Archive for January, 2011

Lesson in friendship from a dog and elephant

When elephants “retire” they are sent to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and usually seek out another elephant to be best friends with.

In Bella’s case, she became best friends with a dog, Tarra, which is an unusual pairing. Below is a short video that tells the story of how Bella kept vigil when Tarra was out of commission for a few weeks due to an injury. Tarra didn’t really start to get better until they let her start spending some time with Bella again. Awwww:


6 Six Word Stories

Six Word Story #27:

Holes made him whole, not holy.

Six Word Story #28:

He suffered her certainties 46 years.

Six Word Story #29:

Wanted. Anticipated. Saved. Purchased. Misplaced. Intoxicated.

Six Word Story #30:

He lusted. She trusted. Oops. Pregnancy.

Six Word Story #31:

Guilt arrived and sabotaged her afternoon.

Six Word Story #32:

Their love died from emotional anemia.


Fun Friday Potpourri

First, oh how I wish I could get my 7-year-old to agree to throw a birthday party with proper princess accessories like these:

(H/T Phil Thompson)

Next, snowmen like these would make winter less tedious:

Rose Is Rose

That’s a commendable effort by Vicki the Biker but it doesn’t top the Calvin & Hobbes snowmen:

I could go on, but it’s entirely possible your sense of humor isn’t as warped as mine, so click here if you’d like to see more strips like these (here’s a site that shows real life Calvin & Hobbes snowmen). I tried to get my kids to make Calvin & Hobbes snowmen during the snowstorm on Monday but they refused. Alas. If I want snowmen like that or princesses that carry saw blade guns, I guess I’ll have to borrow some other children. ;-)

That Vicki the Biker snowman reminds me of this “My Guitar Gently Weeps” video where, beginning at the 3:30 mark, Prince plays a guitar solo that is at least as good if not better than Eric Clapton’s version. Prince plays it with more panache.

A Facebook friend was looking for non-dictionary definitions of the word “family” so I posted Erma Bombeck’s definition (it’s always nice to have an excuse to bring on Erma):

The family. We are a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.

Finally, here’s Six Word Story #26:

Marriage. Boredom. Relocation. Overspent. Adultery. Suicide.

There. Madame Bovary in six words. :-)

Hope you have a great weekend.


We’ve become a nation of Madame Bovarys

I don’t normally get too worked up by statements like these: “No other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.”

Sure, there are attacks against marriage and family, but I figure a lot of these “assaults” are more of an inside job than an outside job.

But the writer who said the above statement cited the book Madame Bovary, so that caught my eye and I couldn’t help but pay close attention to what he said (the essay is long and kind of a snooze except for the Madame Bovary part).

As you may know, Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert in 1856 and, like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, details the life of a happily married woman who gradually becomes unhappy, falls into adultery, and meets with a most unhappy end.

In this Touchstone magazine article, Nathan Schlueter says the five features of “Romantic Escapism” portrayed in Madame Bovary are reflected in modern marriage (both in the men and the women) all too often:

1. Disordered Imagination – Art and media have an impact on our imagination and Flaubert shows how the romantic novels of the day shaped Emma Bovary’s disordered imagination:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

2. Itinerancy – Emma Bovary quickly became bored married to a country doctor and thought happiness awaited her in the city.

I love this line: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

Who hasn’t experienced some level of itinerancy, whether in making frequent moves for one’s work, or in smaller ways, by taking lots of vacations, switching schools, churches, neighborhoods, houses all in the pursuit of greater happiness.

3. Consumerism – Today advertisers and marketers lure us into new identities by giving us an endless array of goods and, until recently, sub prime mortgages and easy credit made it too easy for people to live above their pay grade. It was no different in Emma Bovary’s day:

Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.
4. Adultery and promiscuity – Eventually Emma Bovary only felt alive when in the throes of an affair, but then came the inevitable: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.” Oops.

5. Existential escapism – Such escapism sometimes ends in suicide, as in the case of Emma Bovary. As Schlueter said:

Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”
The presence of any one of the above in a relationship is a red flag. When there are 4-5, well, the relationship is pretty much toast, I suppose.

So what’s the antidote to this Romanticism?

It’s not realism, says Schlueter, which is just as bad as Romanticism. “What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.”

In other words, the capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

What is wanted… is a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”

I do take issue with Schlueter on one point, near the end of his essay, where he disagrees with a father who advised his newly-married daughter to keep her job, “just in case.”

