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Two wolves

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Two Wolves is a Cherokee legend. It goes as follows:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grand son thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What you didn’t say

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“Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things.”

“Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, and mind, confidence is the key to all the locks.”

“It’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most, not the one on the back.”

“Losing a game is heartbreaking. Losing your sense of excellence or worth is a tragedy.”

“Publicity is like poison; it doesn’t hurt unless you swallow it.”

“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”

“When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence, excellence becomes a reality.”

“You have to perform at a consistently higher level than others. That’s the mark of a true professional.”

“You need to play with supreme confidence, or else you’ll lose again, and then losing becomes a habit.”

“Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”

“The minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner.”

The above quotes are attributed to one person: Coach Joe Paterno.

On Thursday, July 12, former FBI Director Louis Freehr released the findings of an intensive 8 month long investigation of Penn State University precipitated by the grand jury conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In a prepared statement, Mr. Freehr said in part:

“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”

he went on to say:

“The stated reasons by Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley for not taking action to identify the victim and for not reporting Sandusky to the police or Child Welfare are:

(1) Through counsel, Messrs. Curley and Schultz have stated that the “humane” thing to do in 2001 was to carefully and responsibly assess the best way to handle vague but troubling allegations.

(2) Mr. Paterno said that “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more
expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”

(3) Mr. Spanier told the Special Investigative Counsel that he was never told by anyone that the February 2001 incident in the shower involved the sexual abuse of a child but only “horsing around.” He further stated that he never asked what “horsing around” by Sandusky entailed.

Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University – Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large. Although concern to treat the child abuser humanely was expressly stated, no such sentiments were ever expressed by them for Sandusky’s victims.” (my emphasis)

The bitterest irony in all this sordid mess is that men of tremendous power and influence allowed the rape of a child by a pedophile to go unreported (which allowed future rapes by the same pedophile) in order to protect the pristine reputation of Penn State University, and in doing so, have most likely tarnished said reputation beyond redemption. At least for the foreseeable future.

Do I think that the Board of Trustees, who hired Louis Freehr’s law firm, threw Joe Paterno under the bus? Yeah, probably. But I also think Paterno and company could have stopped that bus over a decade ago and prevented the future destruction that it caused.

How very sad that of all the inspirational and motivational quotes credited to Coach Joe Paterno, to many–including me–only one will live in infamy:

“I should have done more.”

Romanticizing Addiction, Part 2

Yesterday I posted a conversation between two well known news commentators about the addictions which presumably lead to the death of Whitney Houston.

People die every single day. People die as a result of disease, malnutrition, violence and neglect. People die defending their countries. Some people die simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless of hows or whys behind their deaths, I don’t imagine the mourning process is any easier for the ones they leave behind. I suppose what’s so unsettling about Houston’s death is that no one was particularly surprised by it. Her death saddened me. I’m know I’m not alone.

But my sadness is not what I’ve been struggling with.

It’s my anger. And perhaps the guilt associated with where that anger lies.

I’ve done the blame game. Her ex-husband is an easy target. Her life seemed to turn south quickly after she began a relationship with Bobby Brown. Maybe he introduced her to addiction, but unless he held her down and forced drugs on her, he’s ultimately not to blame.

I’ve blamed her entourage. Surely they knew the downward spiral she was on. But rather than help her, they enabled her. How could they allow her to destroy herself? But who am I kidding? Celebrities often surround themselves with people whose soul purpose is to accommodate them.

I’ve blamed fame and fortune. Addicted celebrities are a cliche. Fame destroys people.

But ultimately, the responsibility for Whitney Houston’s death lies with Whitney Houston. Whether she did so intentionally or accidentally, she killed herself, robbed the world of arguably one of the purest, most beautiful voices we’ve ever know, and robbed her family of a life spent with them.

My anger is fueled by the knowledge that not only is her daughter without a mother, but the fact that for all intents and purposes, she has been without a mother the majority of her young life. Because while addiction is a horrible disease for the addict, not much is said about the other victims of it–the people they love. I’ve been around enough addicts to understand this undeniable truth: Everything and everyone is secondary to the addiction. When an addict is in the midst of his addiction, nothing else is more important than their fix. Not their kids, not their spouses, parents or friends. They will often justify bad behavior, they will lie, they will manipulate and take advantage of people. Is it any surprise that the vast majority of all reported child abuse and neglect cases are at the hands of a chemically dependent caregiver?

I’m not angry at Whitney Houston specifically. I’m angry at a society that romanticizes addicts as heroic yet helpless victims to their addiction.

I will not be so flippant to say that addicts just need to get their shit together and sober up. I know the addiction is the symptom of other underlying issues and sobriety is a life long, difficult road. But I also refuse to believe that because addiction is a disease, the addict is helpless to do anything about it.

