When You Know You Are Getting Old

lincoln kids
Lincoln Elementary School. People in my kindergarten class

You know you are getting old when you attend your 45th year high school class reunion. How did so much time go by? If I live another twenty years and become elderly, that time is going to whiz by faster than the rest. Knowing this I fill my life with as much as I can, never thinking I am too old. It’s easy think we are to old do things or it’s too risky. We wonder, “What will people think?” I have a motto I live by, (actually I have several of these) “If you don’t like what I’m doing, then don’t watch me do it.” I don’t care what people think about what I do. It’s my life and I’ll do what I want to do. If the fear is all in your head you’ll end up with regrets. Trying and failing isn’t nearly as bad as not trying at all.

It had been twenty five years since I went to a class reunion because I lived too far away. I moved closer to home in 2010 when I was sick and decided a few years ago I wasn’t going to miss this one. It wasn’t because I was such great friends with these classmates and we stayed in touch over the years – it was quite the opposite. I was a loner. I had a couple friends I hung around with and made no attempt to fit in. I suffered from low self esteem. If I didn’t make friends they couldn’t reject me.

As a very young child, music was the only thing important to me. It was the only music I listened to – the only albums I collected. A stack of classical piano albums was put on my record player at night and it played through the night. I was enthralled with Van Clyburn and Andre Previn. I knew current music because it was played on car radios when my boyfriend and I drove up and down the main street through town in the evenings, but I could rarely identify a song with the name of the band. I still can’t, even though I know all the songs.

In school I took every music class and sung in the chorus and yearly musicals but I never joined any other club. I think every school has their cliques and they are often divided by what part of town you live in and if your parents could buy you the latest fashions. I definitely wasn’t part of those groups of kids. I was part of the ARchie Bunker style streets. I always had what I needed, but what I wanted I didn’t ask for. My parents were young, struggling to raise three children.

We were not taught racism. Nothing negative was said, but neither was anything positive. We understood there was a clear line down the middle of town and black people lived on one side and whites on the other. Realtors wouldn’t sell a house to a black family on the white side of town because it brought down property values. That changed after I left home when homes were bought by realtors and broken up into apartments. Black people didn’t go to our church.  I remember wanting to touch a black person and see if their skin felt different. The elementary schools weren’t mixed. Kids went to the school in their own neighborhood. It wasn’t until Jr High that classes mixed because there were only two jr high schools, and only one high school. But even though we all went to the same school, black and white students generally stayed with those they grew up with. But still there was no racism. No name calling because someone was a negro, because the word black wasn’t used. Kids weren’t taught to hate. Were there problems – yes, sometimes – but not like today. Still, white kids didn’t walk through black neighborhoods. I did that – once. Children threw stones at me. There was an underlying fear. That is a story for another day.

There was bullying and I was on the receiving end. I honestly don’t know why. I was cornered in the restrooms, stairwells and the auditorium. I was threatened. I ran out the back door in the music room because I was afraid. That is yet another story. But kids have it much worse today with bullying because of the use of social media.

In many homes, kids today are not taught respect. Why? What happened? Suicides by kids who feel threatened are common. Kids in the 70’s still had respect for teachers and staff. The thought of cussing at a teacher was unheard of. It is much different today, and it shows in the behavior of the kids. We also had no cops at our school ready to handcuff us on school property and take us in the back of a police car and lock us up. The principal was the law. Black kids weren’t filling up juvenile detention facilities the way they do now. Now there is a lot of profit for locking up kids and preparing them for prison by destroying their education. It is so wrong – and that is another story.

Today, in 2017, I was now more than twice as old as I was when I graduated. I knew I was not the same person I was in the early 1970’s and I knew the students weren’t, either. Starting a few years ago I began connecting with people in my class through facebook. There can be a lot of drama and other crap on fb but the positive aspect is being able to connect with people. Some of these students I graduated with I also went to Kindergarten with as well.

