Writing is an Itch. This is a place to scratch.

Monday, December 28, 2009

New Year's Reflection: The Life Lived Deliberately

By Rattus Scribus© 28 December 2009

" 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."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

I have recently written two lighthearted poems (some might say frivolous rhymes). One on the day before Thanksgiving here on Rattus Scribus, written in the desperate need for distraction. The other on Christmas Eve and posted on Rattus' Tales, written in a moment of sheer lunacy. So I rather feel a little small starting this New Year's reflection with the august poetical language of Thoreau.

But as I look on this past year 2009, and my dreams for 2010, I feel I need help from the big guns. You might ask what right I have to appropriate from Thoreau's Walden -- a work that called his readers to the "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity" that the woodland-cloistered Transcendentalist found infinitely more meaningful than the time-wasting, unprofitable pursuits and responsibilities imposed by the "chopping sea of civilized life."

What can I, indeed what can most Americans, possibly have in common with Thoreau?

In a phrase: the desire to live life deliberately. To assess honestly, even brutally, what things in this world are essential to develop my life to the full, and to excise all the parasites of the deliberate life.

As 2009 comes to a close I am grateful to know people not so far removed as Thoreau, from whom I draw inspiration. I am only going to focus on one person in blogland here, though there are of course other dear friends and family I could praise.

Before I do, it would be an injustice if I did not mention my wife Anita from Castles Crowns and Cottages. Hers is among the most authentically lived lives I have ever known: her love of life, of God, of nature and its creatures, of artistic creations, her tenacity to accomplish goals (even those which have made her feel painfully like an insignificant fish in a cosmic pond), and her "natural" kindness" have blessed my life in a way it would not have been otherwise.

Anita & me at my doctoral graduation,
Boston University, May 2008

To Patricia (Tita) Cabrera of WoolyTales Miniatures

Tita would never praise herself as I am about to do here. But she is a remarkable example of the deliberate life. Brazilian-born, she came to the United States and now lives on a working farm with her husband and seven children. Moving to a farm was a Thoreau-like equivalent of opting for a more deliberate life: a space where she and her family could "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life," instead of yielding to so much in today's culture that sucks the life out of us.

When Tita is not home-schooling her children, or helping and supervising chores like raising chickens for a poultry company, keeping bees, making honey, baking breads and other goodies from ingredients grown on the farm, making butter and cheese from their cows and goats, making wine from apples or blueberries, sewing clothes for her family and more, she is engaged in other truly magical skills, and her children are taught these skills and enter into the play. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

She and her children put on puppet shows in public venues (all marionettes -- wonders to behold -- props, stories, etc., are done by her and her children).

One of my Christmas gifts to Anita:
Wirehaired Fox Terrier, by Tita Cabrera

She creates the most amazing pieces of art (dolls and animals, of which Anita and I have three) and sells them to bring in family income. She draws and paints beautifully on fairy story themes. All these things and more are imbued with magic, an incredible attention to detail, and constant gratitude to God.

Perhaps the surest sign of a person living deliberately is that they share with others those things that bring them joy. Tita does that, constantly, consistently, deliberately: from a simple word of kindness or thanks, to the magical productions of her substantial imagination. If you have not visited Tita's blog, do yourself a favor.

Thank you dear Tita. Your religious faith, your artistry, your generosity (you blew us away this Christmas) and your life lived deliberately have placed before both me and Anita a new benchmark.

Your devoted friend,

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Wright Stuff

After I graduated college, my wife and I left California for graduate studies in Massachusetts. My intended career? Teaching. But before we left, one of my professors asked me to stop by his office because he had some parting words for me. He has, himself, since parted. His name was Ronald Wright. I had come to love this professor for his academic brilliance combined with an almost childlike Christian piety. No, not almost.

So you can understand that I did not mind in the least having to take the hour+ drive in Los Angeles and Orange County traffic to my alma mater. I was elated in fact. Prof. Wright wants to say something to me before we leave. I was prepared to write it down.

When I arrived at his office, he was, as usual, busying himself grading mounds of exams, essays and research papers. (Grading -- I speak now as a teacher -- the one thing without which teaching would be the world's perfect profession.) I knocked at the open doorway; he looked up.

"Ah, Mr. Rivera, what can I do for you?"

"You called and told me you had something you wanted to tell me before we left for graduate school?"

"Oh, yes." Pause. "Yes, brother. 'Let not many become teachers, for a such we shall incur a stricter judgment.'" [James 3:1]

I spent over an hour in the traffic purgatory of the world for that? You have to know that I was expecting something more like: "For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

I thought Prof. Wright liked me. My academic enthusiasm was unparalleled; my papers were "a joy to read," and the models he had other students read: "This, ladies and gentleman," he'd say holding up my latest paper, "is what I'm looking for."

"Let not many be teachers..." It was as anti-climatic a thing one could say to an aspiring teacher as could be imagined. But that was many years ago. I've learned something about what it means since then, and it is something that is actually applicable to every person, not just teachers, though of course those who "know more" are accountable for more. It's about the influence and legacy we leave on others, for good or ill. It's about the difference between believing and acting, saying and living, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Goodness, righteousness, universal humanness are never expendable to any religious orthodoxy. They are the things that make religion believable and worth practicing at all. A passage in the Christian scriptures or "New Testament," summarizes the sentiment like this: You cannot claim to love God whom you've never seen, and not love the people whom you can see every day. (1 John 4:20; cf. Luke 10:27)

For me, the Wright stuff, that the claim to truth means very little unless that truth also makes us good towards others, is illustrated powerfully in Chiam Potok's 1967 book, The Chosen (from which a 1982 film was made). The story follows the unlikely friendship of two Jewish boys in New York City in the period surrounding World War II. One boy, Daniel, comes from a strict orthodox home of a rebbe, or Jewish spiritual and community leader. The other boy, Reuven, lives with his liberal Jewish dad who is one of the leading Zionists in the city.

