Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Would You Vote For A Cat If The Other Candidates Were Useless?




Harold, the Mayor of Madison

By Elizabeth Collins

It was election night in a town called Madison, and the citizens were supposed to vote for a new mayor. The problem was, no one liked either of the candidates. One was a boor--red faced, loud, cranky. The other candidate barely looked awake.

The people of Madison called these would-be mayors Grumpy and Sleepy, like two of Snow White's dwarves. No one really wanted to decide between them. One seemed just as bad as the other.

Timmy (not the real Harold, who died in 2003)
© Stavros Nicolaou
As a joke, someone in town sent around a petition and managed to add a new name to the ballot: Harold the Cat.

Harold was famous in town for cruising through backyards catching mice and letting children pet him. Friendly, sleek, and shiny black, Harold was always out and about, making his rounds. Most people in town knew who Harold was, and they liked him.

When November second dawned, the people of Madison dutifully filed into school gyms to vote. Most chuckled to see Harold's name on the ballot. As it turned out, they voted for him, too, since they still couldn't stand either Grumpy or Sleepy.

Harold won the election by a landslide!

This was the most noteworthy thing to ever happen in quiet, little Madison. The newspaper announced Harold's win in a huge headline: Harold the Cat Kills the Competition in Mayoral Race! 

The town was even on national television after its absurd election, and Grumpy and Sleepy made the political talk-show rounds, publicly outraged about being bettered by a cat (and seeming not to realize that they were making themselves look even dumber by complaining about it).

But then, there was just one little problem: How would a cat ever manage to lead the town's government?

There was talk of holding another election, but this would take weeks or months to set up and neither Grumpy nor Sleepy would give up the race (ugh). 

Some people said there should be an acting mayor in the meantime, and Grumpy--who came in a far, far distant second to Harold--said this job was rightfully his. The people disagreed (because Grumpy was so obnoxious); they vastly preferred Harold.

"Just give that darn cat a chance!" shouted a man at an emergency town meeting held soon after the election. "Harold certainly can't make anything worse!" 

So the people agreed, voting in a special referendum that Harold would lead Madison until they figured out something else.

Harold's owner, Mary Peterson, brought the cat to weekly meetings in a basket, and lured him up to the council table with his favorite food: grilled shrimp. 

At the first meeting, the council and an overflowing audience of citizens and reporters just sat there in silence for what felt like an hour, waiting for Harold to do something, anything. It seemed as if they even expected Harold to open his mouth and speak.

But the cat just gave himself a bath, slowly and carefully. He started with his tail, moved up to his back, then licked his paw and finally wiped his face. Everyone in the meeting stayed quiet, staring at Harold, wondering what this excruciatingly slow self-grooming process could possibly mean, until Mary shouted out, "I think Harold is telling us we need to clean up this town! Harold is saying that we need to tidy Madison from, uh, bottom to top!"

Murmurs of assent swept through the room. Madison certainly did have its share of litter and trash and fallen tree branches. The other council members voted to establish a new seasonal, town-wide clean-up, and recruited volunteers.

The next item on the meeting agenda was traffic lights. Some residents stood up to speak publicly and complain that the town really needed some new lights, and that a big intersection downtown wasn't even safe because there were no traffic signals there. 

Council members protested that there wasn't enough money in the budget to pay for more traffic lights.

Just then, as if he were responding to the protests, Harold stood and up and leaped down from the council table. Holding his tail high and proud, he marched straight out the door. All in attendance at the meeting sat frozen for a moment, watching Harold's tail descend down the town hall steps. The people seemed as though they didn't know exactly what to do. 

Someone finally piped up, "Follow the cat! Harold is probably trying to tell us something!"

Everyone rose--the town council, all the lawyers, Mary Peterson and every citizen who had come to the meeting. (The newspaper reporters were the first out the door.)

Harold gently padded down the Town Hall's winding marble staircase and was streaking out the open front doors when the people caught up. 

