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Can a Tomato Change the World?

Thoughts From the Porch: I need to get a little personal here. I have an issue that’s close to the heart and after this week, I’m driven to share it with you. I haven’t spent much time on the porch. The early blast of Arctic weather has limited my time there. It must’ve delivered some silent signal to our trees last night. They seemed to release all their leaves at once. Except for the few bold ‘hangers-on’, the yard, sidewalk, and most of the porch is covered in dead and dying leaves.

My tomato and pepper plants succumbed to the freeze. I knew it was coming. The cycle of the seasons is inevitable. I know the time will always come to say goodbye to homegrown tomatoes for the winter. I had hoped we’d somehow escape the unusually early frost. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to tasty, fresh tomatoes, even if it’s only temporary.

I spent this last couple of weeks working on grant applications for Opal’s Farm. Everything met with our Director’s approval and I’m submitting them this morning. I haven’t written grants in many years, so there’s more than a little fear there. Did I do it right? What if they don’t come through? What if, what if, what if…

I want to do well: for the farm and as a writer. I guess I’ll find out how well I did when the grants are awarded.

I’d like to be offering a grand update on our progress, but the wet Fall weather has slowed tilling and bed preparation to a crawl. There’s still much to be done in this holiday (and giving) season. November 27th is the Global Day of Giving. I hope that you’ll keep Opal’s Farm in mind if such days are more convenient for you. Please remember though, donations aren’t contingent on special ‘giving days’, they are accepted 24/7, 365 days a year!

Professionally, I write strong appeal letters for non-profit organizations. Opal’s Farm is intensely personal to me and far more than just another job. For those of you who don’t know about the farm, our Mission Statement is:

Opal’s Farm restores hope and vitality to neglected communities through an agricultural intervention and education.”

Personal experience has taught me that ‘playing in the dirt’ has the power to change lives and communities and provide solutions to problems far beyond food deserts and food scarcity. If that were all it did it would be a noble undertaking, but it’s much bigger than that.

Several years ago, I was working on a community garden in a local westside neighborhood for B.U.R.N. Ministries. Some of the young men who were in the youth program came to help one day when harvesting had begun. One of the young men asked me what “those are” as I was picking tomatoes. The question kind of took me back. I just assumed everyone knew what they were.

You see, he had grown up in an urban food desert. Most of his diet had consisted of processed foods from the local dollar and convenience stores. He had no idea what fresh produce looked like!

I pulled a tomato off the vine, wiped it off, handed it to him, and invited him to try it. He was reluctant at first. He took a small bite. I watched as his face went from a turned-up nose to a beaming smile. “That’s really good”, he said as he devoured the rest of the tomato. “Can I have another one?”

I’m not saying that one tomato is going to change the world. But I couldn’t help but notice how it changed his face and his perception. It was like shining a light in to a dark place. Once he ‘saw’ the opportunity in front of him he was able to taste the goodness of God’s world. I’d like to think it provided more than simply a great taste sensation. I’d like to think it provided hope.

That’s why Opal’s Farm is so important: to people, to the community, and to the next generation. A simple tomato has the power to change everything. That’s why I’m so passionate about a couple of acres and some wonderful produce.

I could go on and on. Educating people, feeding folks, and empowering individuals for stewardship and the opportunity to leave things a little better than they found it leaves me humbled and in awe of God’s creation.

As a professional writer, I’m supposed to craft my words carefully and ask you to be a financial partner with Opal’s Farm. I’d love for you to be a ‘farmer’, right alongside us whether it be with financial support or digging in the dirt. Moreover, I’m not too proud to beg. My wife always reminds me, “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed”. This is a golden opportunity to make a difference; to do something tangible. Right here. Right now.

So, I implore you to join us! You can reach us at:

 

Opal’s Farm

C/O Unity Unlimited, Inc.

