Friday, July 10, 2015

Worst Dog Attack Story I've Heard in a Long Time

I love hiking. I love my dog. But as a dog owner of a tiny terrier, I've given up hiking with him because of a growing problem with irresponsible dog owners allowing their dogs to run free.

Before you think I'm just being a fusspot about this, I'll tell you that I know big, strong dog-less men who have given up certain hiking and biking trails because they've been jumped by unattended dogs. Nothing spoils a beautiful afternoon faster than a hundred-pound canine leaping at you from out of nowhere.

And it's not like I'm a nervous Nellie in the woods. Heck, I grew up playing serious hide-and-seek, where stepping on skunk cabbage could give away your position and sometimes the best place to conceal yourself included sharing space other critters. I know enough to make a lot of noise when I come upon a skunk at night, because they don't like to be startled. I've sprinted away from a rattlesnake I didn't mean to disturb, had a delirious woodchuck with a brain parasite try to bite my feet, and even caught a red hawk lying in wait for my little pooch to wander by. When coyotes set up a den in the neighborhood several years ago, I learned to track them when I walked the dog because I know that when you see one coyote, you have to assume there's a second, since they hunt in pairs. Then a family of foxes developed a taste for cats, and our neighborhood kitties started disappearing. The concern was that little dogs were next on the menu, so I had to be vigilant. Recently, there's been a small bear wandering around, in addition to the wolverine-like fisher cats that can be found in the deep woods. As a nature lover, I know that safety on a hike is always my responsibility. I never step onto a trailhead without reminding myself that I must be prepared at all times to react to whatever danger pops up.

But for me and many other dog owners, it's the loose, roaming "nice" dogs that pose the greatest threat to our pets and ourselves. This is a case in point. About a month ago, in a popular hiking area where I used to go, a woman's 35-pound "goldendoodle" dog was attacked by one of two pit bulls off-leash. In the process of trying to rescue her dog, she was bitten on her hand and arm.

And the owners? Well, they had reassured the woman that their pit bulls were friendly just moments before one of the canines sunk his teeth in the "goldendoodle's" hind quarters.

So, by now you're probably trying to imagine the rest of the story. You're probably thinking that the owners of the two pit bulls rushed forward to contain their dogs. They came forward, and yes, they pulled their dogs off the poor little "goldendoodle" eventually. But here's where the story takes a nasty turn. Did the dog owners offer assistance to the bleeding woman or her bleeding dog? No, they scurried away with their two pit bulls. And the conversation overheard? The woman told the man she couldn't believe it happened AGAIN and that this time, the dog would have to go to the pound. Say what?

What would possess anyone whose dog has previously attacked another animal or human to allow that dog off leash in any public space? And how in God's name can you leave an injured woman and dog in the middle of the wilderness? Think about that a moment. In an area where the wildlife includes fisher cats, bears, foxes, coyotes, and other carnivores, where the nearest house is a good twenty minutes away, you have the audacity to leave two bleeding victims? That's unconscionable.

You might think that's the end of the story, but it's not. Whenever there is a dog bite to a human, the human requires treatment. In this case, the offending dog was not apprehended. That meant that the victim had to receive more than just a tetanus shot and a bandage or two. She needed a series of rabies shots. After all, anyone who lets an aggressive dog attack more than once might just be the same kind of person who doesn't bother to get the dog vaccinated.

We have leash laws for a reason. The public has the right to hike without unwanted interference from aggressive or "overly friendly" dogs. Most dog owners understand this and respect the need to control their animals. But for those of us who are subjected to dog attacks because the owners are irresponsible, sometimes the risks just aren't worth taking. This particular dog owner tried to do everything right, but she was sabotaged by dog owners who refused to accept responsibility for their pets. They left without even trying to make it right. If that isn't the epitome of antisocial behavior, what is? The phrase "depraved indifference" seems an adept description of this behavior.

Will the owners of the attacking pit bull get away with this? It hardly seems likely. It turns out they were known to frequent that area, so other hikers were able to provide animal control officers with information. With two pit bulls in tow, the tall strawberry blonde woman and her companion are now on the "most wanted" list of area hikers, armed with cameras and cell phones. The couple may think that moving to another trail in another town will save them, but it won't. They will eventually get caught when their "friendly" pit bulls are yet again off-leash. Let's hope that no one else is injured because of their blatant disregard for the rights of others.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Is Your Age-Related Hearing Loss Making You Feel Like an Idiot?

It's your fault you didn't hear what was said....You weren't paying attention....You've changed....You can't keep up any longer....You're old! 

Has age robbed you of your ability to keep up with conversations? I'm not here to sell you a hearing aid. I'm here to tell you that you're not an idiot when you don't understand what is said to you. You haven't lost your grip or turned into an ancient crone overnight. You're still you and you need to make sure folks understand that.

I didn't lose my hearing as the result of aging, although I do admit it has gotten worse over the last few years. I have spent decades navigating the world without normal hearing. That's why I want you, as someone who has developed hearing difficulties later in life, to understand that how you handle this can make a difference. I also want you to know that you have rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act when you find yourself in a serious situation where your ability to understand what is being said to you is compromised.

