22 June 2018

Essay: Coming Out: Dyslexia And The Flower Thing. We Are Not Stupid

By: Jon Katz

The Flower Thing

I love these flowers, I believe they are wildflowers.

Maria has told me 100 times what they are called, and I'm sure a dozen people will be happy to name them on my Facebook Page. But I have no idea what they are called at this moment, and I understand I will never be able to learn the flower's name.

They are just pretty flowers to me, at least today. Tomorrow, they might be sunflowers, or whatever pops into my head.

Over the weekend, I came out as a Dyslexic, someone who has a learning disability called Dyslexia, a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

I've never written about it before, and it feels good to do. A coming out, a step towards authenticity. I dislike having secrets.

We live in a culture where correcting other people seems to be a way for  people to build up some self-esteem and feel good and valuable about themselves, while consciously or unconsciously making someone else feel stupid.

I'm used to this, my teachers did it, my parents did it, and many of my friends and readers still do. It is a natural human trait.

There are a hundred ways in which my Dyslexia shows up in my life and writing, it is often impossible for me to distinguish between certain kinds of objects, words, grammatical constructions, spelling or symbols.

When we first got together, Maria sometimes laughed at my confusion about simple objects and symbols, and since I didn't tell her about my Dyslexia, she didn't know. She figured it out for herself, and she doesn't laugh at me any more. Dyslexia is endearing to some people, they think of absent-minded professors.

When I am misinterpreting something, I often don't see it and can't recognize it.  And if get it wrong once, I will do it again. There is no permanent fix for things.

We have all kinds of self-appointed police in our world – animal police, grammar police, garden police, spelling police, political police, identity police – there is no unit for accepting the limitations of other people. And empathy is not a natural condition, especially on social media.

When I started my blog, I understood that someone with Dyslexia who writes as often as I do was going to be challenged, and I made a very conscious decision to be strong and write as often as I wished, and take the consequences. They have not been too bad, my blog is a very big success, perhaps the biggest of my writing life. There are millions of visits a year, and many complaints about my thinking, few about my disorder.

I do live with a steady rain of people telling me I am wrong about things – I misspelled something, mis-labeled something, misread something. Dyslexsics are often made to feel stupid, since people are always telling them they are wrong.."Sorry, Jon, this is not a petunia…", or "Sorry, Jon, I get such a kick out of your grammatical mistakes," or "Sorry Jon, but you got the title of that book wrong…" , or "Sorry, Jon, I'd be happy to proofread for you…"

I don't think they really are sorry, I think they love it, but that may just be the Dyslexic talking.  It seems natural for humans to want to feel superior to other humans. I know it's not going to change, because all sorts of new people come stumbling onto the blog all the time, and nothing makes a social media trawler happier than finding a mistake.

A good friend corrected me recently when I go a man's name wrong that we both know on the blog, she said she just can't abide getting people's names spelled wrong, it crossed a line for her. I smiled at her message, and felt badly that she could not  abide it, because if she's going to read my blog, she better get used to it. She's a good friend, she will.

If I write about your name 20 times, I will get the spelling wrong about 18, and that is the way Dyslexia works. Words and symbols and structures get scrambled around, even as you look straight at them. I get the names of flowers wrong just about every time I write about them.

If I stopped to look up every word or flower, I would not have a blog or ever have written a book. And I would still get it wrong, because something in my brain is scrambled.

If I had one arm,  people would be sympathetic. But when you have Dyslexia, people assume you  could get it all right if only you tried. You must be lazy or dumb.

This was at the heart of my lifelong war with teachers and education, and with authority in general, I barely got through public school, which was not a hard place to get through, and I had to drop out of two colleges. Fortunately, I compensated with other skills, and got by.

I have learned to abide myself, and if other people can't, that's their problem, not mine.

Nobody is forced to read what I write. I tell irritated former English teachers that instead of correcting me,  they might correct their students less, and try to understand them a bit more. There are probably young Dyslexics in their classes, feeling  stupid and low. They don't like to hear it.

To understand how Dyslexia works, you just have to follow my passion for flowers. You can see it unfold before you.

I love flowers, our farm is surrounded by gardens, I water each one of them every day and revel in taking photographs of them, I love the color and light in them, I truly think each one of them is an angel. I've been planting and caring for gardens for many years, and I know just about every flower by sight.

I can't tell  you the name of hardly any of them.

And the truth is, I don't care. I call them what I want to call them, or think of calling them at the moment. Otherwise, I would be paralysed.

When I look at a flower, which I have been doing all of my life,  I cannot tell one from another by name, although I can by sight and color. The funny thing is I know what flowers are, it is not a cute befuddled trait for people to chuckle over.

