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Father learns from missed opportunity

May 24, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2018

A blond, wavy haired boy appeared. He was half the age and stature of my 8-year-old son, Adam, who stood next to me, contentedly licking a blue raspberry ice pop, his tongue turning bluer by the minute.

We were waiting for big sister, Zoe, and my wife, Lori, to exit the athletic complex where Zoe had just finished competing in a regional gymnastics meet. Zoe had done very well. We were all excited, and ready for the long drive home.

An ice cream truck was parked nearby, a handwritten sign on poster board read, FREE Ice Cream Treats – Donations for today’s gymnastics meet welcome!

The little boy’s cries pierced through the ice cream truck music as a tall, muscular man, who I assumed to be his father, repeatedly batted the boy’s head, forcefully directing him toward the door leading to the gymnastics meet, while a slightly older child quietly followed.

The boy, sobbing and resistant, was repeatedly subjected to harsh, mean words from his father. “Get over here!” “Stop it!” “Don’t even think about it, you’re not getting any ice cream. You don’t deserve it!” as they passed the truck. “Oh, look, the ice cream is free, too bad you can’t have any!” the man seethed, as he pushed the boy through the door.

Adam and I watched in silence. I contemplated saying something — injecting a non-threatening statement that would momentarily disrupt the man’s behavior.

Once in an airport terminal, I noticed a 20-something man verbally berating a woman, who was around his age, violently gesturing and escalating his tirade while she stood quietly and visibly shaken. I approached and with projected voice said, “Hey, do you have the time?” The man stopped, startled at my presence, fumbled for his phone and told me the time. “Thanks, I don’t want to miss my flight,” I said, and then I stood in close proximity to them, sipping my tea and waiting to board my flight, noticing the calming influence of my brief words and presence.

Another time, I merely moved closer to a man yelling at a child and stayed close and visible, as the father calmed, shifting from anger to concern.

But as I watched the man at the gymnastics meet being rough with the boy, I froze. The man appeared on the edge of rage and I feared that my words, however well-intentioned, might lead to greater harm. I also suspect I was extra cautious because Adam was at my side.

Regardless, I feel haunted by the missed opportunity to alleviate the suffering I witnessed. Granted, and all parents, myself very much included, are human, and our days and lives are fraught with moments where our best qualities are overshadowed by harmful expressions of our insecurities, limitations and best intentions gone awry.

And, to be fair, this may have been a rare moment for these people, and the circumstances preceding and following may have painted a very different picture than the one I observed, though I am skeptical.

Concerned about the impact of the incident on Adam, I engaged my son in conversation with questions such as, “What do you think the little boy was feeling?” “What do you think the father was feeling?” and “What do you think would be helpful.” I also made it clear that the man’s words and behavior toward the child were unacceptable.

But the regret that lingered for me is that despite my well-intentioned conversation with Adam, what he saw from me was inaction.

Vowing to learn from the situation, I turned to a friend and colleague, who also happens to be a father, and skilled clinical psychologist and educator. He reminded me that using language of empathy and avoiding language of shame and blame, is more effective — and safer — when attempting to connect with someone, especially someone who is emotional and could easily become enraged.

Then, over lunch, we brainstormed possible statements I could have used in that situation including: “I feel for you, parenting is a tough job,” “Kids can be tough to manage sometimes,” or “It’s hard to go inside for a gymnastics meet on such a warm, sunny day.” These statements aim for making positive, human connection, and, hopefully, offer a non-threatening disruption to the behavior, rather than inciting a defensive reaction with the many statements I wanted to make, such as: “Hey man, knock it off!” “Leave the kid alone!” or “Do I need to call the police?”

I find that acting with both intention and skill in a charged situation can be challenging, especially when the events are troubling but not extreme. Had the man’s behavior further escalated or become more physically abusive, I would likely have called the police.

Still, I’m optimistic that in the future I’ll feel more prepared to act in ways that might help defuse a difficult situation, and that I’ll continue trusting my instincts when a situation may be unsafe. Just as importantly, I’m ready to share with Adam my reflections, including how I struggled to respond in that situation, how I reached out to someone else for support and what I am prepared to do differently next time. When I do, I suspect I’ll learn something from Adam, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


School science fair promotes learning, community and more

April 25, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 27, 2018

Our family recently attended the annual science fair at Leeds Elementary School. This year’s event, our sixth and daughter Zoe’s last, offered a moment for reflection on what has become a highlight in both the school and our family’s calendar.