If I was going to the reunion I didn’t want to walk into a large room with a lot of people who were strangers, so I used my time getting to know many of them. We “talked” about the things that separated us. It taught me a valuable lesson.
What we think about people – what we think is the truth – often isn’t. People put on faces of what we want others to believe. We hide things about ourselves  we don’t want other people to know.

We continue to do that even as adults. When someone asks us how we are, we say “fine” even when we aren’t. We assume people really don’t want to know so we don’t tell them. We don’t show people what is really going on in our lives. We think they will judge us.  We don’t get to know other people, either. Sometimes we also choose to not do things we want to do because, “What will people think?”

What I found over about three years is – all these kids grew up.  I’m not the same kid and neither are they. They had their own mountains to climb, kids to raise, careers grew and some were destroyed. Spouses died, kids died, health problems destroyed dreams. People moved. Some had wonderful experiences and some didn’t. No one had a perfect life with no problems. Our experiences shaped us. I enjoyed getting to know these same kids, now all around 63 years old.

Our reunion was over two evenings. Our class president and other students who stayed local put a lot of time into preparations so we could enjoy our time together. I saw many people who looked familiar but I had to look at their name tags to remember who they were. I honestly thought I had been so insignificant in school I didn’t think anyone would remember who I was.  But they did.  Part of me was dumbfounded. We hadn’t been “friends” in school so why? That was my low self esteem surfacing. Growing up I had to put on a tough exterior. I put on a face of confidence that wasn’t real, until I made it real. One student I didn’t remember walked up to me and said, “You always did dance to the beat of a different drummer.” What did she know about me that i didn’t? I have no idea what made her say that – but it was true. I always bucked the system.

One of the tables at the reunion held the pictures of all the classmates who had died since we graduated. Today that number is 39. About a half dozen of us stood there looking at those pictures and reading about how they died. A few died very soon after graduation, and the most recent one was in March of 2017. Looking at these pictures of people knowing I was still alive was overwhelming. I had come very close to dying of liver disease and cancer in 2012 but a liver became available in the nick of time.

“The Pain That Unites Us All” a book being published right now, has twenty-seven authors contributing their story – in short story or poetry. My story about my liver transplant and the emotional pain of being ignored by my immediate family while going through something so traumatic is published in that book. I had come home thinking they would support me.  I was dead wrong. That is also a story for another day. I’ll be posting a link to the book soon if you are interested.

We all have stories. Some people change for the good and some don’t.  I have more new/old friends because I took the time to listen and not judge. We can have value in other lives and they can have value in ours, but if we think we know it all and don’t need to take the time to listen, we lose that person in our life. It has taken a long time for me to find a place in my head to put the knowledge, realizing that coming home was a mistake. Except for patching it up with my mother, I have no value in the lives of the family I grew up with. I can’t even try anymore. But I have children and seven grandchildren and I am the head of my own family.  When I moved home, extremely sick, and was treated badly – I’m done with them and that is just the way it is. I had to teach myself to not care any more

I could have been in one of those photos of people who passed away. Anyone of us could have been up on that wall. At 63 we aren’t elderly, but more and more of us are reaching the end of our life. Many die due to illness. Some give up. My mother had her class reunion the week before mine. She graduated from the same high school. Her list of students who have died was a double column, front and back of two pages.

It is hard to look at your own mortality.  When I didn’t die of liver failure I had to make a choice. Wallow in my illness and give up – or push past it. I could say I’m getting too old to begin again. I live in a senior community and I see it all around me – those that give up and those that force themselves to live their lives completely until the end. I chose to give my live everything I can. It wasn’t time to give up.

That is when I started the blog My Name is Jamie – and everything else that followed – the writing of the book “Inside The Forbidden Outside” which I am still rewriting. I am heading to Texas next week to go to the Allred prison where Jamie is,  and to complete the stories that tie the chapters of the book together. I started writing the ITFO Newsletter which focuses on different issues concerning our prisons because many people really do not know the real reason for why we have more prisons than any other country. I also write about different people in prison with a story to tell. If you have one – contact me. My focus is to educate people and teach them there is no race that is better than another, no matter what mainstream media teaches you. We all need to work together to save our planet and our humanity.

