensation I have ever experienced,
like a wave of serenity washed over me. It was accompanied by this strange
confidence that I could get sober, that I was going to be okay. The feeling that I
experienced that day didn't stay with me permanently or even for very long. It still
sounds like half-baked crap to me, but I have never from that day forward had to
doubt the existence of God. I cannot do justice to the gratitude I feel for that
experience. Finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn't just
another train racing towards me.
For years my mind had been focused on many of the more negative
aspects of life. My life changed that day in the Cat House when I was set on a
different footing. It has not all been peaches and cream, but from that day
forward I have never felt alone in this world. I have misread-read the signs, taken
wrong turns, gotten lost and then found many times. I have learned a lot of
things, the most important of which is that I know only a little. Life is a journey
and my job is to remain teachable the entire way through. I have learned that I
am only in trouble when I refuse to grow, when I dig my heels in and won't go any
further. At almost five years sober I did just that and had a relapse back into
drinking. I have been sober now for almost eighteen months and I can honestly
say that I have never had it so good. I am not a religious person (I don't go to
church) but I have been granted a god consciousness. I cannot conceive of God
in any tangible way (I have tried and it is silly). I don't know what his will is for me
other than what I have seen in retrospect. I do know that God exists and he will
reveal himself to us when we honestly want him. My last bout with booze broke
the last vestiges of my resistance to spiritual matters. I don't run around spouting
off about God, trying to save every person I come across, but I am willing to be of
service to anyone that wants help. I no longer have anything to hide. I have
unloaded all my secrets and made amends for the harm I have done. I am not
perfect and that is exactly as it should be. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am
one of God's creations and I have as much a right to be here as anyone else.
Woody Allen once said that "eighty percent of life is just showing up." I believe
that to be true. The other twenty percent is God's affair, and is simply none of my
Spiritual Evolution
Have you ever heard of a dog referred to as a "Heinz 57"? This term is
commonly used to indicate that a dog is a blend of many different breeds. My
spiritual history echoes that term. It constitutes a blend of many diverse
components: influences from my formative years, childhood religious instruction,
extensive reading on spiritual and philosophical subjects, and life experiences.
All of these diverse factors have led to my personal spiritual evolution.
The foundation of my religious beliefs began during my youth. My mother
is not a religious person in the church-going sense, and my father died when I
was five. Mom has a philosophical approach to life: she believes wisdom is the
key to a successful life. Mom is an avid reader who is always reading at least two
books at a time. One of those two books is on philosophy, history, or politics, and
the other book is always the Bible. But she is not the typical Bible student. She
never quotes verses or preaches, but she does believe the Bible contains
wisdom not contained in any other text. When my sister and I were children,
Mom would often use an example from the Bible to show us something she
wanted us to learn relating to a principle in life. One of her favorite Biblical
concepts was "always treat others as you want to be treated." These words of
wisdom managed to surface every time my sister and I got into a disagreement.
I learned to pray when I was around six or seven. Mom would come in our room
prior to my sister and I going to sleep and have us say our bedtime prayers. The
usual prayer was "Now I lay me down to sleep." Saying that prayer always
disturbed me. Every night I would go to sleep wondering what I needed to be
protected from.
Mom began giving me philosophy books to read when I was about 12
years old, ranging from Plato to Kahlil Gibran. Although I had no idea of the
depth of the material I was reading, it began my life long desire to understand the
meaning of life. I started to question my understanding of God. I wondered why,
if God loved me, he would let my father die, and whether there was really a
heaven and hell? I remember lying awake some nights pondering what heaven
or hell would be like, and becoming terrified that I would do something bad and
be doomed to a fiery death. I could not make sense of how a God who loved me
could also hurt me.
While my mother was teaching me her form of wisdom, I had some formal
religious teaching. My sister and I were baptized Greek Orthodox, my father's
religion. Our mother is Catholic. We practiced neither as children. Three blocks
away from our home was a non-denominational Christian Church, and Mom sent
us there as soon as we were old enough to attend Sunday school. My sister had
little interest in Sunday school, but I liked it. The minister would talk about loving
one another and accepting God's will. It felt comforting, just like snuggling in my
warm bed on a cold night. When the sermon was over, all the children would be
divided up by age and sent to separate rooms for more intimate studies. While in
our study room, we would color, read scriptures, and pray. I loved listening to the
stories of Jesus parting water or healing the sick. When I was in church, the
"place of God," all my fears and questions would go away. I felt safe and loved. I
continued to go to church until we moved, when I was around 13 years old.
My childhood taught me many things. I learned the basic values of
honesty, integrity, and respect. I also learned that prayer was a way to talk to
God, that God was omnipresent, and that he loved me unconditionally. Church
and my mother's Bible wisdom became critical components in preparing me for
the course my future would take. Without this firmly established foundation, I
would not have had the basis to grow spiritually or develop the values I have
As I matured, so did my spiritual interests. I began reading books on
various spiritual disciplines. If you were to peruse through my bookcase you
would find books on topics such as comparative religions, myth, mystery schools,
Egyptian initiation, astrology, philosophy, and physics. The information in these
books represented the pieces of the puzzle that was becoming the picture of my
life. For example, The Religions of Man, by Houston Smith, offered my first
exposure to a variety of religious traditions. It imparted an understanding of how
religions developed and gave me their core beliefs. The Tao of Peace, by Diane
Dreher, taught me to detach from my problems and discover solutions to bring
harmony to my life. The scientific approach was introduced with a book by
Michael Talbot, titled The Holographic Universe. This book gave a scientific
perspective on energy distribution, which I hypothesized as the explanation of
how Jesus could heal the sick.
While my breadth of spiritual knowledge grew, my personal experiences
added depth to my evolution. There were a series of events which presented me
new opportunities for spiritual mastery. For example, a serious illness brought
me close to death. This event resulted in a greater appreciation of my family and
friends. The pain and anxiety of an unpleasant marriage, resulting in divorce,
developed my independence and commitment to seeking peace and harmony in
my life. A house fire, destroying much of what we owned, provoked thoughts of
the value of material possessions in relation to life itself. Being a single parent
raising two children while working full-time and going to school at night sparked
the realization of my ability to manage complicated situations. The events
strengthened my character and guided the development of my spiritual values.
Spiritual teachers also had a significant influence in my spiritual evolution.
Pat Corrington, author and lecturer, introduced me to the concept of living in nonjudgment. At the time, living a life of non-judgment was not my approach. I
judged events in life as bad, good, right, or wrong. My whole existence was
immersed in these polarities. I would blame myself or someone else when things
didn't go as I thought they should. For example, when watching television I
judged each reported event as right or wrong. I could not accept how
governments could allow their people to starve to death, or how a mother or
father could abuse their young child.
One evening, I attended a lecture by Pat. I thought it would be an
entertaining discussion on past life regression. The evening began as I expected,
talking about past life regressions Pat had conducted. I can't even remember
how the conversation strayed, but all of a sudden we were discussing judging
how what we do impacts the lives of others and vice versa.
Pat is intelligent, loving, and extremely insightful into divine interpretation.
She asked us to participate in an exercise which might offer us another
interpretation of events in our lives. The exercise consisted of taking a painful
event and evaluating what we learned and how it changed us. I immediately
thought back to my unpleasant divorce from my husband of thirteen years. I
explored who I had become since the event five years earlier. I was now more
independent, happier, and healthier. I had obtained a good job and was back in
school. Although every day was a challenge, I awoke happy and ready to face it.
My perception began to change as I evaluated the outcome of the event; but
when Pat asked me to view the perpetrator of the event as an angel or child of
God coming to earth to assist me to evolve spiritually, I almost fell off my chair.
Pat proceeded to piece together what turned out to be a pivotal shift in my
reality. She began discussing how all events impact us in some ways. For
example, a child who loses her mother to a dreadful disease, in turn, grows up
and finds a cure saving countless other lives. Pat then had us ask ourselves a
question which changed my life forever: what if the people in my life incarnated
for the purpose of facilitating the experiences necessary for me to evolve
spiritually, while evolving themselves, and assisting God to enable me to explore
being human?
Thoroughly immersed in the idea that we were all here for a divine
purpose, which included events that ranged from reverent to despicable, and that
there was some kind of pre-agreement that each of us would play a role in a
divine theater of life, was beginning to sound feasible. I imagined my ex-husband
and all the other people who had ever disappointed or hurt me as angels
assigned to my spiritual growth. As I did, I had what some would call a shift in
perception or spiritual experience. I no longer controlled the vision. The angels
turned into light and merged with an enormous brighter light, which I immediately
recognized as God. I heard a noise, blinked, and was awakened from the vision
never to be the same.
The exercise left me feeling peaceful and enlightened. My perception of
the world had been altered. I viewed life as a series of experiences benefiting the
collective consciousness, not as personal failures or successes. Individuals no
longer were bad or good; they were only children of God evolving spiritually
through a physical experience. I became grateful for each person I had known. I
now felt each assisted me by becoming a negative or positive catalyst in my
development. My anger, disappointments, and confusion dissipated. I envisioned
the love that the spiritual aspect of each of those beings must have for me,
knowing that neither they nor I would remember the gift they offered me until we
were once again joined with God.
Today, I still have judgments and opinions, anything less would defy
human nature. The difference now is that when they surface I consciously resist
the need to identify events as bad, good, right, or wrong. Instead, I see events as
vehicles to serve my spiritual growth and those of the people involved. For
instance, I now view my marriage as an important part of my growth as an
individual. It taught me effective techniques to deal with difficult circumstances
which I now utilize in personal and work situations. I also have greater
compassion for myself and those around me. If someone comes to me for
assistance, I do not entertain the thought of how he or she got into such a mess?
Instead, I help the person focus on the positive that can be gained from the event
and offer ideas to turn the situation into one he or she can benefit from. When
watching television, I no longer judge what I see as right or wrong. I view the
events as information from which I gain knowledge about myself and the world.
This knowledge allows me to better serve myself and those in my life.
Shortly after meeting Pat Corrington, another teacher came into my life,
Gregg Braden. Gregg is an author, lecturer, and tour leader who is a student of
the ancient texts. He identifies closely with the teaching of the Essene
Brotherhood, believed by some to be those who prepared Christ for his mission
on earth. Meeting and eventually becoming friends with Gregg furthered my
evolving spiritual growth. I have traveled to many ancient and sacred places with
him, and he has introduced me to an abundance of new information and
concepts. For example, in one of his seminars, I learned about sacred geometry:
the study of shapes, numbers, and proportions, as they relate to creation. In
another workshop I learned the rituals of Egyptian initiation.
Gregg's book, titled Walking Between the Worlds:The Science of Compassion, lays
out his concept for developing compassion in our lives. He believes that
approximately twenty-five books were taken from our Biblical texts and reserved
exclusively for the scholars. One of these books contained information on the
science of compassion. Gregg's book offers information and processes on how
to develop compassion for the events you experience and observe in life. The
approach is not derived from the traditional definition of compassion as pity or
complacency, but rather represents a process or blessing for the event and the
people involved.
The publishing of Gregg's book was timely. I was feeling ready for new
information to further my spiritual growth. Although, I was fully committed to
accepting that every event and person in my life was fulfilling a role in the divine
plan of life, I was still having trouble staying non-judgment with events such as
innocent children being murdered. The process Gregg outlined in his book was
the tool that assisted me to move from judgment to compassion.
The process consists of three steps: in the first, I was to bless the action,
event, or situation that had caused pain or suffering; in the second, I was to
bless those who I believed had been hurt, and those who were the perpetrators.
The final step was to bless myself in the witnessing or experiencing of the event,
action, or situation. The caveat to using the process is that I must believe that
there is a single source of all that exists. That was easy for me. My spiritual
development lead me to believe that there is a power greater than myself of
which I am one aspect: a power I choose to call God.
I took the process and added what I learned about being non-judgmental
and began to use it. The process resembled the act of forgiveness, but turned
out to be much more. I took a situation that I had been struggling with and went
through all the steps. When I was done, I found myself not only free of the
emotions that the event evoked, but I was giving thanks to God for offering me
the opportunity to know myself better. I am still not exactly sure how it worked,
but it did, and that was all I cared about.
A recent application of using the process occurred when I visited Tibet. It
would have been very easy to get angry at the Chinese communists for the
atrocities they have committed and continue to perpetrate against the Tibetan
people, but instead I used the process. I blessed the Tibetans for being the ones
who agreed to have the experience of oppression. I blessed the Chinese
communists for taking on the role as the offenders. I then blessed myself for the
observation of the event, and gave thanks to both the Tibetans and Chinese
communists for having the experience so that all of us would benefit in our
spiritual evolution. After using the process I felt peaceful. I enjoyed my trip
without feeling angry, sad, or fearful, which was the feeling of many who
journeyed with me.
I use this process any time I need assistance moving into a position from
non-judgment to compassion. As a result, I have developed more compassion for
myself and others. I still feel strong emotions regarding events I observe or
experience, but no longer do those emotions cloud my remembrance that we are
all part of the divine plan of life. Spiritually I feel closer to God and the people
with whom I interact.
I continue to be committed to my spiritual evolution. The knowledge I
obtain allows me to appreciate each day to its fullest. Life seems gentler and
more loving. My deep love for God, and those which have chosen to incarnate
into this lifetime with me, grows each day. I appreciate the experiences offered to
me, even if they do not make sense to me at the moment. I endeavor to live my
life with the values of honesty, integrity, respect, non-judgment, and compassion.
I consider life to be a precious gift, and I honor it in any way I can. Most
important, I see God in everything, and I believe that all life is an extension of
God and is perfect in WHATEVER form it may take.
Works Cited
Braden, Gregg. Walking Between the Worlds: The Science of Compassion.
Bellevue, Washington: Radio Bookstore Press, 1997.
Dreher, Diane. The Tao of Peace. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1990.
Smith, Houston. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Talbot, Michael. The Holographic Universe. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Spiritual Autobiography
Standing at the Gate
There are reports of people who are “Enlightened,” whose lives are
forever changed by an extraordinary event. There’s a story that’s been passed
on since before recent memory about the possibility of merging with the Infinite
(God) through the agency of an intermediary. For some that merciful agent might
be a Christ, a Church, a saint, a ritual, or prayer routine. For others, a pantheon
of gods and goddesses; or a “Great Spirit;” maybe a metaphysical phenomenon
titled “All That Is;” the Force;” or a Buddhist-like force that embraces a
psychology of personal dissolution into Nothing. For me the best guiding principle
is one with a title I had to make up for myself:
I’m a pan-theistic Unitarian. I believe first in the Power of Love to
transmute any other energy into God, and from there I delve deeper daily into a
range of spirituality and religious studies. I recognize pan-theism, or a system of
seeing God in everything, as my mode of travel to Unity–which is not only my
destination, but also my source. Sometimes I feel isolated in my religion, but
there are other ways I feel different from the majority of society–for example, I’m
one of very few women with the name Aubrey, which translates from the
Teutonic to “Fair Ruler of the Little People,” or “King of the Elves.”
My life began full of symbolism. I’m the seventh child, born at seven
pounds and seven ounces weight, in the seventh astrological sun house. The
date was 10/16/1961–in numerology this reduces to seven. I’ve always been
aware of the multitude of the number seven in the Old and New Testaments, the
seven chakras or centers of force in the human body, the seven planets known to
the ancients, seven stages in the unfolding of man’s spirit, and that Lucky Seven
in Las Vegas that just might be your fortune.
Unfortunately all these sevens didn’t help me get a childhood of fortunate
introduction to Wisdom by wise teachers aware of the significance of symbolism.
Instead my mother increased in her irritability and unloving meanness the month
I was born, by sustaining a back injury that provided her with pain for the next
thirteen years. This she shared with all of us, delegating my older siblings to
carry out most of my care. Finally she had an operation that moved the disc an
inch over, thus lessening, but not ending, a regular pattern of misery in our
Ignoring her lack of loving attention was impossible for me, an
exceptionally affectionate, happy-go-lucky Libra , and I spent thirty years in a
painful rhythm of moving towards her and moving away quickly again, stung by a
rebuff, insult, or physical blow; curling up in pain into myself, licking my wounds
in bewildered confusion. WHY was she so nasty and unloving? What had I
This question of why I was unlovable permeated my being. This question
is where my spiritual autobiography begins, where I strove to find a way that
Love could overpower Hate; a place where I felt the maternal affection that is for
many the basis of security in this life. I wanted to be warmly accepted and even
celebrated. I wanted to share affection with everyone close to me. This was not
happening at my home.
I remember little about my First Catholic Communion, but each Sunday
my devout father gathered Eugenia, Mark, Andrea, me, and Peter into the big old
car and we went to Mass (the older siblings had already moved out as early as
possible); I remember fighting in the car, then counting bald heads during mass
from the balcony of the ugly auditorium, bored, as my father ushered downstairs.
When I tried to understand my CCD teaching and figure out just why the body
and blood of Christ was so important, I failed. I was skeptical of any ritual where
350 people intoned, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through him all things were
made: “For us men,” with about as much energy as a sloth on the underside of a
branch on a hot afternoon. Aware of the imbalance of gender respect, I couldn’t
figure out why mass was so masculine, flat, and boring, and why people found
that attractive. Boring repetitions of why we celebrated mass didn’t convince me
that it was bringing me closer to God. The only things I enjoyed were the stories
of Jesus’ life, in which I took a keen interest, since they reflected kindness,
acceptance of everyone, and principles that I knew were Truth.