Most people who used to hear normally often tend to apologize when they realize they can no longer follow conversations. Part of that is due to the perceptions of and the reactions from many people with normal hearing. Nothing will make you feel old faster than losing your hearing, unless you've been that way for decades. (For me, it's my changing eyesight that makes me feel old. Where are them ole granny glasses o' mine, dagnabbit?)

When your grandson mumbled something about that awesome concert, Suave Dave, did you miss it because you're an old fogey? Little Skippy thinks so, but that's because he can't picture you grooving to Cream, the Stones, or Credence Clearwater Revival back in the days when you were his age, let alone imagine you sporting sideburns hairy enough to look like there were a pair of tarantulas setting up shop in your ears. No, he thinks the reason you two can't communicate is because you're old.

And what about you, Savvy Abby, when you go to lunch with the "girls" (all of whom are well over fifty) and you can't understand what's being said about the hot and heavy affair Olivia just had with her hunky trainer at the gym, even though the "girls" are using their trademark stage whispers? Do you get that heavy sigh, like you're just too slow to keep up with them any more, all because you made the cardinal sin of asking them to repeat the gossip?

It's a lot of work to keep up with people who have normal hearing, but it's work that's worth doing. I learned to read lips as a child (oh, yes -- you do wind up knowing too many people's secrets without really trying). I always take a proactive stance. I move closer the source of the sound, even when it means sitting in the front row at a lecture or concert. I watch the person who is speaking to me, looking for facial clues to help me decipher the words I don't hear. And when I can't understand what is being said, I speak up.
 
In your own personal circles, it won't be easy to come to terms with your hearing loss. It's a learning curve over time for most families and friends. But in public situations, where you're conducting business, you can bet your sweet bippy that you have the right to be accommodated.

Recently, I had to conduct business over the phone, something that always makes me cringe. I can never be sure I heard things correctly. (I learned the hard way during a contract negotiation once that it's necessary to see things in writing.) The moment I began to have difficulty understanding what was said to me, I informed the company representative. The reaction? He talked faster and louder. I asked to speak to someone else, noting that I am hearing-impaired. The second company representative came on the line and did exactly the same thing. By this time, I was fed up in more ways than one. I asked for a supervisor and got bounced to a company representative in another state. The supervisor passed me back to the original two guys, who then bounced me back to the supervisor, who passed me off to a woman in another office in yet another state, who then proceeded to lecture me on how she was there to help me, but I wouldn't "let" her. Honey, if I can't understand what you're saying to me, you're not accommodating me.

By the time I raised a stink all the way to the corporate office, I finally got someone who actually had been trained to help hearing-impaired people like me. In a very short time, she was able to help me navigate the situation and get it fixed. The irony? She had a thick accent, but because she understood how hearing-impaired people function, she made adjustments so that it was easy for me to follow her conversation. Before we finished our business, I told her that the treatment I received from other employees was unacceptable. She agreed. The company's official policy is to accommodate hearing-impaired customers, and like many big companies, it has specially-trained personnel for this purpose. Unfortunately, there was a screw-up somewhere in the training process. Thus, the employees I had spoken with earlier thought all they had to do was keep shouting at me and that was accommodation enough. Honey, if I can't understand what you're saying to me, you're not accommodating me.

Why do I tell you about this? You need to understand that when you are conducting business and you have a hearing loss, you may not understand the contractual implications of the conversation you're having. You could wind up agreeing to something that isn't what you want. You could possibly be held to that verbal contract you didn't know you made and that could prove to be an expensive mistake. That's why you need to be sure you understand the conversation you are having.

The company I was dealing with had changed my phone service without my permission during an "upgrade" of the system. The young employees who were trying to field my call were prepared to switch things around, deleting this and that, but not in ways that I wanted or needed. Had I agreed to let them proceed without getting that clarification, it would have been a costly disaster. And If I hadn't eventually found someone to accommodate my hearing loss, there would have been no way to fix what the well-meaning employees did.

Many people don't understand hearing loss or how it affects everyday life. But when your ability to make arrangements with utility companies, service providers, medical facilities, and other critical businesses are negatively impacted, you really do have to stand up for yourself, by recognizing and exercising your rights under the ADA. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to kick and scream when people don't feel they need to accommodate your hearing loss.

At the drive-up window of the bank today, the usual tellers weren't there. I handed over my deposit slip and some checks to the unfamiliar woman, who said something I didn't understand. I explained I was hearing-impaired and asked her to repeat it. She proceeded to chide me for doing something, but dadgummit, I had no idea what I supposedly did or didn't do. She carried on a conversation in heavily-accented English with herself. I tried to explain that I couldn't understand what she was saying, given the physical distance my car was from the teller's window. I told her I was too far away to read her lips. I asked her to write down what the problem was. "That's not an account." What's not an account? I told her multiple times that I couldn't hear her, but she just continued to talk over me. Honey, if I can't understand what you're saying to me, you're not accommodating me.