Outside, it was dark indeed. Harold, being a black cat, was utterly invisible in the dark, except for his glowing, yellow eyes.

Harold walked toward the unlit intersection that had been decried as "dangerous," and calmly sat down in the middle of the road. The people could just see his shimmering eyes--placid, and unblinking--staring back at them.

"What a wise cat!" said one woman on the council. "Harold is showing us that we really do need a light here. Right where he's sitting, in fact. We'll just have to hunt through the budget and find the money somehow. Maybe we could also solicit some corporate and private donations."

Harold's owner, Mary, ventured into the road (seeing Harold out there made her understandably nervous), scooped up her cat, and said to all present that it had been an interesting meeting, but now Harold really needed to be getting home. It was 10 o'clock, past time for Harold to be hitting the fuzzy gray bathmat that he called his bed.

Everyone at the meeting reluctantly left, with the reporters and the lawyers thrilled that this meeting had been both the shortest and most productive one yet!

The next week, Harold led the council and even more spectators three blocks away to a nursing home. He pawed at the sliding doors and when they opened--due to the weight of the people behind him--he strode on in and lightly jumped into the lap of old man who sat in a wheelchair in the lobby

Harold curled into a tight ball on the old man's lap, purring audibly. The old man stared down, amazed at this friendly cat, and petted him with bent and shaky hands.

Before he left the nursing home that night, Harold made sure to greet every single one of the residents, rubbing up against their legs as they sagged in their wheelchairs, and the presence of the gracious cat cheered everyone up--even the people who said they didn't care much for felines.

"Harold's telling us that we need to start a visiting pet program. We need therapy pets!" said one of the lawyers. "Even I can see that."

Harold's wise and generous leadership continued for the next several months. The townspeople never did vote Harold out of office while waiting for a "real" mayor. 

When a new election was finally held, Mary Peterson, running against Grumpy (but not Sleepy, who had finally bowed out, realizing he could never beat the popularity of that stinking cat), took over Harold's spot.

You see, by that time, Harold had lost interest in politics and wanted to do more pawprint paintings. (His artwork still hangs in a local cafe.)

Many years after Harold's successful term as mayor, a statue of him was erected in the middle of town.

People still talk about Harold, and how he got more done for Madison than any other mayor had before him. Voting for Harold was the best move the people of Madison ever made.





Monday, October 18, 2010

Explore The Edge (Your Edge): The Wisdom of Yoga

I used to attend yoga classes all the time. Then my leg got smashed up and it took a while (years!) for me to recover. I still have bad pain in my leg.

But the other day, I saw on Facebook (via posted video) that a college peer of mine had gotten way into yoga and she looked amazing. So good. I realized that I had been doing myself a disservice by staying away from yoga classes. I realized that I could get back some of that lithe glow I'd been missing by hitting the mat again.

I had been telling myself that I couldn't or shouldn't go to yoga class because my balance was off (I used to have rather amazing balance, a wonderful ability to find my driste), or that I might experience those horrible shooting pains in my shinbone that I seem to get at the most inopportune moments. I didn't want to spend hours in class anymore (they are long classes). I told myself I wanted to be outside.

The excuses were tremendous. Finally, this morning, I stopped making these lame excuses and dragged my rear end to yoga class.  It was "slow flow," with a rather unconventional teacher whom I like personally but don't always love in class because she jumps around and changes her mind frequently, and the classroom setup can be strange. 

Today, for example, I got there a few minutes late, and I ended up in an odd spot, facing another woman but yet unable to watch the teacher or even myself in the mirror. I got a little bit mixed up because I couldn't see the poses the teacher was trying to explain (and she wasn't doing them herself, and also, I was rusty).

But the point is, even though the class and my own performance wasn't perfect, I felt better after going. I realized that excuses do not excuse me from doing something good for myself. 