We lived in a spacious rural environment surrounded by placid creeks and
bays that led to wilder, broader bays ringed with sandbars that led to the Atlantic
Ocean. I loved to explore by myself in silence for hours, and there is where I
found God, in my Center that Knew. It eased the pain of feeling unloved that
burdened me a lot of the time. I heard in my head a definite Voice that I knew
was real. I liked to commune with the Voice in my favorite place, the silence of
unimpeded Nature. I also knew by the age of ten or so that the Voice was
becoming obscured by the increasing volume of information crowding my brain.
This Voice remains the Center of me. It is the Youth that still animates me
when I dance or make love wildly, swim or do yoga; even when I read something
enlivening, and commune with the author the way I did as a child.
My family could be the Alcoholics Anonymous poster children, to my
dismay. There was a lot of pressure to “party” in my childhood, and by the time I
was thirteen I was heavily addicted to cigarettes and marijuana. By fourteen I’d
tried many drugs. I detested everything about alcohol; but that didn’t stop me
from accepting and embracing everything else the kids offered me. At the time of
this experimentation, I didn’t see it as escaping a difficult home life; I saw it as
fun, another kind of adventuring into unknown territory. Drugs equaled spirituality
and exploration; it took courage and strength to agree to dive into the unknown of
a “trip.” I liked that, and I liked seeing God a lot. I learned early to smoke dope
and take off in the woods for hours, alone with my experience of God.
My first introduction to the vast plethora of spiritual paths occurred when I
was eighteen, living in New Orleans. An amazing coincidence landed my best
friend, (soul mate) Maria and me in a funky apartment in an all-black
neighborhood. This cheap but sunny and warm little railroad flat was fully
furnished with all the “coolest” furniture, music, and best of all, an astonishing
library. There were a dozen shelves of neatly organized, diverse and fascinating
religious and spiritual texts. The day we moved in, I was conveniently thrown ten
feet in the air from a motorcycle. Maria moved our meager belongings in a taxi,
and then joined me at the hospital–my mother wouldn’t fly down from New York.
She recommended I fly home (“where the doctors are decent”) after being hit at
45 m.p.h. and seeing my friend Donna almost die.
In four weeks of recovery, nursing my crushed knee, I read every book on
those shelves. I was fervently Christian in my faith: when the doctors at Charity
Hospital proposed patellar surgery, I proposed three days of reprieve and then I’d
return for a new X-ray. In those three days I prayed to Jesus more than I ever
had: constantly. I drank a gallon of carrot juice for the calcium, and when I
returned to Charity, the X-ray showed the pieces of bone had not separated.
They grudgingly let me go, with a crotch-to-ankle cast. I have a photo of myself in
a headstand in the painted cast.
That month of forced immobility and freedom to read constantly firmly
established my future path and cemented my faith that Many Paths lead to the
One. I was fascinated with the Sufi ideals and read all of Hazrat Inayat Khan. I
studied Zen Buddhism, Tao, Gibran, metaphysical systems and astrology, I
Ching, and various other arms of the Ageless Wisdom. I was terribly relieved to
discover in the Seth Material that bisexuality and non-monogamy are normal
states of the spirit. Already a habitual practitioner of Hatha Yoga, I learned the
depths that yogis plumb beyond the physical. Most of these Wisdom Paths,
including mystical Judaism, had never been introduced to me at all, and I drank
them all in like water.
Maria became my mainstay; she’d been present the day our Catholic High
School had discovered some LSD in my pocket and invited me to leave
immediately. She’d been the only person I was allowed to visit in the ensuing
punishing time, and when we took a road trip with her mother I learned that she
wasn’t exaggerating: her mother really was insane–unpredictably violent and
then sugar sweet. We bonded over a mutual protectiveness from the misery of
our homes, and swore to leave Long Island together. I accompanied her to an
abortion when we were sixteen, an event that held me in suspenseful terror for
the wrath of God coming to get her for murder. Our Catholicism was deeply
ingrained, and our guilt was heavy.
Our adventure in New Orleans ended after less than a year, and we
moved to Berkeley. Soon after, Maria’s mother committed suicide and left a note
vaguely insinuating that it was Maria’s fault. Almost immediately she began
having debilitating headaches that rendered her unable to move or speak for
most of the day. Her boyfriend assumed almost total care of her, and I did what I
By the time I was twenty, in San Francisco and preparing for motherhood,
I’d come to grips with my Catholic guilt about my voracious and multifaceted
sexuality. I’d cemented a lifelong respect and appreciation for all religions as
paths to the One Goal, and I looked forward to finding a path of Work that could
allow me to best use my potential here. I struggled daily with a deep-seated
addiction; no matter what I did to convince myself, reason, guilt-trip, or punish, I
was unable to stop using cigarettes and marijuana, even while pregnant. It
seemed I would die without at least a little of the “helpers” that had seen me
through since childhood. I was constantly guilty and in hiding, and I felt terrible
that God and my dead Aunt Lu could see me smoking.
I was also very concerned about Maria and spent much of my time doing
whatever I could to convince her it wasn’t time to commit suicide. She lived with
me off and on for the next ten years, as I pursued my goal of midwifery. She
graciously accepted and embraced my first lesbian lover, Karen, a soft Jewish
woman. She babysat while I worked as a hospice attendant, mostly helping AIDS
patients in their last days. With Karen I attended spirituality workshops, and
studied Buddhism, read Ram Dass and Steven Levine as a way to accept so
much death. I learned that death is only a gate, much like birth, not an absolute
end or an invitation to an eternity of flames. The most spiritual seconds I’ve
experienced were the moment before two different men left here (actually one
was kind of half woman). They both looked me in the eye and communicated
quite clearly: this is fine–you and I are one. There aren’t words for that moment.
My friend tells me, Aubrey, your job is to comfort the disturbed, and to
disturb the comfortable. How true that rings to me when I consider my path of
midwifery: I was passionate about the sacred passage of birth, because my own
delivery of Megan had been such a natural and transformative event. My kind
midwives had let Birth rip through me, unfettered by clothing, machinery or lights.
My daughter had slid into loving hands on a wide bed in a hotel-like room. The
contrast to the typical obstetrics units I began to work in was similar to The
Sound of Music vs. a horror movie.
At all the local obstetric wards, women labored in tiny dark rooms. Just
before birth, the really magic time when you can feel the power in the air,
absurdly gowned and masked ghosts ran down the hall pushing the woman on a
gurney into a glaringly lit operating room (think KKK). There the male doctors
shouted orders at the nurses and the woman on the narrow gurney, whose
baby’s hair showed between her legs. Commanding “Stop pushing!” they
decreed a wait until they were ready. She panted in desperate compliance,
utterly vulnerable. When ready, they cut her body with metal scissors, and
immediately took her blood-drenched baby away from her vision across the room
to where a loudly hissing suction machine sucked out the baby’s lungs. Then the
nursery personnel quickly wrapped the baby and took it away to the nursery. The
new Madonna would first hold her child two hours later.
This was so brutal to me that I wept regularly in outraged frustration. My
resolve to change the menacing, patriarchal obstetrical system I saw was
inflamed. I spent the next ten years working in all the region’s hospitals to
decrease the cruelty I encountered (especially the military hospital) and help
calm frightened women. The prevailing atmosphere in all hospitals is that of the
general allopathic mindset: Fear, and misunderstanding of the benevolence of
Nature. The doctors are taught to fear birth as a potential “medical disaster”
waiting to happen.
I renew my spiritual path each time I work in a hospital, (three times a
week) by consciously bringing Love and Light to each room I enter. In a calming
voice, I quietly repeat variations of “Everything is just fine.” I repeat it verbally
and enforce it by physically by touching my patient’s feet or hands. It’s gratifying
to witness the truth of that attitude; to watch as everyone calms down, and the
baby is free to find their way out. Very frequently “miracles” happen, to the
amazement of both the family and the medical team. I know it’s not a miracle; it’s
simply orienting oneself to the Laws of Life.
While in Berkeley in the 1990s, to counter my outrage at the maledominated sanctioned cruelty I witnessed daily, I joined my friends in an
enthusiastic study of Goddess religions, paganism, and Wicca. I studied herbs
and ancient healing ways. I had healing relationships with two different kind
women. I taught my daughter all about her grandfather’s Catholic faith as well as
the Faerie Faith in Ireland, and I pored over books about the Greek gods and
goddesses with her. I spent three weeks in Ireland studying with a midwife, hitchhiking alone from her house to sacred lands–New Grange, the Dingle Peninsula,
the Burren, and standing stone circles. I bought a painting of an ancient carving
found on a rock in the Irish sea of a “kelpie,” and later I carved my own image of
that water spirit in wood. I drummed in circles under the full moon at the
Labyrinth in the Oakland Hills, and while chanting an old prayer I carried a large
heart-shaped rock–that I’d dragged from a river in Humboldt County–into the
center of that labyrinth. Someone stole it later.
Also during this time I perfected the use of marijuana as ladder to God. I
grew it ritually, and my good friend Lisa and I used it ceremonially, both of us
cognizant of the potential power of the plant as a vehicle. We’d smoke and dance
for five hours to a live Grateful Dead show (a spiritual event in itself), or drive ten
hours to the bleakest desert and lie under the stars smoking and talking, or sleep
next to Sierra rivers, musing about the Center of the Universe. Those times are
precious memories, but I grew out of it as I realized it just removed me from the
reality of my Self.
In 1994 I’d experienced hundreds of scary birth situations, and thousands
of lovely birth events. At that time I made the conscious decision not to become a
Certified Nurse Midwife. My path led elsewhere, to some more global way of
helping people, but I couldn’t see which way. A terrible falling out with my
beloved Maria sent me into a deep spiral of pain. One day I’d had enough of the
angry, desperately urban environment of Berkeley/Oakland, and I needed solitary
nature and a safe place for Megan’s schooling. I picked Megan and Simon
BoneDog and Tango the Cat up, and we moved over to Marin County.
Living in Marin brought me a much-needed re-orientation and respite.
Breathing a deep sigh of relief at the silence of the endless wooded trails, I
began hiking for hours daily, and returned to a rigorous yoga schedule. Almost
right away I found new printings of “The Seth Material,” a pragmatic spiritual path
that I’d first discovered in New Orleans so long ago. I looked up the publisher,
and found she was in San Rafael. I wrote her a letter, and we became friends.
We are still friends; she now publishes The Four Agreements series, by Don
Miguel Ruiz. I respect her powerful spiritual path and view her as a mentor.
Still obsessed with Celtic mythology and labyrinths, I and a friend built a
60-foot wide earth labyrinth in Novato, atop a hill facing a lake. I carved in wood
the original pattern, and also carved a wicked Pan, and a grinning Green Man.
While this pagan side was blooming, I was also studying the Nag Hammadi and
Essene gospels, Jung and his psychology, and mystic poets like Yeats, Rumi,
Hafiz, and Thich Nhat Hanh. None of this seemed counter to my concurrent
obsession with amassing great wealth, a goal I put enormous energy into. I was
in constant frustration as to which way to go with my career and life path, so I
tried many different entrepreneurial schemes, partnerships, and forays. It was
great fun, but I’m not rich yet; at least in silver and gold.
I was thirty-eight the year I met Richard. In love right away, very soon we
agreed to pursue the goal of owning a home and some land. We found it by a
river up north, and my dream of security was fulfilled. We went to Italy, where I
felt a profound connection with the masters of the Renaissance. Moved
tremendously, especially by the Chiesi Annunziata in Florence, I had an
“unexplainable moment” within the ornate church. I returned to Italy alone for my
fortieth birthday, and journeyed to a remote monastery, the Santuario Della
Verna. San Francisco d’Assisi had received the stigmata at this old site atop a
mile-high rock, but more than his presence I felt the ancient spring that had once
been the shrine to Goddess, Nature. The air and water near that rock are
indescribable, and for the first time in years, I heard the Voice. It quietly told me
to finish the book, a novel I’d begun about the gritty world of birth. I completed it
in the next year, and it was published in 2002. I also developed a love for
drawing, and a fascination for and affinity with the great Leonardo di Vinci on that
I’ve spent the last four years focused on shedding the addictions I
shouldered at such a young age. With the great assistance of my current spiritual
path, an Ageless Wisdom Path called the Builders of the Adytum, I’ve left behind
most of those old helpers. I can face my family sober, and I revel in the clarity
and vigor of my body and mind.
Like a snowball gaining mass and velocity, the moment I mustered the will
to take control of my personal destiny, doors have opened all around me. The
right Bachelor completion program opened up for me on a day that the Dalai
Lama touched my hand. My daughter continues to thrive as an insightful and
delightful young woman, brilliant and ambitious. My spirit soars when I think of
her, and my daily life consists of a set pattern of prayer, meditation, and vigorous
action. My path starts today, and I’m willing to follow wherever the Spirit leads.
Spiritual Autobiography
A Journey of Beliefs and Values
Normal, everyday experiences are the backbones of our spiritual journeys.
The spiritual valuation of these experiences is dependent upon the events
themselves and the participant’s perception of the event. Each observation
alone does not define the spiritual insight; rather, the summation of the
deductions defines the spiritual value of the experience.
Spiritual journeys have been traditionally associated with a church,
religion, or personal experience with God. An underlying association is that of an
individual’s nature of his or her soul, the integral core of who one is and what one
represents. Spirituality is defined as “relating to, consisting of, or having the
nature of spirit; not tangible or material” (American Heritage “Spirit”) while a soul
is defined as “the animating and vital principal in humans, credited with the
faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial
entity” (American Heritage “Soul”). From these definitions, I am comfortable in
deducing that my spiritual journey is the evolving collection of my personal
beliefs, practices, feelings, and attitudes in and about life without having them
directly associated with an organized religion or church or necessarily a personal
experience with God.
In the innocence of childhood, I believed in God. My parents did not take
me to church and I do not have any memories of discussing God or religion with
them. I do remember attending Sunday school with my childhood friends,
actively looking for the comfort that came from believing in a higher being and
interacting with a religious community. I never questioned my belief in God. I
had a simplistic faith in His presence and omnipotence, one that the various
pamphlets and literature I read reinforced. If it was in writing, I believed that it
was true. My early spirituality was based on emotions and naive experiences.
Throughout the years of adolescence and young adulthood, this simplistic faith
faded away, to be replaced with a desire for a belief based on rational and logical
As I have had the opportunity to live in a variety of countries and cultures,
I have enjoyed being exposed to different theological and philosophical thoughts
and practices. This exposure was the underlying foundation in my search for
answers to questions that would help in my spiritual growth. I sought to
understand why we have so many different religions, given that some of these
theologies purport a “one God only” philosophy. Was there more than one God?
Was it possible that God did not exist; that organized religion was actually a
desire by men to control each other through organized behavior and guidelines?
Ultimately, this quest became my spiritual journey, from the point of exploring my
simplistic childhood beliefs and rejecting them because they were not founded on
logical deductions all the way through defining my current beliefs and basing my
life on them.
According to Mike Schreve, author of In Search of True Light, eleven main
living religions exist in the world. These living religions are Buddhism,
Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism,
Taoism, and Zoroastrianism (59). Within these eleven, enough contradictions
exist to separate these organizations making them distinctively unique with a
large number of commonalities that bind them together. All eleven religions
promote ‘The Golden Rule” wherein we should treat others as we would treat
ourselves (Shreve 1). Another agreed upon theme is that we must separate
ourselves from the world in order to become pure and holy. A third tenet
purports the need of prayer; in order to become closer to or communicate with
God, we must pray. Character development is a commonly taught principal in all
eleven schools of thought. They teach that in order to become the best that we
can be we must rise above the basics of our human nature. Faith is the
preeminent commonality of them all. The lifeblood to any religion is faith. The
last teaching that all eleven have in common concerns Love and Compassion;
that these healing balms provided meaning and purpose when none was found
by the seeker in the world of mankind. Except for faith and prayer, these
teachings promote ethical or appropriate social behavior. Of these eleven
religions, I have spent time reading the scriptures pertaining to four of them, plus
a few others not listed, and I have developed my own list of beliefs that comprise
the foundation of my life and value system.
My spiritual guidelines are simple and are based on a set of beliefs
resulting from the various readings and life experiences I have experienced.
These beliefs are similar to the religious commonalities that Mike Schreve found.
I believe that we should treat others as we would want them to treat us. People
should not lie. We should not hurt each other; rather, when an opportunity
arises, we should help others to help themselves. Intellectual, emotional, and
spiritual growth is an ongoing exercise, and behind every life experience is an
opportunity to learn and grow. Love and compassion are the driving forces
behind what makes us good and we should practice them whenever possible.