Reuven cannot understand why Daniel considers his father such a great man. To Reuven he seems tyrannical because he never speaks to Daniel and will not let him make his own choices about is career and life path. Daniel (a brilliant young man with a photographic memory) does love and revere his father. But he does not want to go to Yeshiva and become the next rebbe, as is expected of him. Daniel wants to explore the world outside of Hasidic Judaism, go to secular university and become a psychologist.

The whole thing looks like it's going to end in a collision between the will of a seemingly tyrannical father and the dreams of the dutiful but frustrated son. In the end, however, the father is content to let his son go into the world and make his own choices. He reveals why.
...When my Daniel was four years old he read a book. But he didn't just read it, he swallowed the book like one would swallow food. And then he came to me and...told me the story that was in the book. And this story was about a man whose life was filled with suffering and with pain. But that didn't move Daniel. You know, Daniel was happy. He was happy because he realized, for the first time in his life, what a memory he had.

"Master of the universe," I cried, "what have you done to me? You give me a mind like this for a son? A heart I need for a son. A soul I need for a son. Compassion and mercy I need for my son. And above all, the strength to carry pain. That I need for my son."

But how was I to do this?...How was I to teach...this to the son that I love..and not lose the love of my son?

Then as he became older, and he became indifferent to people less brilliant than he thought he was, I saw what I had to do. I had to teach my Daniel through the wisdom and the pain of silence..as my father did to me....He became frightened...bewildered. But slowly, he began to understand that other people are alone in this world too. Other people are suffering. Other people are carrying pain. And then, in this silence we had between us, gradually his self-pride, his feeling of superiority, his indifference began to fade away. And he learned, through the wisdom and the pain of silence, that a mind without a heart is nothing.

So you think that I've been cruel? Maybe. Maybe, but...but I don't think so...because my beloved Daniel has learned. O, let him go, let him become a psychologist. Become a psychologist already. But you see, now I am not afraid. I have no fear because my Daniel is a Tzadik. He is a righteous man. And the world needs a righteous man.
So this is a tribute to my old professor. And if there is a heaven, as I do believe, then he is surely there. For he had more than orthodoxy. His faith moved him to live here as he believed we would live in the hereafter. He had what I now call the "Wright stuff." For years he had been inspiring his students with it. But there comes a time when we must consciously attempt to do the same. That legacy is what he was passing on to me that day in his office.

The man was goodness. Not the otherworldly implacable platonic perfection beyond the grasp of we poor matter-bound masses, smatterings of which only the most disciplined and gifted philosophical and religous minds could attain. But a universally recognizable "golden rule" goodness, walking erect, among us, here in this world. A truly inspirational human being, he is one of the chief reasons that I am a college professor today, and it remains a chief aim of my life to live out and pass along the Wright stuff.

Photo credits: "The Chosen," TheatreWorks, San Fancisco, CA, 2009.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Twas the Nightmare Before Thanksgiving

I think I'll take a small break from my regular series and do some pure humor, which I haven't done since my very first post: "Refrigerator Etiquette." I just wrote this one and posted it to another blog I contribute to once in a while just for fun.

How about a Thanksgiving tale of nonsensical proportions?
Hold on to your wits. Here goes.

'Twas the Nightmare Before Thanksgiving
By Rattus Scribus© 24 November 2009

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving and all through the land,
every turkey was afraid ending up a meal plan.

The dinner table was arranged with the greatest of care,
but mysteriously not a turkey was found anywhere.

The mother was embarrassed, the father nonplussed;
the children began to complain and to cuss.

The turkey, meanwhile, was partying up,
for avoiding becoming this Thanksgiving's sup.

But then it decided: "Enough is enough!"
And armed to the beak it stormed the house rough.

The chairs it upturned, the china it shattered.
We flew down the stairs to see what was the matter.

Then what to our wondering eyes should appear,
but a crazy-eyed turkey with not one shred of fear.

Its beard, snood and dewlap -- grotesque rubbery folds;
its razor-sharp spurs were a dread to behold.

Like lightning it turned when we all at once squealed,
and looked at us, drooling, as if we were the meal.

We tore open the shutters and flew out the window,
and landed like rags on the stones down below.

But we shut out the pain and fled down the dirt track,
that Thanksgiving nightmare shouting, "Don't even look back!"

So I share this tale truly from my heart to thine.
Become vegetarian while you still have the time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 4b

By Rattus Scribus© 16 Nov 2009
Newcomers may read the previous parts of this series by clicking the links in the blog archive.

Rule 4b: Don't Get Lost in Translation: Mishearing.

When Anita and I moved from California to Massachusetts to pursue graduate work, we experienced a mild culture shock. As diverse as southern California is, having been raised there since about the age of six, it was not until we moved to Massachusetts that I became truly conscious of the cultural "Pluribus" in our national "Unum."

One micro-shock was trying to understand the New England accent and its variants. For example, -a words are pronounced with an -er sound; and -er and -ar words are pronounced with an -ah sound. My wife's name is Anita, but it was pronounced "Aniter." Car is cah, yard is yahd, lobster is lobstah, and so on. "Ha-ha. Cute," I said to Anita when we first heard such words pronounced. And indeed it was cute, and at times downright hilarious.