2119 Harrison Avenue

Fort Worth, TX 76110

 

Or contact us through my website:  www.gregoryjoel.com

On the “Contact Form” below

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Stardust

Thoughts From the Porch: I listened to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last week. It was with Brian May; one of the founding members of the band, Queen. I was on my way to a meeting, so I only heard a brief segment, but I’ve thought about it all weekend.

I didn’t know that following Freddie Mercury’s death and the band dissolved, Mr. May went back to university and earned his PhD in astrophysics. His thesis, put as simply as possible, was about the velocity of star dust. He went on to explain some of his thesis, but I was driving and somewhat distracted. I didn’t catch all the interview. That is, until right before I shut off the engine…

I was getting out of my truck when I heard him say, “we’re all composed of stardust from the beginning of the universe”. He went on to say that when Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust. We are golden…” she hit the nail right on the head. Not only do I have a “Woodstock” ‘brain worm’, I’ve thought about our ‘stardust DNA’ all weekend.

person sky silhouette night
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I’m in absolute awe and amazement – we’re made with the very dust present at the beginning of the universe. The stars formed our DNA!

I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist Christian home. The Bible was taken quite literally. If it says God created the Earth in seven days, then by God, he did. Science was incompatible with religion. To many it still is. I’m not going to enter in to a debate over science versus biblical literalism. I’ll leave that to the dogmatist on both sides. Apparently, they know God, or lack thereof, much better than I do…

red and orange solar flare
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I believe I’m connected to time, space, and people – all of creation – through this ‘star DNA’. When I’m in tune with that connection, I’m able to love better and a be a better human being. I’m a better steward of the gifts God has given me. I’m able to bring light into the darkness around me. Maybe that’s why I was created with stardust…

It’s easy to forget how marvelous and ‘wonderfully created’ I am. I get caught up in the minutiae of the day, rushing about the business of living. Suddenly, I hear or see something that stops me in my tracks, reminding me of the miracles around me.

“We are stardust, we are golden…”

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Just Vote…

Thoughts From the Porch: Yes, folks. This is another voter turnout post. I’m sure you’ve been bombarded by political ads, voter turnout robocalls, and every conceivable mailer you can imagine, from applauding your voting record to shaming you for apathy. Please bear with me, though. This is an issue close to my heart. It matters!

white and grey voting day sign
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I questioned my role in voter participation as a Jesus-follower. I know where my true citizenship is. I may be entitled to U.S. citizenship by virtue of birth, but I follow my Rabbi first and foremost. I realized just how privileged I am to live here, especially in Texas. This is my earthly home, where my friends and family are, and where I’ll more than likely stay until I leave this world. I’m not confused, though. One’s spiritual beliefs are not an excuse for not voting. However, they change my motivation for voting.

The Gospels reflect Jesus’ concern for the neglected and marginalized. He went as far to say that how we treat them is how we treat Him. Pretty powerful words. In an election year that will affect the poor, the elderly, the immigrant, and the disenfranchised, your vote does matter. How you vote is also a reflection of how you see them.

While elections are always about how we see our political leadership, this year is also a reflection of how we see ourselves. What are our values? Are our decisions based on fear, class distinctions, and exclusion or they ones of faith, the common good, and inclusive of all? Everyone will answer those questions for themselves. Elections are important. How we vote matters to us all…

I took advantage of early voting and a rainy Wednesday last week to place my ballot. I was thrilled by the diverse crowd that was there on a Wednesday afternoon. I spent time in prayer and reflection about the matter before me and performed one of the privileges of my physical citizenship. It should be done with reflection.

I’m overjoyed when I hear the reports that voter turnout is exceeding expectations. I’d love for everyone to vote for my choices, but that’s unrealistic. The bottom line is that they were there casting their ballot.

Results will be in Tuesday evening. There will be winners and losers. Some of you will be elated by the results and others frustrated and disappointed. That’s how it works.