By this time, I told her that I wanted everything returned to me, so I could go to the main branch of the bank and speak to someone who would accommodate my hearing impairment. She refused to do this. Instead, she told me everything was fine now. Fine? It's not fine if I don't know what went on and if I don't actually know that the problem was correctly resolved. I'm not willing to take her word for it. What if she deposited my checks into someone else's account? I had asked for a balance on the account, but she was so busy talking at me, she never bothered to write it down. That's something I need to see in print, in case there is an error. I want to know what the bank does with my money. More importantly, I have a right to know. Honey, if I can't understand what you're saying to me, you're not accommodating me.

And that's what I want you to know, now that you are someone who has lost your hearing due to aging. You don't need to apologize for not being able to understand conversation. You don't need to feel less than human because you struggle to keep up with what is said to you. You don't need to feel dumb, stupid, lazy, ignorant, or slow. You do, however, have to look out for yourself.

It helps to meet people in the hearing world half-way. Look at people when they speak to you. Maintain eye contact. That shows you are making the effort to communicate effectively. When someone speaks too fast, it's okay to tell him to slow down. You are probably not going to hear every word of a sentence, but you need to hear as many words as you can in order to properly extrapolate the context.

Remember the old kiddie game we called Telephone Operator? By the time the original whispered message got all the way around the circle, it no longer made any sense. Hearing loss sometimes causes a similar phenomenon when we get it wrong.

Neighbor says:

"Mind if I borrow your weed whacker this afternoon? I'm having the relatives over for dinner tomorrow night at six and I want to get the yard cleaned up."

You hear:

"Mind...weed whacker...over for dinner...at six...clean up."

What happens? Your brain takes those few words and tries to configure them in a way that makes sense. Sometimes there is just not enough information. That's when things get really hairy.

You think you heard:

"Mind using your weed whacker tomorrow? I want to have you over for dinner at six, after you clean it up."

If you show up on your neighbor's doorstep at six, even with a bottle of Chardonnay in hand, it's going to be awkward. Don't place a lot of faith in your own abilities to fill in the blanks.

My own favorite experience in "mishearing" a conversation still makes me laugh to this day, but that's because it happened at a gathering where almost all of the people were hearing-impaired. Someone mentioned that he was participating in a charity event for polar animals. The foundation was in the process of raising money to build new shelters to house them. My mind went into overdrive. It's got to be expensive to care for polar animals. The shelters must have to have refrigeration units, chain link fencing....Are we talking seals, penguins, polar bears? My curiosity finally got the better of me, so I asked: "What kind of polar animals are being rescued?" There was a long pause. "Polar animals?" And then the laughter started. All these deaf people understood what I had thought I heard. "Oh, no! This is a foundation to rescue older animals! Dogs, cats...."

And on that note, I give you my final piece of advice on living with hearing loss. Keep a sense of humor. Sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh it off.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Big Dog Owners Need to Know About Little Dog Owners

It's been just over three years since my little Yorkie, Sweetie, was killed at doggie daycare, all because no one expected a "nice dog" to attack her. That tragedy should never have happened, but it did, and it taught me a very valuable lesson. When it comes to little dogs, you can never let your guard down.

I've had it happen more than once -- the "nice dog" that comes charging at my little dog from out of nowhere. Not long after adopting another Yorkie, a male with a sweet disposition, I found myself fending off an attack by a bulldog. "Gee," said the surprised woman standing there as I pushed her dog off mine, "she usually only goes after female dogs." A dog with a known habit for attacking other dogs was off-leash? It's an accident waiting to happen. (And making a statement like that after your dog attacks mine is likely to get you hauled into court for irresponsible behavior, especially because you've acknowledged your dog's aggression on previous occasions. )

Today, as I was walking my little dog in a nice neighborhood, enjoying the fine spring day, I never saw the attack coming until it was too late. My little guy was leashed, wearing his harness. Suddenly, I heard shouting. Someone seemed upset, so I turned to track the noise. Much to my horror, I found a white poodle charging us. Desperately trying to grab my dog as this "nice dog" lunged for him, I fully expected the owner to step in and deal with his dog's aggressive behavior. Instead, I found myself on my own, using that life-saving harness to pull my dog from harm's way. Without that owner's help, I had no choice but to protect my dog the second that dog tried to bite him. And that's what big dog owners need to know about little dog owners like me. I am not afraid of your dog. I'm afraid of what your dog will do to mine. And that means that I am going to do whatever I have to in order to keep my dog safe when your dog attacks.

Vets and dog trainers will tell you that you can't ever really trust dogs to get along on their own. Even that "nice dog" will become a domineering aggressor if he (or she) perceives the situation to involve prey. And for too many big dogs, that's exactly what little dogs appear to be.