This gives me the reason to write music as the soundtrack for the book. Helping others makes the cause to help my own life. I never sit around bored wondering what to do next. I spent most of my life creating music. Why stop when I am better at it now than I ever was in my life. Our senior years are when we have the most experience and wisdom to give the world. The youth has nice skin – but they lack life experience. We should strive to find a way to utilize it.

Sonni Quick improv pianoAfter I returned from my class reunion I sat at my piano and recorded a piece of music for all of the students who were no longer here – to honor them. When I play it I will think of them. They will not be forgotten. I’m hoping my friends – these past classmates will listen and remember and remember them, too.

I have a new album coming out that will soon be at CDBaby and Spotify named “Stories without Words”. This music will be part of that. I often give music as a gift. Writing music is a part of me I can give. It is all improvised. I feel, I play and record it. I can never play anything twice because I let it play me, not the other way around. I’ll be posting a link to the album soon.

Thanks for reading and thanks for listening. It is for everyone who graduated from Pottstown High in Pennsylvania in 1972. It is my gift to you.

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If you know an inmate who writes poetry or is an artist or has a story you’d like to tell you can email me at: itfonews@gmail.com

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SkunkRadioLive . . . Indie radio station out of London playing music composed for  the book being written for Jamie.  If you can, help support. It will all help Jamie in the end.

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Sonni’s Side of The Story – Part 1

INSIDE THE FORBIDDEN OUTSIDE

 SONNI’S SIDE OF THE STORY  – part 1

 

     “Nana, Nana”, I heard through the door. My grandchildren were banging on the door to the hotel room my husband and I had just checked into. I could hear childish laughter in the hall when I opened the door. My two young grandchildren came running into the room as I opened the door, greeting me with hugs around my waist. Too much time always passes before I get to see my grandchildren again. They grow so fast. I know now how my parents must have felt because I always lived so far from them when my own children were young. I might do a few things different if I had the chance to do it over again. Unfortunately, we never get a do-over and paybacks can be tough when we see the consequences of choices we made. It has been so hard being separated from my family for long periods of time. This time it has been two years. It was a happy time to see my daughter when she came into the hotel room with her current boyfriend coming in behind her.
      I had my camera in my hand, wanting to catch that first moment to look back on in later years. As it turned out, I have looked at that picture almost every day for the last couple years because it is on the opening page of the blog, “My Name Is Jamie. My Life In Prison,” I write for Jamie Cummings, the young man I met that night,
      The year was 2005. My husband and I made a trip to Texas from Key West, Florida, to spend Thanksgiving week with my daughter and grandchildren in Nacogdoches, a small university town in East Texas. It’s the town I lived in for a few years when I was married to my children’s father. My daughter chose to move to this town as an adult to be around her father’s family. It was a comfort knowing my daughter and grandchildren had family support.
      Jamie was a very shy, polite, young black man, a little over six feet tall, with a fair amount of meat on his bones. He clearly wasn’t starving, but he was clearly uncomfortable. No matter how hard I tried to coax him to look up into the camera for a picture, the photo I ended up taking of the four of them had him looking at his feet with a big grin on his face. It’s an endearing photo seeing his embarrassment. He had to be nervous, not knowing what kind of reception he was going to get from the white family of his girlfriend, but this was not the first black significant other of someone in my family. Skin color doesn’t matter to me. It isn’t how I judge someone’s worth. My only concern for Morgan was if she was happy, and it appeared she was. I didn’t know anything about Jamie, but on the surface, at least, everything seemed okay. We had a nice evening sitting in the building of the hotel’s heated indoor pool, talking while the children played in the water. Jamie clearly enjoyed the children and it was obvious they liked him, too.
      The following morning my husband and I treated everyone to breakfast. In Texas, children are raised to say yes ma’am, and no sir, every time you ask them a question. I don’t think I have ever been ma’am’d so many times in one day. If a child only answers a question with a yes or no, an adult will ask them, “Yes what?” until they get, “Yes ma’am”. If all children were taught to respect adults there would be less rude kids in schools who think it is okay to be disrespectful and say anything they want to teachers, or anyone else in authority. Children today are lacking the fundamentals of respect we showed adults when I was raised. It’s easy to see how much that has effected how they treat most things in life. Even Jamie ma’am’d me when I asked him a question. I told him it wasn’t necessary but as hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop himself. Since the habit was too ingrained to change, all I could was laugh.
      When you least expect it, life throws curveballs that end up affecting your life to the point of sending it down a completely different path. Jamie Cummings was one of those curveballs. He affected my life in ways I could have never imagined at the time. He became an important part of my life because we were there for each other during times of crisis. After after quite a few years passed, I realized he had a story that needed to be told.