Here's what I want to say about yoga:

Yoga in the U.S. is most often looked upon as a stretching exercise, but it is so much more than that. It is centering. It is spiritual, too. It can change your opinion of yourself. Yoga can alter the way you treat your own body...for the better.

Just when you think you can't do something in yoga, but you keep trying, it suddenly comes to you. The mind and the body open up, and the changes come quickly and suddenly, just when you need them most.

I have said before that nothing stills the mind (for me) like a good vinyasa class. I believe this is true. The mind chatter has to stop sometime, for at least an hour.  Yoga is a tool for meditation; it is meditation in motion. 

The good it can do can hardly be quantified. What I know now is that I will be back in class soon, and I will rededicate myself to yoga.

My teacher today told us all to "explore the edge," and again, I thought, wow. I always learn something in yoga, something that applies to the rest of my life, as well.

I will be exploring the edge today, and I hope that other people will do the same. This means to push yourself (but not too far) in order to reap unexpected benefits.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reality-Based Satire. Either Funny or Completely Depressing.

Disclaimer: This is fictional (meaning, I made it up) satire about an imaginary private school. Any perceived resemblance to any real people at any actual school is probably a result of your own guilt and paranoia.  The piece below was the result of a writing exercise I gave to myself over a year ago and was originally published on thenervousbreakdown.com, but I don't think it is viewable there any longer. Happy reading.


A 10/16/2010 letter sent to: Miss Emily Jones, 82 Walnut Street, (Teenagers’ Apt), Redford, PA 19077









Dear Miss Jones,

I would like to take this opportunity to offer you my sincere congratulations. You have been selected as a finalist in the Peace and Love School’s Teacher Search. We have been interviewing candidates for months, after advertising in approximately fourteen different independent school markets. We have held twenty meetings already, most of which lasted for at least three hours, and we, as a Committee, have been discussing the pros and cons of each candidate—repeatedly. You should feel proud that you have made it this far.

Each member of the Teacher Search Committee plays an important role in the selection process, whether it is as Presenter of Resumes, Prayer Leader, Collector of Recommendations, Facilitator, Cheerleader, Devil’s Advocate, or Person who Throws a Grenade into the Middle of Each Discussion and then stands back, enjoying the warmth of the flames.

Of course, working together as a team is sometimes a challenge (but in a good way!). Different personalities occasionally spar, but we like to think of even the disagreements we may have as opportunities for growth and increased understanding. 

We expect that our Search will continue for another four months, wrapping up by late February, at which time we will announce our selection. (School ends for the year on May 1.)

While you are waiting to hear about the final status of your candidacy, I am sure that you may have many questions about the position, the school, your potential fellow faculty members, the students, the curricula, our pedagogy, our feelings about grades and assessments, our Mission, and more.  I would be happy to address any of your queries or concerns, though it is my hope that this letter may serve, if you will, as a FAQ response page for the most important issues (please save this letter for future reference).

1. If and when you begin teaching at the Peace and Love School, expect little to no assistance from your fellow  Department members (except for one, perhaps, there's usually one Know it All in every group, but feel free to ignore any advice s/he may give you, as, honestly, why would s/he want a fellow teacher to develop any skills and thus be even more competition? It makes no sense).

2. Your Chair, especially, will be hands-off (remember: a Chair is not actually on your side and has no investment in strengthening your department, so please do not request or expect any support from her/him. This is to your own benefit, as we all need to learn to fight our individual battles, don’t we? We also need to learn to trust only ourselves—an important life-lesson of which all the Department Chairs, to their credit, are aware). Your Chair will, no doubt, also model for you the intoxication of power, making you crave the acquisition of your own. This, at least, is somewhat inspirational.

3. We are proud of our laissez-faire approach, which is a primary feature of the Peace and Love School. This philosophy allows you, as a new teacher, to develop your own style of teaching, and your own ideas about what students should learn in the grade that you serve (you will hear later which grade and which five classes you will, in fact, be teaching—if, in fact, you are offered this position).