In this case, the dog ignored not only his owner's commands, but mine as well. "No, damn it!" The only way for me to get the dog to retreat was to use force. That, in and of itself, creates a huge liability for the owner. While many people presume there are no real consequences when dogs tangle, even big ones going after little ones, there is a much more serious issue to consider. If I am injured because I am trying to protect my dog from an attack by your dog, you can be fined. In this state, it's a minimum of $1,000. But more importantly, if I am injured while protecting my dog, you're going to be paying the medical bills. I can also sue you for putting me in that position, not only for pain and suffering I experience because you failed to control your dog, but also for the emotional trauma of the attack.

But the real bottom line is this. If your big dog attacks my little dog, your dog may have to be put to death. Is it the result of your dog being unsociable? No. It's the result of you not being a responsible dog owner, providing effective training, exercise, and control of your dog. Is that what you really want?

As a responsible dog owner, I am vigilant in not only protecting my own dog, but also in trying to protect yours. I know that the poodle that attacked my dog today was probably not a vicious dog. But I also know something else. When that dog owner finally corralled his dog and dragged him away, he never offered me an apology. In fact, he never said a word to me. He acted like it was no big deal that I actually had to resort to force to get his dog off mine. That's antisocial behavior, not just from the dog, but more importantly from the owner. Responsible dog owners do the right thing because they respect all dogs, not just their own. They accept the job of not only keeping their own dogs safe, but all dogs.

Don't assume that just because I have a little dog, I will be intimidated by your big brute. There's no way I will stand by and allow your dog maul mine. When the dust finally settles, my dog will still be in one piece. Yours may not be. And I'm going to hold you accountable, not only for everything that happens to me and my dog, but also what happens to yours. There will be legal consequences. That's your wake-up call to heel, my friend.


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As the author of several mystery series, I often feature dogs as characters. I am a big believer in pet adoption. Here are two of my free pet-friendly cozy mysteries for your reading pleasure:






Barnes and Noble -- Henry Hartman's Fall Guy Crisis


Amazon -- Miz Scarlet and the Vanishing Visitor

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Does Valley, AL Really Want the Green Giant as School Safety Officer?

Ho, ho, ho...ut-oh! It looks like it might be time to register all your canned goods as dangerous weapons!

A middle school principal in (of all the possible names) Valley, Alabama sent a letter to parents, informing them of the new safety procedures in the case of a school intruder. Priscilla Holley asked parents to provide each child with an 8-ounce canned item. As quoted by the New York Times, she said: “The canned food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive....The canned food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters their classroom.”

I can see so many reasons why this is a bad idea, having worked with children of that age. Their propensity to panic suggests that a room full of shrieking children tossing cans through the air is more likely to result in significant injuries to the children, rather than the intruder. Little Suzie might not have the proper technique to achieve any great distance. What if she whacks little Bobby, the pride and joy of the Little League, on the head and takes him out of the game? If he’s the only kid with an arm that can aim that can of peas at the dangerous intruder, the class will be left unprotected.

Can safety is very important. I say this because I can still remember the moment, as a 16-year-old, when I first heard my late mother swear. She reached up for a can of Green Giants Niblets, lost her grip, and the can bounced off the counter, landing on her big toe. Boy, was it a shock to hear her utter that profanity!

Do the teachers plan to hold training classes, to instruct each child exactly how to throw the 8-ounce cans? Is the Jolly Green Giant now going to be the school safety officer? Will he be the coach and adviser for the program?
 
Canned food...empowerment....If an eight-ounce can is sufficient, what about a 12-ounce can? Should that be only allowed for the teachers? In that case, perhaps the school district will provide that old school snack-time favorite, Hawaiian Punch. Think of the sense of empowerment just from the brand name! Why, teachers will feel invincible!

What happens if the children become proficient in can hurling? Will there be can hurling contests among students? Will this replace the biathlon at the Winter Olympics? Skiers shush down the mountainside, cans in hand, and take aim at snowmen?

Should we really believe that a can of corn will ever replace sensible adults, acting to protect students in the classroom? School safety should never be taken lightly, whether the threat is from a student or an outsider. It’s far more reasonable to equip every classroom with a “panic button” and have the office alarm system hooked up with the local police, so that they can respond in a timely fashion.

More importantly, no child should ever be given the idea that tossing a can at a menacing intruder will be a legitimate deterrent to someone who is determined to harm the children. That’s the stuff of cartoons and Hollywood special effects. The Valley, Alabama school system would be better served by consulting with professional security experts on ways to improve safety and sending those canned goods to the cafeteria, where they can feed hungry children.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Motherhood Really Instinctual for Women?


As an author with several mystery series under my belt, I am always curious about how readers perceive not only my stories, but also my characters. In Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy Crisis, career woman Sydney Stansfield Hartman suddenly finds herself saddled with the care and feeding of someone else’s baby, thanks to a series of unexpected events involving her husband, an FBI agent. Poor Syd, used to coming and going at all hours of the day and night, suddenly has to juggle her work as an interior decorator to keep someone else’s child safe from harm. It’s a big adjustment for her. Recently a comment in a review caught me off guard. My reader thought this was ridiculous -- any woman should be able to handle an eight-month-old baby. I don’t know about you, but this assumption took me by surprise.