One time we were at a Christian fellowship in the home of some lovely friends in the town of "Manches-tah by the Sea." There was a time of Bible study led by a fellow seminarian from South Carolina who had one of thickest southern drawls I'd ever heard. He was a real southern Christian gentleman and a dear friend. (And his wife was the first truly southern belle I had ever met.) But I mean when he spoke, his whole mouth, indeed part of his face, shifted downward and to the left; that will give you an idea of the force of his drawl. The study was followed by a time of worship led by me on guitar. So there we all were -- New Englanders, Southerners, and of course the only people who know how to speak English properly, you know, like us Californians like -- singing the old tune:
Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us. (clap, clap)
Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us. (clap, clap)
That we should be called the sons of God. (clap, clap)
That we should be called the sons of God. (clap, clap)
The last words and robust claps faded sweetly away, as we enjoyed a moment of silence, eyes closed, our hearts peaceful and aglow in the Spirit. Then Marge (excuse me, Maahj) -- a delightful no-nonsense older woman, whose home we were in, and whose "seen it all" life had made her skeptical to the core, especially of any thing new -- shattered the mood, her cynical words creaking like an old door: "Aaahh...I don't know. What does manner have to do with anything?" [Remember, -er words are pronounced -ah, hence manner = manna]

Silence...blank stares...thirty seconds... illumination...uncontrolled laughter (by everyone but Maahj). "No, not manna" [food miraculously provided to the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings]. "Manner" [see how, in what way], "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us." "Oh, OK," said Maahj, a little embarrassed. "Because I wasn't sure why we were singing to God for manna. It sounded fishy."

I'll never forget how a simple mishearing due to pronunciation differences made someone think that us newcomers might be trying to introduce some new-fangled heresy into the church. My stomach hurt from laughing.

Sometimes, however, mishearings are not funny but frustrating. A road sign in Massachusetts says "Gloucester" (three syllables: Glou-ces-ter) but it is pronounced by the locals, "Glos-tah." This matters when you're completely new to the area and you drive past Gloucester and stupidly keep heading til kingdom come because you're looking for Glosta. "That's what he said, right Hon?" "Don't look at me." "Arrgh! Now you know why men don't ask for directions. From now on, I'm having these people write it down."

Of course the Bostonian will say that the problem is MY mishearing due to MY accent. Because, I mean sure, any reader of the English language knows that Gloucester is pronounced Glostah, Haverhill, Havrl, car, cah, yard, yahd. So I scowl at him and give him the "thumbs up" and walk away, because, I mean sure, every American knows it can't mean anything other than "excellent."

There are of course times when mishearing can be costly and even rupture relationships.

I have my wife's permission to share this story. One time Anita and I ended up in a big argument as a result of mishearing on both our parts. I was trying to encourage her artistic drawing skills and how I thought she had a gift and should pursue it. But Anita heard something like this coming out of my mouth: "I think you should pursue this artsy-fartsy avenue because you have no significant intelligence or admirable skills to do anything that's really important in the world." I of course proceeded to defend myself vigorously that I did not say or mean that; and Anita -- who started out, I thought, as the object of my compassion and was now my opponent -- was just as recalcitrant that encouragement was most definitely not the way it came out.

But what I did not know, and what I only learned after we cooled down and spoke later, was that in the past some people had made similar statements that were a veiled way of saying, "We don't expect much from you; but maybe you can justify your use of air on this planet by doodling."

Anita had misheard me based on past hurt. I said one thing; she heard another. But I made matters worse because I also misheard her explanation. What she said was, "I don't want to be limited to this career path because people in my past have said things like this because they had so little expectations of me." But what I thought I heard was: "If someone I just met for the first time in my life, two seconds ago, were to tell me the same thing you just told me (in the exact words, vocal tone, and body language), I would have joyfully received it as praise, encouragement and support, and I'd be drawing them a thank you note right now." Translation? "I respect anyone but you."

I know of many, many blow-ups due at least in part to mishearing that has caused marriages to rupture, former friends and family members to hate each other, and even nations to go to war. I am grateful that Anita and I have had, in our 27 years of marriage, actually few blow-ups. But I would say (Anita can comment about what she thinks) that probably all of those major arguments had a significant element of mishearing to them, and some of them were the result of pure mishearing alone, and not on the basis of a fundamental difference about an issue.

Imagine how many fewer hurt feelings, fall-outs, and broken relationships there would be if we all made a conscious and consistent effort to clean out our ears daily of that annoying build-up of waxy gook in the form of excess baggage from our past, mood swings, poor listening habits, defensiveness, insensitivity, and self-centeredness? What a wonderful world it would be.

Next: Misinterpreting

Monday, November 9, 2009

7 Things You Don't Know About Me

By Rattus Scribus© 9 Nov 2009.
Please read the previous blog (Kreative Blogger Award) before this one.

Here are seven things that most of my blog readers don't know about me:
One part of me wants to say that some of these things would make me who I am today. Another part of me wants to say, "And you're bragging this?"

1. When I was an infant (that's my excuse) my mother (so she says) found me once in my crib covered from head to toe in a thick brown substance. Apparently, I had worked my diaper loose and, well, let's just say I was born an artist. I still think my mom told that story so that no matter my educational or professional achievements, I would always remember that I was one of the little people.

2. At around age 11, I fell into a bout of sadness about what I cannot for the life of me remember. But I do remember that I had had it with home and was going to run away. It was a day or two after Halloween, so naturally I grabbed my pillow case and filled it with all the candy that all four of us kids got trick-or-treating, which would sustain me for the circumnavigation of the globe. Although it was in the afternoon and I could just as easily have run away through the font door of the then empty house, I chose, dramatically, to climb out of my sisters' bedroom window (there were big bushes outside the room my brother and I shared). I got to the corner, vagabond candy pack over my shoulder, and ran straight into my mom who was driving home. She gave me that, "Your arse belongs to me" look, and I ran tout de suite back home, thus ending my wunderlust. I never traveled over seas until 2003.

3. When I was about 13, I was with my brother in a store that sold everything from penny candies to live animals. Without warning, my brother opened the cage of parakeets at the rear of the store, grabbed one, stuffed it into one of the pockets of his levis and started walking across the entire length of the store to the door, the bird chirping away, though sounding like it was bound and gagged, and me sweating my youth away thinking we were going to Alcatraz for sure. That was the least stressful and least dangerous example of what could happen at any given moment hanging around my brother in those days.