4. Even though teachers at our school are implicitly trusted to develop their own curricula, expect judgment—quiet judgment—to be passed on your manner in the classroom, your popularity with students, your skills, your looks, your style of dress and your personality (note: being boring and pedestrian will help you get along with others).  Department members will leave you alone to work but whisper about you constantly. This will, after a few years, become apparent when you see teachers roll their eyes or shoot each other fleeting looks with latent smirks every time you speak up in a departmental meeting. When this happens, you will know that you are both Established, and Resented. This is a rite of passage. Treasure such good times.

5. Receptionists (and anyone else who feels like it) at Peace and Love School will be timing your arrival and noting when you walk in the doors (they then send surreptitious reports to others in supervisory positions).  Please be sure you are prompt and ignore the pencils in the receptionists' grip. They like to wield power, but only in an underhanded way. Please don’t embarrass them by letting them Know that You Know (this could also disrupt the space-time continuum and have severe repercussions for the entire universe). Thank you.

6. Passive aggression is a special art form at the Peace and Love School. Teachers often deftly demonstrate their comprehension of this paradoxical concept by taking books, sneezing on shared computer keyboards or locking each other out of shared classrooms.  If you join our faculty, you are urged to try to take passive aggression to the next level.

7. Everyone at Peace and Love School does her own thing; no one teaches in any sort of vertical fashion; and people love to gossip around here. All of this serves to make our school A Great Place to Grow.  If you can survive this work environment, then Miss Jones, know that you can flourish anywhere!


9. All of our Administrators bring their own special touch to the school, while our Board of Trustees fluctuates constantly in its support of said Administrators, even though the Board appointed them in the first place (mostly). Don’t worry about this at all: the students will always tell you when a major change in Administration is set to occur. Don't trust your own judgment about who is good and who is useless. Staff changes have neither rhyme nor reason, but are a beautiful example of the Free Market at work (unions be d----ed!).

10. Regarding our Mission: we are kind people here at Peace and Love School. We expect all of our students to serve others and the poor. We, in turn, as teachers, are poor—except for those who come from wealthy families and really don’t need to work; this is approximately 50% of the faculty—and we serve our students (the logical inversion here is very comforting). We know that if you come to work at Peace and Love, you will cherish this fact about our community. We also know that you will refer to the "Mission" at every opportunity. Even those of us who do not actually comprehend the Mission do this, even if it means just making stuff up for use in publications and saying it's part of the Mission. This is part of the job description (act as though everything you do relates to the school's Mission).

11.  You will have many chances, if you work at Peace and Love, to witness our generosity in action. Several fundraising events are held each year, with average costs of $300/head, and all faculty members are expected to contribute to and attend such events. We understand that it may be a sacrifice, but faculty donations to the Student Scholarship Fund are essential to the Life of Our School. Average family incomes of our students are only about $800,000 (for a family of seven!), so scholarships are essential—especially in this economy.

12.  If, later on, you have questions about your salary, please see our Financier, who calculates offers based on your education level and years of experience. The Financier typically takes a competitive salary that might be offered by another school, subtracts 40%, and dares you to walk away, because it is her God-given gift to be both impossible to sway and intimidating. As a close relative (and/or former lover) of both Henry Paulson and Pat Toomey, the Financier knows how to keep money out of the hands of people who actually need it, which we're certain you'll agree is a talent!

13.  Health benefits, you should know, will be deducted from your salary. There is no school retirement plan, and neither is there dental insurance. That’s what marriage is for (we encourage you to get married).

14.  There is also no tenure, and contracts are awarded on a year-by-year basis, which, we find at Peace and Love School, keeps our faculty feeling a constant, yet healthy, level of anxiety, akin to the medication directions on our faculty members’ ubiquitous Xanax prescription bottles (many of which fill our school recycling bins, as we believe in helping the environment to heal). Although there is no prescription plan offered at Peace and Love, we do have special Xanax coupons which may be redeemed for $1 off each medication refill—this is just one of many perks you will find, should you come to work here.