When Zoe was in kindergarten we recently had built a coop and acquired a brood of backyard chickens. Fittingly, her science experiment featured eggs. Egg Floating, was the title of the experiment, where the concept of density was illustrated by an egg sinking in a jar of fresh water, a second egg floating on the surface of a jar of salt water, and a third egg suspended mid-jar in a solution of less concentrated salt water. My wife, Lori, and I glowed as proud parents; Zoe beamed with enthusiasm, and 3-year old brother, Adam, marveled at the big kids and the carnival of experiments in the school cafeteria.

Zoe’s science fair resume grew to include Liquid Rainbow, Carnation Transpiration, Cabbage Chemistry, Chocolate Asphalt and the Science of Slime, some solo efforts, others with a friend.

Brother Adam started his science fair career with the ever-popular Erupting Volcano experiment, which required a sundry of ingredients, such as chicken wire, plaster of Paris, paint, baking soda, food coloring, water — and lots of rags for cleaning up the lava! Building on a theme, as an aspiring geologist, Adam has added Science of Saturn, Science of Fossils and Rock Tumbling to his growing portfolio.

Over the years, Zoe and Adam each have become more self-directed with topic selection, generating ideas for materials, and completing the project in a timely manner. Of course, lessons along the way have included the challenge of starting the project too late, especially the project poster, which includes lots of words, spelling — and white out. This year, Zoe and Adam started early, spreading the project over the span of a few weekends, and to everyone’s credit both projects were completed — without any tears or yelling.

In addition to all the preparation, including schlepping everything to and from school on the day of the fair, my favorite part of the learning experience is watching Zoe, Adam and their peers explain their respective projects to adult members of the school community. The confidence, sense of pride and self-worth that results from an adult listening to a child, asking probing questions and recognizing the child’s efforts is priceless.

Together, the budding scientists and caring adults, comprise a thriving, learning community where curiosity, the pursuit of scientific understanding and love of learning are on full display.

For our family, the event has become an important ritual, too, honoring the important learning and development of these formative years — and celebrating, as each year we enjoy dinner at our favorite pizzeria before heading to the evening fair.

But this year, the ritual marks a new transition, too, for soon Zoe will enter middle school, leaving behind her years at Leeds, the daily school bus rides, a wonderful community of teachers – and the science fair.

Zoe is thrilled about the coming adventure, and so are her parents, mostly. For years Lori and I have light-heartedly wished we could keep Zoe and Adam little, forever — ages 5 and 8 would be sweet. Now we would settle for 8 and 11.

But grow they will, and so all the more important that we honor each milestone, each precious, passing moment — one experiment, one project poster, one science fair — and one pizza dinner at a time.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website


Spring Break – time for fun, and rest, too

April 25, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 25, 2018

I busily wrapped up a morning of work at my office, which started before 7 a.m., then raced to pick up my daughter, Zoe, and my son, Adam, from their elementary school. They had just finished lunch and were seated in the office, eagerly awaiting my arrival. We jetted home, to meet my wife, Lori, and shove our packed bags into the car, before heading to the airport, bound for Chicago for the front-end of the kids’ spring break.

The drive and flight time offered respite from the busy day, and a welcome transition to the frantic pace ahead. From the moment we arrived at our base camp, the home of my dear friend, whose companionship dates back to sixth grade, we packed our nights and days with fun-filled adventures, and navigated frenetic, metropolitan traffic, in our rental car, to enjoy coveted time with friends and family.  We left without regret, satisfied with our choices, fulfilled with a sense of fun and purpose – and ready to rest!

Back home, as Lori and I returned to work, and Zoe and Adam settled into the second half of their spring break, I noticed the familiar post-trip malaise. Fatigue, irritability and restlessness abounded, evidence that personal space and unstructured time were in short-supply. The pattern is similar to what often unfolds at our home on Thursday evenings, when the accumulation of school, work and daily life crescendo in a cacophony of upsets, for kids and adults alike.