My friend Edgar always says, “Chop wood and let the chips fall where they may”. Go out there and vote. The chips will take care of themselves, but you won’t have chips if you don’t chop the wood…

person dropping paper on box
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Telemarketers, Plumbers, and Nazis

Thoughts From the Porch: I have a great deal of respect for people who perform dirty jobs. Last month our plumbing backed up. It was a simple fix. The back-flow valve and broken and stopped up the drain. The difficult part of the solution involved the raw sewage that needed to be drained to fix the valve. I can stomach a lot of things, but raw sewage isn’t one of them. Fortunately, we had a plumber friend who helped fixed it in no time. I have no complaints about their hourly rate. Plumbers are paid well for a reason: dealing with ugly, and disturbingly aromatic drainage issue.

business close up energy equipment
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I truly respect people who perform jobs they’d rather not have to do. My friend told me that he’d rather be doing something else, but plumbing had provided a good living for he and his daughter. I know how he feels. I’ve worked jobs I didn’t like because I need to keep a roof over my family’s head and provide food on the table. A lot of people do. Willingness to do what it takes is an admirable trait.

My dad used to tell me that it didn’t matter what I did for a living. Work hard. Try to be the best at whatever job I had. Wise words from a man who grew up during the Great Depression. He understood the value and importance of work. All work was honorable, and one should be grateful to have it. He also grew up prior to the age of telemarketing…

As phone technology advanced from party lines to individual land lines, the telephone became a great marketing tool for business. Telemarketers scheduled their calls around when people would be at home, so they usually called during family dinners (and yes, there was a time when the whole family sat down to dinner…) or when one was in the middle of something. Telemarketers developed a unique knack for interrupting and being a general pain in the you-know-what.

Now that we have cellphones, they can be annoying anytime. One company representing USA Auto Care and some savings club, calls my cellphone at least six times a day. I’ve even counted ten calls from the same company! I’ve tried to block their calls, but they are able to call from different numbers each time. So, I answer the phone, hear the same mispronunciation of my name, and the beginning of the same annoying script. I try to refrain from questioning the caller’s maternal lineage, but I’m not always successful.

In fact, they called again this morning during my ‘porch’ time. I‘ve begun plotting some form of revenge. I’m convinced that even Jesus would have a hard time loving a telemarketer. I told my wife I should get an airhorn to sound of in response to the telemarketers. Her reply was “they are just doing their job”. Isn’t that the same defense used by the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials…

As a freelance writer and a business owner, I know that cold calling is a necessary evil. Telemarketing companies wouldn’t exist if it didn’t turn a profit. Someone out there is staying on the line, right? It’s a numbers game.

I know to that I offer a service and a solution to my client’s problems. I only hope that I’m more sensitive to my prospect’s needs when I cold call.

I’ve gotten it together a bit more since this morning. I’m not getting an airhorn. I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. Telemarketers don’t compare to Hitler’s SS, even if they are “just doing their job”. They’ll call again. That’s just what they do. I’ll reply with a firm, “not interested, thank you” and hang up.  

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Have You Had Your Vitamin D Today?

red flower rose
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Thoughts From the Porch: I haven’t posted much this week. North Texas has seen the wettest October since recordkeeping began. The area lakes are one hundred percent full and dams are opening their floodgates to keep them from flooding. We’ve experienced some localized flooding, but the folks in to our south have been devastated by it. It hasn’t been one of our best months here.

People have been joking about swimming everywhere. If one more person makes a “Noah’s Ark” or webbed feet comment I might  run off screaming. Keep smiling, right?

time lapse photography of river
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Work on Opal’s Farm has been at a standstill. The water level of the Trinity River made me a little apprehensive. Yet, it’s remained well below the levee height. The Water District cannot begin to disc and till the soil until it dries out for several days. We’ve gotten get a sunny day here and a day there, but the soil; is super saturated. We need at least a solid week of sunshine to even think about further progress.

It’s all been a bit much. To top it off, business has been slow enough that I took on a couple of indoor construction jobs to keep some income coming in. I’m thankful for the work. I do what needs to be done, even when doing so wears me out too much to write. I’ve sat down at the desk several times, but the words are stiff, like my body.