There is a God, but my relationship with God is personal and not for public
observation or discussion. I would consider these beliefs to be primarily ethical
ones, except on the topic of God. The existence of God is a spiritual conclusion
resulting from my inability to find acceptable and logical explanations for the
various events I would describe as “miracles” that I have encountered. For
example, the creation and birth of a human being far exceeds in cellular
complexity the explanation put forth by the theories of random formulation of cells
or the evolution of a single cell. Even though I purport that God exists, I do not
think there is a divine Plan that guides my life. According to George Norwood,
while writing about Occam’s Razor Theory, even though we are products of our
environment and heredity, we are also products of randomness. This
randomness introduces elements into our consciousness that cannot be planned
for or predicted. These elements cause unexpected results in behavior that
belies the thought that our lives follow a divine Plan.
The ethical beliefs that I live by are a blending of traditional values
established in my childhood home and the results of observing and evaluating
human behavior within different cultures. My mother had specific sayings that
she would share with her children when we made social errors, quips such as “If
you can not say anything nice then do not say anything at all” or “Is that how you
want someone to treat you?” These comments always made us stop to question
the results of our actions or words. In terms of cultural influences, the Lebanese
social and community behavior is one of the most generous cultures I have ever
experienced. Many times I watched families with very little share their meager
resources with others, knowing that they would be giving up their own comfort.
In evaluating my various memories, I do not recall ever seeing a person or family
turned away in a time of need. This generosity of spirit and consideration for
others had a positive influence on me. In a country containing social, religious,
and philosophical strife, these people, as a whole, unite to protect and maintain
their confessional or sect history, culture, and survival as a unit. To date, when I
can help someone I will do whatever I can so long as it does not conflict with my
This belief system has allowed me the gift of living a life of honor and
integrity. Though the tenets of my beliefs are simple, they are the exemplification
of my values. As such, when I say that I will do something, I strive to follow
through. People ask for my help, as they know I will do whatever I can in helping
them to achieve their needs. I strive to treat people with dignity and respect, as
that is how I want to be treated and I am a firm believer in “what goes around
comes around.” Until recently, I have not acknowledged my belief in God for
more than 15 years. In evaluating my lack of spiritual growth, I can see how this
has negatively affected me. I now wonder if my ex-husband and I had talked
about our spiritual development if we might not have grown apart. As it was,
there were no binding values to tie us together as we progressed through our
lives. A void existed, characterized by the absence of mutual spiritual values.
In thinking over my life, I do not remember having very many religious
experiences. As mentioned earlier, I did attend Sunday school with my
neighbors, thus participating in an organized religious institution’s rituals. The
other experience I remember was being baptized by immersion in the Jordan
River. This would have been during my early teens, around the age of thirteen.
This event was akin to walking in the steps of Jesus. This path could be
compared to the Muslim annual trek to Mecca: a journey to a holy shrine for the
purpose of cleansing the soul. Additionally, the act of baptism is the final step of
recognizing Christ as your savior and accepting him into your life; baptism is a
religious practice specific to Christianity. My response to both of these
experiences was an emotional one. The attendance of Sunday school was an
ordinary experience with an ordinary response. What made it a religious
experience was the pursuance of scriptural teaching from an organized religion
within a building representing a holy place. The baptism in the Jordan River was
a highly charged emotional experience relating to the spiritual connection I was
creating by reproducing steps taken at the time of Christ. This experience was a
religious experience as well as an act of spiritual acceptance, defined within the
scriptures of the church in addition to a replication of actions taken by Jesus
The science of psychology and teachings of religion have common
threads of behavioral guidelines. Mike Shreve’s compilations and observations
note that there are “seven pillars of wisdom” common to all religious teachings
(1). He then classifies these pillars into three themes: God, The Universe, and
Man. He depicts these themes as a pyramid with God at the pinnacle, supported
by The Universe and Man. Abraham Maslow, an eminent behavioral
psychologist in the late 19’60s, identified man as having “B-Values” which were
“truth, goodness, beauty, transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection,
justice, order and simplicity” (Norwood). He
arranged these in a hierarchy of attainment
within the shape of a pyramid, just as Mike
Shreve has organized his themes. Maslow felt
that his B-Values reflected the values of
mankind, when at their best. George Norwood
felt that these observations changed the field of
psychology by introducing a spiritual element
into a study of behavioral science. Norwood states that Maslow’s observations
were based on his studies of mankind’s historically great people and what it was
that made them great. The Baha’i community has taken Maslow’s Hierchy of
Needs and added one more layer to the top, which they have identified as
“spiritual” attainment. The Baha’i’s religious teachings are based on the premise
that each of the various religions existing today were founded on a manifestation
of God that walked amongst humans at a specific historical, spiritual, and social
developmental time pertaining to man’s growth.
Maslow believed that through each level of development, man facilitated
his evolution to a level of “self actualization,” thus allowing us to become the best
we could be. After achieving self-actualization, we would then be able to follow
our “calling.” The Baha’ i’s believe that with progressive introduction of spiritual
development, mankind can self-actualize to where we could follow our spiritual
calling. If we think of it as a school of higher education, we must first learn our
lessons of life from the current grade level before being able to move onto the
next level of study.
My introduction to the Baha’i community was when I came back to the
United States to attend a university. I found their approach to spiritual growth to
be intriguing and thought provoking. Though I do not follow or practice the
teachings of Baha’u’llah (the Bahai’s manifestation of God), I find the logic and
reasoning in the thoughts of progressive learning refreshing.
This blending of psychology and theology has allowed me to find
acceptable answers to my spiritual questions. These answers have helped
develop the values and beliefs that I live by. My intellectual being would not have
accepted a “religious” experience based on blind faith; nor could I ignore the
unexplained “miracles of life” that I encounter within my daily experiences. As a
result, I live by a blending of spiritual and logical standards that suits both my
intellect and soul. This blending has provided a balance to my life that has
allowed me to become a more grounded and harmonious person; I no longer
have a sense of spiritual restlessness nor feel that a vital component of my life or
character is missing. These standards provide me with a lifestyle foundation that
I can use as a basis in my analyses of world events and how human nature
responds to these events and/or interacts with each other. Most important, these
standards not only provide me with a set of guidelines for my personal conduct
but they are a reference point for what I consider to be acceptable social
behavior from people that I interact with. The blending of psychology and
theology has provided me with what I would consider to be the best of both
worlds: reason and faith working together.
The experiences in my life have allowed me the opportunity to learn and
grow. The fundamental value system that has developed over my life is the
foundation for my ethical and social beliefs and is an example of how life’s
experiences have shaped me through growth. I do not see an end to this path of
self-actualization, but rather it is a continuous journey. A journey I can travel,
anticipating normal, everyday experiences from which I can glean gems of
wisdom and insight. With these “treasures” of spiritual wealth, I hope to evolve
into the best person I can possibly be.
Works Cited
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition.
New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Norwood, George. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” 2001-2003.
---. “The Baha’i Faith.” 9 July 1996
---. “Occam’s Razor Theory.” Updating Your Religious Vision. 29 June
1996, ver 4.0.
Shreve, Mike. “Commonalities in Religion.” In Search of the True Light.
I was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic school for seven years but never
became a hard-core believer, let alone a simple church-goer. After seventeen years of
living in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, I have come to believe that
the human heart is utterly depraved, and that man, by nature, is in love with wrong. I was
taught that man had been thwarted by the Devil who, with lies, had deceived Adam and
Eve. In his vengeance, God cursed the man and woman with slavery, pain, disease and
death. I was taught that God used earthquakes, firestorms, famine, plagues and floods
to punish and civilize His children.
From my Catholic upbringing, I thought that I not only knew the beginning, but
also the end. I thought that life had only two ways: the path and the road. The path led
to Heaven but was narrow, lined with thorns and dirt, infested with sufferings and
sorrow, wet with tears and stained by bleeding feet. The road led to Hell but was
tantalizingly broad and smooth, bordered with fruits and flowers, filled with laughter and
dreams of success. I believed that there was a perpetual battle waged between the
powers of good and evil for the possession of human souls. God was doing his best to
make me take the painful path and the Devil used everything to keep me on the broad
smooth road.
In Catholic school, I was conditioned to believe that God does not reward people
for being honest, generous and brave, but purely for faith. Accordingly, virtuous people
without faith deserve to suffer eternal pain. The idea that there could be no salvation
except through faith, to me, was a lost cause. The whole concept of being born a sinner
turned me away from practicing my Catholic faith.
Growing up in the Philippines, I was exposed to several cult offshoots of
Catholicism. These cults, ranging from faith healers to channelers, further confused my
sense of religion and of what God expects from humankind or from me. I found the acts
and deceptions put forth by faith healers and cults to be heartbreaking and
sacrilegious. For a price, and at the expense of the desperate vulnerable and gullible
people, psychic surgeons used the supernatural to perform magic tricks.
Faith healers are prevalent in the Philippines and perform "psychic surgery."
Healers, as I've seen mostly on TV, all supposedly have connections with the divine.
The Holy Spirit supposedly gave each of these surgeons the gift of healing. The healers
used "bullets," which were pieces of animal tissue or clots of blood rolled into small
pieces, to fool people. The healers taught and passed on to each other the processes
for preparing the material so it would resemble human tissues and organs. In order for
the trick to work, the healer would conceal the bullet in his or her socks, under his belt,
under his collar, or in her bra and carry it into the surgery room. During the operation,
the healer would take one of the bullets and hold it so that it was not visible to the
patient or to other people present in the room. He would then implant the bullet on the
patient's body and to keep up the show, the healer would knead and press into the
patient's abdomen. The psychic surgeon, with his hands folded underneath the
patient's abdomen, in an attempt to make the act appear messy and dramatic, would
break the bullet open and begin to bring out pieces of tissue bit by bit.
Along with faith healers, there were people who subscribed to the Espiritista
faith. The Espiritistas believe in divine healing and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Because my mother's side of the family belonged to Espiritista, I gained first-hand
experiences with their practices and ways. The Espiritista faith had female priests who
performed séances to bring forth the good message of God. Weekly, angels
supposedly came down from heaven to spread God's word. During the course of their
five-hour session, a number of different saints and apostles took turns in possessing
each of the four or more priests. Jesus Christ Himself routinely possessed a priest's
body to spread His words of wisdom. The teachings of Espiritista were drawn from the
Bible and I couldn't say that the intent of the entire practice was wrong or evil. But the
priests' whole act of making people believe that they being possessed by God, I thought,
was a lie. Personally, I never bought the idea that Jesus repeatedly came into our town
every weekend to preach only to a few chosen faithful.
I was totally confused. Was I deserving of the Holy Spirit? I do not blame the
people who saw and sought refuge in the hands of faith healers, nor do I malign my
mother's side of the family for practicing a cult as weird as Espiritista. If anything, I
thought that my loss of faith was my fault. After all, my Catholic upbringing taught me
that we are all born into evil. In the desperate need to understand the underlying
reasons for organized beliefs, and at the same time, turned off by the notion that I was
helplessly born into sin, I formulated my own ideas about faith, life and God.
When I consider the short duration of my life, I get swallowed up in the eternities
that come before and after my own existence. I realize the insignificance of the space I
fill. I am humbled by my frailty and ignorance. To think that my life can end anytime is
humbling. My body is so fragile that a car accident can kill me in less than an instant. I
cannot begin to think about how long eternity is. The concept of time and space is
difficult to understand. Even when I consider and think about the maximum span of my
lifetime, the concept of 2000 years is still hard to fathom. My notions of small and big
are limited by my mind. A fly, which has a body length of about half a centimeter, is
small. An airplane, with a wingspan of about a few hundred meters, is big. Distances
in the universe are measured in light-years. Light moves at a velocity of about 300,000
kilometers (km) each second. So in one year, light can travel about 10 trillion km. More
precisely, one light-year is equal to 9,500,000,000,000 kilometers. It is humbling to think
about a number as big as a light year. I can see that I am ignorant to the immensity of
space. The vastness of the universe and the existence of time brought me to a
conclusion that there is a God.
Because of its immensity, the universe does not make sense. Even life and the
world itself are often unpredictable. But because life is short and the time I have to live is
limited, I realize that I have an urgent decision to make. I must select and commit to a
faith even if I am unable to prove the certainty of that faith. I need to draw conclusions
from facts I have available even though the facts themselves are a matter of choice. I
believe that I can never hope to understand why we are here, but I can choose a belief
system to follow with passionate conviction. I choose to believe that there is something
- someone — greater than I am. I choose to believe that my life, my existence, is not
just a mere coincidence in the context of the vast space and time.
When I go hiking, I pack my backpack with all sorts to things to ensure my
survival. I pack my bag with the essentials: food, water, and some emergency kits like
Band-Aids and bug repellants. But also I make sure that I do not over pack. Just as
with life, in addition to nothing but a mere survival kit, that is the foundation of my
Catholicism. I try to take only the essentials but leave behind the things I do not need or
do not believe in. I take science into my backpack of life to supplement the Catholic
essential—the belief that there is a God. I believe that science is a medium by which
the symbolism of religion can be explained. Ever since I can remember, I have been
bombarded with scientific theories and facts: from the Big Bang to Newton's Laws of
Motion to the biological cause of a common cold. Instead of focusing on the teachings
of Catholicism that I disagree with, I find the good by justifying Bible stories with
science. I associate the splitting of the Red Sea with low tide that allowed Moses and
his followers to cross. With science, I also try to draw some parallelisms. The verse from
the Bible: "For dust you are, And to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19) equates with
the fact that man is created from matter; and since matter cannot be destroyed, when
we die, we do go back to whence we started.
I practice my own religion in the comforts of my living room. From there, I found
that God is as present in the church as He is in the Discovery Channel. Sometimes I
find it ironic that I see God in a strange setting. I thought that maybe that's what God
has been all along: someone simply waiting to be "'discovered." One night, I intently
watched a special about a tiny desert reptile. The animal had hideous horns spread all
over its body, ft walked very slowly across the desert and its only protection from
predators was its appearance and color. Since it was so slow and tiny, it could not
quickly get to a water source and had to rely on rain. As soon as it rained, water was
immediately absorbed into its skin and its horns, which are strategically placed apart
from each other so that the horns act as a waterway and channel water directly into the
animal's mouth.
Who or what might have created a wonder such as this horned, ugly, but so well
designed animal? God is the all-knowing engineer featured, although never mentioned,
in every Discovery Channel show. I believe that the Theory of Evolution is God's way of
perfecting his design of life forms. In His every attempt, as in this animal, through its
simple, yet genius, design, God is able to nurture his creation and ensures its survival.
The Discovery Channel is a display of how far humanity has come in
understanding His world. The show is filled with different specials about how man
probes into the unknown. Some of the shows include topics like Modern DNA readers
or NASA Spacecraft on Mars. Once while watching, I stumbled upon a special about
the Hubble Space Telescope. Wow! Humankind is now actually able to view farther
parts of the universe and is able to make more theories about its beginnings. But still, all
these shows, even if they seem to show how technologically advanced we've become,
I believe, are nothing but mere attempts to understand the engineer who made all the
diversity, the balancing forces that keep our planets in line and the molecular structures
that make up our DNA.
Each one of us is connected to the other. I believe that in being here, I become
part of everybody else's life. Most of my days are filled with these repetitive motions: I
wake up at 6:30 a.m., get my son ready for school, prepare his lunch and breakfast, get
myself ready for work, drive my son to school, drive myself to work, work for 9 hours,
drive back home, eat dinner with my family, help my son with homework, do my
homework, find the time to read to my son before I finally tuck him in bed. The next day,
I go on with the same motions with little or no change. On the weekends, after helping
my aunt with and doing my own chores, I either take my son to a museum or to a
movie. On weekends that my son is at his dad's, I cook for my family and spend as
much time as I can with them. Sometimes it is hard to find spirituality beneath the
conundrums of my life. But I believe that in taking care of my son, of making sure that I
am providing him the best life I can provide, of being there for him in the most boring
undertakings of his young life, of making sure that he feels secure that I love him, I am
doing my best in contributing to the greater good.
I believe that life is a series of concentric overlapping circles, with my inner circle
consisting of my son, my family, and the little part of the Bay Area map where my life
stirs. The next outer circle consists of my work and school; the next consists of the
community. The next outer circles consist of the country, the world/planet, and the
biggest circle is everything beyond. I believe that by taking care of my son and spending
time with my family, I am filling the innermost circle.
Just last week, I attended a conference held by the Society of International
Affairs. After the conference, I realized that my little contribution to my company affects
the U.S. government and other countries. I realized that Export Administration, which is
the department I currently work for, is a result of a long history of U.S. government
sanctions put forth upon other countries because of human rights and warfare
munitions violations. I realized that events like the Tiananmen Massacre and Iraq's
unending production of weapons are parts of the reason why I do my job. In the
conference, I learned that world economy affects all of us and how, at least in my
company, we do business. All of a sudden, the world shrunk. I abruptly came to a
realization that we all are part of one another and that even if it may not be immediately
apparent, what we do is part of the next of the outer circles that include all of us.
Other than my job, I know I have a long way to go in extending myself to other
people and in actually participating and becoming truly involved in the community. But I
do feel angered by news on TV and feel especially compassionate for children who
have been abused by adults. During the weeks of the September 11th bombing, my
son's school asked for contributions for the victims and survivors of the event. My son
asked me, even though he has seen what had happened on TV, why we needed to
come up with money. I explained, in my simplest way, that there were a lot of people
who died in the tragic event and that the people who remained needed some help. My
son replied with another question: "Why don't those pilots know how to fly airplanes
anyway?" Oblivious to the injustices of the world, my innocent son thought that the
whole event was nothing but a mere accident. I savored my son's innocence. I took a
deep breath and contemplated a reply that sought nothing but to preserve his
guiltlessness. I simply said that those pilots didn't pay attention in flying school. God
gives me hope by letting me experience a child's uncorrupt mind.
