30 January

Ali And Me: The Schaghticoke Confabs, Every Week

by Jon Katz
Me And Ali

Once a week, Ali (Amjad Abdulla) and I meet at the Stewart’s convenience store in Schaghticoke, N.Y., equidistant between Albany, N.Y., where he lives and works, and Bedlam Farm, where i live and work.

He is the sweetest man with the biggest heart. We have been meeting for awhile at the convenience store, we have a favorite orange plastic table and booth, we sit with the construction workers at lunch and the big men in trucks.

We have lots to talk about these days, we have coffee and a sandwich and plot support for the kids on the RISSE soccer team, and now, the new girls’ Basketball Team. Ali and I call one another “brother,” and it is like that, we are so easy together know.

I always bring Red, he stays out in the car, and Ali, who is a formal, well-mannered man always comes out to greet Red and also sends his best wishes to Maria.

We have a full agenda every time. Ali and I are different, yet similar, we laugh every time and usually finish one another’s sentences. He wants me to come to the Sudan next year when he gets married, I’ll have to think about it. Somehow, I get the feeling they don’t  much like people like me there.

We talk about how much money we have left in the refugee fund, and how best to spend it. Sometimes, it’s on very personal teams, sometimes it’s for the team.

I tell him we have to make the money last, we never really know if it’s going to be replaced when we spend it or whether it can last awhile. There are so many needs.

We try to plot and plan and figure out what the team will need this year, week by week, season by season,  and more importantly, what the boys on the team might need, as well as the girl’s on the new basketball team, which is a couple of month away from league play. We are pretty clever, we are pleased with ourselves.

Ali says there is a saying back home, don’t lick all the honey out of the nest, there won’t be any left. I tell him I have a saying too, keep going until you drop or someone stops you.

One boy has only one pair of pants, the American kids in school make fun of him all the time, so I gave Ali a check and he will go out and buy some pants today. We both agreed that was the most pressing need. Our First Rule: the kids needs come first, above everything.

Kevin Smith of Sportsplex keeps buying the team pizza after their 90 minute practice (some of these kids only get one meal a day on weekends), they are tired and hungry after playing. But we need to cover his costs, I say. The pizza costs $75 for all the kids after practice, Kevin and I agreed to a discounted deal, we get the pizza for  $35.

I gave Ali money for a months’ worth of pizza after practice.

Ali said we would need some soccer balls soon, Kevin, an angel who has miraculously appeared to help the team,  came up with 18 used soccer balls in good shape. Each member of the team will have his own used ball. No charge. Ali told me one of the kid’s families is very low on food, the household has a single mother who works, she is hardly ever home and makes a bit over the minimum wage.

We are going to bring home some groceries to his family in a week or so. Thanks to several generous donors, we have just raised enough money to buy uniforms for the girls’ basketball team.

Two of the soccer kids have birthdays this week, and birthdays are a big thing for Ali. He says the refugee parents don’t celebrate birthdays and don’t have the money for parties, but they are important to the kids, so we agreed on one party for all the kids, and Ali will have enough cash to buy each one a gift.

Generally, he takes them out for food and arranges a party.

We talked about how shy the boys are, how they will never ask for help, even when they are in dire need.

We just have to figure it out what the  boys need. The only thing they ever ask for is McDonald’s. But if you listen and pay attention (Ali does, and I do when I can)  you can pick up some things. Some of the other kids told Ali about the boy who needed more pants. He would never have said a word.

I am exploring buying each of the members of the soccer team an equipment bag, one like all the other players in the soccer league have to carry their clothes and soccer sneakers (the RISSE team do not have soccer sneakers, just regular ones.) I came up with a new twist – equipment bags with the individual name of each player on the bag, something the other team players do not have.

Ali loves this idea, when he flips over an idea, he says it is “the greatest thing ever.”

Apart from the impact on morale, I see these kids have nothing to hold their belongings in. Ali says they would love the bags. A few have backpacks.  It would be “the greatest thing ever,” he said. Good enough for me

I’m no athlete, but I’ve been told how important things like equipment bags are in terms of identity and morale. It makes the kids feel important, that they belong to something special, and they can use them almost every day of their lives.

Ali wanted to stencil the “Bedlam Farm Warriors” on the bags, but for once I talked him out of it. The bags should  have their individual names, they don’t need to mention. Although Ali did tell me a curious thing, wherever he goes, people spot the “Bedlam Farm” name on the uniforms, and they offer to help out the team or pay for their meals. He says he has to fight to buy himself a cup of coffee now. God bless these good people, they all mention the blog..

Ali is getting lots of messages from people who read the blog and have all kinds of ideas about things they want to donate or things they think the kids need. Many are e-mailing him.

Ali is not used to having any celebrity, he is nonplussed by the messages. I told him to forward them to me. Right now, as federal subsidies are being cut, the family’s needs are quite basic, mostly food and in some cases clothes or household supplies. They are not really in need of decorative or personal gifts. We both think we need to stay small and focused, and right now, the focus is on the soccer team.