Thus, procrastination has reared its ugly head. I set aside writing for the next day and go to bed early. It’s the perfect escape mechanism for dealing with the miserable weather. Sometimes sleep will change the way I feel. My mood had begun to mirror October’s gloomy weather. I didn’t want to inflict myself and my dismal mood on anyone else.

Sleep is an amazing thing. Sunshine even more so. Sunlight on the human skin triggers a human’s ability to manufacture Vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin”. Vitamin D is essential for overall health. Studies show it helps decrease high blood pressure and protect against inflammation. It helps muscles and even improves brain function. Lack of Vitamin D is a contributing factor in osteoporosis, muscle weakness, cancer, and depression. Given the last month, I can understand the depression aspect.

Unfortunately, few foods provide adequate amounts of Vitamin D. That’s why sunshine is so important.

The sun was already shining when I awoke this morning. I’m usually get up early enough to greet the sunrise, but not today. I slept in and awoke to my dog’s wet tongue and sunlight beaming through the window. I noticed my mood was much lighter. I was excited to get out of bed, rush through the awakening routine, and get to the porch.

My vision was clearer, my mind freer than it’s been in days. My coffee tasted better. Conversation with Margaret was lighter. Problems didn’t seem so overwhelming. The leaves fell more frequently, and the yellows and reds of autumn were more vibrant. I was filled with a sense of awe and gratitude once again. All brought about by a good night’s sleep and brilliant sunshine…

I often forget how simple life really is. The dispiriting, gloomy days of October will always give way to brighter days. Life’s like that. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it shines. Even when the rain seems like it will never cease, the sun will eventually return. Without the rain, I forget the incredible value of the sunshine.

My world mirrors the God I’ve come to know. There may be times it seems like the rain will never end. Yet, the sunshine always returns. The sun is always there even though its light is sometimes hidden behind the cloudy, dark skies of fear and self-doubt. Every time I quite trying to control the or wish away the weather, the light returns: ever reminding me that it’s all okay.

My friend Jim used to tell me things like, “It will all be okay when it’s over. If it’s not okay, then it’s not over” and “In the meantime, it’s just a mean time”. I used to hate hearing that when I was in the middle of a storm, but sure enough, the sun came out, the storm was over, and it was always okay. I come out a little battered but better able to weather any coming difficulties…

I’ve also come to know that I need God like I need Vitamin D. He’s “essential to overall health”. My “muscles” – physically, mentally, and above all, spiritually – are stronger. I’m no longer depressed, feeling overwhelmed by whatever bad weather life sends my way. His light prevents the cancer of resentment and unforgiveness. His light improves my thinking and especially, my vision. I can see the simple beauty of falling Autumn leaves and be at peace.

I’m going to get on with the day now. Now that the sun is shining there’s much to do and many things to see. Besides, I’ve had a Vitamin D deficiency lately…

Have you had your dose of Vitamin D today?

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What’s Your Story?

Thoughts From the Porch: A more accurate title for today’s post would be “Thoughts from the Desk”. A cold front flew through the neighborhood Sunday night, leaving a cold Arctic wind and black, rain-filled skies in its wake. It was eighty-one degrees one day and, in the forties the next. I didn’t stay on the porch very long. Needless to say, it’s much cozier here at Dad’s old roll-top. We had chili for dinner last night and our coffee intake has risen dramatically. Something about such weather makes them both taste exquisite and, so very necessary. Such is Fall in North Texas…

clear glass window with moist effect
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Margaret loves to watch the musical competition shows like The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and X Factor. I am not that crazy about them, although I come and watch when she asks me to see a good performance. I tend to be a bit snobbish about such popular shows, but if I’m honest, I’ve developed an interest as well.

I never watched them before. They tend to be too ‘pop’ for my taste. Heck, before Margaret and I married, I didn’t even own a television. I streamed PBS on my computer. I’d hear people talking about the latest ‘star’, but I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.