Schlueter seems to think this implies a lack of trust in her spouse but apparently he’s oblivious to the economy and the need for most people to have two incomes. There are times in most marriages when one person is underemployed, unemployed, going through a midlife crisis, etc. and the other has to pick up the financial slack. That point reminded me why I don’t read Touchstone magazine much. :D

But I am going to reread Madame Bovary again soon, as those quotes reminded me how wonderfully pithy Flaubert can be. I’ll also try to be more grateful that I’m a “placed person” and remind myself and my girls more often to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.


The Flight of NC5011C

This week my friend Beth posted a story on her blog that hasn’t been far from my mind since I read it. Her husband Bill is an English professor and has stage 4 cancer. He just began his second round of chemo, which is expected to be pretty brutal.

Instead of giving his usual lecture to his class earlier this week, he spontaneously decided to tell them a story instead. You don’t have to know Bill to be moved by and appreciate this story. I’ll paste it in below (feel free to read the entire post here):

He said he began to pace back and forth across the front of the room and instead of talking about Picts, Angles, Saxons, and Romans, he started telling them a story about what, in his mind, is the actual most important, essential reason for anyone to ever study English Literature.

He began by quoting, from memory, two poems by William Butler Yeats, which poems are timelessly beautiful but which Bill used to demonstrate that even the most perfect literature is, in one sense, impotent and ineffectual, giving the example that Yeats, despite having the Nobel Laureate in literature, couldn’t use his poetry to get even the unknown young Irish girl, Maude Gonne, to give the merest edge of consideration to courting Yeats.

But, Bill continued, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, said that the mark of intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously and to give assent to both of them.

To illustrate this point, and to show the power of literature, Bill then told the class the story of the most memorable day in his life, which occurred when Bill was 18 years old, and when, in the presence of his roommate Geoffrey, an 18-year-old poet, Bill launched, for the first time, a wooden airplane that had taken Bill nine months to build from scratch. Bill had painted the beloved plane yellow and named it NC5011C.

Also watching this plane’s maiden voyage were two other friends, Jim and Barry.

The launch was successful; NC5011C flew briefly and gloriously, but then as Bill watched in horror, the plane unexpectedly turned and headed for the earth, at a terrible speed, and hit, crashing into a million yellow wooden splinters.

There was a brief silence, and then Jim and Barry started laughing and laughing and couldn’t stop laughing. Bill, even as upset as he was, had to laugh, too, to look cool, he said. But even as he laughed, he noticed that his roommate Geoffrey wasn’t laughing. In fact, Geoffrey walked away in silence.

A few hours later, after Bill had spent some time alone, kicking dirt, walking aimlessly and trying to recover from his monumental loss, Bill went back to his dorm room. When he stepped in, he noticed that a piece of paper was taped to his pillow case.

The paper had been hand-decorated in baroque style with drawings of cherubs blowing trumpets and the like, and on the sheet was the following poem, which Geoffrey had written, entitled, “On the Death of NC5011C: An Elegaic Sonnet Written in Iambic Tetrameter and Dedicated with All Sincerity to William R. Drennan.”

“For leaning days and wearisome nights,
he loving shaped thee perfectly,
most beauteous of aerey sights.

‘Ah, thou shalt see the sun
on tops of clouds,’ dreamt he;
then thee with bright yellow he bedights.

Then thee to the yard he doth transport,
and with a prayer said for thy dearth,
he sends thee, looping round to earth;
such grace, and yet thy flight so short.

The tears that fall around thee after
strangely sound, almost, like laughter.”

After that day, Bill gave up his major in political science and pre-law, and became an English major.

When Bill finished telling this story and reciting this poem to his class at Appalachian, the room was quiet, he said. He then reiterated that on one hand, literature can be impotent, but on the other hand, it can change a human life forever.

In closing, he said to the class, “I need to tell you one more thing.”

“I may not be with you for several class sessions this semester. I’m appearing here between major cancer operations. I have already had three operations and chemo, and I start four to six months of chemo on Thursday.” No one spoke.

“But I’ll try not to die on you before the end of the semester,” he threw in, trying to lighten things up a little.

He then noticed that one woman student was staring at him, apparently frozen, with her eyes so wide open in surprise at what he had just said, that he felt he needed to respond.

“What?” he said to her gently. “It’s okay. It is in the nature of things for old men to die.”

Then he added, “You will understand that when you get to the part about Beowulf and the dragon.”