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     Soon after my husband and I returned to Key West, Morgan called me and announced she was pregnant – again. She probably knew during the visit, but didn’t want to tell me and face to face and hear my reaction, for several reasons. One, she hadn’t known him very long, and she was having a hard enough time taking care of the two children she already had while trying sporadically to go to school. She also hard a hard time after her second child was born because she had eclampsia, a complication of pregnancy that can lead to seizures, as well as other symptoms. Morgan did had seizures after the birth and they continued as silent seizures for several years. To get pregnant again would be risky. Another pregnancy would have a high likelihood of more complications. It automatically put her new pregnancy in the high risk category.
      The first time she got pregnant, Morgan was only fifteen. In her immaturity she was so completely sure she could raise a child, go to school and work full time, all at the same time. She lost the rest of her youth and any possibility of finding out what she wanted to be. No more dreams. Only a life of raising children without having enough money. I understood how hard that was. I laid all the possible consequences out for her, assuring her I wasn’t going to raise my grandchildren. She needed to be sure this was what she wanted. I knew it would be her education that was going to suffer. I also knew if I made the decision for her, she would resent me later. It’s hard for a young girl to make a decision like that when they are too young to have any wisdom. She had to decide and know whatever she chose, it was going to be a choice she was going to have to live with. I would support whatever decision she made.
      This happened more than eighteen years ago, in 1995. The boy who was the father of her son wasn’t in the picture to help her. She received no help from him or his family through the years. He eventually landed in prison. Morgan and her son raised each other. He turned out to be a good kid with a good head on his shoulders. he’s going into the Marine Corps toward the end of 2016. She has the right to be very proud of him. She did a good job teaching him right from wrong. She depended on him to help pick up the slack when she was tired from working all the time. For many years he was the man of the house and helped raised the little ones. She was a fierce mother. At least Jamie has known through these years that his son, Jamie Jr., who was born after he was incarcerated, has been well cared for and loved.
      The year of our visit in 2005, Morgan was struggling to finish school at the local Jr College and was working as a nursing assistant. But that job, in Texas, doesn’t pay well. She hoped to go on to nursing school or business administration in the medical field, but her life pulled her in too many directions and she was unable to complete it. Now she was adding a third child; a baby with someone she had only known for a few months who wouldn’t be able to help financially.
      Jamie, too, didn’t have any education or experience to find the kind of work that would support a family. Love does not conquer all. It was a hardship neither of them would be able to easily overcome. On top of that he has epilepsy, which not only makes him unable to get a drivers license, which limits jobs, there were also medical concerns. Neither of them thought of the hardships they would have, bringing another child into their world with no money to care for it. Love does not pay the bills, either. But at least they had love and for a very short period of time they were happy. It didn’t last long.
      The only thing I could do was shake my head and keep my fingers crossed. It was not enough. Morgan always had a lot going on in her life. It was about to triple and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. She was in la la babyland and already buying little things for a baby boy. I remember being told about a cute little pair of red Nike infant shoes Jamie had bought for him. Jamie was so happy he was going to be a father. That never changed, but what happened next was tragic.
      About thirty days after we returned home I got a frantic phone call from Morgan. Jamie had been arrested, and her car had been impounded. She couldn’t get her car back because the fees were too high. She was frantic and didn’t know what to do. She tried to stay close to Jamie to support him while he was at the jail waiting to go to court, but without a car she couldn’t get the kids to school or make it to her doctor appointments. Since she had a high risk pregnancy, if she waited to long to get another doctor no one would take her because they wouldn’t want to be responsible if anything went wrong. She knew she couldn’t stay there. Family was only going to taxi her around for so long. There was no way she could survive on her own.