The reader questioned why Syd wouldn’t know how to take care of this tiny stranger...as if every woman somehow instinctively knows how to care for children...as if Syd is being portrayed incorrectly in the struggle to get it right as a foster mom, without any hint of realism provided by me, the author.

I grew up babysitting, starting when I was ten, and later became a “mother’s helper” and a nanny. Once I earned a degree in early childhood education, focusing on child development and psychology, I spent many years working with a wide range of children -- some with handicaps, some with behavioral disorders, some with learning disabilities, some with catastrophic illnesses, and sometimes even just ordinary children.

In all those years, I saw many adults floundering as they tried to understand these wondrous little beings. They were in over their heads, at their wits’ end, baffled by the behavior of their offspring and at a loss for what to do. While parents delved into long, involved descriptions of how their normally well-behaved toddler had a complete meltdown in public, I just asked a simple question: “What time of day was it?”  An inexperienced parent might inadvertently drag a child out to an event during nap time, but not one who’s “been there and done that”. The mom who’s gone through this scene and wised up knows nap time is sacrosanct. Her child’s body expects him to rest at the same time every day and wants to shut down. If little Nathaniel’s mind is over-stimulated by unexpected activity, it’s going to lead to a major conflict. “Your child is tired and can’t think straight,” is the logical explanation for why the little guy lost it at his brother’s soccer game.

As an adult, you learn over time that you can’t work against a child’s internal clock and expect to succeed -- that’s just foolish. We’ve all been to the grocery store and had the experience of walking down aisle after aisle, listening to the wailing and whining of a small child while the parent tries to reason, cajole, threaten, or otherwise command obedience. Good luck with that if it’s mealtime. If adults find it challenging to wander through all that food without giving into the urge to splurge, how do you think impulsive, emotional, unfiltered kids feel, when all they hear is no?If you want cooperation from little Wendy, take her shopping when she’s not hungry and surrounded by all that tempting stuff on the grocery shelves.
 
That’s why I laughed at the notion that any woman will automatically know how to take care of an eight-month old child. Having been in that position many times over the years with different children, I can assure you there were plenty of times I had no clue what was going through a screaming baby’s brain. Did the diaper need to be changed? Was his little tummy upset? Did his ear ache? Was he teething...coming down with a cold...hungry? Whenever I had a fussy infant on my hands, I automatically went through my checklist, trying to find the right solution to the problem. I didn’t do it by way of instinctual knowledge, but by training. I learned and observed. I gained insight and wisdom. I paid attention to the clues. Having also observed a number of confused parents as they struggled to understand their children, I know that it sometimes takes a detective to follow the clues and find the root cause of a problem.

But where are women supposed to get the insight into a child’s behavior if they, like Syd, aren't exposed to children? Babysitting isn’t as popular an activity as it was during my teenage years. In this day and age of instant Internet connections, is it too tempting to turn to strangers for advice on raising their kids, shunning the wisdom of women who have real-time experience? Gone are the days when mothers helped daughters learn how to bathe their first infant. Families are now so scattered across the country, the extended family is far removed from the everyday interactions that are so precious in a child’s formative years. Instead, new mothers and fathers often struggle to figure out how babies “work” on their own, missing out on so much family wisdom.

Parental expertise isn’t something we can download on demand, at a moment’s notice. Children don’t come with user manuals, any more than parents come with built-in “wisdom genes”. It takes interactive learning, some good guidance from experienced mentors, and a whole lot of hands-on training to raise a child.

Sadly, what the reader missed about my book was that Syd has the older and wiser Hartman ladies to guide her through the parenting process. Two vivacious and often funny senior citizens, Prudence and Charity, join forces with Faith, the no-nonsense lawyer, to help Syd care for her unexpected little ward, along with the invaluable experience of  a man who’s changed many a diaper over the years and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Together, the extended Hartman family gets involved in nurturing a child in need.

We forget sometimes that, in this age of high-speed technology, people are still people. We’re born innocent, and if we’re lucky, we grow in wisdom as we experience life. We need to help each other along the way and share those important life lessons that weave the strength into our society and make us decent human beings.

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“Henry Hartman’s Fall Guy” is free at Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, Apple, and other digital retailers. Amazon charges 99 cents, unless you can get them to price match it for you.

Apple ITunes
Barnes and Noble
Kobo Books
Smashwords -- in all digital formats

 

 

 

 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Are You a Control Freak for Practicing the Golden Rule?


What ever happened to the Golden Rule? Has it gone out of style? Is it foolish to think that what we do as human beings makes a difference?

I admit it. I have a penchant for moving shopping carts at the grocery store. Too many times I’ve found a perfectly good parking space taken up by a wayward cart left behind by a busy shopper, often just a few feet from the cart corral. What does this say about us as a society?