The Garden Police, who are as vigilant as the Animal Police, mostly assume I'm just another clueless male dunderhead and they correct me instantly and enthusiastically. They care very much about the correct names of flowers.

But I'm afraid there will be no  joy for them in regards to my floral writing.

I just can't interpret their symbols in my head. A Petunia might be a Geranium, a Fuschia might be a Bleeding Heart to me, a Daisy might be a Pansy, although I can usually retain the name of a Pansy, a flower I have always loved. I think I also recognize roses, although they are not a favorite flower of mine. I write what my brain tells me is right, some of the time it even is.

Dyslexia is selective, it doesn't apply to everything, just certain symbols and words and images. i see most of the world clearly, and I've learned to work around the disorder.

It's hard to explain to people that I never could and never get these names of flowers  right, even if I was looking at them in a flower book, which I have often done. It's hard to explain to them that this no longer bothers me, a flower is a flower by any name.

I think flowers could be good opportunity for me to help others, especially Dyslexic kids, who live in a world of correction and criticism, and who often suffer for it in terms of their own self-esteem. Dyslexia, I have to say, is a mental disorder, not a character flaw. It is not a sign of character intelligence, one way or the other.

It can not be cured by e-mails.

I love taking photos of flowers and I will keep writing about them and keep making mistakes, because that's the way I am, and the way it has to be, unless I crawl under a rock and hide. I will be corrected for the rest of my days, and I will keep on  writing, because I have learned late in life that I am not all that stupid and will not let people chip away at me, however innocently.

I think people reading this know that giving up writing or hiding is not going to happen for me.

I've seen it happen to many of my fellow Dyslexics and I feel for each one, especially the young ones who don't understand why they can't see the things other people can see.

So look for my flower photos, and if you need to correct me, go for it. You should know that it isn't going to change, because I can't really help it. I am so glad I finally wrote about it, every time I am honest, I f eel lighter and stronger.

This is all a great lesson in life for me, and perhaps for you. Life is full of crisis and mystery, and I am grateful for every day of it.

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21 June 2018

Helping Sifa. We Can Really Help Her

By: Jon Katz

Helping Sifa

I'd like some help helping Sifa. She doesn't need much.

Sifa lives on the very worst street in Albany, according to the police, Ali warned me it would be rough and he was right. The police have been to the house seven times in the last two weeks to break up fights and bust up drug deals. She has been living in her very dark and close-in apartment with her four children for two years, and her son is in jeopardy from the drug den that is operating right next to them.

There was drug detritus all over the street and Ali and I had to make our way through six or seven young men who wouldn't move a muscle for either of us. The street was just seething with poverty, anger and hopelessness. And sullen young men with nothing to do.

I've seen streets like this in the poorer neighborhoods of Baltimore,  Washington and Philadelphia. They are almost literally seething.

Sifa is very sweet and kind. It astonishes me how these quiet and soft-spoken women relay their tales of horror with little emotion and no self-pity. When they come to a sad part, they just lower their eyes, or sometimes, smile sadly.

Sifa survived a lot of horror for a long time. I don't know how these women survived what they had to endure. I suppose she is lucky in one way, she is alive, and so are her children, although the term hardly applies to her suffering. She is uncomplaining and grateful for what she has.

She seemed at ease with me from the first, and had no reservations about being photographed.

One of her four kids is her sister's, she was killed during the horrifying Congo genocides of the 1990's that saw the slaughter of  an estimated 10 million people. Those numbers included all of  Sifa's family, and perhaps her husband, whose whereabouts she does not know. They were separated and she has not seen him or heard of him or from him in nearly ten years.

From the look in her eyes, she is not hopeful.

Sifa escaped the Congo and spent seven years in a refugee camp hoping to get to America.

She was chosen by the U.N. to come to the U.S. in a visa lottery the kind the government is seeking to abolish. She came here  in 2016 from what some people call a "shithole" country, she would not be admitted now.

Sifa has a good job in a good place – the Albany Medical Center. She pays her rent and feeds her children, including two of her sons – Rodger and Ushindi – two of the stars on the soccer team. She urgently needs to get them and herself out of that apartment, she greatly fears for her sons and her other two children.

Sifa has a radiant smile. She seems calm and accepting.

A couple of minutes on the street was convincing enough  for me, and I was a police reporter in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlantic City.

We can really help Sifa. It will not take much.

We have already found her a new and safe and spacious three bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood near the medical center, she could walk to work.  That would be amazing. We have found a compassionate Muslim landlord who is charging as reasonable a rent as is possible.