I started smoking when I was 14 or 15 years old. I tried to quit several times, but it wasn’t until I found out I was pregnant with my first child that I gave up tobacco. Because when you come to understand that you’re not only endangering your own life but the life of someone else, you begin to take the damage you’re doing seriously. Quitting smoking was a no-brainer for me. I simply wouldn’t risk the health of my unborn child to feed my addiction. Was it easy? Heck no. Have I slipped since them? Honestly? Yes. The craving may go away for some people, but I’ve never found that to be the case. Even though getting pregnant is no longer in the realm of possibilities for me, being around for as long as I can for my family and setting a good example while I’m here is too important to give in to addiction.

There’s such a thing as personal responsibility and caring more about the people who love you than your own immediate cravings. When all you want to do is give in and numb the pain, remember that numbing your own pain comes at a high price–the pain of the people who love you and that are terrified they’re going to lose you. You’ve got to get honest with yourself, break the cycle of guilt and ask for help before it’s too late.

Whitney Houston didn’t have to die. She embarked on that road years ago. She could have gotten off that road but chose not to. I’m not suggesting it would have been an easy choice, but it is a choice.

Editor’s Note: I apologize if this post seems mean spirited and judgmental. It’s not meant to be. As I said, my anger is not directed specifically at the death of Whitney Houston. I suppose it’s in part the result of attending too many funerals of friends who died as a result of their addictions, and seeing first hand the emotional wasteland their deaths leave behind for those who loved them.

On writing, righting and apathy

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The above photo depicts a brutal form of execution known as necklacing, carried out by forcing a rubber tire, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process. The practice became a common method of lethal lynching during disturbances in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.

Photojournalist Kevin Carter was the first to photograph a public execution by necklacing in South Africa in the mid-1980s. He later spoke of the images:

“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

He went on to say:

“After having seen so many necklacings on the news, it occurs to me that either many others were being performed (off camera as it were) and this was just the tip of the iceberg, or that the presence of the camera completed the last requirement, and acted as a catalyst in this terrible reaction. The strong message that was being sent, was only meaningful if it were carried by the media. It was not more about the warning (others) than about causing one person pain. The question that haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?”

(Source: Wikipedia: Necklacing)

In March 1993 Carter made a trip to Sudan. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to an emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (Source: Wikipedia: Kevin Carter)

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It is unknown what happened to this young girl after this photo was taken. What is widely known is that Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, presented to him on May 23, 1994 at Columbia University.

On July 27, 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river, near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”

This is certainly not a new story, but it’s something that’s been on my heart lately. Photographers, journalists and writers give voice to suffering and chaos. Hopefully in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to it, thereby calling others to action. But in that moment and the moments immediately following, what are they doing about it? Would Kevin Carter be alive today if he had set down that camera and come to the aid of that little girl? Would the darkness have consumed him had he chosen to be a light instead of a neutral observer? I just don’t know.

I’ve said before that one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that you’re always writing. Every situation becomes a potential story. But I never want to come to a place where what I put on paper becomes more important than inserting myself into the bigger story of life. Especially if by abandoning my mental pen and notebook I might have a hand in changing a tragedy into a happily ever after, or at least an after.

“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there’s all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” – Arthur Gordon

“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction” – William Osler

IfI’da (by Billy Coffey)

I interrupt this blog post to wish my friend and sister in snark Marni from The Chronicles of Marnia a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Okay, go ahead Billy…

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The C always showed up on my report card for my science classes. I was neither interested nor gifted in that area of study. And those Cs always bothered me. It meant I was neither great nor awful, just right in the meaty part of average. I hated that. I hated science.

But now I’m thinking differently. Science may well be on its way to solving a lot of what’s been bothering me over the years, especially when it comes to the IfI’da Principle.

I’ve suffered with this condition for quite a while.

As near I can tell, it began in the fourth grade and involved the Lorie, the pretty brunette who sat in front of me. My first true crush. Since I was hopelessly inept in all things romantic, my true feelings went unsaid. She was snatched away from me on the playground by another boy in another class. And I remember sitting there with a kickball in my hand thinking, If would have said something first, maybe I’d be holding her hand right now.

There are other instances. There was the time in high school when I struck out with the bases loaded in the state championship baseball game, the first time I’d struck out all year. And also the high school dance when I tripped over a microphone wire and spilled punch on my date. There was my decision not to go to college, too.

Of course I don’t wonder only about the things that went wrong. I wonder of the good things, too—of my decision to start writing, of falling in love once and for all, and of my kids. In each case I’ve caught myself at some point wondering the same thing:

If I would have made a different decision or acted a different way, how would my life have worked out?

Over the years that question has been pared down to the bare essentials. “If I would have” became “If I’d have,” which became “IfI’da.”

As in, What would have happened IfI’da?

By and large our lives are not shaped by the jobs we have or the people we surround ourselves with. They are instead the product of an endless line of the small and large choices that we’ve made every moment of every day from our beginning until this moment. Decisions more than destiny determine our lot in life. I really do believe that. Our genes, our upbringing, and our faith can either prop us up or knock us down, but in the end our lives are still our own. Though I believe God to be utterly unsurprised at where I am and where I’ll be, I like to think I’ve come this way by His guidance and my own choices rather than pulled along by the hand of fate.