4. Right around the same time, my brother and I (and the whole world) were into the Beatles, so we begged our parents Christmas after Christmas to buy us musical instruments: a guitar for my brother, a drum set for me. We were going to be the brown Puerto Rican Beatles. One Christmas morning we awoke to unwrap a plastic toy guitar-like thingy for my brother, that was impossible to tune and play (indeed, I am certain it was not meant to be), and a 3 piece all METAL infantile toy drum-set for me that was only slightly better than overturned coffee cans. I would tell you how that Christmas changed my life. But I'm trying to keep my blog positive.

5. In middle school, my parents took us to buy shoes. Since we NEVER (I say again, NEVER) dressed in style, I was biting my nails all the way to the shoe store. What O sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, would our dear but so not fashion conscious parents buy us? They bought us each the same pair of chalk white indestructible humongous bricks (I'll not call them shoes) that would have been our last choice if it was between them or walking across the burning sands of Arabia barefoot.
These are the only shoes I could find on the web that might give you a feel for what we had to endure.

Our friends could see us coming from a mile away and we never heard the end of it. My brother and I tried to color them black with roll-on black shoe polish. But the fiendish things would just keep absorbing it, succeeding only in looking like a bad Earl Scheib paint job. We tried everything to shorten their life: kicking trees, scraping them against stones, nuclear detonators. OK, OK, it wasn't my money. Maybe my parents just couldn't afford the latest shoe styles. But was it too much to ask that my shoes not look like a pair of great white sharks?

6. Right after high school a second cousin of mine came back from Vietnam and started hanging around us "kids." These were the days when I used to inhale. One time we planned a camping trip for a bunch of friends. Willy and I left a day ahead, and we brought all the necessities for a one-with-nature experience: pot and plenty of stupid foods. By the time we got to the camp site, we were so high, that we couldn't even figure out how to make our dinner, let alone put up the "five-man" tent (which back then required an advanced degree). We laughed for an eternity under the starlit mountain sky, eating uncooked beans and candy. We slept under a totally collapsed canvas tent that acted as our 50 pound blanket, under which the effects of the beans and candy made themselves known. Those were the days, and it's a wonder we came through them alive.

7. I went to high school with Marie of Dancing in Tattered Shoes (who nominated me for the Kreative Blogger Award), though we did not "hang out" together. She and a couple of people here of course know this. But what most of you will not know, and what I myself could not have known in my high school days is that I would (8 years later) marry Marie's cousin, Anita from Castles Crowns and Cottages. We are still happily married 27 years later. My brother has calmed down and has long been one of my best friends. And my mom and I are as close as we've ever been, though the tables have turned and it's me the one telling the stories now.

Now you know the real mind behind the blogs, Rattus Scribus and Rattus' Tales. I hope you still like me.


Kreativ Blogger Award

I humbly thank Marie Leonard Boza of "Dancing in Tattered Shoes" for giving me this award. Marie's blog posts about her personal stories and reminiscences have a vivid humor that never fail to make me laugh. I find that to be a gift. You can find her here: http://dancingintatteredshoes.blogspot.com/

The goal of this award is to honor bloggers we believe grace the worldwide web in kreative ways that capture our attention, make us think, encourage and inspire us, provide information and ideas, and more. Current recipients then pass the goodwill and attention to other worthies. If you are nominated, please follow these seven rules. So far I've completed rules 1 - 3. I will do rules 5 - 7 here, but leave rule 4 for my next separate blog post. I'm new to blogging (two months) and I'm afraid that most people whose blog I follow may have already been nominated. So I apologize in advance if I nominate you again.

1. Thank the person who gave this to you
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog
3. Link back to the person who nominated you
4. Name 7 things about yourself that no one would really know
5. Nominate seven 'Kreativ Bloggers'
6. Post links to the seven blogs you nominate
7. Leave a comment on each blog letting them know you nominated them

I nominate the following bloggers:
1. My wife Anita, who discovered blogging, took off, and kept encouraging me to use it as an outlet for my writing itch. Thank you sweetheart. Her blog Castles Crowns and Cottages is a fun and inspirational place to visit.

2. My sister Nancy from Fete et Fleur whose amazing, awarding-winning blog (and gorgeous shoes) and encouragement first got Anita hooked, and later, stubborn me.

3. The Dutchess who has graciously allowed me to join the fun at Nowhere. And one of her other blogs (The Garden of the Grand Dutchess) is a world so close to my heart.

4. Patricia "Tita" Cabrera of Woolytales Miniatures whose creations are truly wondrous, and which reflect the love and magic of her own soul. Your children are blessed. http://woolytalesminiatures.blogspot.com/

5. Bonnie of Bhive Buzz and Diamonds and Daisies, whose posts and personality are simply a delight.

6. Marie from Creations by Marie Antoinette, who not only sells beautiful things online, but has some very charming posts. See her latest, "My Daughter, Me, and Halloween." http://tonidolls.blogspot.com/

7. Sherry from Edie Marie's Attic: not only for her charming blog, but her sweet friendship. http://ediemariesattic.blogspot.com/

There are so many others like Jacqueline of Once Upon a Fairyland and a contibutor on Nowhere, and Marie, who just got the award, and many more who also deserve it.

Thank you so much
Rattus Scribus

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 4a.

By Rattus Scribus© 1 Nov 2009
Newcomers may read the previous parts of this series by clicking the links in the Blog Archive.

Rule #4a: Don't get lost in translation: misreading.

Wisdom, peace, harmony, love, these words have been pondered by sages, debated by pundits, depicted by artists, immortalized by poets. But I suppose if I had to narrow down to one thing that prevents us from truly experiencing these most desirable qualities, it would be misunderstanding: those times when thinking and acting in good faith are not enough, and we fail to comprehend persons, places, times and events.

First of all we must note that to misunderstand -- to get lost in translation -- is not a sin. It is not the same as to deceive, evade, obfuscate, misinform, misrepresent, trick, betray, con, cheat, dupe, or otherwise fail to act in good faith in communication, relationships and endeavors. Nevertheless, while getting lost in translation is not a sin, it still has consequences. Sometimes it can result in the stuff of comedy; but at other times it can rival or surpass the saddest of Greek or Shakespearean tragedies.