There was a time we thanked people for holding the door for us as we came upon them. We appreciated the effort made. It told us that people were aware of our existence. We were part of society and we knew it by the way our fellow citizens treated us. Those little measures of civility made us feel connected, especially because the majority of us felt compelled to return the favor in some way, passing it along to the next person we met. There was a sense of camaraderie reflected in simple gestures. We made eye contact and recognized our connection in that gaze. We smiled and saw the power of a friendly curl of the lips. We felt emboldened to look out for other people and felt good to be a productive part of society.

Ah, but society is now the devil, the root of evil conformity and repression of individual rights. Society is some mindless conglomerate of oppressive practices, where things as arbitrary as speed limits and traffic lights prevent us from driving unimpeded down life’s highway. Too many rules. Too many bosses. Too many affronts to our choices. Shouldn’t we be free to pursue our own desires without interference from those around us? Aren’t we the best judges of what we should do and how we should do it? Why should we consider what other people think or want?

The other day I returned my cart to the corral, where I found a tangle of carts spilling out into the path of ongoing cars. It took me less than sixty seconds to put them together, but what did that gesture say about me? That I’m a control freak and I have to have things neat and tidy? I’m sure that’s what the smug thirty-something woman who shoved her cart at the corral told herself, even as I was walking away. She had watched me put all those carts together as she loaded her groceries into her trunk. She saw them all nice and neat within the confines of the metal fencing. And yet she shoved her cart in the direction of the corral, knowing that another five steps would have allowed her to add the cart to the orderly line. That sideways glance at me made it clear that I was, in her view, some control freak, some oddball, some wacko with a compulsive disorder. (Good thing she wasn’t judgmental, right?)

What would I say to her if she had voiced her opinion of me? How would I answer her blind arrogance? I would say this. Every time I am in a public place, like a grocery store, I think about how many people are affected by my actions. I think about my fellow shoppers, including the mothers and fathers with young kids in tow, the elderly, and the handicapped -- those people who need to pull into the best available parking space. I think about the store employees, trolling the parking lot to gather the shopping carts. Who am I to make their jobs more difficult by being sloppy and insensitive to their efforts, especially when the weather is brutally hot or cold?

What do I get out of my effort to make the parking lot a little better for those who come after me? I get the reminder that I am a part of a greater whole, a community. I realize that every time I push my cart into the corral. There are other people affected by my actions, and because of that, I have a responsibility to do right by them. I take that knowledge with me wherever I go. That’s why I look at people as I pass by. That’s why I offer a smile or a compliment or a friendly remark to the cashier who scans my groceries. That’s why I thank the person who bags my purchases. It’s my way of saying, “I see you and I recognize you as a person. I hope you show me the same consideration.”

We do not, as individuals, live in a bubble world, untouched and out of reach of our fellow human beings. A conscious decision to do right by others, the essence of the Golden Rule, is a practice of every good citizen. It transcends any organized religion. In a world of chaos and cruelty, where bad guys think they can act without consequences, it’s easy to become dismayed and disheartened. The world seems on the brink of disaster as human values seem to slip away from us. The only real remedy is to recognize the reality of human behavior. Those without a conscience are free to wreak havoc on the rest of us because they do not see us as having worth. They are set on their course and they will not allow themselves to have a change of heart. They will do what they will do regardless of consequences and in spite of the plight of their fellow citizens.

If we want the world to be a better place, we don’t have to cross the Sahara to do it. We don’t have to scale Mount Everest or sail half way around the world. Every time we practice a little kindness, every time we reach out with simple gestures, we weave the fabric of our society. We encourage those around us to take a chance and gain a little self-respect in the process.

No man or woman is ever an island in a world of people. We may feel alone or abandoned, but that’s because we’ve allowed our society to fracture. Every time we jettison our good sense, every time we ignore or excuse our own bad behavior by believing it’s someone else’s job to do these simple little things, we give ourselves and everyone else the permission to pretend the rest of society doesn’t matter. “We are the only people on the planet with any value.”

The Golden Rule was never a path to religious zealotry. It doesn’t make us idiots or fanatics when we practice it. It’s a means of recognizing that other people exist in this world and we need to get along with them. It makes us mindful of the reality that each of us has the power to influence the people around us. Every little effort we make defines us as people. We choose to empower good over evil. We choose sharing and caring over hoarding and selfishness.

Do I think that young woman who shoved her grocery cart at the corral understood that? No. She was busy thinking that she had so many things to do and her ten seconds was too valuable to waste. But someday...somewhere...somehow, she will be in need of an act of kindness. In that moment, when she feels her back is against the wall and there is no hope, her heart will open up and she will begin to understand that she is of this world. Her eyes will see what she has missed all these years and she will recognize her hunger for that human compassion she believed was meaningless. It will matter. And that’s when she will become a responsible member of society, aware of the people around her and willing to do her part to make this world a better place in which to live.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Social Media, Predators, and Why Consistency of Character Matters

We've all seen them, the tweets and re-tweets to sell books. Everyone has a book these days, now that self-publishing is the new "it". But how do we know what is worth reading? Do we rely on the stars that are slapped on books at digital publishers? Do we rely on the glowing reviews that are swapped, bought, or self-written? It's time to put the "social" back into social media. It's time to understand why consistency of character matters on Twitter, Facebook, and every other digital outlet.