The new apartment is just a few blocks from where Ali and his family live. She loves it and is eager to move. It has plenty of room for them.  She did not actually ask for any help, Ali and I had to pull it out of her. Ali knew from her friends about her difficulty. Ali and the kids on the soccer team are ready to help her move, they have all volunteered to help Rodger and Ushindi, they hope to move her next week, with our help.

Sifa said she needs $600 for the deposit and may need some additional help for the first two or three months of the new rent, there is about $250 difference in rent between the new apartments. She is working extra hours and does not want or need any additional help beyond that.

She just needs a hand to get there.

This is right up our alley. I gave Sifa a check for the $600 today so she can reserve the apartment and move in anytime. I told her we would help her make up the difference in the rent for those three months next week, assuming I can raise the money.

Sifa is self-sufficient and resourceful, she is moving up in her job at the medical center – she works in the housecleaning department and has a rent subsidy from the county government. She said the frequency of the police visits and the violence and fighting are  frightening her, she is especially concerned for her sons. She works many hours each week and worries when she isn't home.

Ali and I looked at one another. We told her she didn't need to convince us.

At the new apartment, she will not have to worry about the street life, and we talked about her finances.

She can easily handle the new rent between the county subsidy and what she earns. She just needs some help in signing the contract for the new apartment, setting it up and paying for the things new apartments require, like cable and Internet, essential for her kids and their schoolwork, among other things.

Like most of the refugee women we have met, there is little cushion in their lives, no extra money, no net.

Like the other refugee women I have met, Sifa is uncomplaining. For all of the troubles in America, she says, she loves being here, despite the menacing neighborhood. There is good and water and shelter here, she says, and no one is starving or being slaughtered or trying to kill her or her family. Women can be free.

The children, she says, have a chance.

The refugee work has added a new dimension to the work Ali and I are doing.  And more expenses.  We will take it slowly. We are also supporting the soccer team, whose members also have great needs. We work hard to keep our ambitions and costs small and focused.

We are committed to staying small, and asking for as little money as possible. But it is a great gift to be helping the refugees so directly. I want to say that you are the ones helping these people, it is  your money, your generosity, your sense of justice and compassion that makes all of this work possible. I couldn't do a fraction of this on my own.

Neither could Ali. We never forget that, and i hope you don't either.

You are truly an Army Of Good. I  hope to give the soccer team some respite and entertainment during the school break that starts next week. I'm putting the animal park trek in the Adirondacks on hold until our fund is fatter. I think we can get to Invincibles 2. And the one hour boat ride around Lake George is set.

Yesterday, a female rushed up to Ali on the street weeping and begged him for money to repair her car. She demanded to speak to me and she was so distraught Ali said he would listen. We had helped her in a small way awhile ago, she said she owed a lot of money, she need more help.

Ali, rattled at the depth of her emotion,  dialed my number and handed his phone to me – Ali has a very big heart and hates to say no.

She begged me for help in the most emotional way. "Please help me," she shouted into the phone. And I did not hesitate.

I said no, we could not help her, that was not what we were about. We had to make sure the money we took from other people was used for good and was dispensed thoughtfully. We had to make hard decisions. Ali asked if I wanted to know how much she needed, and I said no, not right now.

I was also concerned about the manner in which she asked for help, I told her she needed to speak with us when she could be calm and clear. I know she had good reasons for being traumatized.  But I told Ali we can't give out money for things like car repairs. Once that word got around, it would drain us in a minute. And how could we say not to anyone else?

Sometimes, I said, saying no was more important than saying yes.

I told her no on the phone. It is as essential to say no without wavering. We need to stay small, thoughtful and focused. We can help SIfa and her children in a major and lasting way, just as we helped Hawah and Lisa and Shasheen. Sifa just needs some help getting to that open field, she is already more than halfway there.

Any help would be appreciated, I'd like to give her the additional rental help next week, and perhaps some money for new clothes for her children.

If you can or wish to help, please send your contribution to The Gus Fund, Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816, or via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com. And thanks much. You are changing lives.

i invited Sifa to come to Bedlam Farm along with the other women we have been helping. She would make a great member of the Refugee Women's Support Group. It's in the works.

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The Geraniums Sing To The Angels

By: Jon Katz

The Geraniums Sing To The Angels

I study the sky for photographer's light every morning and every evening, that sweet time when the light is most indirect, and the world is backlit for me. Tonight, the geraniums lifted up their voices and sang to the angels.

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Video: Chronicling A Journey, Part One. Two Friends: Ed Gulley And Me

By: Jon Katz


Chronicle Of Friendship, Of Cancer. Ed with Carol, and in his Mt. Rushmore T-shirt.