      Her grandmother wouldn’t let her move in with her. She had already taken in too many family members who couldn’t seem to get their lives together, and Jamie’s family wasn’t an option, so I bought a bus tickets for them to come to Key West to live with my husband and myself. In the back of our house was a small, connected apartment. She would have her own place and have privacy. It was a tiny place with a loft, a refrigerator, microwave and hot plate, a full bathroom and small livingroom. It looked like a dollhouse with a high pointed ceiling. There was a wooden boat ladder that went up to a loft where the two oldest children slept, which overlooked the livingroom. Morgan slept in a narrow day bed in the living room. It wasn’t nearly big enough, but at least this way I was close enough to help her and the kids when they needed it.
      No doctor in Key West would take her. I finally found a doctor in Miami, a eight hour round trip drive for every appointment and a planned C-section delivery to make sure her doctor would deliver the baby instead of a stand in at the Key West hospital. Key West wasn’t equipped for emergencies and there were complications with the delivery. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the babies neck three times. He could not have been born naturally. Jamie and Morgan had a son.
     Although Morgan promised to wait for Jamie, she was young and didn’t understand what kind of commitment that would mean. For a couple years she wrote to him every day, promising she would wait, until it finally hit her that he was going to be gone until she was more than forty years old. Gradually, she resumed her life. After all, she reasoned, they had only been physically together for a few short months. There wasn’t enough time invested in the relationship for her to wait that many years. She needed to justify to herself  why she wasn’t waiting for him. It was understandable. It is hard for anyone to give up the rest of their youth. It was tragic for Jamie, though, because she didn’t know how to tell him.  She stopped writing.  he wanted to believe she was still waiting for him but it became obvious she wasn’t. He was the one inside a small cubicle with nowhere to go. Her life went on, while his stayed the same. Life couldn’t move on for him. There was only his past and his dreams for the future, and those dreams were evaporating.
      Memories of Morgan and imagining what his son was like, even if he couldn’t see him, were the things that kept Jamie going. He wouldn’t be able to help take care of him, or spend those first precious years with him as he learned to crawl, walk and talk, but he could close his eyes and pretend he was there. It was heartbreaking for him to miss this part of his son’s life. There are many people who have had the opportunity to be a parent but run in the other direction, but here was a man who desperately wanted to be a part of his son’s life and couldn’t. But your children are always your children no matter how old they are, and someday Jamie will have the chance to be a father. For right now, though, it has given him the reason to stay strong and keep fighting for his life.It was his reason to stay encouraged. We would make it through this time. Being a father was a way to make up for not having a father. He did not want his son to go through what he went through.
      He was sent far away from everyone, to the other side of Texas, so it was almost impossible for anyone to visit. He thought of Morgan as his wife and that was how she was listed on his paperwork so she would be able to call the prison if she needed to. It would take two days each way to drive across the state with three children. He was alone. He only had one visit during these first few years he was incarcerated. Megan came with the kids, and brought his mother with her. He didn’t see anyone again for another six years.
      Jamie rarely heard from his family. It was like being dropped into hell for eternity, because seventeen years feels like an eternity. He was young – only twenty two. It was almost as though he had died. It ground him down. He had already been gone for four years before this, in juvenile detention, so he guessed they really didn’t know him anymore, so why bother writing to him. He was prone to depression and it made it worse. Jamie always gave them excuses. He thought it was probably because he gave his mother a hard time when he growing up. Hogwash. When you love someone, you make time for them.
      Jamie believed Morgan intended to wait for him to get out. He knew she loved him, but if he didn’t make parole someday, their son would be ready to graduate highschool by the time he got out.  He might make parole someday, but it wasn’t when you are black, poor and locked up in a Texas state prison.

