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Showing posts from April, 2007

English Teachers and Crazy Students

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English teachers should not promise confidentiality to students when we assign writings to our college English students, according to a memo I received at work yesterday. Such promises "can put you in a bind if it turns out you are concerned and want to discuss the matter with others," the memo advises in the wake of the Virgina Tech massacre. By "a bind," I believe the ever-ambiguous mental health professionals who wrote the memo are suggesting "litigation."

An instructor's integrity--his or her commitment to keep a confidence--still counts for something, apparently. It's nice to know teachers can be held accountable for their word and even taken seriously as a source of insight. It's too bad so many young people have died before anyone thought to consider the power of language.

I am relieved that teachers of English are in the spotlight right now as recipients of SOS messages from troubled kids, (more)

Strange Attractions: Exploring Graffiti in New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut

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It wasn't your typical family outing. We had Adella walking the train tracks in Hartford, Connecticut, today, alternately picking up railroad spikes to show off at school and taking pictures of graffiti. She, too, enjoys the color, the word-play, the image-play, the audacity of graffiti. After a few stops in Hartford, we made our way to New Haven, where we found some writers at work. Click here to be in the company of a writer for a few minutes and in a world of color and fantasy.

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Forsythia

Forsythia is in full bloom this week. While Adella was at soccer practice on Thursday, I walked around Woodbury, Connecticut, and photographed some of this wonderful, wild life.

It is the bad hair of the spring garden in so many ways, going where it wants, when it wants, and how that it is usually the outcast in the corner. As a gardener, you face it in the way my father used to remind us to face the weekly meatloaf: you learn to love it.

This border plant is the nexus of all seasons: its yellow promises the bright warmth of summer, but beneath its arching branches you see the detritus of autumn: last year's leaves that have become ghostlike, older ones that are skeletal. There are twigs, the remains of mice that lost their way when the snow came fast, debris trapped in this dream catcher that insists on beauty. If it becomes your job to clean out the leaves and debris, you feel the cold of winter in the recently thawed earth as you scrape the brittle old stuff with your hands. It&#…

One Possible Feat

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Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible - not to have run away. (Dag Hammarskjold)

The Miracle? That Anyone Cares at All

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I watched Miracle Worker tonight--the 1962 MGM version with Anne Bancroft starring as Annie Sullivan and the young Patty Duke as the blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller--and was stunned anew into a silent awe for Sullivan's passionate commitment to connecting language to the concrete world for a young girl with no points of reference, no context, no hope in a world that would rather label her Stupid and lock her away.

Duke's Keller goes straight to the heart. I feel her loneliness, fear, and sadness--all products of her isolation. People and things take form in her life as shapes pushing through the immeasurable dark of her ineffable world. She has no context to help her determine whether these are good things or bad, no notion of goodness or badness, even. I realized watching this angry, frightened, spoiled child lashing out in fear and loneliness for something she can't name that the unnameable thing is confidence. For those of blessed with sight and hearing, that confide…

Surviving the Odds--and Staying in the Pink

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And the day came when the risk to remain in bud, was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. (Anin)
Very likely this is a flower from one of Ted's pots. In the past, he's left cast--off pots of Easter flowers on the side of the road for me to plant in my garden. He's our recycling guy, and he knows his biz. I came across this little hyacinth on my walk this morning. It's a miracle it made it through the salt, sand, and ice-melter roadside crud that has burned every other plant life there. The bulb is very deep--or was until I moved it to my garden today.
(I found the quote on Art Walk.)

Laws can Turn Crazy People into 'Instant Criminals'

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Federal law prohibits the sale of guns to anyone diagnosed as mentally ill. Let's think about that: who but a crazy person wants a gun--the kind designed for taking human life, not those other articles designed for killing our furry outdoor friends?

Put aside the obvious, and the law makes sense. Crazy people might not exercise the proper judgment with a weapon of mass destruction (Cho's gun qualifies--he killed 30 people in a matter of seven minutes.).

But who can say who is crazy? The Associated Press reports today that "privacy laws and lack of technical ability now prevent 28 states from sharing [mental health records] with the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System based in Clarksburg, West Virginia."