I’ve always had a problem with the idea of ‘instant stardom’. There are so many unbelievably talented musicians, singers, and songwriters in the world. They endure the grind of the road, playing in roadhouses and clubs almost every night. Family life, if they have any, is marked with long separations. They pay their dues, hoping for the big break that may never come. Yet, they continue despite the rigors of life as a touring musician.

They do it because they are musicians. They can’t do anything else. I get it. I write because that’s what writers do. I love writing (whether I’m good at it or not…). Musicians perform because they love what they do. I’m grateful for all the indie labels and the Internet for exposing me to so much more of the great talent out there.

I always wondered what attracted people to these programs. Then I watched a few of them and their appeal became clear. They tell a story, and everyone loves a good story.

They all tell stories about the various contestants. Stories that draw the audience in and develop an emotional bond between strangers. The contestant often had some major difficulty to overcome prior to coming on the show. It may be the loss of a family member, recovering from a debilitating illness, of huge obstacles that stood in the way. Each has had to move beyond some trauma and overcome their fears to become the next big star. America votes for who they want to win. Votes are not always based on sheer talent. People love the ‘rags to riches’ story. There’s always someone to identify with. That’s what gets the votes and the ratings…

I see it in my personal and professional life. It’s all about living a better story. I hope to assist others in living, and telling, a better story as well. As the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Once I understood the story, and not just the talent, I saw why these programs have such a following. We love heroes. Everyone wants to be a hero. We love people who overcome terrible odds and win the prize. Great literature, no matter what genre, survives because of heroes. The Voice has been on for fifteen seasons, not because of the talent they showcase, but the heroes they produce.

art business close up decor
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I want to be a hero today, but being a hero requires work. I used to look on these programs with disdain because they seemed too easy – rewards without the work – but it took a lot of practice and courage just to reach the stage. So, I had to ask myself:

  • How many times have I expected to be on the proverbial ‘stage’ without putting in the work to get there?
  • How many times has my fear of rejection, like all the auditions or in my case, submissions, kept me from realizing my dreams?
  • How often have I lacked the courage to take the next step?
  • How often have I sought the ‘easy way out’ or settled for less than the best?
  • If I were absolutely certain it was my last day on Earthy, would I e happy with how I spent it?

I ask myself these questions daily, not because I want to be the next big star, but because I want to be who I was created to be and have life “in abundance”. One of my favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau said,

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I get it today. Fear can keep me from following my passion. Today, I pray for the courage to take the next step, to be the man I was created to be, and follow it up with action: to step out on the stage despite my fears, perform my best, and grab onto the things that are truly important to me. I hope you do as well…

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I Can’t Remain Silent

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

It’s probably a good thing I’ve been too busy to post anything this week. I’ve struggled over today’s post and it’s been on my mind since last weekend. It’s hard to write and even harder to put it out there on social media and in the blogosphere. You see, as much as I enjoy writing of God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy, there are times when I fall far short in extending the same to others. This is one of those times. Please allow me to explain.

Margaret and I each had grown children when we wed nearly six years ago. Our daughter, who has come out as transgender and changed her name to Gael, moved in with us a couple of years ago so it would be financially easier to complete her college. I only mention her identification as Gael, so you’ll know who I’m talking about. I’m still new to speaking and writing of our kid in the third person, but that’s the accepted means by which to refer to transgender individuals and what they have requested of family and friends. Moreover, I’m not sharing anything that Gael hasn’t already made public their self.

Perhaps because our children were young adults when we married, blending families went a bit smoother for us. Margaret and I have no ‘step’ children, just our kids and grandkids, and we love them to death. So, when Gael asked about moving home to finish school there was no thought of saying no. I’ve become closer to them as a result.