This observation, that the daily pace of activity and structured time, when left unchecked, often threatens personal health and well-being, is one that I have long considered. As a teenager and young adult, I filled my days and nights with endless activity, distracting myself as I struggled to feel comfortable in my own skin, especially at rest. My body rebelled, producing episodes of recurring illness and emotional distress, even a period of depression — and desperately seeking a change in lifestyle.

As a father, I’m mindful of those life lessons. I also notice the distressing levels of insomnia, anxiety, depression and dis-ease experienced by children (starting young), and parents, whose lives are often highly-structured. School alone, including arrival and return, makes for a 35-hour work week. With after-school activities, organized sports, homework and weekend schedules, there seems little time for rest and recovery.

In this way, I have come to understand my role as a father to be as much about supporting the natural inclinations of Zoe and Adam, and preserving the time and space required to simply be themselves — on their own terms — as preparing them to successfully compete in the fast lane.

On the final weekend of spring break, when Lori was immersed in her end-of-semester graduate studies, I found myself promoting the idea of an outing, one that would take Zoe, Adam and me away from the house for the afternoon. I sensed resistance and paused to consider the number of hours — or minutes — in the course of their spring break that they were afforded time to make their own choices about what to do, or not do.

I yielded to their interests, taking time to write. They frolicked about, worked on their backyard fort, roamed the neighborhood, returned to make a strawberry slushy and then headed outside for hours of spontaneous play with neighbors. They seemed happy.

A friend of mine once said that making music is as much about learning how to occupy the spaces between notes, as learning to play the notes themselves.

While I’m not a musician, as a father, I have come to believe that in our family, learning to appreciate the spaces between activities is just as important as the activities themselves.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Changing the way we raise boys

February 28, 2018

Changing the way we raise boys is key to violence prevention

The following is an edited version of a column that was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 28, 2018

Mass shootings are horrific, and now commonplace. As father to an 11- and an 8-year old, I am but one of a growing number of troubled parents, grieving the tragic loss of life and anxious about public safety.

When the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, about an hour south of our home, left 20 children the age of daughter Zoe dead at their school, I wept for what happened and for what I feared could happen elsewhere, too.

Now, during our annual February visit with family, more than five years since Sandy Hook, I sit a short drive from Parkland, which last year was voted the safest city to live in Florida, and recently the site of yet another tragic school shooting.

I don’t believe there is only one reason these shootings keep happening, nor that there is only one solution that will make it all better. I do believe, though, that individually and collectively we can employ strategies and everyday actions that can make a positive difference. This belief is what gives me hope and guides me forward, both as a father, and in my professional roles.

So while I believe that it’s long over due – and a moral imperative – that we ban citizens from owning and using assault weapons, we also must take a more comprehensive view of violence in our culture, in order to ensure greater peace and safety.

When we look at the wider pattern of violence, we realize that in 2015 alone, 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States, according to the National Children’s Alliance. That’s more than the number of people killed in mass shootings from 2009 to 2015.

We also notice that nearly 700,000 children are abused and neglected annually, also according to the alliance. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the age of 18.

And, we see, that one in four women will be victims of severe violence at the hands of an intimate partner during their lifetime, and that even more will be sexually harassed. Those statistics come from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

What this says to me is that there is an epidemic of violence in the United States.

When we look more closely, we can identify patterns, which can lead to a better understanding of the conditions that lead to violence and ultimately help us prevent its reoccurrence.

As a son, husband and father it is painful for me to see the pattern numbers from The Statistics Portal, Stop It Now and a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey show — 92 of 94 mass shooters since 1982, male; approximately 97 percent of those who sexually abuse children, male; 90 percent of those who sexually assault women, male; and the majority of those who perpetrate domestic violence, male.

We might question the precise accuracy of these numbers, and certainly data fluctuate over time and vary by source, but the picture seems clear.

It’s not difficult to understand why some rhetorically assert, “What is wrong with men?” But, this question reflects pre-judgement, leading us to a false conclusion that something is inherently wrong them.

I believe we can learn much more by asking, “What happened to the boys and men who perpetrate violence?”