RISSE is putting up an Amazon Gift page, the things the refugees and immigrants need will be posted shortly. I think that will be the best way for people to help in material ways, because they list things that are needed.

I told Ali we just had to keep talking frequently, keep communicating, and do the best we can for as long as we can. We generally meet in Schaghticoke every Tuesday or Wednesday. One day we might run out, but will keep going  until we do.

Every time I get nervous and think the refugee fund will dry up, the Army Of Good checks in with some donations, and we stay in business. We have about $1,600 in the fund right now. I like it to be around $3,000, we use the same account for the Mansion residents.

If you wish to donate, the need is great. We want the kids to have decent clothes and good food and decent equipment, and we want the soccer team to beat everyone in their league. The symbolism goes way beyond the game.

If you wish to donate, you can send a contribution to  Jon Katz. P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., (“refugees)” or “soccer”), 12816 or me via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com. Refugees and immigrants are under siege as never before, I hope we cam help fill some of the holes in the lives of these children.

The Schaghitcoke Confabs have become important to me, and indirectly to some good people in need of help. The light shines on Ali, his heart and soul are filled with love and generosity. He is always thinking of the kids, of the team.

30 January

Remember The Blog. Support My Work, Too!

by Jon Katz
Maria in her new hat, one of two birthday presents I got for her on Sunday. She says the hat is outrageous.

In the past year or so, I’ve gotten skilled at raising money for what I believe are good causes – Joshua Rockwood, the Mansion residents, the refugees and immigrants. I have been reminded that I sometimes forget to raise money for myself.

it has been awhile.

My  blog is the engine that drives all of this, my work and the work of the Army of Good. It is where I share my work and my life, and it and the photographs that appear on it are expensive to produce. The blog costs a lot of money to upgrade and maintain. It is also free.

Although millions of people read it every year, few people actually support it. That is the nature of the Internet, people are used to getting content for free. I would be the last to blame them.

That is changing. Blogs are becoming ever more central and popular to cultural small fry like me, they are how we now make our living. And you do get what you pay for.

I appreciate getting paid for my work, it took me a long time to ask for that support. The blog  will always be free, I will not abandon the good people who stuck with me all this time, just because they have no money.

But for those who can help support my work, it is necessary and much appreciated. I recognize that lots of people online ask for donations and continuing support payments. I am very careful about them myself.

So we have thought about it and I have offered several ways to support the blog and the work I am doing ( and many of you are doing with me). This work seems more timely and more important as time goes by, and in ways I never quite imagined even a few years ago.

It is time – it’s been months – since I reminded readers about supporting the blog. But it’s necessary. Publishing has changed radically, and I can no longer make a living writing books only.

I am as much a blogger as a book writer now, and this is mostly how i earn a living and feed these amazing animals I live with.

So here’s the reminder.

You can subscribe to the blog in three (voluntary) ways – $5 a month, $10 a month, or $75 a year. You sign up with your own account and password, only you have access to it for your protection (no financial information of any kind is stored on my blog). You can cancel it at any time, and quite easily.

We made sure of that.

You can use PayPal or major credit cards.

This method gives me some assured income, since I am not blessed with large bank accounts or IRA reserves No complaints, this is the life I chose, and I love living in it.

If it is easier for you, you can also make one-time donations to the blog, just hit the yellow button at the bottom of every post. If the blog is meaningful or uplifting for you (or entertaining), please consider supporting it in one way or another.

Many people give $75 donations annually, some give $5 when they can. Some give $500. All are much appreciated.

If you are uncomfortable using the Internet, you can also send a contribution or donation to Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Please mark it “blog.”

Please remember once more that the blog is free, all payments are voluntary, if you cancel a subscription or can’t donate, you are quite welcome to keep on reading the blog. No one is keeping tabs.

I am always happy seeking funds for the Mansion and the refugees.

I am always uneasy asking for money for me. But it’s necessary, without the blog, it would be impossible for the Army of Good to function in its current form. This is working, but a good friend jogged me a bit and reminded me that i need to ask for support for me and the blog also. So I am.

I am very proud of the blog, and have worked hard on it for more than 10 years now, I think it is the creative achievement of my lifetime, a showcase for my writing, my thoughts and my photography, almost all of which is offered for free use. I post nearly every day, usually more than once.

I am obsessively faithful to it.

Thanks for listening, and if you can, for supporting my work.

30 January

Cliches: Gus And ME: Everything Really Is A Gift

by Jon Katz
The Wisdom Of Cliches

I used to think it was a cliche when I heard some people say everything in life is a gift, and then I came to understand that the reason cliches are cliches is that almost all of them are true. That’s how a cliche is born.

Gus is a good example, one of many in my life. As many of you know,  we are  dealing with Gus and his megaesophagus, a difficult disease that causes food to be blocked in the esophagus. It’s a tough disease, dogs often die of malnutrition, pneumonia, even starvation.