Margaret has been open about Gael having been sexual assaulted by their uncle when they were twelve years old. What I didn’t know until the last couple of years is how deeply that affected them. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the highest court in the land after sexual assault accusations probably triggered Gael’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) last weekend. As a result, we had an emotionally volatile weekend. I saw, and see daily, the lingering results of emotional pain caused by perpetrators such as their Uncle Phill. Although he, and people like Mr. Kavanaugh, go on about their lives without a care in the world, victims like Gael and their families live with the consequences of such heinous acts for a lifetime.

Needless to say, I’m angry: so much so that I want to lash out in revenge. I have a special place in my heart for women and children, but especially when it’s my kid. I wasn’t part of the family when it happened, but I am now and I see their lingering pain regularly. I see the tears and pain of remembrance. They, like all survivors, bear the scars of their trauma daily. Their uncle, like so many abusers, has never shown remorse and prefers to sweep it under the rug, ignoring the harm he has caused. Unfortunately, that happens in families and society as a whole. Part of me wants to make sure he pays a consequence, and quite frankly, I’d like to ‘kick his ass’, but that isn’t the answer. My first thoughts about anything like this are usually wrong…

It’s not my place to act as judge, jury, and executioner. God has freely granted me grace and mercy, not justice. I’m so glad I didn’t get what I deserved. So, who am I, having been lifted from the depths of addiction and self-centeredness, to withhold grace and mercy from others? That isn’t how my life works today. Revenge and ill-will only lead to resentment and bitterness, neither of which are appealing to me.

That being said, an acknowledgement of the wrong would allow some healing to take place, and that is what Margaret and I want for our kid. I’ve learned the importance of taking responsibility for my actions, acknowledging the harm done to someone else, and being willing to go to any lengths to make it right. Such an admission made it possible to receive the love, grace, and mercy waiting for me. I have no illusions that it’s not the case for men like their Uncle Phill or Brett Kavanaugh. Ironically, much can be forgiven when the crime is acknowledged. That’s when the healing begins…

So, what am I to do? Three things come to mind. First, I will love my kid through this and, though I wasn’t able to protect them then, I will do my best to protect them now. That means keeping my kid away from their perpetrator even if he shares DNA. That, too, has lasting consequences for others far beyond my kid or their uncle. They affect family get-togethers and holidays. Even when forgiveness is involved, it doesn’t mean forgetting. I will not allow my kid to be victimized over and over, placing them in the same room as their assailant and acting as though it’s all in the past so it’s okay re-traumatizes them.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, I can pray and seek God’s guidance through this whole mess. I truly believe in Jesus’ teaching. When he said that there is a better way than “an eye for an eye”, I believe him. I trust that his is a radically different view of the world than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s uncommon sense that leads me to live and love better, to be a better human being, and to be there for my kids, especially Gael.

Finally, I need to listen. I need to put aside preconceived notions about someone and listen to survivors of sexual trauma. I need to be empathetic and be there. Trevor Noah said that,

“People struggle to understand that two things can be contradictory and true at the same time. You could know somebody as a great person, and they could also be doing something that you don’t know about that makes them someone who you wouldn’t recognize. With Bill Cosby, people were like ‘that’s not the Cosby I know,’ and yeah, it’s not the Cosby you know. Unfortunately, it’s the Cosby somebody else knows.”

Just because somebody puts on a good guy image doesn’t exempt them from scrutiny when accusations are made. The past year and the emergence of the #metoo movement reminds me that ignoring the issue of sexual assault and harassment is to sanction it. To sanction it is to be a part of the problem. Like Dad used to say, “Son, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution…”

Last weekend, Gael used social media to speak out against her perpetrator. The week before Christine Blasey Ford spoke to the world about her abuser. I applaud their courage and unwillingness to remain silent. Sexual assault, harassment, and, in Gael’s case, the assault of a child, is not a once and done crime. It has long lasting effects that plague survivors, their families, and society as a whole. Thank you Gael for speaking out and being an example. I can no longer be silent either. I hope you, gentle reader, won’t either.