Children, I believe, are our utmost treasures. I believe it is unjust for thinking
grown adults to violate our world's future. I am hoping that, while I have my limitations
as to what I can do for these children, I can contribute by loving and teaching my own
child and caring for the children in my community.
As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I know I want to keep stepping out and
extending myself into the bigger circles that surround me. Despite the fact that I do not
practice Catholicism myself, I send my son to a Catholic school in the hopes that he will,
as I did, learn to use religion as a foundation for a belief system for himself. And
because my son attends Catholic school, I am learning to reach out to the community
and participate in humanitarian efforts in fund-raising.
The people who experienced the Holocaust or the bombing of September 11th
are connected to me because I learn from the struggles of the people who tried to
survive despite their desperate situations. Even those who fall into despair become a
part of us. I breathe in their bravery, which, in part, has helped me become a better
person. Dead people, because they have spent time with us, become part of who we
are. And because we've spent time on this earth, this life, we become part of what
feeds life.
The combination of my exposures to different types of faith and my experiences
has taught me about life and God. Despite this life's complexity and unanswered
questions I know that I still strive to live a moral and honest life. I try to keep my
contracts, care for my family and child, and make a happy home. In the community, I try
to be a good citizen, a patriot, and a thoughtful human. I emerged from highly
dysfunctional families, yet the most important values that I hold high in life I learned from
my family. There have been times when I questioned my family's concepts of morality.
On my grandfather's side, there was an uncle who committed suicide after he shot his
wife. On the same side, there were people who loved money. I had uncles and aunts
who had sworn off some of their siblings because of jealousy and hatred. On my mom's
side of the family was a drunken uncle. I saw my aunts and uncles go through multiple
marriages and broken families. I saw neglected cousins suffer from poverty because of
the wrongdoings of their parents.
My parents divorced when my brother and I were small. My grandparents, on
both sides of my family, had to raise a good number of their grandchildren. When my
grandfather died, it was my own personal tragedy. My grandfather was the one who
had the most impact in my life but had to be taken away. But when he passed away, I
saw his children fight over the high medical bills. I thought that my grandfather was
better off gone, rather than seeing his children fight the way they did. In spite of the bad,
I struggled to see the good. I realized that even if my grandfather was now gone he
would always be a part of me. I learned to forgive my aunts and uncles for forsaking their
own father, and I learned to move on. My parents eventually changed and became better
people. I learned that in time some people do change for the better. I always keep in mind
that despite the hardships I have gone through, I did come out ok.
In my journey, I'd like to strive to not repeat the mistakes of those who came
before me. I practice the virtues of generosity, honesty, and perseverance. Having
learned that my aunts' and uncles' love affair with money brought them nothing but
misery and cost them their loved ones, I try not to be greedy and simply accept what I
do or don't have. I believe that perseverance, which I try practice wherever I am, in
school, work, and life in general, must be rewarded; but the reward does not necessarily
have to be monetary.
Other than the genius behind life's creations, I believe that God is what feeds
life. God is a conscience. God is a collection of experiences. In experiencing life, I
believe I experience God. The peace I experience in my life is found in the mundane
happenings of life and not in booths where I used to confess my sins or begged for
forgiveness. I find peace in the snoring of my sleeping child safely tucked in bed, in
the company of friends and family eating dinner together. I do not recite the Lord's
Prayer, the Creed, or other systematic litanies anymore. But I do find myself
appreciating nature and people and the grandeur of God. I believe that by knowing
that an abundance of life, other than my own, surrounds me, I am experiencing God.
I take pleasure in taking snapshots of people and places because that act is the
closest I can come to capturing moments - moments of our short existence.
I strive to be good because my life is a gift. I believe that I am only given one
chance to live and just one chance to perform. I need to act well. I need to share my
thoughts, my emotions, my experiences, and my very life with the rest of the world. I
try to make the world a better place by learning from other people's mistakes. Turned
off by the injustices that other children, including some of my unfortunate cousins,
have suffered from, I take care of my child and make sure that I am always there to
provide and to make sure that he feels loved. My world is structured not by fear of God
but by appreciation of this one life given to me. I know my own death is inescapable.
Before then, I will try my best to live my life the best I can.
Born out of the teachings of Catholicism, Espiritista and the other faiths I have
seen as I go on this journey, I draw with my own reasoning the basis of my belief in
God. I do not claim to know which religion is right or wrong and who, among all of us,
will go to heaven or hell. I do not believe in hell. I do not believe in Heaven. Heaven or
hell is a state of being. One can choose to be in a state of hell while living. I struggle to
be in heaven. My driving force knows that I only have one life to live and apart from the
uncertainty of my own demise, my only other fear in life is regret. I have to be happy
now or my chance is gone.
I know that in my short state of being I'll never fully realize the truth about why
we are all here. What sustains me is the faith that by doing my little part in the grander
scheme of things, later, much, much later, having learned from all of its past mistakes
and struggles to be better, humanity is going to reach its full potential. Maybe that's
what heaven is. I don't know. I believe that in sharing my life with circle of family and
friends and co-workers, I am already sharing and giving myself to others. Later, I hope to
keep stepping out my smaller circles and contribute more the greatness that sustains
us. I believe that if I continue on living a good life like my grandfather did, I may be able
to impart the practice to others and the ones who will come after me. In that way I
become eternal.
Works Cited
The Holy Bible. New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.
A Time for Guidance
A little over three years ago while my father-in-law was preparing his
taxes, it struck him, very frighteningly, that he could not perform the simplest
mathematical calculations. Several hours later, in the hospital ER, a mass was
discovered in his head. Subsequent tests revealed a malignant tumor. Three
months later, he was dead. Although his illness was sudden, and his physical
decline rapid, he used his remaining time to "tie up loose ends," visit with his
family, and otherwise incorporate elements of closure at the end of his life. Aiding
him and his loved ones during this transition from life to death was religion.
My father-in-law was a devout man, born into a traditional Ashkenazi
Jewish immigrant family early in this century. Despite being orphaned with his
younger brother very early in life, his religious education was not disrupted. The
boys were sent to a Jewish home for children. Later, when my father-in-law
entered college, he roomed in a Jewish dormitory near campus. Indeed, religion
was not only an essential element in his daily life; it was also its foundation.
This paper identifies and analyzes the religious issues and aspects of
death and dying using the contemporary Jewish perspective that surrounded my
father-in-law, his family, and others during the process of his illness and resulting
death. To meet this objective, I identify and examine key religious issues such as
the role of my father-in-law's belief system (as well as the beliefs of those around
him), his death and burial, and the role of his rabbi and synagogue. I also seek to
draw conclusions about these issues from my own interpretation of this moving
After the harsh realization of his terminal illness diagnosis, both my fatherin-law and his family stepped readily into the established framework available to
them from a lifetime of religious training and observation. Central to their belief
system is prayer, and in this case, prayer of petition: "Let my prayer come before
You, O Lord, in a time of love and favor" (Psalm 69.14). This ability to reach out
through prayer provides positive action for those feeling helpless. This action,
along with the tenet that "Judaism teaches us to understand death as a part of the
Divine pattern of the universe," can comfort in difficult situations (The New Union
Prayer Book, 10). Throughout my father-in-law's brief illness, he, his family, and
friends turned to prayer and the comforts and wisdom that their rabbi offered.
Since laws and customs in the area of death and burial are most
reverently observed, it is frequently true that of all the areas of a rabbi's activities,
his relationship to a bereaved family may make the deepest impression and give
the most lasting help (New Union Prayer Book, 205). At the time nearest to my
father-in-law's death religion took on its greatest importance, not only for his
family but also for his close friends.
According to Solomon Freehof, there are five salient attitudes of death and
burial in the Jewish tradition: 1) Life is precious, 2) Respect for the body, 3)
Burial in holy ground, 4) Sacred sorrow, and 5) Consolation of the mourners
(passim). Indeed, to begin a discussion of death within the context of the Jewish
religion, one must first look to its passionate embrace of life, as urged in
Deuteronomy (11:26), "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I
have put before you life and death, blessing and curse-choose life."
This reverence forms the basis for laws guarding the last precious hours
of a life, yet conversely, does not allow interference when death is inevitable. In
my father-in-law's case, he held life very close during his final weeks. He used
the time to be with his family and friends. He also used this time to talk intimately
with his loved ones, and in a very real way, to give of himself as he had not
during his life.
As death draws near, formal farewell rites are woven into Jewish tradition.
This final "good bye" ritual is in the form of a "confession" made by the dying
person. This provides an opportunity to the one near death to ask forgiveness of
those around him and offer blessings of hope for them. It appears my father-inlaw used his final weeks to say goodbye, still adhering to the purpose of the
established tradition, but not through the formal act.
Upon my father-in-law's death, specific preparation rituals commenced. In
the past, a volunteer group within each community called the holy society, or
chevra kadisha, performed these rites. This assured that the body, which is
considered alone and vulnerable, is properly respected. Classically, the corpse is
cleansed with water and draped in a simple shroud. Prayers are recited. Today,
and in the case of my father-in-law, professionals carry out this process.
Careful preparation of the body is part of kavod hamet, or the
requirement to honor the dead. The corpse is required to be treated with
respect and dignity thereby "assisting adherents to show the deepest regard for
the sanctity of the deceased" (New Union Prayer Book, 116). As the bodies of
the deceased are respected, so must they be buried with honor. As dictated by
tradition, my father-in-law was buried in a Jewish cemetery, a place considered
holy ground.
Within Jewish custom, the role of the funeral ceremony itself further
honors the dead and additionally fulfills an obligation to comfort the mourners, or
nichum avelim. Through a full range of mourning practices, the sacred sorrow of
the bereaved is given both outlets for grief and a structure to keep deep
emotions within bounds. All of these were present during my father-in-law's
The mourning stages for the bereaved start during the period between the
death of a loved one and the time of the funeral, when mourners are released
from regular other ritual obligations. It is suggested that such consideration
springs from the idea that those in deep emotional upheaval cannot devote
themselves properly to regular religious expression. The rabbi's presence within
the home is frequent in this period. As with my experience, we met with the rabbi
as a family to talk about my father-in-law and share stories and ideas about him
that would help the rabbi in preparing his eulogy. This was an ideal time for each
of us to seek solace from the rabbi, to help assuage our grief. As he facilitated
these intimate family meetings, it allowed us as individuals to share our grief
together as family, fostering feelings of support and slightly minimizing the great
loss we each felt.
On the day of the funeral, a black ribbon, pinned to a mourner's clothing
is cut. This physical act symbolizes the deceased being "cut away" from his
loved ones. Within the funeral ceremony, Psalms are read, especially the 90th
and the 23rd, concerning the cycle of life and death and the affirmation of life
and homecoming respectively. The rabbi conducts the eulogy, which briefly
describes the life of the deceased, his values, morals, and deeds, and relates
to a broad range of mourners the very essence of the man.
At this point during my funeral experience, the mourners moved to the
grave site. In a true break from tradition, my mother-in-law asked me to be a
pallbearer, which I accepted with great honor. Together, the pallbearers carried
my father-in-law up a hill to where the grave had been dug. Here, both visually
and physically, the mourners saw the finality of his death and physically placed a
handful of earth upon his coffin, as is customary. In conclusion to the funeral, the
kaddish or homecoming prayer is recited. It is a prayer that affirms life, while
accepting death.
After the funeral there are distinctive levels of mourning based on
graduating days. The first is shiva, which means seven and lasts one week. The
two mourning periods following are sheloshim, "thirty," and the one-year
anniversary of the death called the yahrzeit. This structured and gradual process
of mourning is designed for the survivors and enables them to ease into a life
without their loved one.
For the family and friends of my father-in-law, I believe the process of his
dying and death was similar from a religious standpoint, as all were Jews. The
established framework built into the religion for the specific purpose of guiding
both the dying and the living during this poignant transitional period proved
indispensable. From the time my father-in-law was stricken, to the funeral itself,
and even after that, friends and other members of the synagogue provided
support to the family. Delivering food to the house and running simple errands
provided a modicum of relief for my mother-in-law. The synagogue and its
members offered well-organized sustenance in a difficult time. And the rabbi
himself oversaw this seamless and quietly executed assistance.
My own experience centered on my role as a supportive wife for my
grieving husband. During the entire process, I observed the need for a steadying
influence for all concerned. The ordeal of my father-in-law's dying and death set
him and the ones nearest him off balance. I believe that the guidelines for such
circumstances extant within the Jewish religion provided much needed ballast.
The fundamental points of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's influential stage/phase
work, On Death and Dying, outline specific emotional stages that terminally ill
patients go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally,
acceptance (passim). In comparing my father-in-law's terminal illness to the
stages, I witnessed several but not all.
When the gravity of his illness was quite evident, my father-in-law became
angry that he would not be with his wife and family much longer. His anger grew
as he lost his facilities, and his wife had to care for him as she would a child,
feeding and cleaning him. Foment turned into depression and he refused food,
and then drink. Finally, in an unforgettable act, at the very end of his days and in
an apparent state of euphoria, my father-in-law fully accepted his impending
demise as he conducted an aria from Madame Butterfly from his deathbed.
Although Kubler-Ross's work is fundamentally psychological, she believes
the traditional role of religion is to "give hope, a purpose in tragedies here on
earth, and an attempt to understand and bring meaning to otherwise
inacceptable [sic] painful circumstances in life" (15). She too feels that "We have
to take a hard look at our own attitude toward death before we can sit quietly and
without anxiety next to a terminally ill patient" (269). I believe that these two
points, if considered together, the role of religion and analyzing our attitude
toward death, buoy us in times of loss. Kubler-Ross's work shows us that in order
to truly care for the dying we need to understand the dying process and, in doing
so, learn from it. Kubler-Ross also feels that many people no longer believe in a
hereafter, an ultimate reward in heaven upon death (14), which is in a large
sense the main thrust of Raymond Moody's Life After Life. His book documents
the experiences of those who have been near death and may have been
medically dead but are resuscitated. There is a common theme among these
experiences presented that Kubler-Ross corroborates in the forward of the book.
Clearly, Moody is on to something here, but what? Merely a description from the
dying patient's standpoint of the physiological/neurological course of death?
Perhaps a skeptic could accept this approach. Or perhaps the idea that we
continue on after physical life in some other fashion has merit, and Moody's work
simply presents fodder for speculation. If it is true that less people today believe
in a hereafter, and subsequently are no longer concerned that behaviors in our
physical life will somehow reflect upon our life in the hereafter, then perhaps this
is one reason why violence seems to be escalating, especially with our youth.
Perhaps the sanctity of life as well as the sanctity of death is perceived at its
fullest if we consider the existence of afterlife.
The notion of the homecoming within the Jewish funerary tradition, and all
its accompanying ritual; the preparation of the body, the prayers of affirmation
and the kaddish, the homecoming prayer; blossom into full meaning in the light of
Moody's work. With this in mind, truly accepting death, as identified by KublerRoss, should become easier.
In conclusion, the experience of my father-in-law's death, and my firsthand
participation in the process, confirms that the established customs and structures
surrounding the issues of dying, death, and mourning, are pivotal within the
Jewish tradition. When observed, this well-formed component of the religion
proffers guidance for both the dying and the bereaved. It unites these two, the
living and the dead, and eases a painful transition, while affirming the sanctity of
Works Cited
Freehof, Solomon B. The Book of Psalms, A Commentary. Cincinnati: Union
of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: MacMillan, 1969.
Moody, Raymond. Life After Life. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.
The New Union Prayer Book. Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew
Congregations, 1975.
The Field of a
One might think there is a genetic reason for the selection of my
profession. I was born into a family consisting of many relatives who made
selling their life. However, after questioning why one enters the sales game, the
only answer is for the love of the challenge. This paper will show how fortunate I
was to learn early in my career the "art" of selling and how a person in sales and
sales management must continue to adapt to the changing business
environment in order to be successful.
Starting in the Sales Game
When I was twenty-two years old, I thought I was on top of the world. I
was recognized as the top inside sales person for a division of a steel service
center. The company was on the New York Stock Exchange and was very
successful in steel construction and supplying steel to fabricators. I handled most
of the large accounts and all of the outside sales people wanted me to be "their
contact" for their customers. After spending a few years as an inside sales
person dealing with customers' requests by phone, I was promoted to the
"outside world." Little did I know that this world was much different than the one
to which I was accustomed. The company understood the importance of
continuous training and I was taught at this early stage of my new career that in
order to be the best, one needs to continue to learn new techniques to sell. I
spent two weeks in a training class where people showed examples of ways to
approach people, how to dress, how to be "in control" of the situation, and how to
be a problem solver. The instructors worked on attitude and goals. They stressed
the need for positive thoughts and for understanding the new world I was about
to enter. I was beginning to realize the field I had chosen was one of the most
difficult in which to make a living, but if successful, it could be one of the most
rewarding; both monetarily and professionally. One of the many lessons taught
during those early days in my career I still use today in training classes. People
who think they want to enter the sales field need to understand the potential
mood swings they may encounter. Normally, everyone is happy with his or her
occupation eighty percent of the time. They may encounter difficulties in their
jobs or unhappy moments about twenty percent of the time. In sales, the
opposite is true. To be a successful sales person, we were taught to understand
that eighty percent of the people you talk to might not buy your product. In the
particular field I was in, if you sold twenty percent of the orders you quoted, you
were considered very good. This means a high rate of failure must be overcome.