If I happen to be wrong with all of that, I’ll gladly say so. But if I’m right, then that means the decisions I make every day are pretty important things. Maybe the biggest things. Even the smallest acts can have lasting consequences, both good and bad. Which leads to a great deal of wondering on my part..

Which is where science comes in.

It’s called The Multiverse Theory of Quantum Physics. Dumbed down so I can understand it, the theory goes something like this: each choice we make in life creates an entirely separate universe in which the opposite choice was made. Which means that everything that can happen has happened somewhere.

I’m wondering about all those other me’s out there. Wondering what they’re doing, who they are. And most importantly, if they’re happier than I am.

In some other universe there is a Billy Coffey who confessed his love to Lorie in the third grade, who did not trip over that microphone wire, and who did not strike out with the bases loaded.

He sounds like a good guy. Like a guy who’s got it together.

But I suppose there is another me somewhere out there who has it much worse than I. A Billy Coffey whose choices were much poorer and resulted in much more regret than my own. I think of him, too.

All of this has brought a much-needed sense of balance to my existence. There may in fact be other me’s out there better and more well-adjusted. But if that’s true, then there are other me’s who are not.

Which may well mean that in all the universes in existence, I occupy the meaty part of average. Neither great nor awful.

I can live with that.


To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.

Choosing Love (by Billy Coffey)

I worked with Jenny for about two months twelve years ago, just another face that walked in and out of the revolving door of the town’s gas station. She was a nice lady, Jenny. Always smiling. The smile is what I remember most. Well, that and the bleached jeans she always wore that rode high on the waist and had tiny denim bows in the back near the ankles. Jenny was a joy to be around, but she was no fashion maven.

She was, however, considered quite the catch. At thirty-five, Jenny was still both unmarried and unattached. Rare for these parts. And it wasn’t for lack of options, either. It was no secret that the busiest nights at the Amoco were the ones when she worked the cash register. Every available guy in town would suddenly get the urge for a can of Copenhagen or decide his tank needed to be topped off.

They’d show up in their best boots and hats reeking of Drakkar Noir, tough guys with big trucks and mustaches. But then Jenny would smile and say “Hey there” and they would transform from Bo Duke seducing an unsuspecting girl to Opie Taylor crushing on his teacher. It was both hilarious and sad at the same time.

Jenny seemed genuinely ignorant of the whole thing. She dated here and there but was content with her life. She lived in a double wide on the edge of town with her Australian shepherd and her growing collection of Garth Brooks CDs, sang in the church choir, and had a weakness for the Saturday morning sales at J.C. Penney.

In other words, Jenny had a good life. And even though she had her share of lonely nights, they weren’t chilly enough to convince her she needed a man to keep her warm.

But then one Friday night in walked Chad, who was neither dressed for church nor smelling like a gigolo, but tired and dirty and heading home from his job as janitor at the elementary school. He said nothing beyond the usual niceties of “That’s it” and “Thanks” and made his way out the door, but Jenny did something I’d never seen her do. She watched him leave.

The two saw each other again the next Saturday, this time for dinner at Applebees. To this day I don’t know who did the asking. I suppose it doesn’t matter. They weren’t serious, but they spent their fair share of time together.

It was around their fourth date (which, as it turned out, was bowling) that the stars aligned one more time for Jenny. That was the night Aaron stopped by because his Mercedes was a quart low.

Jenny, I noticed, watched him leave too.

Aaron spent more on Jenny on their first date than Chad made in a week.

You couldn’t find two men more different from one another than Chad and Aaron. One pushed a broom all day, and the other traded stocks in the city. One lived in an apartment behind the 7-11 on Main Street, and the other lived on twenty acres in the country. Neither had quite captured Jenny’s heart yet. Both tried desperately.

The heart abhors competition, and the time came when both demanded Jenny make her choice. She was torn. Aaron was distant and sometimes cold, but with him Jenny could have the comfort she never enjoyed in life. There would be no more nights at the gas station, no more bleached jeans with denim bows in the back. There would instead be dinner parties and fine food and more security than she ever thought possible.

It was a life she knew Chad couldn’t provide her, but he could provide her with everything else. The things that both Jenny’s mom and her preacher knew were important. The things that mattered. Chad loved Jenny, pure and simple. And promised to do so always.

I saw Jenny the other day. She works the register at the grocery store now. Still wears those bleached jeans, too. Her smile and extra makeup couldn’t quite hide the sadness and bruises that were underneath. Chad’s a drinker. Jenny didn’t know that until it was too late.

She’s confessed to some that she often thinks of Aaron and the life she could’ve had. A better life. A better love. But I don’t think so. I think Jenny had it all wrong. I think Aaron would have left her just as miserable and hurt.

Because I don’t think you can choose who to love. I think love chooses you.

“It is wrong to think that love comes from long companionship and persevering courtship. Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity and unless that affinity is created in a moment, it will not be created for years or even generations” ~ Kahlil Gibran


To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.