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This news story breaks my heart. At about 7:20 am on April 18, 31-year-old Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax saw a man threatening a woman with a knife on a city street in Queens, New York City. Tale-Yax stepped in. His reward? He was stabbed. The woman he saved ran off, as did the attacker.  As Tale-Yax lay on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood, a security camera from a nearby business filmed people walking over and around him. Of the few who gave him a second look, one man snapped a cell-phone photo, then left. Another shook Tale-Yax, got no response, and walked away. When emergency workers finally arrived, Tale-Yax had been lying on the street in full view of morning traffic for an hour and 20 minutes. He was dead when EMTs got to him.

After telling the story, the AOL news article goes into theories on how this could have happened. This may be an example of the bystander effect: the psychological theory that, the more people are around, the less likely any one of them is to help, as we each tend to assume that someone else will take care of it. Another theory proposed is that people today, especially those in big cities, are too stressed and preoccupied to really look at each other. Yet another suggests that in a large city, where people get used to the homeless sleeping on the sidewalk, passersby may not have realized that Yale-Tax was doing anything other than taking a nap.

While that last one is hard to swallow for those of us from smaller cities and suburbs, when I lived in San Francisco last summer, I did see people napping in the middle of busy sidewalks, at all times of day. I was amazed, and I stopped to look them over, timidly checking to see if they were still breathing, but I’m a bumpkin from Colorado. A veteran city-dweller would be used to sidewalk nappers, and it would have taken a closer look for someone to have seen the pool of blood under Yale-Tax’s unmoving body. Still, how can we explain the man who shook him, lifted his shoulder (clearly exposing the pool of blood), then walked away without doing a thing to help? How can we explain the man who found him interesting enough to photograph, but not enough to call 911 for?

I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s TV series (and later novel and comic), Neverwhere, in which businessman Richard Mayhew stops to help a tattered-looking young woman who is lying injured on a London sidewalk. This simple act plunges him into her world, called in the book “London Below”: a world of magic, communicative birds and rats, angels, vampire-like life-suckers, and extremely eccentric people. It reads like a fantasy novel, but at a few points, Gaiman makes it clear that this is really the world of the homeless and mentally ill. Read on this level, it’s a touching and disturbing commentary on how we treat our homeless. In Neverwhere, people from “London Above” are literally unable to see those from “London Below” . . . unless, like Richard, they are heading towards madness, themselves. In the real world, we actively choose not to see the homeless—and the news story notes that Yale-Tax was homeless when he was killed. Whether it’s due to the bystander effect, the Neverwhere effect, or some other aspect of human nature, there are too many examples of the basic human tendency to ignore fellow human beings when they most need our help.

There is some hope to the story of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, though. Not everyone ignored strangers in need. The whole story started when Yale-Tax, a young man down on his luck and low on society’s totem pole, stepped in to help a woman who was being robbed. And someone, eventually, called an ambulance for Tale-Yax.

I want to be the rare person in these stories: the one who notices a person in need and does something to help. Every time I see a story like this, I want it to remind me to try to be the one who doesn’t follow the crowd. I want to be the one who sees other people. I want to be the one who helps. I’m afraid I’ll forget, become complacent, and stop seeing other people, as so many of us do. Then again, there will always be more stories like this to remind me.

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Home, sweet home

Home, sweet home

It’s good to be a freelancer. Right now, I’m in the house I grew up in, and right after administering another dose of Vicodin, I’ve just finished the last of the work projects I’ve struggled to get done this week, and I’m taking a moment to be deeply thankful that my life is so amazingly flexible.

Let me back up. At about 2 a.m. this past Tuesday, my mother was still bustling around her house, putting laundry away and generally tidying up. She trotted up the steep stairway to the second floor like she has hundreds of times over the 36 years she’s lived in that house, with her arms full and not bothering to turn on the hall light. It was so dark in that hall that, once Mom turned aside to set the laundry down on the hall table, she couldn’t see which direction was the rest of the second-floor hallway, and which was the stairs. Sleepy and disoriented, she picked the wrong way and, intending to take a step down the hall, stepped into thin air above the stairway, then fell head over heels down a full flight of stairs. She broke one arm, dislocated one shoulder, torqued her neck, and bruised several of her ribs.

Here’s where my gratitude comes in: A friend who lives nearby took Mom to the hospital to get x-rayed, diagnosed, prescribed, and patched up. When she got back home, she called to tell me the story, and at that moment, I was able to toss my laptop computer, my guitar, my knitting, several books, and a week’s worth of clothes into my car and rush right over. I’ve moved into her house for at least one week, and possibly longer, depending on what her doctor says at her checkup next Monday. I don’t have to worry about missing work, because I can work from anywhere. I don’t have to ask anyone for time off, because my time is entirely at my command. I decide when I have to work in order to meet a deadline, and when it’s time for a break because my mom needs me to fix her lunch, open her prescription bottle, or bring her a better pillow. I have no idea how I would have managed this if I’d had a full-time, in-house job, but as my life is, I have have been able to meet all of my work deadlines while hearing my mom tell her friends on the phone, “Don’t worry about me. My daughter is here, and she’s waiting on me hand and foot!”