An analogy one might use is with a baseball player. A person who hits three out
often balls bats .300 and is considered a great player and is paid a great deal of
The two main lessons learned after realizing the twenty-percent
success rate are how to deal with failure and how to deal with success. The
instructors of these courses taught us how to stay focused. First, one must
continue to have his or her goals. Maintaining a daily call sheet for the next
day shows a future and will not allow one to dwell on failure. The instructors
also pointed out the need to not celebrate too long after a successful sales
event. Once again, they pointed out the need to stay focused and continue
to sell, for one never knows when things might change. They taught us to
never sit too long on success. I was taught to use my energy to go to the
next opportunity, because body language will tell the story. It is easier
to sell after a successful endeavor than trying to sell after a failure.
Taking My Show on the Road
Utilizing the skills taught by the instructors, I planned my attack.
First, I wrote my goals down. Due to the extensive territory I was given to
manage, my priority was organization. I plotted out a geographic call list,
noting the companies that were near each other. Next, I noted the larger
volume accounts in the area that would require more attention and decided
to make them a once-a-week call. The volume would determine the
amount of times I would visit them per month. I knew I would need to be
flexible because an account that may not have been doing a lot of
business does not necessarily mean they were a small account. The
previous sales person might have had a problem selling to them, and I
knew that there might need to be more attention given to them with the
hope of increasing the business.
My parents use to tell me to stay close to people who were
successful. I used this advice during my first year in outside sales. After
finding the top producers of the company, I asked to ride along with them
during their sales days. Most were willing to share their success stories
and show me "the ropes." They were impressed with my enthusiasm and
remembered when they were my age breaking into the business. I found
these journeymen to be very organized. Customers could set their clocks
by these people. If it was Tuesday and 10:00 a.m., you knew where they
were. Week after week they never deviated from their call sheet. What I
found interesting was the fact that they would keep the same schedule with
potentially large accounts. They would continue to call on these accounts
and showed their dedication to their profession and that they could be
trusted in showing up at their customers' doorsteps weekly. One day while I
was traveling with one of the "pros," we stopped at one of his potential
customers. As we walked up to the door to the lobby, we noticed the
receptionist moving furniture and picking things off the floor. The night before
their offices had flooded from a rainstorm. The pro stopped, took off his shoes
and socks, rolled up his pants, and told me to do the same. We walked into
the lobby and the receptionist started to laugh. She called the person we were
scheduled to meet and we were told to proceed to his office. Upon entering
the office the contact asked the pro what in the world he was doing there
while the building was flooded. My new friend looked his future customer in
the eye and said, "Mark, it's 11:00 a.m., Wednesday. This is the time I am
always here. It does not matter if you have a flood or not; your business must
go on. My company can help you succeed and this is the type of dedication
you will get used to." This potential customer looked at him and said, "In all
my years I have never seen anything like this. Frank, here is your first order."
That first order was the first of many and by the end of the year this was
Frank's largest customer. To this day, as the sales manager of the company
where I work, I share this story with others in my group.
This was one type of selling where territorial calls and the product
enabled sales people to drop by for their weekly orders. The knowledge of
customers' needs was mandatory in order to satisfy them. Our company knew
the customers, the type of product they typically purchased, and many of the
people in the organization. I learned the need to befriend the receptionist as
well as the President of the company to insure success. "Contacts," Frank
would say. "The more contacts you have in the account, the smaller the
chance of your losing the business when the players change." Frank
understood the lesson that nothing lasts forever, and if his contact was
removed from the position for any reason, there was a chance he would have
to reintroduce our company. Selling in depth would enable others within the
company to do the selling for him.
On My Own
As I started out in my new territory, I teamed that unless someone likes
you, the chances of selling to him or her are limited. I needed to prove to
them although I was new. I would work hard and they could trust me.
According to Jonathan Evetts (1990, p. 174-178), in Seven Pillars of Sales
Success, customers want to deal with honest people. In most situations, the
reputation of a sales person is tarnished before the first meeting and must be
changed immediately. The salesperson's reputation is one that shows him/her
to only care about themselves. Evetts recites his five rules a salesperson
should live by. First is to work for an honest company, next is to treat
confidential information as one should, offer no bribes, take full responsibility,
and set a good example. Frank, my first teacher in the sales field, would
check in with me on a regular basis. He always wanted my success stones
first. He would tell me to never forget the great sales calls and to build on
them, I remember one day when he explained his thoughts on customers he
did not like, but who were needed by the company. Frank said you cannot be
forced to like the customers, but you need to understand their importance.
According to Richard C. Whitley (1981, p. 64) in The Customer Driven
Company, "When you become a partner you break down the wails between
yourself and your customer." Today, I realize the importance of this concept.
If you do not consider yourself a partner with your customer, the chances of
success will be slim. As a salesperson, one must show customers you care
about their business. There can be no walls or secrets between the two
businesses. Your customer needs to know you have to make a profit, and
the customer also needs to know you will do everything in your power to
give him the best pricing your company can deliver. This was true twenty
years ago and it is true now.
High Tech Selling
After a few years in the steel distributorship business, I was offered a
sales position at a privately held company that produced custom metal
boxes for the computer industry. This was a drastic change in my career.
Going from a nationally known company to a family owned business in the
Bay Area of Northern California created a need for me to truly understand
how a salesperson can succeed. I entered an industry that was very
competitive, very fast paced, and one where sales people were
challenged. The challenge to me was entering a position that required
more knowledge of the product. I did not receive formal training about how
the steel was fabricated for the boxes, and many of my clients were
engineers as well as purchasing people. Many times I was forced to take
someone from the manufacturing site with me on a sales call to answer
questions. I found these people from my company to be very good
technically, but in front of customers they needed some polish. We always
made a deal that I would take care of the business aspect of the meeting
and they would take care of the engineering part. This seemed to work
well, as the engineers of the company typically did not want to deal with
sales people and the purchasing people of the company did not want to
deal with our engineers. Very early in my career at this new company I
learned the need to put the right people in front of the customer. In order to
have a successful meeting, people need to be on the same wavelength and
feel comfortable with one another.
Can a Salesperson Become a Sales Manager?
Not all salespeople can become sales managers. I have seen
examples of people very successful in sales fail miserably in a management
role. A few things can happen when this promotion takes place. First, the
daily "sales feeling" is lost. No more are there constant gratification feelings
that a sales person is use to. Second, if the sales person is use to the
notoriety of being one of the best in the company, the status has now
changed. Last, managing people is considerably different than managing
oneself in a territory. Being a sales manager requires the skill to oversee
different types of personalities, egos, and levels of selling experience. One
needs to be able to massage the ego of the top producers as well as help the
"rookies" along with all of their problems. According to Diane Sanchez (1998,
p. 21) in Sales and Marketing, "As a sales manager, you're in the business of
developing your people, not just correcting mistakes." She goes on to say,
"People want to perform well, but don't always know how to." A manager must
be able to see this and correct it quickly. Customers today want to know their
contact is empowered to make the right decisions and solve their problems.
Sales managers have to learn to work both sides of the street. They tend to
sell the customer and turn around and sell the company on the idea. This
comes as a difficult task for some and once again can separate the managers
from the sales people. I have found many managers decide that the
management title is not what they had expected. After a short stay in the
position, they choose to return to the life of not answering to a team of
managers who question the motives of a sales person. Yes, even on a team
of managers, there can be tension regarding the sales person's agenda.
Some people will forever think the salesperson cares more about the
customer and less about their own company. For this reason it is very
important to explain the customer's wishes carefully when returning from a
sales call.
Knowing How to Keep a Customer
I once attended a sales seminar where the guest speaker shared an
interesting story. One day on the golf course he was asked how many sales
people he had working for him. The speaker shared he employed four
hundred sales people. The fellow golfer asked how many employees he had.
The speaker told his golf mate he had four hundred employees. As a sales
manager today, I continue to remind the team of the importance of knowing
the customer. They cannot simply know them by the work we do for them;
they need to know them by name and should visit them on a quarterly basis.
According to Joan Koob Cannie (1991, p. 27) in Keeping Customers for Life,
"it takes the work of everyone in the organization to achieve one-hundredpercent customer satisfaction." Everyone in the organization needs to be
aware of their actions and the needs of the customer. From the receptionist to
the person delivering the goods on the truck, everyone is a representative of
the company. I have used the analogy that we are a family. If one of us starts
to act different from the rest, people will notice and not want to associate with
us. We need to help each other and insure that if one of us comes back with a
story about customer dissatisfaction, it should be taken seriously.
The successful company today is led by a sales team that is proactive.
Knowing the needs of the customer is not enough. One has to be able to think
ahead and offer solutions to problems before the customer is asking someone
else to solve them. With costs being the buzzword today, any means to
reduce pricing will get the attention of the customer. It not only is a door
opener for you to see your contact, it is a door opener to have an audience
with their upper management. After a recent visit with the salesperson of our
largest customer, I noticed a pile of our empty boxes being cut up and placed
in the garbage. When I asked our contact about this "waste" he shrugged his
shoulders and said this is how it is done. I winked at the salesperson and did
not say anything more about this situation. Upon our return to the company, I
asked the salesperson to meet me in my office. I explained to him that this
was a great opportunity to show our interests in our customer's costs and
suggested we develop a presentation for their upper management.
We worked for one week on this presentation. The scope of our idea
was to show the overall cost of packaging for this project and the cost of labor
to unpack, move the boxes, cut up the boxes, and pay for the garbage
company to haul it away. We then prepared to show them the alternative. We
called to ask for an audience with the senior management of our customer.
The trick was to make our contact the hero so he could take some credit for
selecting us as his supplier. However, we wanted our company to be the one
that shined during the presentation. When the big day came, we had color
handouts for all. This was not going to be a sales pitch for our company; it
was to show our partnership in their success. We showed them by using
reusable packaging we could save them hundreds of thousands of dollars per
year. By sharing their concern for quality, on-time delivery, and costs, our
presentation covered many of their questions. We pointed out the fact that
their other suppliers were shipping product the same way and perhaps
consideration for reviewing those methods would result in lower costs. Our
audience thanked us for our time and promised to call with their decision
soon. Our next call was from the Vice President of their company
congratulating us on the presentation and idea. Not only were they going to
implement the idea immediately, they were calling in all of the other suppliers
one by one to ask them to price their product, utilizing our idea. Proactive.
Trustworthy. Partner. These terms were the goals many years ago and
remain the goals today.
Tomorrow's Sales Manager
The future sales manager will have to wear many hats. Understanding
marketing will be a necessity, while understanding the daily needs of the
customer will also be important. Doing business globally is not just a phrase; it
is imperative if one is to stay in business. The computer business is looking
for the total lowest cost and will search anywhere for the answer. Thinking
you can simply ship from a facility in California will not be the answer. Don
Shultz, in an article he wrote for Sales and Marketing Management (1998, p.
86), remarks, "in the interactive marketplace, the organization that listens and
responds will succeed, not the one that continuously talks and sells." The
sales manager will have to be proactive in coming up with solutions.
Networking with others, listening to his/her salespeople, continuing to help the
salespeople succeed, are all part of the equation for a healthy company. The
sales manager of tomorrow will need to have the love of the profession one
hundred percent of the time. Staying one step ahead of everyone will help the
success of this individual.
Cannie, I. K. (1991). Keeping customers for life. New York: Amacom.
Evetts, I. (1990). Seven pillars of sales success. New York: Sterling
Publishing Company, Inc.
Sanchez, D. (1998, October). Four tips for better coaching. Sales and
Marketing Management, 21.
Schultz, D. (1998, October). Reinventing marketing for the 21st Century.
Sales and Marketing Management, 86.
Whiteley, R. (1991). The customer driven company. Massachusetts:
Addison Wesley Publishing Company.
Public Speaking:
Communicating a Message Clearly
I recently attended my close friend's wedding, and the atmosphere was
beautiful: soft candlelight illuminated the room, delicate flowers adorned each
table, and the view of the San Francisco skyline set an elegant backdrop. The
best man's toast to the bride and groom, however, was quite the opposite. He
had not prepared a speech, although he had known for months that he would
be expected to make a toast. In front of 100 guests, the best man began his
speech by accidentally blurting out an expletive, followed by an explanation
that he had no idea what to say. He stumbled nervously through his toast,
randomly pulling together stories of his and the groom's past. He ended the
speech by just sitting down in his chair, without even toasting the bride and
Although the bride and groom appreciated his effort, the best man's
speech demonstrated what happens when one is unprepared. I, too, have
made many mistakes when speaking publicly. In high school, I had to make
class presentations, and I prepared several formal speeches. If any coherent
message came from my speeches, it was that public speaking was not easy
for me. Each time I had to make a presentation, anxiety welled up inside me,
and my nervousness overpowered the speech. I would stand in front of the
class, my body stiff with fear, and, as quickly as is humanly possible, I would
present the topic, rarely making eye contact with anyone. My tone of voice
was hurried and monotonous, and my thoughts were focused solely on getting
the incident over with. Most embarrassing, however, was that my face would
turn red, little beads of sweat would build up on my forehead, and my hands
would tremble as I tensely clutched my note cards. I absolutely dreaded
speaking in public, and my speeches showed it. It was only through speaking
publicly over and over and learning by trial and error that I came to realize
that successful public speaking is comprised of allowing ample preparation,
analyzing audience needs and expectations, engaging the audience with nonverbal communication such as eye contact and body language, using visual
aids and numerous examples, and repeating information again and again to
reinforce the point of the presentation.
A couple of years ago, I was hired as a new business trainer for my
current employer. In a classroom environment, I was faced with training
employees on how to do their jobs, explaining how our complex financial
products work, and demonstrating the benefits of new technology. Because I
had had a great deal of experience training employees in a one-on-one
environment, I was promoted to the position, my lack of public speaking
experience notwithstanding. I was thrown into a situation where I needed to
speak, almost daily, in front of groups ranging from ten to forty people in a
standard training room. During the thirteen months I was an instructor, I
trained over 700 employees across the country, on subjects ranging from
processing new business paperwork, to using the Internet, to using
mathematical calculations to determine product costs and fees.
The first training class I instructed was a group of Transfer Specialists,
transaction coordinators who transfer funds from one account to another. I had
done everything possible to prepare for the training. I printed the correct number
of handouts, contacted each attendee to remind him or her of the training time
and place, checked each computer in the training room to ensure they worked
properly, and repeatedly went over my outline, making sure I knew every point in
the subject matter. Part of the training required me to enter information into the
transaction processing software and demonstrate how each step had to be done
correctly before they could proceed to the next. Just as I was about to
complete the first step and move on to the next, the computer system went
down. There I was standing before twenty-six students who were staring
blankly back at me while I clamored to find an alternative way of
demonstrating the transaction. Paranoia consumed me; thoughts that I was
an incompetent trainer and that I had botched the entire presentation raced
through my mind. Finally, at the recommendation of an audience member, I
continued the demonstration by verbally explaining how the software would
have reacted at that point and what would need to be done in the following
steps. Unfortunately, without actually doing the transaction in the system, I did
not successfully convey the concept. Instead, I had to wait for a future class
period when the system was again running to re-demonstrate how the
transaction should be processed.
Although I felt I was prepared for the training, my failure to anticipate
the unexpected behavior of the computer system resulted in needless anxiety
and wasted class time. What I learned, however, was always to expect the
unexpected. Prior to the next class, I developed a backup plan in case the
system went down again. I created a detailed Power Point Presentation that
outlined all transaction processing steps, complete with several screen
images of what the system looked like during each step. The Power Point
served as a way to continue the training even if the system went down. In
case the entire computer network crashed, I also had color handouts of the
presentation to provide to the students. This additional preparation provided
me with insurance that the training could continue no matter what might
One day, another trainer at work recommended to me that I should try
analyzing audience needs and expectations when I prepared for a new class.
I was thrilled at the results, and I began to incorporate the approach into every
possible presentation. According to Gary Mitchell in The Trainer's Handbook
(1998), evaluating audience needs before the session begins “allows the
trainer to anticipate training needs and prepare a response ahead of time" (p.
86). At least a week before each new training program, I prepared and
delivered a needs assessment survey to each student. The needs
assessment asked general questions about subjects that would be covered in
class and allowed me to gain a sense of each student's level of
understanding. Depending on the responses, I altered the focus of the training
to emphasize weak areas and gloss over subjects in which students showed
a greater understanding. The assessments also highlighted what students
expected to learn from the course. This served a dual purpose; I could
customize the training to include elements the students indicated they wanted
to learn, and I could gauge their interest levels in the subject matter area. If
survey responses, for instance, were short and listed only obvious
expectations such as "to learn to do my job," I knew that their interest in the
training was not substantial, and I would need to do additional work to engage
the interest of my audience.