I want to talk about three inter-related ways of misunderstanding or getting lost in translation: misreading, mishearing, and misinterpreting. In this post, I will focus on misreading.

The stuff of comedy: "Sa - ve Bova Bakery"

When Anita and I used to live in Massachusetts, on one of our many excursions to Boston's "North End," with its wonderful Italian shops, restaurants, and bakeries, I noticed a sign at the top of a corner building that read: "Save Bova Bakery." I looked at Anita and asked: "What does 'Sa - ve Bova Bakery' mean?" She burst into laughter: "Not, sa -ve (two syllables)! Save, rescue Bova Bakery!"

To this day I have no idea why Bova's Bakery was going under, or if it still even exists. All that was lost in translation. I could try and defend myself by saying that my intermediate-level knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin, and the cultural awareness that I was in an Italian community, caused me to draw the perfectly logical conclusion that I was reading something exotic. But the truth is, I was looking for something that wasn't there and I just misread the thing.

The result was hilarity (at least for my wife), and to this day, whenever we are witness to a humorous misreading of any kind, we look at each other and say: "Sa - ve Bova Bakery."

The stuff of tragedy

However, not all misreadings have happy endings. As an historian of Christianity, I could recount to you story after story of misreadings, which, when joined as usual by its evil twin, misinterpretation, have resulted in tragedies enough to make the angels weep. Devotees of the Judeo-Christian scriptures have misread "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) as permission to pillage and destroy the environment, ignoring the fact that we are supposed to be stewards commissioned to "take care of" the earth (Genesis 2:15).

Catholics and Protestants both misread certain Bible passages (e.g., Joshua 10:12-13; Psalm 19:1-6) and condemned as a "heretic" the Italian astronomer Galileo for scientifically proving that the earth revolved around the sun instead of being at the center of the universe.

Christianity is certainly not alone among the world's religions in such tragic misreadings. Millerites (Adventists), Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Peoples Temple, and Branch Davidians, are but a few examples of religious groups that have at one time or another misread texts, misread current events, misread their own human nature. The followers of William Miller awaited a prophesied end that did not come, resulting, as you can imagine, in the "great disappointment," all the more so as they had previously given away their homes and other possessions. Mormon founder Joseph Smith sought to establish polygny (no, that's not a misspelling) in America based on precedent found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Christian Old Testament), but later Mormons rescinded concubinage in order to secure statehood for "Utah territory." Charles T. Russell predicted an apocalyptic period of tribulation, and that people should prepare for it by buying his exorbitantly priced "miracle wheat." The end did not come then either, but that did not stop the new religion, Jehovah's Witnesses, from raking in the converts.

But these were all lucky; at least they lived. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple surrendered their wills and "drank the koolaid": over 900 died that day in 1978, the largest mass suicide in history. Apocalyptic followers of David "Yahweh" Koresh engaged in a 51 day standoff against the ATF and FBI in 1993 at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas that ended in the death of 82 members, including Koresh. It is an understatement of the greatest magnitude to say that religious misreadings can have tragic consequences.

The stuff of needless confusion and ill

Misreadings also occur between people and cultures. Linguists, cultural anthropologists, and communication experts tell us that many verbal and non-verbal forms of communication that we Americans think of as positive are actually offensive and insulting to other cultures.

Patting a child on the head may be a gesture of affection to us, but an insult to Asian Buddhists who believe the head is the repository of the soul.

Forming a circle with the thumb and index finger of the hand means "OK," "good to go," or "terrific," to Americans, but in places like France it means "zero" or "worthless." In Brazil or Germany it is a blatantly obscene gesture.

And our "thumbs-up" gesture means "good" or "well-done," but in most of Latin America, the Middle East, West Africa, Russia, Greece, and parts of Italy, it is the insulting sign for "sit on it."

Many a tale has been told depicting needless tragic misreadings between people. Shakespeare's play "King Lear" is a case study in the tragic consequences of misreading people and circumstances. Marriages have been sundered when couples misread each other. Kindness can be misread as weakness; a positive outlook misread as blissful ignorance; heavenly-mindedness misread as being "no earthly good"; challenge and exhortation misread as "holier than thou"; discipline misread as meanness; critical questioning misread as unpatriotic; diplomacy as cowardice; no as yes (comments ladies?); ad infinitum.

Misreadings have resulted in comedy as well as needless tragedy. In the hopes of reducing the latter, I therefore leave us all for now with an important safety tip: learn to read.

I know that I, for one, can certainly improve my reading skills. "Sa - ve Bova Bakery."

Next: Mishearing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Happy and Appreciated, It Starts With You. Part 3.

By Rattus Scribus© 13 Oct 2009
If you have not already done so, please read the previous parts in this series Happy and Appreciated.

Rule #3. Been wronged, but doing what's right. A lesson in closing the gaps.

There is a profound emptiness and disappointment that comes with the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson, American Revolutionary father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and second President of the United States, owned slaves. Incredibly, Jefferson was once a vocal proponent of emancipation and he abhorred slavery for two basic reasons. First, it violated his political and ethical ideals. As an Enlightenment thinker, he felt that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature and a violation of the very principles of liberty upon which the new republic was only recently founded at the cost of so much bloodshed. As a Deist, he also struggled with the immorality and inhumanity of slavery as being in contradiction with the highest ethical teachings of Jesus, who while not, in Jefferson's view, the literal resurrected Son of God, was deemed to be a master teacher of moral life. Second, Jefferson feared that the institutionalization of slavery was contorting white America into a culture that was used to cruelty and tyranny over non-whites and indifference to their suffering, while at the same time lecturing the world on Christian love and morality, family values, and political liberty and justice for all. Thus it was that entire generations became conveniently oblivious to the terrifying incongruity that was America.