No, it’s not fun to see someone I love in pain. Yes, it’s getting tedious to keep driving off on little errands, opening bottles and jars, and making yet another cup of tea. Yes, it has been a challenge fitting my work projects in around my worrying…but accidents happen. Illnesses happen. Heartbreaks happen. Relatives need extra care sometimes. Sometimes friends need someone to listen to their stories, or just a ride to the airport. I’m happy to know that I can make room for anything life throws at me.

For years, I never knew what to get my dad for Christmas. When I was very young, the usual “Dad” gifts would do—a tie, a gadget. Later in childhood, I realized that my dad was a great reader, so a book was a perfect gift. If Robert Heinlein had just written a new one, so much the better.

But from 1989 on, my dad had no use for accessories, or gizmos, or even science fiction. That was the year he died of a sudden heart attack. He was 48 years old. I was 15. Still, 20 years later, he comes to mind when I make out my Christmas list: “Aunts and uncles? Check. Cousins? Check. Friends? Got them. My brother? No problem. Mom? Check. Dad?” Dad. Every Christmas, I still feel the need to do something for Dad, even though he has no use for the usual holiday trinkets.

A few years ago, I found a solution that works for me, and I’d like to suggest it to any of you out there who are missing someone this holiday season: If your loved one is no longer around to use a physical gift, give a gift to the world—something that your father (mother, friend, whoever you’re thinking of) would have been proud to be a part of. You know that the world is a better place because that person was once here. Make the world even better in his or her name.

When I was little and my dad was still with us, I remember him going out every year to “be a ding-a-ling,” as he put it. He was a proud member of the LIONS club, and his local club volunteered every year to ring a bell by a Salvation Army kettle. Each Lion would ring for a four-hour shift. It seemed that every year, the club’s scheduled bell-ringing day would turn out to have the worst weather of all the Colorado winter (and in my memory, the winters then were much colder and snowier than Colorado winters now). Still, even though he was bundled up in the ski jacket he usually saved for business trips to Minnesota, he always bounced out our door with a smile on his face. He was excited about standing in driving snow, ringing a bell while most shoppers ignored him, because he knew that he was supporting a good cause. That, and he got to make a goofy, childlike joke about it: “Hey, look! I’m a ding-a-ling!” Dad never missed a chance to make a silly joke.

That memory is what Christmas is to me: family, simplicity, helping those less fortunate. So, in honor of my father, Thomas C. Harkess, who was always delighted to help fill a red kettle, I’m happy to host an “online kettle” for the Salvation Army this year in his name. If you’re looking for a good cause to contribute to this season, if you’ve been touched by my story, if for any reason you’d like to give a little to the Salvation Army this year, please click the kettle pictured above, which is a link to a donation page, and toss in a little or a lot. All donations go directly to the Salvation Army, not to me or any other middleman, though I will be told about your donation, and unless you’d like to remain anonymous, I’ll send you a heartfelt thank you.

Why the Salvation Army? Well, for me, it’s connected to childhood memories of my dad, but I’ve also learned this: From the American Institute of Philanthropy, which checks up how charities use their finances, the Salvation Army gets an excellent score for spending most of their finances directly helping people (rather than overdoing the advertising or paying fat salaries to board members). They also do an amazing variety of good works. For example:

• Christmas dinners, clothes, and toys for families in need.

• Help for people with (in the words of their web site) “a variety of social and spiritual afflictions … including substance misuse, legal problems, relational conflicts, homelessness, unemployment.” In other words, they take people whose lives have fallen apart for various reasons, and give them a safe place to stay, good food, good work, and whatever therapy they need to get them back on their feet again.

• A program specifically to help former prison inmates to become healthier, happier contributing members of society.

• Disaster relief services, including immediate emergency shelter and care, as well as long-term restoration work.

• Care and activities for the elderly.

• Services for veterans.

• Camps to get low-income kids a taste of sun, fun, and nature.

• In the “Who knew?” category (Well, I found these services surprising and fascinating.):
° A missing persons service that helps reunite people with lost family members (although, comfortingly, the Salvation Army respects the wishes of people who tell them that they do not want to be found), and
° An international campaign to fight human trafficking—yes, that means slavery, and yes, it still happens in today’s world.