Ed Gulley told me a couple of days ago that he has troubling improvising the videos he wants to make now, as he works to understand his diagnosis of brain cancer and how to live with it as best as he can for as long as he can. He asked if I could help, I said I thought it could work if we did the videos together.

We have a great connection, and absolute trust for one another. I told Ed I would shut him up if he went on too long, and he said he appreciated that. I said I would ask him specific questions about what he is thinking and feeling as the illness reveals itself – he has 10 tumors in his brain, say the doctors – progresses and in what way. It is sometimes useful to have been a reporter and a TV producer.

Neither of us is inclined to be gloomy or maudlin, we would just l like to be  honest and useful, and sometimes, entertaining. Between the two of us, there is a lot of wind.

Ed jumped at this, we are going to do it as often as he wants to, and as often as I can. I will make time for it.

This first video is about four minutes long. I like it, and Ed will check it out later and if he likes it, we'll start a regular video chronicle of one man's encounter with brain cancer. We will talk about the  disease, his responses to it, his family, our friendship and his rapidly evolving view of life, death, pain and compassion.

I hope it will be as compelling to you as it feels to me. It's hard to do a coherent video without structure and specific questions. Ed and I also agreed that since we are so comfortable with one another, the videos might be comfortable for him to do and people to see.


Ed is the same man I have known for years now, but yet not the same man.  He looks different to me, yet he is a quieter and more sober version of himself now. He is wide open, his soul is shining through. He is not moping, he is excited about the next chapter. He has no self-pity, he is very much into the future, he feels free for the first time in his life to do things he never could do before.

Like many men, like me, trouble has opened Ed up and released a flood of buried emotions and creative impulses. I told Ed I always loved men who were tortured as children or humiliated as adults, and now he was one of them.

But let's let him tell his story in his own words. I am happy to be of some use. I feared at first there was no way for me to help Ed through incurable brain cancer, but that is not so.  So this is the first of the Ed Gulley Chronicles, a journey into the whirlwind.  Check it out.

Ed loves to get messages, you can e-mail him and/or Carol at bejoshfarm@gmail.com.

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The Longest Day: How Will I Use It? The Harpist And Me.

By: Jon Katz

How Will I Use It?

Welcome to the Summer Solstice, the Longest Day of the year. I woke up this morning, asking myself, "how will I use this gift of time and light?

I will kiss my wife and give thanks for her, and hopefully love her to start the day.

I will take my camera and the dogs out to the pasture and capture some of the color and feeling I always find out there (I was rewarded with this portrait of Maria right away.)

I will blog and share some of my photos (doing that now.)

I will drive to Albany for a 1 p.m. meeting with a mother of nine from Africa who desperate needs to move with  her nine children.  At least two of them are adopted, their parents were murdered in civil wars. She has a good job and takes care of herself, she needs some help in putting down a deposit for a safer apartment, a drug den has opened up right next door to her, and she fears for her sons.

She will let me photograph and talk to her,  will share her story and Ali and I will figure out how and if we can help her. We'll spend a couple of hours with her, and come up with a plan to help her. We are in a good place with this work, on a roll.

Then back home. I'll do more writing, perhaps take a brief nap, something that has become important to me, I will put my earphones and listen to "Hundreds of Days," from Mary Lattimore, the very beautiful and surprising harpist. She is called by some the "monarch of instrumental harp."

She has become part of a daily meditation for me. She comforts my spirits.

This afternoon, I'll bring some drawing and writing tools to Ed Gulley, they should be arriving at the farm today. I will sit with him and talk and harass him a bit, it perks him up.

Late, if I have time, I'm going to read more of Erich Fromm's "The Art of Love." Now, I am reading about sanity and alienation. Many of us feel alienation in our time, thanks to the loss of community and the rise of too much technology and too little compassion and decency in our civic world.

The results of alienation, writes Fromm, are: "that man regresses to a receptive and marketing orientation and ceases to be productive; that he loses his sense of self, becomes dependent on approval, hence tends to conform and yet to feel insecure; he is dissatisfied, bored, and anxious, and spends most of his energy in the attempt to compensate for or just cover up this anxiety. His intelligence is excellent, his reason deteriorates and in view of his  technical powers he is seriously endangering the existence of civilization, and even of the human race."

Sounds like Washington to me, and the angry people we see on cable news all the time.

Alienation hurts, drains and kills. Love is the answer. So I will honor the Longest Day by practicing love wherever it is possible.

And of course, I will blog about all of this. I wish you a meaningful Longest Day, and I hope you can use it well and with peace and compassion.

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