As part of the needs analysis, I tried to meet with each student
individually to talk about the upcoming course. This helped me learn about the
students' personalities and | get a better sense of what each student expected
from the training. Additionally, I already knew their names at the first class,
and they already had a sense of the type of person I was. This helped create
a more comfortable environment when the class started and showed them
that I had a genuine interest in their learning. Along with ample preparation,
the needs analysis set a strong foundation for presenting a training program
As I had experienced so many times before, the beginning of a new
presentation always brought feelings of anxiety and nervousness. One way I
learned to break the tension was to begin with a catchy opening, often
involving the audience. In a training I conducted that had to do with using the
Internet, I was faced with covering a great deal of information in a short period
of time. I decided, tragically, to proceed immediately into the main content of
the presentation. As I jumped into the outline for the class, sighs were let out
among the students, and, instead of good eye contact, I faced numerous
rolling eyes. Even though I had only an hour to present the subject, I learned
that it would have been more valuable to spend even a couple of minutes
opening with a funny story or a casual conversation with the students rather
than to jump into the presentation immediately. Since then, I have started
each new program by first introducing myself, providing a brief background on
my career, and explaining that if I could be any animal, I would be a manatee.
This unexpected revelation perked up the audience and usually brought on
some laughter. Next, I asked the students to introduce themselves, explain
what they hoped to gain from the class, and reveal what kind of animal they
would want to be and their reasons for it. This exercise tended to relax the
audience while allowing them to have some fun. Additionally, opening with an
enjoyable exercise created a positive first impression that set the tone for the
remainder of the class. Opening exercises provided the audience with a
buffer period between coming to the training and actually beginning the
learning process. Without one, I was throwing the audience too abruptly into
the presentation.
As I gradually became more comfortable speaking in front of large
audiences, I became more accustomed to adjusting my styles of speech and
body language to maintain the attention of my audience and convey the
importance of the information I was presenting. I found that, when I addressed
the audience generally, my use of a style indicative of casual dialogue
denoted that the subject matter was not urgent and it was not necessary for
them to pay complete attention. The feel of the room was more relaxed and
stress-free. When addressing critical subjects, however, I shifted my tone to a
more formal style, slowing the rhythm of my speech considerably. This
indicated that the subject matter was important and warranted their full
attention. Speaking slowly also allowed the audience to take in more easily
what was being said, and it prevented me from hastily jumping from one
important point to the next. Additionally, I learned that my emphasis of key
words placed an importance on them that altered or more clearly denoted the
essential message of the presentation. Using these varying speech styles, I
not only illustrated the importance of the subject matter, but I also varied the
tone of the speech to help prevent the lecture from becoming monotonous.
When I first started speaking publicly, I found that my posture would be
straight, and that I would stand stiffly in the front of the room, rarely deviating
from my initial position. Again, as I grew more comfortable with public
speaking, I noticed that my body language also played an important role in
conveying subject matter importance and maintaining the audience's
attention. When speaking casually, I found that my body language followed
suit. My stance was informal, and I tended to lean on the podium, sit on a
stool, or walk around the room. This helped achieve a more conversational
atmosphere in the room. Conversely, when talking about important subjects
or critical information, I stood tall and made sure my posture was straight.
This style, along with speaking slowly, reinforced the importance of the
Regardless of the message or my style, however, making eye contact
with different audience members remained a constant. Making eye contact
with individuals, even for a brief moment, communicated that I was speaking
not only to the entire class, but also directly to them. This method helped the
audience feel more involved and also kept them alert and focused during the
presentation. More importantly, making eye contact immediately informed me
whether the individual understood the subject matter. If the audience member
carried an expression of confusion or worry, it tipped me off to go back and
re-explain the subject, provide an example to illustrate the point, or pause for
a moment to ask whether anyone had any questions.
Over time, I also noticed that other, less noticeable factors influenced
the success of a presentation. During peak training times, for example, I often
held separate morning and afternoon classes. I noticed that the time of day
influenced audience behavior. Attendees in the morning tended to be more
alert and have a greater interest in the presentation. Afternoon audiences,
however, appeared tired and less interested. Perhaps it was because it was
after lunch, but the difference in audience behavior during the afternoon
prompted me to schedule morning sessions as often as possible. When I was
forced to train during the afternoon, I had to be more animated and engage
the audience more by including additional activities, such as games or breaks.
The temperature in the room or the amount of lighting further influenced
audience attention. A warm room, for instance, made the audience feel less
comfortable and more irritable. A cooler room helped keep the audience alert
and focused. Likewise, dim lighting, such as is necessary during video
presentations, tended to make the audience tired. To counteract this effect, I
tried to follow video presentations with exercises that got the audience moving
I found that among the most important factors in public speaking is using
visual aids, numerous examples to support a point, and various activities to
promote audience participation. No matter the subject matter or the length of the
presentation, I used visual aids to assist me in communicating the message.
"What we perceive with more than one sense has a greater impact on us than
what we perceive with just one sense" (Mitchell, 1998, p. 212). To facilitate this,
every presentation I made included visual aids either on screen, as handouts, or
both. The key to effective visuals aids was to keep them simple. Power Point
presentations that I prepared, for example, listed only essential elements and
subject headings that I then explained in greater detail. Visual aids helped to
simplify the material, make points more memorable, create variety in the
presentation, and save time. To reinforce visual components, I also included as
many practice exercises as possible to provide hands-on learning. In a training
for entering annuity applications into the system, I first explained the concept and
then included several exercises that required the audience to enter applications
into a test system. The audience appreciated the opportunity to learn the material
through a combination of hearing and seeing a lecture with visual aids in addition
to entering data themselves.
Along the same lines, citing examples to illustrate a point is also critical
in a presentation. In training for nearly twenty-five employees, I needed to
explain a complex theory about how a financial product credits a client's
account with interest. The theory had been a trouble area for several
employees. The product credits accounts by using a common interest
element and a "Total Return Adjustment," a fund that accrues additional
interest based on bond market performance. The adjustment, however, only
applies when the client accesses the account. To demonstrate how this
works, I used the example of purchasing a rental house. The landlord
receives rent from the tenants monthly, just as the client's account earns
interest monthly. Simultaneously, the value of the house fluctuates based on
the housing market, just as the "Total Return Adjustment" varies. If the value
of the house increases or decreases, it does not affect the landlord until he or
she sells the house. Similarly, the "Total Return Adjustment" only applies
when the client sells the fund. This example clearly illustrated an otherwise
complex theory and helped sort out recurrent confusion among members of
the audience.
Furthermore, I found that mixing a training program with
various activities enhanced the presentation and increased
audience participation. When training a class about the company's
several dozen products and product enhancements, I combined
both lecture and participatory activities to enrich the presentation.
After describing each product, I broke up the presentation by
playing a game with the class. Much like TV's Jeopardy I described
the features of a specific product, and I asked individuals in the
audience to answer with the correct product name. This not only
helped the audience learn the various products, but it also
increased their participation in the presentation. This activity helped
break up the monotony of the lecture, added value to the
presentation, and increased the participants' retention of the
Group activities also reinforce the message of the presentation through
redundancy. I found that when I continually repeated the information during a
presentation, the audience better retained the information. When I first began
training, did not realize the importance of redundancy .I would cover subject
areas one time, only to find that many attendees left the presentation with
questions or incomplete information about a certain subject. Over time, and
with the help of a great deal of feedback, I incorporated ways to repeat the
information a number of times during the same presentation. For example, I
first talked about each subject at the beginning of the training by using an
outline, describing what it was that I would be talking about. Next, I would
cover each subject in detail, citing several examples to illustrate the idea and
to support what had been covered. Near the end of the presentation, the
information would be reinforced with group activities and games. Finally, I
concluded the presentation by talking about what was covered and
summarizing each subject area. Redundancy proved to be beneficial to
ensure that the audience received the message and had numerous
opportunities during the presentation to catch all the information.
By no means am I a perfect public speaker; I doubt that many people
are. But with plenty of practice and by learning from my often-embarrassing
mistakes, I have greatly improved my skills. I now recognize that good public
speaking involves clearly communicating a message to the audience. This
simplistic approach seems obvious, but I had lost sight of this in most of the
bad presentations I made. Too often I had focused on simply getting through
the material and hoping the audience absorbed as much information as
possible. These presentations turned out to be monotonous, uninteresting,
and uninformative. They lost the attention of the audience and unsuccessfully
conveyed the appropriate information. I continuously sought to improve my
skills and found the best way to achieve this was to solicit feedback from the
audience. At the end of each presentation, I gave audience members a
survey, asking them to anonymously evaluate my performance. The
information I received was invaluable, providing me the opportunity to reflect
on my presentation and determine what had gone right and wrong. This aided
me in assessing my skills and finding ways to improve them.
Equally important, when I concentrated on actually communicating the
message effectively to the audience, my public speaking skills improved. The
information expressed to the audience needed to be lucid, concise, and
memorable. The methods to achieve this goal vary greatly, but I have found
that my best presentations incorporate a great deal of preparation that
includes analyzing audience needs; creating variety and redundancy using
visual aids, numerous examples, and group activities; and reinforcing the
importance of the message through voice tone and body language.
My political science teacher in twelfth grade once said that public
speaking is essential no matter what one does. This could not be more
accurate. Although I am no longer a new business trainer, I use my public
speaking skills almost daily, from making effective business proposals at work
to making memorable toasts at weddings. Two summers ago, I was the best
man at my friend's wedding. I employed the public speaking skills I have
learned to create an effective, memorable speech. Although directed to my
friend and his wife, the toast needed to be appropriate for the entire
audience. I wrote the speech, recounting my friend's and my experiences
since childhood. I explained how he and his new wife fit so perfectly
together and how the possibilities in their life were limitless, reiterating my
point by citing examples from the great Dr. Seuss. In front of 200 guests, I
jovially presented my toast to the happy couple, communicating clearly and
confidently, and creating a memorable message for which I still receive
congratulations today.
Mitchell, G. (1998). The trainer's handbook: the AMA guide to effective training
(3rd ed.). New York: AMACOM.
When my first child was born, and I was told it was a boy, I said, "It
sounds like a duck! A boy! What in the world am I going to do with a boy?"
Based on the fetal heart rate during my pregnancy, my nurse practitioner had
been fairly certain my baby would be a girl. Girls, I knew about. I am the
oldest of four sisters. My mother had been only nineteen when I was born, in
my opinion, a bit too young for parenting. As the oldest, I became the "little
mother" to my sisters and was left "in charge" of them for most of our
childhood. Since we had no brothers, there was no gender division of labor.
We learned to wash the dishes as well as how to mow. While it did teach me
accountability, leadership, and a strong sense of duty, being held responsible
for my sisters, for most of my childhood, was an unduly heavy burden. I knew
that when I was a mother, it would be different with my daughters. One can
imagine then why it was such a surprise when my first child was a boy. When
my son was three and half, I had my second child, a daughter. Since the
communication was going well with my son, I thought I, "Okay, good. This will
be known territory. A girl should be no problem."
When I had been a teenager in the ‘70s, at the height of the feminist
movement, I had had the notion that until puberty, boys and girls were the
same and should be treated the same. It was based on the idea that we tend
to oppress our daughters culturally, so we should give "equal treatment" to our
children, regardless of their sex. I remember getting on my soapbox and
ranting to whoever would listen that there was no j difference between boys
and girls. I got a lot of smiling and nodding from people. The parents I spoke
to about this had that little grin and slight nod that indicated a huge bubble
over their heads with the message in it that read, "Just wait until you're a
parent." What I later learned was that boys and girls aren't anything alike, and
treating them the same is ridiculous. I had confused "treating them the same"
with giving each child equal opportunity to be the best than can be at
whatever they choose to be.
Like every child, I had had the classic attitude of, "I will never say that
to my child when I'm a parent." Well, of course, some of the things my mother
had said to me did eventually pop out of my mouth. A couple of my mom's
favorite were, "Well, people in hell want ice water, but they don't get it," and, "I
don't have to give you a reason; the answer is no because I said so!" As a
parent this latter statement came into clarity. It is usually uttered after giving
fifty reasons, but the child won't hear any of them. Henry Ward Beecher said,
"What the mother sings to the cradle goes all the way down to the coffin"
(Carnahan (Ed.), 1998, p. 274). For this reason, I have always striven to be
intentional in my communication with my children. I saved any baby talk for
when they were actually babies. I remember that children are real live people
with their own feelings and set of needs, wants, and desires. Parents
sometimes have the tendency to treat their children as if they were property
or a task to be completed. Robbins, in the book Organization Behavior, states
that communication is" the transference and understanding of meaning"
(2001) and it requires a sender and a receiver. Many parents think that in
parent-child communication, the roles are assigned. The parent is the sender
and the child is the receiver. Thus, I see many parents talking "at" their child
as if the child is a vessel to be filled. I find this one-sided approach to parental
communication to be appalling. Some of the besting parenting I've ever done
is when I simply listened to what my child had to say.
My two children once and for all set me straight on any idea I had
held about boys and girls being the same. My son, Adam, is a gregarious
extrovert, like me. My daughter, Jessica, is a quiet, thoughtful introvert. I
learned in Psychology class and in various classes for the elementary
school teacher that boys develop their gross motor skills first and their
language second. Girls, however, develop their language first and physical
capabilities later.
My son did not particularly fit this mold. He had well-developed
thought processes and language skills at an early age. He is what is
sometimes called an "old-soul." At age two, he wanted to know why the
moon sometimes appeared in slices. At around three years old, after I had
repeatedly told him to get dressed as I prepared to get ready for work, I
found him, still in his pajamas, coloring. I lost my cool a bit a raised my
voice to say, "Adam, what are you doing! I told you to get dressed." I went
back to what I was doing and he came and found me and said, "Mom, you
have your brain, and I have my brain. Your brain tells your hands what to
do and mine tells my hands what to do, and my brain says it's time to
Well, what could I say to that? I tried to calmly explain about why
Mommy had to go to work and about time constraints, but I nearly busted a
gut holding in my mirth. He did have a point.
At age five, he asked, "Mom, just what does the man have to do with
the baby?" I am of the school of thought that purports that if the child can
formulate and articulate the question; then he or she is entitled to a straight
and honest answer. After my explanation, he asked plenty of questions
and continued to so for days to come. From about age eight, if anyone
would ask my son what to do before having sex, his quick retort would be,
"Talk to mom and wear a condom."
He has deep, soul-searching eyes that will bore into whoever he is
speaking with and will connect with that person on many levels. He has the
ability to listen to what is being said and not said, and process the information
quickly. As a child, I had to stay on my toes because he was a shrewd
negotiator. It was, and still is, my habit to say no to my children only when I
really mean no. When I need more time to think something over, I use the
technique of saying, "We'll see." Once when I had given that response, my
son gave a sideward glance and nudge to his sister and said, "That means
she's going to say yes. Huh, Jessica?" Jessica nodded assent.
Since I divorced their father when I was pregnant with Jessica, Adam
and I are bonded and are, perhaps, much closer than many mothers and
sons. It was an issue for awhile to my present husband. Having a very distant
relationship with his mother, my husband couldn't why we had to be so close.
I patiently explained to my husband that no one could ever come between my
children and me, not even him. Theodore Reik describes it like this,
"Romance fails us and so do friendships but the relationship of Mother and
Child remain indelible and indestructible–the strongest bond upon this earth"
(Exley), Ed.,1995, p. 1). In the five years while my children and I lived
together alone, Adam became the one I turned to for confidence and wisdom.
In retrospect, I probably talked to him about things that he shouldn't have
been burdened with, but I am not sure how I would have made it without him.
My son, who is twenty now, and I were and still are extremely close and can
talk each to other about most any subject for hours.
My daughter loves language, but it's the written word she adores. She
devours books voraciously, and she could read before she started school. I
read to both children while they were small. Strangely, when Jessica was a
toddler, she barely spoke. She paid a great deal of interest in what was
going on around her, but she was oddly not present at the same time. It is
not that she couldn't talk, but that she spoke only when she had something
to say. She would go about doing what she wanted to do, not really caring
whether she had companions or not. She was happy to let her brother
have the center stage that he loved, and she would stay in the
background. Trying to communicate with this child was extremely difficult.
Additionally, she had a quiet voice. If she told someone something twice
and he or she still didn't get it, she would turn away, aggravated when she
was young, but as she got older, it turned to an aloofness that said, "You
are simply too stupid for me to speak to any longer." She had the fairly
typical problem saying the "r" sound, and in the third grade she went to
speech therapy. She would not speak to us about her therapy, but she was
pleased with her progress and its outcome. When she could say a word
correctly, she would emphasize it to us by using it and saying it loudly
enough for us to hear.
Her ability to listen and absorb information is amazing. When she
was six, I read a chapter a night to her of Frances Hodges Burnett's The
Secret Garden. It had been my favorite book when I was ten or eleven. It
was a difficult book for me to read aloud because of the Yorkshire dialects.
She listened raptly, with no fidgeting, begging me to read another chapter
when it was time to turn out the lights. Later when she was older, she would
sometimes read to me. What a joy it was to be read to by my child when I
had longed to hear her voice.