Deceased yet Consolation

It’s something of a coincidence that this week, of all weeks, my 8-year-old daughter had to master the pronunciation of the words “deceased” and “consolation.”

Today, which is also coincidentally the day 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene was laid to rest in a casket handmade by monks in Tuscon, AZ, it was my daughter’s responsibility to stand at the lectern of the Catholic church associated with the school she attends and read the petition for “consolation” and “for all the deceased” during the morning mass.

She landed this gig a week ago after playing Rock/Paper/Scissors with the neighbor boy, who also wanted to read this petition. She won and had been elated about that ever since, working carefully with me every evening to make sure she pronounced “consolation” and “deceased” correctly, over and over again.

A perfect refrain for the week, as it turns out.

She recited the petition perfectly this morning and I thought of Obama’s speech last night (perhaps the first time I’ve ever been deeply moved by a presidential speech) and the part where he said we see ourselves and our children in the victims:

For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.


Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

After my daughter read the petition, the priest addressed a recent conflict at the school by encouraging the kids to not lash out in anger when hurt, to instead seek healing and to help heal others. That, along with Obama’s speech, are small steps in the direction of consolation, along with the stories of the acts of heroism that occurred during the shooting.

My daughter doesn’t really yet know what the reality of being deceased means,  as she hasn’t lost a loved one. She can pronounce “consolation” now but has yet to express it or experience it at a deep level.  When that day arrives, I hope, along with Obama, that this country really will live up to her (and all our children’s) expectations and that she’ll have reason to say, “We are so blessed. We have a good life,” like Christina used to say to her mother.

Memory Eternal, Christina, Dot, Dorwan, Judge Roll, Phyllis and Gabe.


In protest of the high level of toxins in our civil discourse

In the chatter in my Twitter, Facebook and Google Reader feeds I’ve noticed very few posts about the shooting in Tucson AZ, other than reports from news outlets.

This doesn’t seem right, so I thought I’d post here about it.

Perhaps it’s far too easy to dismiss this as the lone act of a lunatic. Or, if you’re a conservative, to blame the harsh rhetoric of leftist sites like Daily Kos or, if you’re a liberal, to blame Sarah Palin’s “reload” rhetoric.

So far the worst statements I’ve heard are from Fred Phelps, a former three time Democrat gubernatorial candidate. Today he praised the act of the shooter and announced he plans to disrupt the funeral of nine-year-old Christina Greene the same way he disrupted Elizabeth Edwards’s funeral last month. This is beyond horrifying.

Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts,  gave a sermon today about the shootings and posted it on Facebook. I’m posting excerpts of it here because I think it gives us much to think about (the complete text is here):

…The evasion begins almost instantly. “We don’t know if this is politically motivated,” I see written in many places.  What a strange thing to say, I think.

Whatever Loughner’s political affiliations or ideas are — and as of this writing I don’t know — his crime was most certainly political.  Politics does not mean merely one’s party affiliation and policy-making. Politics comes from “polis,” Greek for “city,” for a group of citizens. Politics is what we do in public, how we behave in the act of living together as citizens under one government.

There is almost no public act I can think of that could not be construed as political. Everything we bring to public attention is political.

…Undoubtedly trying to inject some perspective and calm into the mounting furor, MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow says, early on in the evening, “There is nothing to be gained from speculating on the motives and affiliations of AZ shooter without facts.” I disagree.

…I feel that America is in a schoolyard fight, behaving at barely above a toddler level of maturity but with much more serious weapons and power.

Just like most people watching the story unfold, I think I know what the problem is. I have my theory just like everyone else does.

My theory is that society has long ago declared open season on decency and that we are becoming ever more addicted to and enthralled by the gladiatorial style of interaction that inevitably ends with a shot to the skull at point-blank range, bodies in the street.

… We have accepted –and accordingly become desensitized– to the blood sport of hate and violence-promoting sound bites on talk radio, television and the internet.

To win the sport one must land on the front page and promote one’s an agenda through the nastiest means necessary.

What I decry as most immoral and despicable about this sort of rhetoric, this violent play, is that it is deeply cynical. It is coldly, intentionally manipulative, engineered by strategists, funded by big money interests, and unleashed on a public that actually has some heart left, some emotional connection to the fate of our nation and its people, and who do not see that we are being played by cynical opportunists who exist in a rarified realm of power and influence that we naively hope or believe might concern itself with the actual common good.