Thank you for your interest in Peace and Love School. You will be hearing from us later—perhaps one terse line (“A selection has been made, and it was not you”), or a letter with an offer you will certainly not refuse, given that teaching jobs are hard to come by and you are so young that no other school would take you, anyway (by the way, you need to get your master's, even though there will doubtless be no time, or extra funds available, for you to do so if/when you work here).

While you wait to hear back from us, I hope you will live in Peace and Love.

Yours,

Mary McDonald Beginnigan, Dean

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hopeful Butterflies, Idea Sparking and "Zoo Story"..whew!


This morning, I saw three monarchs on the purple butterfly bush outside my window. I was so happy to see them, since I love all butterflies, especially the red-orange monarchs, but as soon as I grabbed my camera to capture the moment, they were gone.

For most of the summer, I have seen many tiger swallowtails (both yellow and black), but no monarchs. Only recently have the monarchs made an appearance--on, I assume, their way to overwinter in Mexico. 

If they make it there.

They don't know if they'll make it, but they do know that they have to try. 

Hmmm. This idea applies to everyone and everything. It applies to me, as well. 

Every time I see a butterfly, it is usually when I need a mental lift. Funny how that happens.

Just a glimpse of a butterfly can be enough to raise my spirits or remind me that there is a greater purpose, even if I had just forgotten that, and even though I will surely forget it again.

I have been working, coincidentally, on a series of butterfly drawings, since I've felt a nagging need to do this, lately. The butterfly drawings have been an idea that's been simmering in me for a while. (When they are finished, I will probably scan and post them here.)

It's interesting to me how these ideas seem to come out of nowhere, and they just patiently wait to be used. Sometimes, these are ideas that were sparked months ago, such as my early June fascination with elephants, coming full circle now.

I just learned so much more about elephants from a fantastic new book, Zoo Story, by Thomas French (see cover shot, above).

I have long held that animals most certainly have souls (and I even had a big argument with a priest about this once), and this same idea is illustrated by French in his absorbing story of the zookeepers and famous animals of the Lowry Park zoo in Florida.

Animals are certainly thinking, feeling creatures, and to realize that, as French writes, elephants clearly have an understanding of the fundamentals of electricity (they know how to short out the electric fences that enclose them), and chimps have complex Machiavellian power plays in their groups, and that animals never forget the people who loved them and that people are much more like animals than we even realize...that was all quite amazing.

What powerful, affecting stories French captured. The reportage he did in Zoo Story was absolutely staggering to me as a former journalist. 

I won't say anything more except READ THIS BOOK. It is so worth your time; the world will make more sense after you read Zoo Story (and those who believe that chimps are not our closest genetic relatives, those who think evolution is a crock and anti-God, definitely need to read Zoo Story). 

In the meantime, I will wait to be surprised by more monarchs and by the next great book that comes my way. 

Butterflies, like the ideas that float past us and through us, need to be recognized, considered, documented and appreciated. They are all reminders that hope is everywhere around us, and everything will be alright if only we open our eyes.






Monday, October 4, 2010

The Shocking Premise of "Unwind" & The Dangers of Morality

One of my blog friends recently suggested I pick up the YA (young adult) novel "Unwind" by Neal Shusterman.  It was painful to read, at times, but I'm very glad I did. "Unwind" contains so many relevant and timely themes and warnings, I think it should be read by people of all ages.

The high-concept pitch is here: Years after America's second Civil War--called the "Heartland War," which pitted pro-lifers against pro-choice factions in a bloody, one-issue battle--peace is restored after a third party introduces the ironic idea of saving all babies while retroactively aborting troublesome or unwanted teenagers in a process called "unwinding." 