As a caregiver educator, I am constantly flooded with requests from social media marketers, looking to use my content for free. They fluff up my feathers and tell me wonderful things about myself, but not because they actually think I'm swell. They do it because they want to use my reputation to burnish their own.

As an author of mysteries (and a few short caregiver guide books), I'm on the other side of the coin when I try to market my tales to readers. I am constantly looking for ways to connect with real readers who seek the kind of mysteries I write. I actually want to target the kinds of readers who like my type of work.

As someone with an educational background in information studies and media, I know the power of social media when used effectively. When we really engage and connect in meaningful ways with the people out there, it can really change the world. Don't believe me? Check out the cancer communities that offer real-time support, from the wonderful #bcsm for the Breast Cancer Social Media chats (part of the www.bcsmcommunity.org group) to www.ihadcancer.com to www.stupidcancer.org. These are just three examples of how effective social media can be in reaching out to the public and helping people through peer support, education, and sharing of insight and information. Whether you're a teenager, a senior citizen, or a "betweener", you can find help twenty-four hours a day. That's powerful stuff.

Recently, I noticed that there were some rather unsavory activities on my author Twitter feed. People I followed were actually sending out adult material without any warning, expecting me to re-tweet it, no questions asked. On top of that, a number of dubious followers were suddenly showing great interest in some of the author groups to which I belong, and using hash tags that were utilized by followers of jihad. What was that draw? Erotica. Not just erotica, but often times violent erotica, that involved exploitation of women, young women on the edge of adulthood. In a world of terrorists looking for opportunity, it seemed they had latched onto the Golden Goose. Authors so desperate to sell books, they would re-tweet "anything and everything", in exchange for the same service for their literary works.

Am I a prude? Hardly. I read "Lady Chatterley's Lover", "Fear of Flying", and any number of other "racy" novels in my many decades. But do I tweet explicit material on a public Twitter feed? No. Why? Because it's a PUBLIC Twitter feed. Do I know whether I have teenage followers? Yes. And I have an ethical and moral obligation to help them keep their childhood years unsullied by adult materials. I don't care if everyone else does it. I never jumped off the bridge because all my friends were doing it back in high school, so I'm not about to change now. Consistency of character really does matter, and I'm not about to alter my plans now to please the folks who holler, "Thought Police!" every time someone objects to erotica.

But there is something far more sinister to consider on the current state of self-published books, and especially erotica. Unless you read each and every book that you receive on your Twitter feed, how do you know what you're passing along? Traditional publishers have rules and guidelines they follow when publishing erotica. They know what the public's sensibilities are and how to market it without running afoul of common sense. In the world of self-published erotica, the rules aren't the same. If the person crafting the tweet isn't honest, isn't decent and caring, aren't you subjecting your followers to unsavory social media when you re-tweet those "naughty" tweets?

I personally had concerns when I noticed some very graphic, very explicit tweets that encouraged violence on my feed. I wasn't the only person with such concerns, but I had to consider my own situation. As a caregiver blogger, I know there isn't much of an audience for these kinds of materials among my followers. As a mystery writer, I like happy endings and real solutions to life's problems. That's what my fans enjoy about my books. But it was more than that.

What if, I asked myself, the prolific tweeter wasn't quite what he seemed? What if all that flash and glitter he threw on top of his tweets was hiding a dark side, one that could and would affect any of my unsuspecting followers? And I wasn't the only one with that concern. After all, Twitter is a PUBLIC forum. That means anyone and everyone can read the tweets and retweets, including those folks who are responsible for preventing acts of terrorism around the globe.

There are two things that terror organizations need to be successful in terror campaigns -- targets and money for their operations. They launder cash until it's clean. They hide in plain sight to gain credibility in order to determine those targets which will most satisfy their operational goals. What could be more satisfying than a bunch of erotica lovers who flout the rules?

To my knowledge, most erotica authors aren't violent sexual predators. There are men and women who write "naughty", "steamy" sex tales that titillate. They're hoping to be the author of the next "Fifty Shades" in the self-publishing field (by the way, trends appear to indicate the readers are becoming jaded with all the erotica offerings -- apparently, the thrill is going). But what if there are those folks who are more than just authors sharing their sexual fantasies? What if some are very real predators, looking to exploit everyone?

Most people have consistency of character. It develops over time, with our actions, our shared views, our behavior. As the years go by, these tidbits of our acts, thoughts, and deeds become part of the record of our lives. Many people don't necessarily understand this as they use social media, nor do they care. They tweet and re-tweet "anything and everything", more as a social protest than as an ethical consideration. So, what happens if you actually empower a "bad guy"?

How do you know, as a tweeter and re-tweeter, that the man selling vampire tales of violence, sex, and mayhem is harmless? What if he chose to write those books because there was something driving his behavior? Most people don't advocate exploitation, especially of young, vulnerable women, but if you tweet and re-tweet these kinds of books, aren't you saying it's okay?