In communicating with Jessica, it is very important to read her body
language Because of her reluctance to share herself with others, she often
appeared cold and unfeeling. As a parent, it was unsettling not really to know
my child, and I worried about her constantly. I simply continued to speak to
her normally, lapped up whatever she gave me in return, and always let her
know that she was loved and that I was always available to listen when she
had something to say. Today, Jess, who is almost seventeen now, and I are
very close, and we love to be together. It is still difficult to get her to
completely open up and share how she feels with me, but I honor her privacy
and accept that it is her way of being.
Karen Renshaw Joslin (1994) in her book Positive Parent from A to Z,
gives this good advice about the skill of parent-child communication:
Communication is both listening to others and expressing
yourself clearly, working with others to negotiate and solve
problems. Your child will learn to listen to you when you show
your interest and listen to him. When you establish eye, contact,
get down to his eye level, he will learn to do the same with
others. When you nag, lecture, judge, and criticize, he will
become "parent-deaf; he will learn not to come to you and will
shut you out. He will learn to negotiate with others to solve
problems if you do the same with him. (p. 14)
Along with the skill of communication, she lists these additional skills
for positive parenting: practice emotional self-control, self-discipline, good
judgment, and good choices. When discussing parent-child communication, it
is difficult to separate it from parenting. I believe that the number one goal of
a parent is to make a child independent from the parent. Our job, as parents,
is to do whatever it takes to teach children what they need to know to live in
the world and make it on their own. We owe it to our children to give them the
skills and tools required needed accomplish this independence. First, we
must love our children unconditionally. This love is the first, strongest, and
longest-lasting message we must get them to hear and know. To love
unconditionally is the easiest and most difficult task to achieve. Love and
everything else we want them to know and learn from us will be taught with
the use of some form of communication.
I love my children deeply, and yet one of the more effective forms of
communication I use with them is distancing myself from them. It is so easy to
be caught up in the emotions of a situation. As Ms. Joslin wrote, no one,
including children, wants to be nagged, criticized, or yelled at. When my
children have not behaved appropriately, it is easy to take it personally and
succumb to bad behavior in retaliation. A child learns what they live, as the
old saying goes. If we expect our children to behave and communicate
effectively, we, as parents, must set a good example and model appropriate
behavior. By stepping back from a situation and containing my emotions, I am
better able to reason with my child and stand firm to my convictions.
While rearing and parenting my children, I learned how very different
boys and girls are. I also learned that the gender of my children became less
and less important to me as their individual personalities emerged: It is
important to understand the differences between girls and boys so that, as
parents, we can adapt communication techniques appropriately. In my youth,
I thought boys and girls were the same. When my children were little, I saw
how different boys and girls are. Now I realize that, while understanding the
gender issue is important, it is a small part of the total task of parenting.
Each child is unique person. My two children are so very different from
each other, and yet, have many of the same qualities.
My children are twenty and sixteen, and I am pleased with them as
young adults. My son lives in Southern California and attends a university.
My daughter is a junior in high school and lives at home. Both are bright,
articulate people, and I am proud of who they are. Both hold leadership
positions at school and church, and they both possess an independent
nature, and they value the search for justice. Apparently, I have achieved
my goal.
Burnett, F. H. (1911). The secret garden. London: William Heinemann, Ltd.
Camahan, M. (Editor). (1998). For mom with love: A book of quotations. Kansas
City: Andrew McMeel Publishing.
Exley, H. (Editor). (1995). The love between mothers and sons. United Kingdom
and New York: Exley Publications.
Joslin, K. R. (1994). Positive parenting: from a to z. New York: Ballantine Books.
Robbins, S. P. (2001). Organizational behavior. Upper Saddle Rive, New Jersey:
Prentice Hall, Inc.
Race and Ethnicity in U.S. History:
Experience in a Gang Culture
Gangs have existed in the United States since the mid 1800s. Early gangs
consisted mostly of adults involved in theft, illegal liquor sales, or political deals.
In the1920s and 1930s, gangs led by AI Capone and other bosses controlled
most of the nation's organized crime. Youth gangs of the 1950s and 1960s fought
one another in fist, club, or knife fights. Since the 1970s, the increasing use of
guns has made gang violence more deadly for members and others (Hagedorn
1). My "club," now commonly referred to as a "gang," never associated itself with
any criminal acts. Our sole intent was to develop a circle of close friends
interested in socializing and to provide a sense of security to a less aggressive
group of teens. We would protect our turf, but only if forced. Little did we know
that to be a member of a club in the barrio would immediately tag us as members
of a gang, requiring us to protect our neighborhood and friends from other gangs
in the area. No matter how we explained our intentions to these gangs, they
would not listen. We did not want any turf wars; we were only interested in social
fun. They would eventually push us into more violent acts in the defense of our
group. Our members consisted of Hispanic teenagers living in the barrio of San
Bernardino, California, located sixty miles from Los Angeles.
Hispanic gangs in the United States date back to approximately 1910,
when there was a large influx of immigrants coming into Southern California from
Mexico. As the immigrants settled in Southern California, it was common for
them to locate in areas where people from their hometown or home state had
already established homes. Rivalries soon developed among immigrants from
various regions of Mexico, which led to the first gangs being organized (Landre,
Miller, Porter 91). When I was a child, stories were told of the fights for turf in
neighborhoods. Gangs would give themselves names of streets such as the
"King Street Vatos," "Topo City", and "La Verde Locos." These were common
street names in the Hispanic barrio of San Bernardino. The stories were told by
older guys, known as "veteranos" (old gang members), of gang fights, stabbings,
and killings. They would speak of the bond among them and how these gangs
would rule the streets at night. Many of us would mimic them in play and pretend
that we belonged to the toughest of them. One story, which has much history, is
that of the Sleepy Lagoon murder. This happened in the 1940s when the body of
Jose Diaz was found at a reservoir in southeast Los Angeles. He had been
murdered, and a group of Hispanic youths were arrested. This resulted in
massive riots which were fueled by bigotry and a corrupt trial in which the judge
and prosecutors displayed routine disregard for the fundamental civil rights of the
Hispanic youths (Sleepy Lagoon1). The trial was an injustice to a group of youths
wanting to express themselves by wearing a specific type of clothing known as
the "Zoot Suit." The wearing of the suit was a symbol for Hispanic gangs and
represented their unity with each other. But many non-gang members were
wearing them as a style in that era. The prejudice to Hispanics forced many to
fight back to protect their right for freedom of expression. The fights often
involved the military personal stationed locally during World War II.
The zoot suiters (See attached, Fig. 1) set the tone for other gangs in the
future. They had introduced a way of dress that would become symbolic to
gangs. Gang would now express their unity by the clothes they wore. Garments
such as jackets, sweaters, handkerchiefs, and shirts in assorted colors would
identify gang members as members of a specific gang. In the barrio in which I
lived, jackets with emblems on the back would symbolize the gang (See
attached, Fig. 2). The emblem would include the name of the gang, or the name
and a graphic picture showing the power of the gang. For example, a gang called
"The Penguins" would have the name in script on the back of the jacket and also
a picture of a penguin. With some modifications, the bird could be wearing a hat,
smoking a pipe, or carrying a club. Gangs would choose the name and the
meaning of their emblem. Jackets were a basic color; black, blue, or green were
the desired colors.
Hispanic gangs are turf-oriented and will fight to the death for the pride of
their territory. Along with turf pride goes gang pride. To the Hispanic gang
member, the gang is more important than anyone of its individual members.
Members are willing to give up their lives for their gang (Landre, Miller, Porter
99). The gang with which I was associated was no different. The expectation of
"one for all and all for one" was always the order of the day. I remember going
through my initiation on my first day in the gang. This consisted of what was
called, "running the line." Members of the gang would line up opposite each
other in a row; the newly voted-in member would be required to run in between
them as they would punch and kick the person. This was the final step in
becoming a member. If the new member succeeded in running the line, he
would become a member. I had witnessed several failures, and it was no pretty
sight. After the new member successfully completed this ritual, the club jacket
would be draped over him, representing his commitment. This was the final step
in becoming a gang member, and the recruit was now committed to all the laws
that governed the gang. The brotherhood was now his life. Our gang was
started as a neighborhood gang based on pride and respect for family; we also
wanted the security of friends and protection from other gangs.
The internal organizational structure of a gang provides a hierarchy of
power, or at least a method of operating, that extends throughout all membership
categories to exercise control over gang members and their activities. Gangs
with a formalized organizational structure have titled leadership roles and clearly
defined operating rules for members. Gang organizations are classified into three
types: traditional, committee, and social (Landre, Miller, Porter 11). Our gang
structure was that of the committee; we had elected officials: a president, vice
president, secretary, sergeant-at-arms, and leaders. The president was the finale
decision maker; he directed all the activities and assigned goals for the gang.
The vice president would ensure that the directions of the president were
followed and would assign groups to perform the tasks; he would also oversee
gang activities if the president was not available. The secretary was the financial
person, overseeing the funds raised by the members through dues, fundraisers
and donations. He would ensure that all monies were accounted for, and he
would responsible for arranging events that would generate money for the club.
The funds raised were not through criminal acts but through honest efforts by the
club to raise money. Some examples of the fundraisers were dances, cookouts,
and car washes. The money raised would go to families of members needing
assistance, to funding other parties, and to the purchase of club jackets. The
sergeant-at-arms was the bodyguard for the president and vice president. He
would oversee the activities of the members while in meetings, assuring that
order was maintained. He was the muscle of the leadership. The leaders were
the generals; they would be involved in leading a gang fight, protecting the honor
of the gang, and ensuring that the membership followed the rules of conduct set
forth by the gang. They were the enforcers of the gang and were feared by all.
The term of office was one year for president, vice president, and secretary; all
other elected official were in for six months. I held the offices of leader and vice
president during my time in the club.
My gang affiliation was for a term of four years, which ran from 1964 thru
1968, during which numerous historical events came to pass. The Peace
Movement was in full swing, Vietnam War had escalated, segregation was
becoming a thing of the past, and gang wars were no longer for turf, but for
power and money. It was a confusing time for me. Though I wanted to believe in
the peace movement, many of my friends were dying in Vietnam. The war had
brought back the draft, while desegregation of people, races, and cultures was in
full swing. While in high school, I remember the first time we were loaded into a
bus and taken to an all-white school because the schools in my area were to be
integrated by means of forced busing. The students at the school did not accept
us willingly; we were a group of twenty Hispanics and twenty black teenagers,
bused to a high school that was miles away from our neighborhoods. To add to
this dilemma, I was a gang member, and only a handful of us had been sent to
the new school. At this school resided a rival gang, and we knew we would be
pointed out and most likely attacked. As mentioned earlier, gang violence had
turned from turf battles to the showing of power and dominance. The decision of
the US government had put us in a dangerous situation: not only had we been
sent to an all-white school, but we were being delivered into the hands of a rival
gang. We had no choice but to defend ourselves. For the months to come, we
would be fighting with whites and other gang members. Prejudice was the most
frightening thing of all; not only were the students against us, but the parents,
and other adults were against us as well. We had invaded their turf, so to speak.
We were outsiders, individuals who didn't belong. For the gang members, this
was not new, but for the Hispanics who were not gang members it was a
nightmare. They reached out to us for help and we responded; our experience
with violence made us their protectors. We were no longer a gang protecting our
turf; we were Hispanics protecting each other from the hate and prejudice we
were all facing. The color of our skin was now our emblem; the fight for our civil
rights was our war. The race riots of the ‘60s awakened many of our nation's
politicians. Fighting and protesting were going on all throughout the country.
People of color were all voicing their discontent for the treatment they had faced
at the hands of the narrowed-minded white culture.
Gangs in the ‘60s were mild compared to the present gang culture. While
the gangs in the ‘60s were involved with the turf battles and the desire to be the
more dominant in the neighborhood, the gangs during the ‘70s and now, present
a far greater threat to public safety. Their involvement in drugs and shootings is
more prevalent today as compared to past gang activities. The recruitment of
members now starts at a younger age. In the gang in which I had been
associated, the youngest one could be to join was fifteen. In today's gangs, I
have seen them as young as ten. What was started as a neighborhood gang
based on pride and respect for family was turned into an avenue for crime.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, young men banded together to protect the
neighborhood where their families had lived for years and sometimes
generations. This is not the case today. Juveniles now get involved in gangs to
accrue the benefits of power and money. Today membership is based more on
who one's friends associate with than where his ancestors originated (Landre,
Miller, Porter 100). In today's gang, it is not uncommon to find smaller groups of
youth comprising a gang. In the past the numbers were larger, the average being
about thirty-to-fifty; one club numbered in the eighties.
Resigning or getting out of a gang can be almost impossible. The saying
among gang members is, "Blood in, blood out," meaning that getting out of a
gang can be as hard as, if not harder than getting in (Landre, Miller, Porter 136).
However, depending on the gang, an individual who acquires a job, attends
school, or gets married has the opportunity to get out. In my case, I joined the
military and got married. I was no longer obligated to the gang, but the bond
would always be there. By the age of nineteen, I had left the gang, and my
military experience would change my life for the better. I was one of the lucky
ones. After four years of military service, I would return home to find that some of
my friends with whom I had grown up had been killed in the streets, some had
gone to prison, and others had moved away. I was now twenty-three and with a
family. My goal was to get an education in the healthcare profession. I moved
back into the barrio, but only for a short time; when I found a job, I moved to a
better area of town.
My affiliation with gangs was not by choice but for my survival in a very
hostile environment. Not only was I living in a barrio, but our country was going
through the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the realization that we
as a country needed to re-evaluate our values toward people of color. Riots
were breaking out, people were protesting the war, and desegregation was in full
swing. As a youth, I may not have understood, or even cared, about all this, but I
knew one thing: I wanted to belong. The gang provided me with the family and
friends I wanted, along with the security from harm. I would leave for the military
and return with a new outlook on life, the realization that my gang involvement
had been an experience that would direct many of my actions in the future. I was
proud of being a Hispanic-American who lived in a country that allows for selfexpression. I may not change the world, but I learned that I do have a voice in
how I want to be treated. My accomplishments in life have allowed me to assist
youths of all colors, and help them find a career that will allow them to succeed.
My affiliation with a gang helped me understand that it is a mistake to judge
someone by his looks without knowing him first. The old saying, "You can't judge
a book by its cover," is so very true.
Many of the gang members whom I knew who survived that time in their
lives are now very active in the community, from organizing a youth center in the
barrio, to seeking political office. They are all living productive lives. Yes, a few
have taken the wrong path, but to know them one can understand way. They
were not the lucky ones; the barrio didn't let them go. I have mentored several
white and Hispanic youths in my career and helped them understand the cultural
differences in our society. In reaching the top of my career, I have had to break
racial stereotyping, and I have established myself as a professional in my field.
My family lives in a crime-free environment; my two sons and my daughter are
not exposed to the violence and criminal activity that was so prevalent in my
The gang memories run deep in me; the friends I made and lost while in
the gang will never be forgotten. On July 24, 2001 a club reunion was held in San
Bernardino. Over 300 were in attendance, club members, their families and
friends. The reunion had several purposes; it was to raise money to support one
of the members in running for the City Council in San Bernardino, and to
organize a new group for the support of a Hispanic youth community .This group
would raise money for the construction of a new youth center and provide
scholarships for teens wanting to further their education. Most of the members
are now in their early fifties, with families and careers. My attitude has changed
much since my years in the gang. The anger I once felt has gone, and my
respect for life itself is something I win cherish forever.
As the fight to eliminate gangs continues, we must look to the root cause
of gangs, not fight them with force and deceit. They are accustomed to this, and
this approach win only strengthen their cause. We can help the youth by
recognizing them as individuals, listening to their issues, and understanding their
reasons. Intervention should always be at the forefront of our efforts to prevent
someone from entering a gang. The community should be educated in gang
prevention; politicians should fight for money for gang prevention, and the youths
should be made to feel that they are part of their community. I was fortunate that
the gang with which I was affiliated did not always believe in violence as a means
to an end. We started out to be a social club, and through all the gang wars, we
kept that philosophy. If we had not, we would have been lead to our own self
Works Cited
Hagedorn, John M. "Gang." World Book Online. Americas Edition. 19 October
< bin/wbprint.exe.
Landre, Rick, Mike Miller, and Dee Porter. Gangs: A Handbook for Community
Awareness. New York: Facts On File, 1997.
"Sleepy Lagoon." The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery. 28 October 2001.
My career in the computer field began with a time-share scam in Reno,
Nevada. I was about ten years old and my parents had endured a 3-hour sales
pitch about time-shares they could not possibly afford. In return, they walked out
the door with a computer. Now, I use the term “computer” very loosely here. It
was more of an electric typewriter that you connected to your television.
Meanwhile, across town, my friends were using the new Macintosh PC’s; the
ones with the screen the size of a large cracker and something called a “mouse”
that allowed you to open and close files by clicking. That was truly revolutionary
technology. The following Christmas, my father decided to eliminate any
confusion with typewriters versus computers, and we found a brand new
Commodore 64 under the tree. I was fascinated by what it could do. My future
career path had begun.
I spent many happy years working and playing on the Commodore 64.