If you’d like to help with my dad’s Christmas present this year, just click on the picture above, or visit my kettle at the Salvation Army web site.

cranberryWell, technically, it’s already the day after Thanksgiving. I’m still up from Thanksgiving Day, having stocked up on sleep with my afternoon, post-turkey nap. I’ve had a great holiday so far. In reverse chronological order, I’ve had: a fine evening watching TV with the cats I’m sitting for this weekend, dinner with my mom and brother, baking and gravy making (both of which I love to do) for said dinner, a Wednesday night jam session with the amazing guitarists (and patient ones, with the bumbling guitar student I still am) who are also some of my best friends, and donating blood on Wednesday afternoon.

Oddly, it was the blood donation that filled me most with the spirit of Thanksgiving. I’d been meaning to donate blood for many, many months—since the high school blood drive when I was first old enough to donate, I’ve always meant to donate blood as often as my local blood center allows me to, (That’s every two months, which is how long it takes to be sure the red blood cells I’ve given away have grown back.) but something always comes up—I may be coming down with the flu, I have a sword fighting test (or some other physical activity) coming up, I’m just too busy—so that, in fact, I give blood once or twice a year. It had been over a year since my last donation. Excuses aside, I don’t give blood more often because it feels scary, even the 24th time I do it, and so I have to stir up my courage before I go. We have a natural aversion to asking someone to poke a hole in us and drain out our blood, and I suppose that’s a good thing. Even though the phlebotomists who take blood donations are very, very good at their jobs (much better, I’ve found, than the lab techs who stab my arm several times whenever my doctor orders a blood test), the chances of infection or other adverse reactions are very slim, and I’m in great health and can certainly spare a pint of blood now and then, on a visceral level, giving blood kinda freaks me out.

In fact, that’s one of the main reasons why I still, eventually, do go give blood. It feels like an extreme sport. There is an adrenaline rush when the needle goes in, and I feel especially tough having volunteered to shed my own blood. Of course, there’s also the feeling of doing something good for society, helping some poor soul (several souls, actually, as each pint will most likely be divided into plasma, platelets (clotting factors), and red cells and sent to multiple patients) who is very sick or badly injured. It’s the quickest easiest way I know of to do something nice for the world around me, and so prove to myself that I’m a good person. In that way, giving blood is fun. I highly recommend the experience: Anyone out there who can give blood, I suggest you drop by your local blood center and give it a try.

If you can’t give blood, though, I don’t fault you for it. In fact, what really hit me this time was how rare I am, and how amazingly fortunate, that I am able to give blood at all. Before donating blood, each volunteer always has to answer a long list of questions and take a few physical tests that determine whether his or her blood is safe to share with other people, and whether he or she is healthy enough to spare a pint. So many things can eliminate you, from the obvious, like “Have you ever tested positive for HIV?” to the very subtle, like, “Are you feeling well today?” The latest edition of the questionnaire asked whether I had Chagas disease (an infection, carried most often by mosquitoes, which slowly destroys one’s heart), whether I had been exposed to malaria, and whether I had ever been treated for cancer. Have I needed a smallpox vaccination? Do I have diabetes? Is there any problem with my heart and lungs? No. I’m not anemic; in fact, I have more hemoglobin in my blood than the average healthy woman does. I’ve never been in such a desperate situation that I’d have sex for money. I’ve never shot up with drugs, recreational or otherwise. I’ve never had and STD (and yes, I get tested regularly, so I know for sure). I’ve never been exposed to Mad Cow Disease, nor have I been infected with the West Nile Virus. I’m not underweight. I don’t have a fever. I’ve never had jaundice, or any type of hepatitis … the list goes on and on.

I’ve filled out similar questionnaires before, of course, but this time it really hit me: None of these situations are unusual, or unlikely to happen to me. Many of my loved ones can’t donate blood: the diabetic, the cancer survivor, the toughest guy I know (who is free and healthy at last, having kicked his heroin addiction), the friend who loses blood regularly when the ulcers in his digestive tract act up, gay men (who are at a frighteningly high risk for AIDS and other dangerous diseases), the Air Force brat who lived on military bases in Europe (and is thus at risk for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of Mad Cow Disease), and probably several who have had STDs that they haven’t told me about. The world is a dangerous place, and the human body is a delicate thing. It’s amazing, actually, that I have managed to live nearly 35 years without falling victim to some serious problem, but I am, with very little effort on my own part, extremely healthy. I’m a lucky, lucky person, and I am thankful for that.

And now that I think of it, I feel lucky and grateful for all of those people in my life who, despite all of the troubles that beset them, are still in this world and in my life. People are fragile. I’m glad to know the ones I do. And finally, I’m thankful that I have such an easy, direct way to share my good fortune.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! May we all be reminded of what’s good in our lives.