To be unwound means to have all of your bodily parts removed and recycled for use in transplants and other medical procedures. "Unwinding" very technically and literally does not mean killing, as all body parts are kept "alive" but put to use for other people. It is a strangely inhumane compromise, and troubled teens scheduled for unwinding are going AWOL, and unwinding's opponents have to stay underground, fighting a silent battle against this so-called "moral" idea, which was rather accidentally accepted in a last-ditch effort to end the terrible war.

The very idea of "Unwind" shocked me and fascinated me at the same time. When the book arrived at my house, I couldn't wait to read it...and yet, after opening it, I felt sick right away. The crazy idea of "unwinding" is so abhorrent to me, so disgusting, I could hardly bear to read the novel. 

But read I did. I love a thought-provoking read, and "Unwind" is it. I kept wondering, how could "unwinding" happen in a civilized society? Could it actually happen here? How do people adjust to such evil ideas? The entire premise reeked of Nazism, of intolerance gone astray.

I should also explain that I have long been stunned by the ignorance attached to "one-issue" voting. I have spoken out, myself, about the misguided (im)morality of voting merely for the "pro-life" candidate, even when he or she is actually promoting killing in so many other forms (capital punishment, environmental destruction, no gun control, etc).

I would not get an abortion myself, and certainly not now, as an adult, but I know that it is not my place--nor any other person's--to say that all women who get pregnant, especially against their will, must endure pregnancy and childbirth.

That is immoral right there. Women need to decide for themselves what will happen to their bodies. It is also not moral, in my opinion, to force unwanted babies to be born.

I feel I can speak about this particularly well, since I was adopted. I am sure I was unwanted. What happens to unwanted babies? They end up in orphanages, adoption centers, in morgues or in Dumpsters. 

Only one of those options is semi-decent. 

As a child born to a woman raised in a strict Catholic household, I am sure that my birth mother had, because of her schooling, not received much, if any, information about birth control. I have no doubt that she felt she could never, not in a million years, tell her parents that she was pregnant, and if her pregnancy had not been finally discovered near my birth date, then what would have happened to me? I might have been left on a doorstep, if I was lucky.

We've all heard horror stories about young women who drop their newborns in toilets or throw them away in the trash. Some might say that only a woman without a conscience might commit such an act. I suspect it's quite the opposite: sometimes hyper-religiosity, and years of hearing "abortion is wrong!" can lead to such horror. Those young, pregnant and religiously-raised young women are often, I believe, in intense states of denial; they are also so scared and in shock that they don't even know what they're doing. They just want the baby to go away.

What I know for sure is that there are too many gray areas in life for anyone to ever be able to say with finality, "That is wrong and this is right." It's never that simple. Not about abortion, not about anything.

If you've read some history, you know that forced pregnancies in Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship led to a massive, horrific orphan crisis.  People all over the world--and here, too, even now, and usually in the name of religion--have way too many children. ("Too many" to me is having kids you don't even have time to talk to one-on-one, read to, support or deal with.)

Is that right? All children should be cherished and wanted and loved...otherwise, how can we expect them to grow into good, productive, and yes, moral people who try to make the world a better place?

If our government forced women to bear children, what kind of chaos/hell might ensue?

"Unwind" lays it out for the reader. In this novel, babies are abandoned daily, or "storked," due to a loophole in the law. Parents who are tired of dealing with their kids sign them away for unwinding.

Even though most people have no idea what "unwinding" actually entails--and let me just tell you now (spoiler alert!) that it's worse than you think because the "unwound" are fully conscious while it's happening, due to another strange, "pro-life" aspect of this so-called "moral" compromise--millions are unwound each year in attractive "harvest camps." Some children are even tithed at birth to be unwound, as sacrificial offerings.

Harrowing, dystopian literature such as "Unwind" is not only full of fascinating but scary "what ifs," it is also full of warnings. "Unwind" warns us not to let an obsession with protecting life lead--ironically--to misery, bloodshed, violence and indefinable states of death. It begs the reader to think for her or himself and not let jingoism lead to inhumanity.

It forces the reader to feel what it's like to be unwanted, and what it's like to be unwound.