Cynical manipulation of the public – something I believe has a profoundly upsetting effect on unstable minds like that of Jared Lee Loughner —  is becoming more and more prevalent in our age because it is working. It works for the left and the right. It is a huge moneymaker for the news media, which once had journalistic standards including a commitment to objectivity that has not existed for several decades.

This cynicism is soul-killing.

What particularly galls me this Sunday morning is that these cynical manipulators are counting on me, and other American clergy,  to call for peace today, to call for quiet reflection, prayer and mourning, to call for remembering the families of the slain and the wounded, keeping our mouths shut and focus on our “flocks” (note the connotation of sheep!) while they take care of big, important things.

Shut up and pray, is really what they’re saying. Keep your minds in the stuff that happened thousands of years ago.  Don’t make connections between religion and reality.

But who will speak for the soul? asks Diana Butler Bass.

Exactly. The soul is at stake here.  The soul of a nation, in this case, which is worth fighting for, and fighting about, with as much passion as we can muster.

…In the Green Movement, we have a form of activism that recognizes how harmful toxins in the environment are for our health: We protest harmful additives to our food, we have outlawed lead paint and remove asbestos from buildings. We test for automobile emissions and don’t allow cars on the road that are unsafe or that emit more than an acceptable level of gasoline vapors.  It is time for a form of activism that protests the level of toxins in our civil discourse and that imposes public disapproval, shame and consequences for offenders.

For too long, good people have kept their complaints to themselves or their close circle of friends, fearing to be labeled “politically correct.”

Political correctness concerns itself with sensitivity to language and with inclusion. Not only should we be totally unafraid and unconcerned with being labelled politically correct — who cares!?– I think we need a communal and all-inclusive movement that ramps it up a few notches. Call it the Civility Movement. Call it the CCD. Citizens for Common Decency.  Call it something catchier than that — have a bunch of fascinating, funny, entertaining and impressive people promote it.  Set up something more attractive and sexy and exciting to counter the hate and trash and violent talk.

Bring respectful conversation back, call the folks who are so horrified and disgusted by the ugliness and ignorance and cynicism of the current discourse back to the table… and expect this movement to make absolutely zero profit for anyone.

Who is willing to make that kind of investment?

Who indeed?


Fun Friday Potpourri

How’s your New Year going so far? I like Charlie Brown’s approach to New Year’s Resolutions: “You know how I always dread the whole year? Well, this time I’m only going to dread one day at a time.”

This week my eight-year-old made Chili Cheese Nacho Casserole all by herself by watching the following Betty’s Kitchen video:

We like watching Betty’s videos. Southern accents like hers always sound so cheerful and soothing. The next time I have to hear bad news I hope it’s delivered in an accent like that. :)

This week I also discovered the music of Janelle Monae (I found out about her on a Top Music of 2010  Facebook post of a 53-year-old bishop, of all things). She’s 25-years-old – about the same age as Lady Gaga – but much more worthy of admiration, I think. She came out with her first album in 2010.

She was raised in a working class family and makes music for working class people, she says. In this video of her song Tightrope you’ll see her Michael Jackson inspired dance moves (unfortunately I can’t embed it here so you’ll have to click the link). She wears tuxedo suits like that every day as a uniform as a way to honor her working class parents. He mom was a janitor and her dad was a garbage collector and always had to wear uniforms.

Watching that video almost makes me want to get my ears pierced so I can wear white earrings like that. Her shoes are awesome, too, of course.

If that music style isn’t to your taste, then check her out here, where she puts on a black dress and sings with a symphony (for a better quality recording click here, although you can’t see the black dress there):

If I didn’t know better I’d think she was the singer from Pink Martini in this song.

She also sings in a folk style in a couple of songs on her album. She’s very versatile and a welcome addition to the playlist I listen to while exercising and cleaning.

One of my daughters received a Nintendo DS for Christmas and as it turns out I’ve ended up using it too. I’m taken with the New Super Mario Bros game because it’s similar to the Donkey Kong game I recall playing 20 years ago when I worked at Parker Brothers and had to be familiar with that video game in order to answer consumer questions. I had forgotten that I’m pretty good at these handheld video games and in the evenings I often find myself discussing Mario Bros strategy with the girls, which is fun.

John Grisham’s Confessions novel finally came in for me at the library, after many months on the waiting list, so that rounds out the fun for the week.

Tip on (as Janelle sings in Tightrope, which is shorthand for “stay balanced”).


Give up on yourself

A one sentence solution to procrastination from the late Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita:

Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.

(H/T Andrew Sullivan)