The above cartoon was published in the University of Virginia school newspaper (27 Sept 2007). It portrays the now well-known scandal involving the university's founder and icon of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, over sexual relations with one of his slaves. The cartoon served only to draw protests from those who found it racially offensive and wanted the artist fired.
Despite his convictions, however, Jefferson considered Blacks inferior, though not so inferior as to preclude having sexual relations and at least one of six children through one of his slaves, Sally Hemings ("Jefferson's Blood," Frontline, 2000). And (with the sole exception of those very children) he never emancipated his slaves while he was alive. His reasons? Despite his legendary principles, he knew that emancipation would ruin him financially. Moreover, he believed that such an act would upset Southern slaveholders and threaten to plunge the new nation into civil war (M. Spalding, "A Note on Slavery and the American Founders," 2002). In short, Jefferson and others found that the "time" was "out of joint" (in the words of Hamlet). Translation? It was a decidedly inconvenient time to do what they knew to be right.

The terrible inconsistency or gap between claimed ideals and real world actions is what concerns us in this third rule, which states simply, if you have been wronged, then do what is right, and not just when it is convenient. For if we do not, who shall?

The great father of Indian independence through non-violent resistance, Mohandas K. Gandhi, put it famously this way: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Gandhi claimed to follow a related principle taught by Jesus called the "Golden Rule," or the "law of moral reciprocity" in modern terminology, versions of which also existed among other ancient philosophical devotees like the Stoics of Greece, the Confucians of China, and the Buddhists of India.

In case someone attempted to corrupt the positive version of the rule ("DO to others what you would have them do to you," Matthew 7:12) -- such as a sadomasochist beating someone and claiming he would not mind if someone returned the favor -- Jesus also gave a more fool proof version: "Never do anything to anyone that you would ever want done to you" (Luke 6:31). Thus, not only sins of commission are prohibited (lying, stealing, doing physical or emotional harm or destruction), but even sins of omission (feelings of ill will for others, wishing for revenge, ignoring injustice or the need for forgiveness and reconciliation).

Psychologists tell us that many people who seem not to care about others have themselves often been treated carelessly. Now, it is hard enough when individual persons treat us this way, but when the larger American culture, its institutions and trends seem all to conspire to make us feel unimportant, or useful only in our roles as pockets, wallets, and purses to consumerism, the hurt, the unmooring of our sense of identity and purpose, can be magnified beyond what we think we can bear.

"You have reached the Good Samaritans. Press 1 if you are depressed, press 2 if you are suicidal..." (from Royston cartoon)

"If you want to know what to do with your message, press 1 now." (From an Ed Fischer cartoon)

I have read and heard repeatedly that the human and humane seem to be vanishing from many of our society's businesses, bureaucracies, even our so-called "service" industries like restaurants, and health care, and service departments. You know, the kind that gives you a phone number to contact if you need help, and then, after the 14th maddening round of button pressing, yet another automated voice tells you that you must call the number you dialed in the first place (true story). One need not look hard or far to see that who you really are, what you really need are only secondary concerns at best in a society that increasingly sees the summum bonum of this world in terms of "the bottom line" (as essayist Roger Rosenblatt once put it), and human beings as mere consumer lemmings.

But you can be the change you wish to see in the world. People who have been wronged, unappreciated and used, may be particularly qualified to be models of positive change, especially if along with the school of hard experience, you come to the conviction that a wrong done plus a wrong in response is the equation for disaster. An eye for an eye making the whole world blind, as Gandhi put it.

Keep this rule close to your heart: Been wronged, but doing what's right.

The founding fathers did enact a noble experiment called America. We have to give them that. But many of them regretted the horrible contradiction of the wrong they allowed to continue. John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President, put it this way in 1837:

The inconsistency of the institution of slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented. [Nevertheless] no charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country [Britain] and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence slavery, in common with every mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth.

Even if the charge of hypocrisy is too simplistic, still the founders failed in this respect. Despite their lamentations, they left a critical gap for future generations to close: the gap between our much-vaunted beliefs and the American reality of slavery that only a massive body count Civil War would close; a gargantuan wrong with tragic consequences down to our own day, even after the Civil War and Civil Rights.

If the purpose of history is to learn how not to repeat the mistakes of the past, this is one history lesson we dare not ignore or forget. What the world needs desperately are people -- who know what it is like to be wronged and have understood the lessons of history -- to show employers, businesses, governments, colleagues, friends and family, that we will not leave our gaps for some future generation to close because it was too inconvenient for us to do what we knew was right.

Let our motto and our legacy be, "Been wronged, but doing what's right."
Phone cartoons: free clip art

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fall Harvest, yay; Halloween, boo: the tricks our officials treat us to.

8 October 2009, by Rattus Scribus©
I will continue my series, "Happy and Appreciated" in a couple of days. But I thought that readers would be amused by this bit of hilarity, or moved to tears, one or the other.
It is embarrassing for those of us who make our living as educators to have to be associated with the kinds of glaringly inconsistent decisions that are made by our school officials and policy makers. Here's a spooky one: no more Halloween parties in school. "Fall Harvest" parties? You betcha! I feel ill, like I've OD'd on too much Hallow.., I mean Fall Harv..., you know, candy.

Renaming Halloween "Fall (Harvest) Party" out of some philosophical, constitutional, or religious conviction, or constituent pressure, only to let it function exactly as it had previous to the renaming (which many schools do), makes it look like we educators are petty, ignorant, capricious, or just plain stupid. Just the perfect message to send to our school children.

Refusing to let such a charge stand, what comes next is the attempt to rescue ourselves by responding that some schools do seek "Fall Party" alternatives to Halloween, such as allowing children to wear "positive" and politically correct costumes. That is, no demonic, slasher, or hideous Arab masks. President Bush masks, Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Obama? No problem. Violent video game characters? Check.