Let’s start young. We socialize them — starting from a young age — to conform to harmful gender norms and stereotypes. We teach boys — as early as 2 or 3 years of age — to regulate emotions and social interactions with statements such as “Don’t be such a baby,” “Don’t act like a girl,” “Don’t be gay,” “Stop crying,” and “Man Up!”

As they age, boys are inundated with subtle and overt messages from adults and peers that reinforce these early teachings — be tough and don’t show vulnerability. And when the manliness of a boy is questioned or challenged, we encourage him to prove his worth through dominance and force, later excusing inappropriate behaviors with “boys will be boys.”

Collectively, we are hurting boys — and the men they become — sentencing them to higher rates of loneliness, anger, academic under-achievement, substance abuse, workplace dysfunction, relationship problems — and violent outbursts. In turn, we are also sentencing children, women, families and communities to higher rates of violence.

Fortunately, we can change the way we raise boys. We can start by abandoning the use of harmful gender norms and stereotypes that artificially restrict what is socially acceptable boy behavior, replacing them instead with a host of everyday actions that promote a healthier version of manhood.

We can encourage the emotional capacities of boys by helping them feel safe expressing vulnerable parts of themselves.

We can support their friendships and nurture their ability to resolve differences without violence, as a means of teaching healthy relationship management.

We can hold them accountable, with both firmness and compassion, when they behave inappropriately.

We can talk with and help prepare them for the moments they will struggle on the inside, and how to seek and accept support from others.

We can encourage and promote their identities, expressions and interests in ways that defy traditional gender expectations.

And to the extent we already engage in these everyday actions, we can seek opportunities to heighten our commitment, for while not all — or even most — boys grow up to be violent, all suffer harmful effects of gender socialization. Together, our actions can help ensure healthier boys today — and safer families and communities tomorrow.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website, and at MERGE for Equality, a nonprofit committed to changing the way we raise boys, where Engel serves as the executive director,

Father Marks Time on Snowy Day

January 26, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 24, 2018

Our children, Zoe and Adam, love school. As parents we feel fortunate, and immensely grateful to all who make their school a thriving community of learning and development.

Still, at ages 11 and 8 respectively, they are thrilled when the superintendent’s office delivers a robo call to our home, announcing a school closure due to inclement weather — snow!

My wife, Lori, and I are generally less enthusiastic about these school cancellations, for while we both enjoy the snow, juggling work schedules when kids are at home can be challenging.

But our most recent storm lifted my spirits, in unsuspecting ways.

The snow started in the evening, accumulating all night. The temperature and moisture levels combined to create the kind of snow that magically clings to each and every tree branch. The wintry scene offered welcome softness and quietness, as compensation for the sharpness and bitterness of the record-setting cold spell that recently besieged our region.

While the beauty of the morning was quite remarkable, I had a full day of work — from home — and Lori had a full schedule of patients, at the clinic. Zoe and Adam were content to lounge in their pajamas, reading, doing puzzles, snacking and asking me when I would be done working.

Finally, around 4 p.m. the three of us headed to the hill behind the middle school, where soon enough they will be students, for some pre-dinner snow fun, Zoe with her sled and Adam his snowboard.

They radiated pure joy as they made their way down the slope. Adam tested his limits with turns and jumps, Zoe honed her steering skills. The hill, as darkness set in and the temperature dipped, echoed with laughter from young and old alike.

I was warmed by the experience and mindful of the many snows of fatherhood.

I recalled the first one, Zoe an infant swaddled in a snowsuit and cap, riding in an old-fashioned sled, tethered to Lori who was on cross-country skis as we circled through the park adjacent to our townhome in Boulder, Colorado.

I remembered the time, three years later, after we had moved here, that Zoe narrowly escaped harm as she first careened down the infamous Hospital Hill in Northampton in the same sled.

I thought about Adam, when he was 3, sledding down the hill at the end of our street that leads down to the bike path, determined to keep up with the older neighborhood kids.

I reminisced about Christmas Day two years ago, when the four of us sledded at a nearby state forest, and the Christmas break before when we explored nearby woods on snow shoes, spotting an elusive bobcat through the trees.