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     At the time, I owned a retail store at the Westin Hotel that catered to the cruiseships that docked several times a week. I was able to give Morgan a job before and after the birth. Being able to have her and the kids near me for a year and a half is time I will always cherish. Little Jamie was a beautiful baby and it was nice having a new baby in the house. Morgan brought him to work with her, and many times I was trying to change diapers and make a bottle while working the cash register. It was chaotic.
      I fixed up a little supply area near the register with carpet and a gate when Jamie got big enough to crawl around. When the cruiseships unloaded we had wall to wall customers.  It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I so enjoyed having them there. The baby was quite a hit with the customers. Having my daughter live close so I could see her every day was something I never thought I’d have again. This was before the economy crashed, along with my health. To make matters worse, the BP oil spill happened in the Gulf, and the tourist trade took a big hit. Cruise prices were lowered down to the price of a motel room and no one had any money to spend.  But right now it was only 2007 and we had no idea what was coming in the near future.
     Morgan wrote to Jamie regularly. While he was still in jail he was able to call, but each collect call was $25 for fifteen minutes so I had to restrict how often he could call. The price to make a phone call was been a huge problem in the jails and prisons. It was a burden for many families who couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money. It’s important for inmates to be able to stay in contact with family. The jail phone services were raping the families to get every last dime they could. Recently, because families have been fighting back, the phone charges have been lowered, but it could be a temporary change. The fight isn’t over.
      I didn’t have much communication with him at that time, beyond asking him how he was doing when he called. I felt bad he was in there. It sounded like he got a raw deal. Megan was trying to get money together to help get him an attorney. His brother said he knew someone who would take a deposit and they could pay it off. She sent him a fair amount of money but the attorney didn’t materialize and she didn’t get her money back.  Jamie did seem like a good person when we met. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened that put him in there. I didn’t think I was getting the whole story, but most kids don’t tell their parents everything. I know I didn’t. I went with my gut which told me he got a raw deal and I still believe that now.
      Morgan kept me informed about how he was doing. After he was sentenced he was moved to a prison in West Texas. He was now no longer able to make calls. After Jamie was moved it was difficult for both of them. Even though Morgan couldn’t see him when she was in Key West, when he was moved to West Texas it was though he had moved to another country.  After the baby was born I knew it wouldn’t take long for Morgan to want to go out with friends and party.  We were in Key West, after all. For some time she tried to continue writing to him on a regular basis. I thought it might be possible she would want to continue the relationship when he got out.  I knew she cared for him, but it proved to be too long to wait.  She didn’t want to be alone.
      They stayed with us in Key West until little Jamie turned one year old. After that she wanted to go back to Texas. It was devastating to see her drive off with the kids. But now She would be close to her father’s family and also Jamie’s family, and they would enjoy being able to see Jamie’s son.  The little apartment was too small with three children and she would never be able to make enough money to live here on her own. The cost of living is too high in Key West if you don’t have a decent income.

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I want to thank everyone who has been following this blog and those who have been reading the chapters of the book as I write and rewrite, finding my way. I’m very determined to do this, and do it right.  Every time you share something on your own SM, you help me tremendously. Every new address on the mailing list gives me more credibility for publishing. I hope you continue to give me pushes in the right direction.

http://facebook.com/jamielifeinprison . . .Blog posts and news about injustice in the world
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Chapter List:
A Message From Someone Who Cares  (forward)
Everyday Dreams
I Love You Always, Daddy
Jamie’s Story
The Nightmare
A Roof Over My Head, Three Squares a Day and Free Medical
Sometimes They’ll Give You Candy
There Is No Place Like Home – part one
There Is No Place Like Home – part two

Please fill out this form to receive a monthly newsletter about info on the book. I estimate it is half finished. find out if you missed any chapters I posted. If there is anyone who would like to be a “reader” – be another pair of eyes – you’d be more than welcome. Sometimes it’s hard to see your own mistakes. I would email the chapters to you so it would be easier to read. Let me know.