Since ancient times, as Christianity spread, it smashed its cathedrals and "holy-days" upon pagan places and practices. Now modern sensibilities are smashing themselves upon existing traditions and claiming it is progress. Is it? Only if we ignore the fact that fall harvests are precisely the origins of many a pagan ritual since time immemorial. I guess it makes sense (in a creepy-organ-music-in-the-background sort of way) to replace an ancient pagan holiday with a modernized version and insist that no matter what anyone else says, it's different, and we're really, truly not insane.

I suppose, too, it makes sense if we ignore still another inconsistency that is related to an important goal of school: creating environments and conditions conducive to learning. For example, officials inform parents and their kids that the school has created new rules for snack or nutrition breaks to include less junk food and more healthy choices. Why? Because studies show that American school children eat far too much junk that, besides being bad for their health, raises their energy levels, which translates into class disruptions, lack of attention, and the like. Sounds logical, based on science and good pedagogy. Of course, we're teachers.

But then school systems add a spine tingling plot twist by saying it's OK to have an annual "Fall Party" or "Fall Harvest" to sugar-up and game-up kids beyond all capacity of classroom control for the next couple of hours. I'd be happy not to waste any school time with whatever you call it. That at least would be consistent with anti-Halloweenism and sound pedagogy. But who am I to say anything? I'm just the one who has to contain lightning and teach at the same time.

I suppose what really matters in the great cosmic scheme of things is that we don't call this Halloween because, according officials, it will upset some parents and policy makers who believe we should not celebrate that tradition. Apparently, that the sugar-laden treats are in the shape of foliage instead of phantasms, gobblers instead of goblins, must really ease their minds. Meanwhile, teachers are losing theirs. But let's look at the bright side. Maybe someone will manufacture masks for kids to wear on "Fall Harvest" day that look like their schizoid teachers. Sure, that wouldn't be as scary as Halloween.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 2.

By Rattus Scribus© 23 Sept 2009
(Please read part 1 below first if you have not already done so.)

I left off in my last blog post with the promise that I would give readers some tips (I'll call them rules now) when you feel used, hurt or unappreciated. In this post I will discuss two rules.

Rule # 1. Don't internalize. Refuse to internalize the insensitive and hurtful attitudes and acts of others towards you
We've all been there right? "Is that all you under those clothes?" "Sure I'd be happy to help you out; which way did you come in?" "Yes, we had to let you go; but cheer up, economists call this 'creative destruction' capitalism." "Sorry, but our plan doesn't allow for pre-existing conditions." Such words and experiences hurt, and there are many ways to respond, from silence to suing. But one response should never be to internalize hurtful displays so that they become part of our waking concerns and troubled dreams, our self-image and future destiny.

This winter it was so cold, that you could
see lawyers walking down the street
with their hands in their own pockets.

That neighbor's kid from H-E-double hockey sticks, the heartless "free" market, Mr. flesh-eating lawyer over there, private health insurance death panels (the real ones), these are things over which you and I may have no control. But we can refuse to care so much about other people's carelessness. Being unappreciated, denied and hurt may be useful if it prompts us to an appropriate action such as fighting for our rights, or learning another job skill, or working toward reconciliation. But through it all we must guard against wounds to the self, who we are, how we see ourselves and our hopes, and how we end up treating others.

Deal with externals as you must. But tell yourself, "I will not internalize this hurt or indignity. I will not carry this in me while you get to forget and move on. You are not in control of me. I am." If you say this but don't feel the conviction, then, as they say, fake it till you make it.

Rule # 2. Be more funny. Cultivate humor for well-being and war.
We have all heard how laughter is good medicine. People who cultivate humor and laugh live longer than those who don't. But humor has also long been one of the most powerful tools or weapons in dealing with conflict, disappointment, tragedy, even full-scale war.

Why is it that some of the funniest comedians, comedies and jokes are Jewish? Because, suffering as a people at the hands of so many, in so many places, for so long, they were forced to get good at it. John Morreall, Professor of Religious Studies and internationally recognized authority on humor has written on the role of Jewish humor during the Holocaust. Humor allowed the Jews to criticize their Nazi oppressors, maintain cohesiveness or solidarity among themselves, and to cope with the monstrous injustice and tragedy being inflicted upon them.

One of the most successful comedy teams ever, The Three Stooges: Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine (really four with the other Howard brother, Shemp), were all Jewish who had changed their names for film: Moe, Curly and Shemp were born Moses, Jerome, and Samuel Horwitz. Larry Fine was born Andrew Fienberg. Moe played the first film parody of Hitler.
Comedy, said M. Conrad Hyers, is the "stubborn refusal to give tragedy…the final say." I'm always amazed by people who use humor to completely turn the tables on a negative person or situation. Instead of being embarrassed, shrinking into acquiescence or even tears (in short, instead of being the joke), they use humor to expose and critique their "oppressor." And they do this without skipping a beat, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Booya! (drum roll) Take that! (cymbals).

When we internalize indignities or being treated as unimportant, we are essentially allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. But the good news is you have a weapon. "Research on brainwashing…has shown that humor may be the single most effective way to block indoctrination." During the Holocaust Jews used humor to criticize the Nazis and their brainwashing propaganda. Hitler's theory of the Master Race, says Morreall, was the butt of dozens of jokes. For example: "There are two kinds of Aryans…non-Aryans and barb-Aryans." A more cryptic joke against Hitler went like this. A Jewish father was teaching his son how to say grace before meals: "Today in Germany the proper form of grace is 'Thank God and Hitler.'" "But suppose the F├╝hrer dies?" asked the boy. "Then you just thank God."

The Three Stooges, "You Nazty Spy" used satire to expose TV audiences to the threat of Hitler and the Third Reich before the U.S. had entered WWII.

Among the jokes that both criticized the Nazis and built solidarity among Jews was a little gem about Hitler going to his astrologer worried that the Allies were winning. When the astrologer affirmed that he would indeed lose the war, Hitler asked, "Then, am I going to die?" "Yes." "When am I going to die?" "On a Jewish holiday." "But on what holiday?" "Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday."