Wistfully, I calculated the rapidity with which Zoe and Adam are aging, and the dwindling of school snow days and wintry escapades over the coming, short years.

I missed Lori, who was toiling over electronic medical records at the clinic, and thought about our years in Colorado, before kids, when our peers — and families with kids too — would take snow days, even without school closures, when great, or even good, ski conditions were irresistible.

And as Adam and Zoe made their final trip down the slope, I secretly conspired with myself to plan a family snow day, sometime soon — whether or not there is a school closure.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

Family finds new ways to stay calm and connected

December 28, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 27, 2017

Family finds new ways to stay calm and connected

In our family, tempers sometimes flare. Often mine.

Last June, during the pre-dinner hour, when son Adam and daughter Zoe were rightfully tired from their school day — not to mention the cumulative fatigue of the school year — conflict arose.

While I no longer remember exactly how it started or what was said, I vividly recall Adam storming out of the room, then returning to shove in my hand a laminated sheet of paper, on which was printed a multi-color feelings chart similar to those used in his preschool and kindergarten classrooms, which we had downloaded from the internet for home use.

“You need this,” he exclaimed, “you’re in the red zone!”

It was a beautiful moment. I felt tears welling up at the realization that after years of receiving adult coaching about the use of a feelings chart — a pie graph of colors symbolizing common feelings; red for angry, blue for sad, green for calm — Adam, at age 7, was coaching me, right when I needed it most!

A more recent conflict also included raised voices. The incident ended as quickly as it arose — and was followed by apologies and emotional reconnection. Still, for days I contemplated what we could do differently — specifically what I could do — to help curb hot tempers and yelling in our home.

A few days later, I found myself reviewing materials in advance of a work webinar — on feelings management. This new approach went beyond the basic feelings chart Adam had handed to me, so I printed out the illustrated overview and had it laminated.

That weekend, while enjoying Lori’s famous fresh baked pumpkin muffins and other breakfast fare, we convened a family meeting so that we could use the new feelings management chart to discuss ways we could make desired changes in our home.

Everyone agreed that yelling does not feel good — to yell or to be yelled at — and that it would be great if we could find other ways of both expressing frustrations and preventing them from escalating. Then I presented the new chart and we practiced using it.

First, each of us shared a situation that is a source of frustration, which was easy to do. For me, when Zoe and Adam, now 11 an 8, argue and yell, I start moving toward the red zone — it drives me crazy!

In the second step, we took turns naming the way we each feel in our bodies when we are calm, first getting upset, and then more upset. This required a bit more thought but is an important exercise to increase awareness about one’s self. Bodily feelings when more upset, for our family, included tightness in the chest and jaw.

Then we discussed what others notice about our feelings. Learning to notice the subtle emotional response of others can be very helpful, but just as important is hearing what others notice in us, which we might not realize. Lori and I notice that any sign of teasing between Zoe and Adam is an early indicator that one or both are moving toward greater frustration.

The final part of our conversation was for each of us to identify strategies that work best for calming ourselves down. Some of our favorites include taking a walk, alone time in a quiet room, and vigorous activity — kicking a soccer ball, pounding on a pillow or doing push-ups.

The key to staying in the green — calm — zone, is to notice and respond positively to the early signs of upset, including our bodily feelings and the feelings we observe in other. Once in the red zone, our nervous system is on high alert and simply not capable of processing rational thought and conversation effectively, which is why discussing feelings management is best done when calm (while eating muffins can be extra helpful). This is just as true for adults as for toddlers — we all have our limits and we can all have temper tantrums.

So, with our bellies full of tasty muffins, we agreed to support each other — and ourselves — with staying calm and connected. And with the new chart posted on the kitchen wall, I’m certain there will be ample opportunity to practice applying these steps — especially during the upcoming 10-day school break and long New England winter!

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

The Joys and Pains of Monkey Business

November 22, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 22, 2017

One thing leads to another. Recent events in our family have reminded me of this basic truth.

Son Adam, now 8, and daughter Zoe, 11, have become big fans of the American Ninja Warrior television series. We don’t even have television service at our home and the Smart TV, which is oxymoronic in my opinion, is only on for weekend family movies. Still, they are hooked on a series that they have watched – maybe – a half-dozen times, mostly when visiting their grandparents.