Gus is doing well, he is an affectionate and playful dog, he is great fun, other than these regurgitations, which can be nasty he seems himself. So far, we can live with it, and happily.

We have changed Gus’s diet, and drastically limited his exposure to all but the approved soft and moist food, which seems to slip through the esophagus most of the time. Unfortunately, he can only go outside to eliminate, he is restricted until we find the proper muzzle for him when he leaves the house.

The problem is that he eats like a little hog, and even the slightest deviation in food causes chronic vomiting and regurgitation. With megaesophagus, it’s all about texture. Some foods move through the esophagus, hard or dry foods don’t.

Part of the new protocol for Gus calls for one of us – me and Maria take turns – sitting holding him upright in our laps for between 12 and 20 minutes. This eliminates the need of a Bailey Chair or other devices built to keep the dogs upright while they eat and afterwards.

This sitting with Gus after  eating began as a chore, one we both disliked at first.

Maria and I are both work-centered people, we like to get up early and get to work right away. I ferociously protect my morning time. Gus’s new dietary and holding needs have altered our schedules.

But the morning holdings have evolved into something richer and deeper than we thought, something we both needed and now look forward to. This holding has brought up the very powerful nurturing side of Maria, and me as well. The time has become a meditation for both of us, a way to enter the day more peacefully and more, not less, creatively.

It has made our mornings more spiritual, calmer. It doesn’t really take all that much time.

Sometimes Maria plays Krishna Das on her Iphone while holding  Gus. The two of them settle into a peaceful and beautiful reverie.

At first Gus squirmed a bit, now he seems to love it, he hops up into our laps,  cuddles up and seems to be meditating himself, and with us. I love listening to the music and watching this pure demonstration of love and connection. I do think it is healing, like the acupuncture  treatments he is receiving.

This morning, Maria held Gus while I read to her from the new biography of Henry David Thoreau, a book I am loving.

I can read about Thoreau forever. I read aloud about Thoreau’s journey in their boat up the Concord river and their encounters with boatmen, berries and flowers, and the canal boats that then hauled freight. Maria loved the story, even Gus seemed to be listening.

It was a beautiful passage in the book, and instead of rushing off frantically to get to work, as we usually do, we paused, reflected, gathered ourselves.

This time creates a deeper bond with one another, and with Gus. There are other gifts from his disease. I have learned a lot about dogs, their health, and their digestion. I have learned to think more for myself when it comes to my dogs and their well-being.

I have learned that I can and will happily do things and make sacrifices that I did not believe I would do just a few months ago. I’ve learned about love and its boundaries. I have had to think a lot about what my love of dogs really means and how far it goes. Cleaning up vomit regularly can evoke strong feelings.

So the thing is I got more than I lost when Gus got sick, and he got more than he lost. He is an integral part of the family more than he was before, and our lives with him are full of creative and other challenges.

Maria chose not to have children, and has no regrets about her decision, and I respect it. But she is a natural nurturer, and Gus has provided a nurturing outlet. For both of us.

Gus gets into the most trouble when he gets outside and eats chicken droppings, rabbit and sheep pellets and other things which are, for him, indigestible. I came up with the idea of putting a muzzle on him outside so he can walk with us and be in the pasture but not eat food that makes him sick and exacerbates this disease.

So now, I am becoming an expert on muzzles. We’ve been through four so far, and none of them work. Some don’t fit, others press against his eyes, or don’t fasten properly. Yes, I am familiar with the makers of good soft muzzles and we are working through them one by one. I think the Royal Canin basket muzzles for small dogs might be the right ones for Gus, they are on the way.

I don’t quit on these things, I will keep at it until we find the right one, he is an adaptable dog, if we find one that is comfortable and fits, he can come along on walks in the woods and on nearby country roads. He loves to come.

So this helps me to understand life and learn more about it. I would prefer that Gus not have megaesophagus, it is not fun for him or for us. But it has deepened and enriched my experience of having and loving a dog. My very strong sense of ethics and boundaries have not changed – this cannot and will be my life.

I do not believe dogs should ever overwhelm me or my life financially or emotionally, caring for Gus can never be what i do, it is only a part of what I do.

At the same time, I have been going through a process of treating a potentially serious retinal disease, lots of tests, trips to specialists, concern about my health. I will undergo laser treatment next Monday. Once again, a gift to me. Learning about my sight, gaining confidence in my responses and judgments, and ending up with my sight reaffirmed, even approved. I am lucky.

In our world, we hide from death and illness, both come as a shock to us, an interruption in life, when in truth, those things are life, we don’t just get the good and happy stuff. I know how to handle good news, I am grateful to learn how to deal with trouble. Nobody gets to life a perfect life. Our dogs get sick and die, so, eventually, does everyone we know and love.

That is what it means to be a human being. It comes as no surprise to me, just another challenge for me to meet with dignity.

For me, it is true that everything in life is a gift, one way or the other, especially if you are open to the idea. We will all get sick, we will all die, grace does not come from a perfect life, but a real life handled with honesty and compassion.

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