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Glad to be an inspiration, even in book for dummies


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001

What does it mean when an old friend tells you he has named you in his new book as someone who has helped, inspired or motivated him . . . and then you learn that it is a book for dummies? Hmmm.

What does it mean when an old friend tells you he has named you in his new book as someone who has helped, inspired or motivated him . . . and then you learn that it is a book for dummies? Hmmm.

I was less put off when I realized that my library also includes Meditation for Dummies, The Internet for Dummies and a book on cats for dummies. Maybe my ignorance has inspired a lot of writers.

But in the long run it was my old pal Howard Wolinsky, one of the authors of the new book Healthcare Online for Dummies, who had a far more profound influence on me than I on him.

Wolinsky and I worked at the same newspaper in the early 1970s when his courageous stand as a draft resister helped convert me from right-wing Republican (I actually had been invited to join the John Birch Society a year earlier) war veteran to a somewhat left-of-center, liberal anti-war veteran.

Not all of my friends thought or think it was for the best, but I know it was best for me.

The day Wolinsky -- a quiet, unassuming, skinny kid with glasses -- was handcuffed and removed from the newsroom by the FBI, I decided that a republic that found him to be a threat had far more serious defects that it should be examining.

Wolinsky actually worked in Pasco for the Times in 1972-74. When I got a job offer from the Times in 1972 and had to turn it down for personal reasons, I told him about it and he applied and was hired. A year later when I came down, he was the "old hand," showing the new guy around.

The only influence I remember having on him was at the end of that period when I fed him an unaccustomed two beers at my trailer out on Lake Gilbert and helped him persuade himself that he and his wife, Judi, should join the Peace Corps.

He did, went to Ghana, found out that he had put a qualified Ghanaian out of a job (because the university where he taught could get him without paying a salary), and then both he and Judi became very ill because of missed immunizations as the two governments rushed them to Africa.

Boy, I'll bet he was glad I talked him into that one.

But Wolinsky soon found his niche at the Chicago Sun-Times, where as health writer, he helped write about the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. He won a slew of awards and with Tom Brune wrote The Serpent on the Staff: The Unhealthy Politics of the American Medical Association. (Don't look for it in your doctor's waiting room.)

He now covers the Internet and technological issues for the Sun-Times and wrote Healthcare Online for Dummies with Judi, who is now head of reference services at the public library in Homewood, Ill., and manages the library's Web site.

You really don't need the Wolinskys' book as long as you are absolutely sure that neither you nor anyone you love will ever be sick or need medical care for the rest of your lives. Otherwise, I'd buy it.

My personal experience is that health care today is almost always at best a conflict between you and the people who are paid to care for you but can make more money by doing so minimally. And it can become outright war.

Healthcare Online for Dummies gives you information to help evaluate the latest treatment options, investigate alternative therapies, navigate the health insurance maze, and understand your medications. It tells you how to use the Internet to become a knowledgeable health care consumer. The book even contains information on subjects such as recognizing symptoms of some disorders without making you go to a Web site.

All the material is presented clearly, concisely and with the type of humor used in most of the "for Dummies" publications.

My copy, less than a week old, is already as well-thumbed as other books that I use frequently.

(Pause now for editors to make bad jokes about how stylebooks and dictionaries are not in that group.)

I'm proud to have been named as an influence, even if it was as a bad example, in producing a good book. It's not quite as much fun as when Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, who writes under the acronym SARK, accidentally portrayed me in Succulent Wild Women as an expert on female sexual blossoming.

But it's a close second.

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