The disk drive would frequently overheat, but I remedied that by elevating the
drive on empty toilet paper rolls. I would spend hours writing programs in BASIC,
only to watch it flash my name in colors for 30 seconds. The Commodore 64
taught me not to fear computers. When I was in junior high school, I was asked
to work in the computer lab, which amounted to maintaining the 20 or so Radio
Shack TSR-80 computers. The best part about this opportunity was that I could
eat my lunch in the computer lab, rather than in the cafeteria with the other kids.
When I graduated from high school, I began working at the public library shelving
books and alphabetizing magazines. After a year or two of being sequestered
amongst dusty books, there was an opening for a full-time position in the
computer department. I was asked to apply, which I did, and it was then that my
education with computers really started. I began to learn how computers were
used in the industry, the concepts of a mainframe system, networking basics,
and the various operating systems that are used. I immersed myself in the field of
Information Technology.
After a few years at the library, I decided it was time to move on to new
challenges. Although the library provided me a solid foundation of knowledge,
they used a time-proven approach to technology that resulted in them being
about 5 years behind the current trend. I yearned for the opportunity to work with
the latest technology. I was offered a position as a network engineer for a home
accessories manufacturer and retailer based out of Northern California. It took
me three months to decide whether or not to take the plunge. I would be leaving
job security, great benefits and wonderful people at the library in order to venture
into the private sector. When I finally came to my decision, the position was still
available, and they offered me the job as the Senior Network Engineer. I worked
long hours and loved every minute of it. The power of managing information for
1000 employees and the excitement of troubleshooting business critical issues
appealed to me. Every minute of downtime translated to lost revenue. I was
finally on the cutting edge of technology: I had arrived.
At that time, the company was still very young and was considered a startup company. In the span of almost 3 years, they grew from one location in
Colorado to over 70 retail stores spread throughout the United States. They
began a wholesale division, selling products to major retailers such as Sears,
Kohls, and Bloomingdales. This growth explosion was good news from a sales
perspective, but it resulted in a very disjointed, inefficient network from a
technological perspective. It was as if five different architects using five different
blueprints and five different contractors renovated a small house. The finished
product results in a larger house, but its functionality as a home is seriously
affected. This is what was happening to this company. And this is what they hired
me to fix.
One of the first initiatives that had begun by the time I started was the
decision to consolidate the corporate facilities into a more functional and
cohesive arrangement. Initially, there were three buildings spread out between a
ten-mile radius of each other. One was called Southpoint, which housed the
Finance and Information Technology departments. The second one was called
McDowell, which contained the Design, Purchasing and Human Resources
departments. The third, Lakeville, was the Distribution center. The decision was
made to move the Distribution center to a brand new 400,000 square foot
warehouse being constructed in Louisville, Kentucky. By having our distribution
center based out of Kentucky, we could take advantage of its geographic location
to ship throughout the United States. The next step was to build out the
McDowell building to accommodate the users from Southpoint and therefore
create one corporate office in Northern California. This meant, in the simplest
terms, a complete redesign of the computer network. But the biggest challenge
was yet to come; the executive committee wanted all this to happen with
absolutely no user downtime.
My first concern was the budget, or more specifically, the lack of a budget.
The Logistics department thought IT had budgeted for all technology costs
associated with moving the facilities. IT thought Logistics budgeted for it. So
there was no way I could bring the project in under budget, since there was no
budget to begin with. The second major oversight was the absence of necessary
electrical power for the new 625 square foot McDowell computer room. It was to
house three rows of racks containing 5 RS6000 servers, 4 Netware servers, 10
NT/2000 servers, 4 Linux servers, 1 AS/400 server, 3 Cisco routers, 12 HP
switches, 13 remote access modems, and 2 Avaya phone switches. This was in
addition to various other pieces of equipment like tape backup systems,
monitors, a remote access server and a couple of lab servers used for testing
purposes. But the blueprints showed only a total of 8 power outlets available to
power all the equipment. Many modern living rooms have more outlets than what
was originally slated for the computer room. I had quite a hill to climb.
After many calls to the construction and electrical supervisors, the
necessary changes were made and the computer room had the appropriate
power. As construction of the distribution center and McDowell buildings were
coming to an end, I coordinated the installation of the data cabling for the user
workstations to be completed before the finishing touches were done. The
massive size of the Kentucky warehouse presented its own problems. The
400,000 square foot facility far exceeded the specifications of Category 5 data
cabling, and the 30-foot ceilings created accessibility issues in the event a new
run of cable needed to be pulled. Industry research has shown that 50% to 90%
of LAN problems are due to inherit problems with the actual cabling itself (Potter,
2002, p. 2). So I arranged for two fiber optic backbones to run the length of the
warehouse and then tie into the Ethernet network via 3 IDF’s located throughout
the building. Since a large percentage of the cost with running fiber is almost
entirely associated with labor expenses, the additional cost of running a
secondary fiber optic line was minimal considering the advantages gained from
redundancy. However, since the McDowell building was just within the 100-meter
specification for Category 5, it did not require fiber optic for its backbone. But I
followed the same methodology as in Kentucky, and ran a second Category 5
cable in the event that the primary backbone failed.
I decided to keep the computer room in Kentucky simple, since they were
only going to be twenty or so workstations located there. The rest of the
workforce consisted of warehouse labor that did not require PC access. Also,
since we would be supporting this location from California, I wanted to keep as
much of the hardware in the corporate office as possible to reduce the total
points of exposure. In the end, the Kentucky computer room consisted of one
Netware 5.0 server for network authentication, file sharing and print queues, and
a couple of switches to connect the workstations to each other. All of this would
go out a Cisco 2500 series router and into the Internet. Rather than worrying
about encrypting all the traffic from Kentucky to California, I decided to go with a
fractional point-to-point T1 line that allowed us to keep our internal IP address
schemes between the two facilities. In addition, I ordered an ISDN line and
configured one of Cisco routers with dial groups to dial up the ISDN line in the
event that the primary T1 circuit failed. Once the LAN was set up and all the
workstations were able to see each other on the network, it was time for the
distribution center in Kentucky to come online. A work force was hired and the
trucks were diverted to begin shipping and receiving product out of Kentucky. As
the California warehouse slowed down their operations, we eventually shut down
the building. We now had a new, working distribution center located halfway
across the nation.
I now turned my attention back to California, and devised a plan to
integrate the remaining two buildings into one. Due to the methodical process
necessary to bring up systems in an orderly manner, I decided to work in the
computer room by myself, and then direct my IT staff of six technicians to
assemble the user workstations and printers. I assigned one other technician to
work in the computer room with me, but to concentrate solely on the crossconnects for the phone switches. The computer room at McDowell had been
finished, and the new cubicles for the employees had been constructed. The
Southpoint and McDowell buildings were originally connected by a point-to-point
T1 circuit and had two different private IP address schemes, which meant I was
faced with changing the entire IP address scheme of one of the networks in order
to integrate the other network. This meant that each script, application, DNS
entry, static route or interface address had to be changed. One mistake, and I
could spend hours tracking the source of the problem.
During dinner one night, the solution suddenly dawned on me one; what if
I didn’t change anything? Since the Southpoint users would be occupying the
newly built space in McDowell, all I needed to do was to subnet the McDowell
building. The existing McDowell users and servers would keep their
address and I would just configure the Cisco 4000 router to route all traffic
between that and Southpoint’s addresses. After all, I was theoretically
just picking up one building and dropping it into another. This meant I did not
need to change a thing concerning IP addresses. It would also give me the
added benefit of minimizing collisions and resulting retransmissions on the
network by creating two separate Ethernet segments (Becker, 1999, p. 3) I was
now ready to begin the move.
Over the course of a weekend, we moved the servers and workstations
from the Southpoint building to McDowell. Although the servers would now
physically live in the same room, they were logically separated by the Cisco 4000
router. A third interface on the router would route traffic to the distribution center
in Kentucky. This essentially created three internal networks. The fourth interface
on the router then routed all Internet traffic to a Nokia IP330 box running
Checkpoint 4.1 firewall services and then finally through another Cisco 2500
router and into the Internet. I ran into one unforeseen issue with our VPN
connection that put me slightly behind schedule. This VPN allowed encrypted
customer order information to flow from our website, which was being hosted in
San Jose, to our AS/400 system in Northern California. It was the lifeline for
much of our sales information. As with most problems, the solution is simple
once you know what it is. In this case, it turned out that a poorly entered default
route in the AS/400 system was sending traffic to a non-existent interface. Once
this was resolved, I worked late into the night and early into Sunday morning
bringing up each system one by one, testing functionality as I went along. By the
time Monday morning arrived, the entire network was up and running with no
major issues or problems. My users showed up for work that morning, and
business continued uninterrupted. There was no downtime. Aside from the
sleepless nights and hours spent testing and re-testing, it seemed almost too
easy. It didn’t take long to find out that it was not over yet.
Although I didn’t bring the project in under budget, I was still basking in the
glow of a success when disaster struck later that week. It came in the unlikely
form of a bird. About four blocks from our facility, a bird flew into a power
transformer, which resulted in a massive power outage in our area. One of my
technicians phoned me at home (where I was catching up on some much needed
sleep), to say that the power was out, but that the UPS was still running and
powering the equipment. Although I knew in theory that the UPS would be
sufficient to power the systems for nearly two hours, I decided to play it safe and
began instructing the technician over the phone on how to shut down the
systems in an orderly fashion. Midway through our conversation, the phone
suddenly went dead. I knew in an instant what had just happened. For some
reason, the UPS had died. Since the phone system and all other systems were
connected to the UPS, I realized that the whole computer room must now be
without power. A quick mental count told me that at least half of the servers had
experienced a very ungraceful shutdown. This was not good. I jumped in the car
and drove to work, fearing the worst.
As I drove into the parking lot, I saw that the power was back on, which
made me feel better. However, this feeling quickly evaporated when I saw the
faces of my fellow co-workers. One of the servers that was in the process of
shutting down when the UPS batteries failed was not booting back up. It was a
Netware 4.11 server that we called Intention. Although Intention was primarily
only used for file sharing, it also held critical design and inventory management
data for the previous two years. As I looked at the screen, I could see it was
giving me a disk error, but not one I had seen before. I suspected it was one of
the 18-gigabyte drives that had failed. I was only slightly concerned at this point,
because since Intention was running a RAID-5, I figured I could rebuild the failed
drive and continue on. After running the RAID utility, I found that actually two of
the five drives failed, which not only was unusual, but a little more serious. The
possibility of rebuilding the two drives from the information on the other three was
remote. I decided at this point to start thinking about restoring from a tape
backup. My plan was to replace the two failed drives with two new ones,
reconfigure the array, then reinstall Netware, and then restore the data from tape.
Restoring with Veritas BackupExec 8.5 was a straightforward process, and I felt
confident. I figured I could have the system back up by the end of the day.
After replacing the two failed drives, a thought suddenly occurred to me.
Intention was scheduled to be upgraded from 4.11 to Netware 5.0 in a few weeks
anyway, so I could install Netware 5.0 on the server now and save me the trouble
of upgrading it later in the month. I could kill two birds with one stone. Not
realizing at the time that a bird was responsible for the power outage, I missed
the irony of this thought. Instead, I brazenly decided to go ahead. This was my
first mistake in a series of errors that were to transpire.
After installing Netware 5.0, I added the necessary licenses and added
them to the NDS tree. I was ahead of schedule and feeling good. I began the
process to restore the data from tape, and started to relax as I watched the files
being restored. After approximately 20 minutes, the restore process was finished.
It seemed too fast. A restore of that many gigabytes of data should have taken
well over an hour at the very minimum. I opened an Excel file at random. It was
empty. I opened another. It was also empty. The file names were there, and the
modified dates seemed correct. Even the file size seemed correct. But no matter
which file I opened, there was no data to be seen. The same was true with Word
files, graphic files, and Access databases. I suddenly felt cold and nauseous. I
pulled out another backup tape and tried restoring. Nothing. I tried another. Still
nothing. I tried restoring the data from a different tape drive, and then from a
different server. Still nothing. I began to feel sick. I had just lost two years of data.
I was responsible for all network operations, and that included the
backups. I faithfully ran backups, and made sure my technicians monitored the
results. We had months of successful backups in history. But I made one fateful
error; I never tested one of them. This was my second mistake in a series of
mistakes. Not wanting to give up, I spent the entire night in the computer room,
going through the previous month’s worth of backups one by one, hoping to find
a tape that contained valid data. As the sun came up the next morning, I realized
that I was not going to be successful in this endeavor. I had been working for
nearly twenty-fours hours straight, but I did not find a tape that contained valid
data. It was now on to Plan B. ActionFront, a leading data recovery lab, states
that even though data can be erased from an operating system and the drives
formatted “…the format merely creates a new blank indexing scheme for the
operating system” and that “previously written data is unaffected” (2000). Maybe I
could send the drives to a specialist who could extract the data. I grabbed a
couple of hours of sleep, and then began to call data recovery specialists in the
After many conversations with many data recovery specialists across the
country, one fact remained painfully clear; if I hadn’t made the decision to install
Netware 5.0 over the previous 4.11 version, there was a chance they could have
extracted some of the data from the drives. The combination of replacing 2
drives, formatting the existing drives, and installing Netware 5.0 across the array
reduced the chances of data extraction to nil. I was out of options. I called a
meeting with the executive team to tell them the news. I walked into the room,
and told them that the Intention server was lost, along with two years of design
and forecasting data. It was one of the most difficult things I had ever had to do.
It was only afterwards that I learned about the bird flying into the
transformer. But I couldn’t blame the bird, as much as I wanted to. I also couldn’t
blame the batteries in the UPS for failing. I knew that ultimately the responsibility
fell on my shoulders. BackupExec had one quirk, one simple illusion that I
succumbed to. When using BackupExec to backup a remote Netware server, you
also need to run the Remote Agent for Netware on the Netware server you are
choosing to backup. If you don’t, you can still select the volume you want to
backup through Network Neighborhood, and the results will show as successful,
but essentially all it does is backup the directory structure. Nothing in the job logs
will indicate a failure in the backup job. However, as my technicians would show
me the daily reports, I would see the successful backup reports and think that all
my data was safe. I trusted the backup reports, when I should have trusted the
test restores that I never ran.
I made many mistakes during the Intention crash, but my most significant
errors were made well before the power went out. When I first joined the
company, I adopted their backup policies without question, whereas I should
have modified the procedures to include regular backup tests. And although I
verified the sizing requirements of the UPS during the planning stages of the
move and the build-out of the McDowell facility, I based those numbers on the
assumption that the batteries were in good condition. And when I was faced with
a hardware failure on the Netware server, I broke another rule in a disaster
situation by changing the environment in which the disaster occurred. In
hindsight, I should have preserved the environment as close to the original as
possible by replacing the entire disk array in the down server and then archiving
the original drives. That way, even though the restore turned out to be
unsuccessful, I might have been able to send the original drives into a data
recovery center and have the information extracted. I also should not have
decided to change the operating system at that time, which only furthered
ensured that the drive data was lost.
It was the type of bad judgment that could have cost me my job. But the
company acknowledged that their existing procedures were flawed long before I
arrived on the scene, and therefore they shouldered some of the responsibility.
But in my own mind, I felt I was responsible, and vowed to never repeat that
experience again. I stayed with the company for another year and a half where I
continued to improve and stabilize their network and integrate new systems to
achieve the new and ever-changing sales objectives. As the economy began to
struggle, the company decided to sell the wholesale side of the business to a
group of private investors, and I was asked to consult with the newly formed
division on setting up their infrastructure and locating a new IT Director. After
many unsuccessful applicants, I was approached with the offer to assume the
role myself. I could see that the company was downsizing their operations, and
although I felt that I had contributed as much as I could to their growth, I was
realizing that their future did not hold many new challenges for me. I felt it was
time to move on to a new startup company and to face new challenges.
I accepted the position and have served as their Director of Information
Technology for one year now. By only having 100 users, it is a much smaller
environment than my old company. That also means that I only have two other
technicians to manage, as opposed to a team of 15 I had previously. Being a
smaller company allows us to move much quicker in the marketplace, and so far
that has translated to a very successful year. With locations in Northern
California, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, my challenges are to find ways to
bridge facilities separated by thousands of miles to work collectively as one unit.
I’ve applied the hard lessons I’ve learned at my previous company and
successfully navigated my new company through what could have been a very
painful beginning for a start-up company. But even though these improvements
have occurred at a breakneck pace, I’ve kept the lessons of the past in mind.
And although I regularly test my backups these days, I still approach any restore
job with some trepidation and fear. And this is what concerns me. I am like a
fighter pilot who lost his edge. Fear has dulled my reactions and curbed my
interest. Age has brought me wisdom, but it has also soured my taste on the fast
pace life of technology. I approach each problem with dread, instead of interest. I
feel that another phase of my life is about to begin. And for that, I think I can
blame the bird.
Majors, N. (1998). Data removal and erasure from hard disk drives. Retrieved
November 1, 2003, from
Becker, R. (1999, September). IP address subnetting tutorial Retrieved
November 2, 2003, from
Potter, J., Dr. (2002). Ethernet over standard category 5 cable; Functional testing
& eE certification. Retrieved November 4, 2003, from WhitePaper3-16-02.pdf

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