History shows, and I can personally attest, that humor is a powerful coping mechanism during times of hardship, hurt and loss. Philosopher and Auschwitz survivor Emil Fackenheim said, "We kept our morale through humor." Some Jews even prayed to and questioned God through humor: "Dear God," one prayer went, "for five thousand years we have been your chosen people. Please, choose someone else already."

In Rule # 1 I had said that refusal to internalize external negatives was a declaration that you (and not all the people and things in the hurt locker) are the one in control. Here in Rule #2 you learned about one powerful means of control for needs and situations ranging from well-being to war: humor.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 1.

By Rattus Scribus©, 15 Sept 2009

Hurt & Unappreciated: This is a culture where all too often one can be made to feel very unappreciated and unimportant indeed.

Top 10 signs that you are unappreciated:
10. People always seem to talk about you in the past tense.
9. You keep being asked to operate the camera for the group picture.
8. People keep trying to walk through you.
7. You’re told that you’ll go far, and the sooner you start the better.
6. Your co-workers keep asking, “May I help you?”
5. Someone asks for your opinion and immediately starts looking at an imaginary wristwatch.
4. The only "personal" mail you get are bills.
3. You’re told you’re irreplaceable, and that’s why you can’t have the promotion.
2. Even the IRS doesn’t recognize your existence.
And the number one sign that you're unappreciated:
1. There’s a retirement party in your honor and you’re not even close to retirement.

I wrote that Top Ten joke a few years ago as an icebreaker for a Staff Appreciation Day at which I was asked to speak. It is more relevant today than then.

The financial collapse of the last couple of years has thrown many out of work, out of homes, out of sorts, some even out of hope. Moreover, the ongoing trends of corporate America make it likely that (unless one has in-demand skills) many people who do find work will earn less, have less medical coverage (if at all: I know people with multiple jobs, none of which will give them medical insurance), and generally will find it more challenging to keep body and soul together than a decade ago. Like a disease we thought long ago eradicated, preventable financial disaster has come back, and with it all the symptoms that were common during the last pandemic called The Great Depression: lack of joy, of a sense of meaning, of being appreciated, that one matters.

Add to all of this the widespread frustration with many corporations and businesses that are run by very unsavory beings like the Ferengi, from the TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Ferengi were an alien culture that had elevated "Greed is Good" to the highest of virtues. Obviously meant to symbolize the worst of a heartless type of capitalism, the more unscrupulously avaricious a Ferengi was the more hideous his appearance. And they deserved it: Ferengi Rule of Acquisition #111: "Treat people in your debt like family: exploit them." Rule #211: "Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success. Do not hesitate to step on them."

This is a culture where one can be made to feel very unappreciated and unimportant indeed.

What is one to do? Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I will share with you some insights (psychological, historical, humorous, spiritual, etc.) about what you can do if you feel unappreciated, used and hurt by employers, other people, and the big wide world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Rabble Rouser Vs. The Statesman

By Rattus Scribus©

11 Sept 2009

Who the heck was that, I wondered, who spat out "You lie" as President Obama gave his speech on health care reform? Behind Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi grimaced in a mixed emotion of surprise and disgust. The President stopped for a moment, then continued. He never lost his composure.

I thought President Obama's speech that night was among the most statesman-like I have seen in my adult life by a U.S. President, especially given the divisive nature of the topic. Of course, many will not agree with me: basically everyone who didn't vote for him, didn't like him then and can't like him now: "I cannot, I will not recant."

However, even if you don't agree with everything President Obama says, you have to give him this: his statesmanship is undeniable. His September 9th televised speech was like watching an episode of The West Wing, a program I used to watch and think: I wish we had a President with this kind of intelligence and desire for fair play and looking out for the other bloke.

As an American, I have been washed and rinsed repeatedly for so long by political foolery about "the real America" versus "Eastern liberal elites," or government health care "death panels" and the like, that I forgot what other-oriented statesmanship might be like. I suspect I'm not alone.

On that Wednesday night, Rep. Joe Wilson (R - SC) appeared as the polar opposite of all that. His outburst was like vomit on the clean stage of civility. A drunk pan-caking a Humvee in a wilderness preserve. Joe Wilson displayed blatant disrespect for the office of the President, he was unprofessional, even childish, certainly mean. He obviously thought he could turn an esteemed chamber of our government into a town hall shouting match (a verbal rendition of Brooks caning Sumner on the Senate floor) ironically, the very thing Obama was calling an end to.

In comparison with President Obama's call for cooperation across party lines and civility in discourse, modeled by his own calm and rational demeanor, Joe Wilson looked liked a common rabble rouser, a rustic villager in a Frankenstein movie carrying a torch and a pitchfork: "Arrrgh! You lie! Kill the monster!"

Maybe our government could get more done in the way of meaningful change if there were fewer rabble rousers and more statesmen.

Refrigerator Etiquette

By Rattus Scribus© 11 Sept 2009

Like many teachers, I bring my lunch to work and put it in the faculty lounge refrigerator to keep it fresh. Now, a community fridge may be the last place to keep anything fresh. One day I went with the usual fear and trepidation to retrieve my lunch. I opened the fridge. My senses swooned. My sensibilities violated. "That's it," I thought. "We need some rules around here." I posted the following on the faculty bulletin board.

Refrigerator Etiquette:

• Remember to check your food every few months and consider donating it to science, or dumping it.

• If it's yours, you are responsible for it leaking, oozing, smelling, growing or moving. Please adopt it, or dump it.

• If it's yours and it colonizes, fuzzily, all the other foods in the fridge, please revoke its diplomatic status, and dump it.

• Finally, if a year or more should pass and your food should become a new species or gain self-awareness and cry "Zul" when you open the fridge, please call the Ghost Busters, or, here's a thought, dump it!