What kind of person normally writes a book about unbridled violence and mayhem? Someone you invite into your living room? Having worked with juvenile and adult psychiatric patients, many who had violent tendencies and were constantly on the prowl for their next victims, I can tell you that concern is merited when you see something that's "just not right". Do a simple search on such an author, and what do you find? Glowing words that make him seem warm and fuzzy, like the guy you meet at your kid's soccer game, but all descriptions provided by him. Read his articles and he's spouting off about the censors who take umbrage with his writings. Read his advice to fellow authors and it's lifted right off of other authors' advice columns, with a few words tweaked here and there, to make it look like he's created his own content. These are the behaviors of a predator. He steals to sell. He's always the victim and everyone is out to get him.

Dig a little deeper and sometimes there's an actual criminal background. Maybe there's a conviction, or two, or three, hiding in his past. Maybe he moves around a lot for a reason, to evade law enforcement scrutiny. And maybe, just maybe the reason this guy has so much time available to pursue his writing career is because he's on parole, even as he's looking for his next big scam. What if he defrauded folks out of their money by sweet talking? What if he used that money to feed his addictions? What if he's really looking for the opportunity to go global, be it money laundering or child pornography? How do you know that the guy writing those sex-ploitation books isn't a real creep in sheep's clothing? If you take him at his word and his word is a lie, don't you empower him?

Consistency of character matters to most authors, but some of us are a very trusting bunch. We want to be perceived as supportive of everyone in the business, and it's easy to assume that "big business" is out to get "indies". We like to help each other, so we go with "no questions asked", and that's the crack in the door to uncivilized behavior. Raise the flag of censorship and all good sense seems to fly out the window.

In a world where "anyone and everyone" has a product to sell and will use any means necessary to get the job done, we are all vulnerable. Asking for PUBLIC rules, for PUBLIC disclosures of obscene materials, isn't an effort by the "Thought Police" to crack down on erotica. It's about doing right by everyone. In this world, we have people who have lost the ability to tell real life from fantasy. We embrace the paranormal and encourage people to believe they have magical powers. But what happens when those magical powers have a dark side? What happens when they separate the believer from the rest of society? Without a conscience, any human is capable of heinous acts. Without that connection to our fellow human beings, we can feel isolated and desperate. When we give our impulses free reign, we can harm those around us and even ourselves. Self-control isn't about taking away our freedom to choose. It's about taking charge of the course our lives take and making wise decisions that positively affect everyone, even us.

Social media is a powerful tool that really can make a positive change in this world. I know that it can comfort a hurting heart. I know that it can make an isolated person feel connected to the rest of humanity. But it can also pose enormous risks to the unwitting. That predator is out there, gaining ground. He put lipstick on the pig he is parading around in public, and all everyone sees is a "naughty" pig in stilettos and a skirt who's off to the slaughter house to be tomorrow's book bacon, not realizing the guy is desperate to make money, not the old-fashioned way, by selling a quality product, but by exploiting "anyone and everyone", fictional or real.

Real predators can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. Eventually, their dangerous behaviors signal that real laws are being broken. More importantly, when they are engaging in criminal enterprises behind the scenes, they often come up on law enforcement radar because of their association with known criminals. All it takes is one appearance on the computer of a child pornographer under investigation, one phone call to a known money launderer, one email to a terrorist with known ties to a terror group. If you have been helping a real predator manipulate the system, doesn't that speak to your willingness to aid and abet? Imagine how horrified you would be to learn that you popped up on law enforcement radar, not because you're a willing partner, but because you thought you were doing something good for a fellow author, who wanted to do the same for you. If you drink at that tainted watering hole, how can investigators not assume you helped?

Social media is a new and vast land. It is, at times, untamed and uncivilized. How do we resolve an issue like this? We begin to understand that we must impose our own need for safety and responsibility to our fellow human beings. We understand that in developing our social ethics, we aren't seeking to destroy civil rights, but to uphold them. When a predator cries, "Thought Police!", ask yourself how true that is. In the Sixties, we questioned authority, and the authority changed. Now it's time to question the authority of those who holler "Thought Police!" every time someone is concerned about sexual exploitation and a preponderance of violence. A predator never sees himself as the bad guy. He sees himself as the survivor. He doesn't think he's violating anyone's rights. He thinks the world is violating his, by trying to curb those dangerous and disturbing tendencies he demonstrates in his every move.

In this age of teenagers not knowing real from virtual, when death hardly seems like a bad thing, especially when the world is a dark and terrifying place, maybe it's time we started to focus on developing safe havens on social media, with rules that provide a comfort zone. Maybe we have to stop providing cover for predators and start insisting that we look out for each other online. Maybe if we join together to embrace what is good and true about the human spirit and provide community support that is meaningful across social media, these self-serving marketers will lose their power to persuade. But before that happens, we have to choose to be consistent in our character. Please use social media responsibly. You are what you tweet and re-tweet.