On the show, contestants attempt to navigate a timed course of zany obstacles bearing names such as Salmon Ladder, Helix Hang and Floating Monkey Bars. The obstacles are suspended above a pool of water and most contestants end up wet when they lose their grip and come crashing down. Those who successfully complete the course within the allotted time advance to the next round, with hopes of reaching the finals in Las Vegas where the champion takes home a $1,000,000 prize.

Inspired by the high-level of athleticism demonstrated on the show, Zoe and Adam have been constructing American Ninja Warrior courses in our unfinished basement. In one configuration, Adam ascends one slippery, vertical, seven-foot, metal support post, grabs hold of the main horizontal, load bearing beam, one hand on each side, and swings back and forth, inching his way forward to the next metal support pole and back to the floor. A gymnastics mat is placed under this part of the course to protect falling contestants.

A low-profile, practice, balance beam, mini-trampoline, old couches, exercise equipment and lots of imagination are the remaining ingredients used by Zoe and Adam to create, test and recreate increasingly challenging courses.

But there is always room for improvement, and so when our young ninjas asked if I could build money bars along the ceiling of the basement, I figured there’s no harm in that. And so, for a total of $18 we purchased five 4’ lengths of 1” dowel rods and twenty hanging, metal brackets. Together we cut the dowels in half, used the screw gun to mount the brackets on the exposed ceiling joists, slipped the dowels in place, and then screwed the dowels to the ceiling for extra security.

Standing on the arm of the couch each took turns grabbing the first bar and swinging to the next. Within a week or two each was swinging all ten rungs across the basement, and back, mats and an old mattress lining the floor to protect from falls.

All the gripping and swinging produced not just callouses on Zoe’s and Adam’s hands, but tears in the skin too. We took care to clean and treat the wounds, and at our insistence, Zoe took a break so her hands could heal, Adam – not so much.

A few weeks later, Adam sprained a finger when he slipped and fell during an unrelated outdoor adventure, with his buddy Jasper and I. That evening we iced his hand a few times and all seemed well. The swelling returned the next day, and the next, so we took him to an orthopedic clinic to rule out a fracture. With a negative x-ray, significant swelling, absence of fever, and minimal pain, his condition was a bit of a mystery.

By the next evening his hand looked worse, with additional swelling and discoloration, so we promptly went to the local emergency room. Two hours later we were transferred to the regional trauma center where specialized care awaited.

A long night of visits by multiple care providers, tests and intravenous antibiotics ensued. By 4:00 a.m. we were moved from the emergency room to the pediatric wing. Adam was evaluated by an orthopedic doctor at 6:00 a.m. and a hand surgeon an hour later.

Early Sunday morning, my wife Lori at his side, Adam was wheeled away to be prepped for surgery. A 90-minute procedure followed during which a series of incisions on his left hand and right middle finger allowed for removal and drainage of pockets of raging infection.

By Tuesday afternoon, Adam – along with his exhausted parents, and concerned sister – were more than delighted that he was home. With two wrapped hands, daily cleaning and changing of bandages, three doses per day of atrocious tasting antibiotics, dependence on others for managing basic functions, limited activity, and weeks of healing ahead, Adam is showing progress each day and full recovery is expected.

Our best understanding is that two strands of basic, everyday bacteria entered his body through the monkey bar tears on his hands and festered unnoticed for some time, and that the fall and finger sprain coincidentally brought attention to the hidden infection.

The ordeal has been challenging – overwhelming and frightening at times – for all of us. Yet we feel so fortunate that Adam’s prognosis is great and the situation was not worse. We feel tremendous gratitude for access to excellent health care services and the wonderful support of neighbors and friends. And most of all, we – Adam, Zoe, Lori and I – relish the heightened tenderness we feel for each other in the wake of this intense and difficult experience.

As for the monkey bars and ninja course, we will be making upgrades, including fitted grip gloves to protect competitors’ hands. And with the pending medical bills, I hope one – or both – of them make it to the Vegas finals, because the million-dollar prize could come in handy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website