Did you catch that? Instant Criminal Background Check. A case of a misplaced modifier--are we prejudging people--or do we simply know what's going on around us?

What to do? Congress "is considering a bill that would encourage states to sha…

Beware the Gold Diggers of Canada

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Mother warned you to watch out for the gold diggers. They're all "me," and they'll break your heart.

Now Oxfam is joining the cry and helping the Western Shoshone people of Nevada protest the mining activities of Barrick Gold on Shoshone lands without consent. Barrick is expanding into Mount Tenabo and Horse Canyon, areas considered sacred to the Shoshone. Even though the Shoshone have repeatedly protested these incursions and the UN stated last year that no companies should mine these Native American tribal lands without the Shoshone's permission, Barrick has continued its operations.

The Western Shoshone people have invited Barrick officials to discuss the matter, but the company has refused. Even worse, Barrick has continued its activities, bringing in drilling rigs and erecting a locked fence preventing access to certain areas. If you think that stinks, click here.

Barrick Gold has come under fire for dubious environmental and human rights practices on four cont…

Dealing with Kafka with the Guinea Pigs' Help

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Guinea pigs Tapper and Delmo kept me company today while I thought through a lesson plan on Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis. My classes and I are again faced with the big existential questions, Why are we here? What makes life worth living? What is the meaning of life?

I'm tired of these self-important questions and the knee-jerk dark answers that come with them. The massacre at Virginia Tech last Monday leads me to refuse to hear these questions. Take your angst and take a walk. It has no place in this world.

Watching the guinea pigs, I came to the conclusion that these big existential questions that lead brilliant writers to kill themselves--Woolf and Hemingway, for examples--really are silly questions not worth answering. As Gregor Samsa the bug languishes behind closed doors in a text that ponders these things--scarcely recognizing that his paternalistic caring for his family is the very cause of their spiritual paralysis, that he can't get out of his own way any…

Kids who Paint

I created this a few days after the massacre at Virginia Tech. My heart broke for all who suffered. Nightmares such as this one should cause us to assess all those things about which we complain. It seems to me the best way to honor those who suffer and die as victims of some other person's mental illness is to think how to make life better for all who are here now. One way to do that is to pay attention to the people who are talking to us, even those who talk with paint.

Bill Moyers Journal: 'Buying the War'

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Veteran journalist Bill Moyers is back and asking the big questions on his Bill Moyers Journal, a PBS broadcast that will be supported with a companion website--pbs.org/moyers--that will offer a podcast, online video reruns, and opportunities for viewers to offer feedback.

PBS will air the premier episode of this series, “Buying the War," on Wednesday, April 25, from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time. The episode looks at how Big Media bought into the government's rationale for the war in Iraq. Moyers and his team piece together the reporting that shows how the media were complicit in shaping the public mind toward the war, and ask what’s happened to the press’ role as skeptical watchdog over government power. (Click here for a video clip of this program.) (more)

Blog Your Blessings: The Awesome Spirit at Virginia Tech

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One of my students remarked in an essay about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the Virginia Tech enormity that she had difficulty likening a fictional monster to the killer. He could have been her classmate, could have killed the teacher who taught her about Shakespeare, could have killed her. Such empathy and honesty are beautiful gifts.

She has spirit. It is the same Spirit that animates the people of Virginia Tech at this time. Over the past week, I've been in and out of their website. I am awed by how readily and completely they have made so much available to the world. It speaks for itself, and it speaks for the power of the Spirit to prevail.

There is a guestbook for mourners that anyone can sign along with obituaries for each of the victims. There are photos that reveal the power and dignity of the human soul. Please go there. God bless.

Frankenstein Comes to Virginia Tech in Danbury, Connecticut

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We read works of art--literature--to mediate the world around us. Authors bring their vision to the muck of life and hand back to us an ordered universe full of stars.

Those texts that help us as communities of believers to mediate the divine are sacred texts. However, where life itself is a sacred gift of the divine, all texts become sacred. It's hard to miss the Truth of God in a good book.

So it goes with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that 19th-century Gothic romance about science and ego run riot. Victor Frankenstein creates life that becomes a rational being from dead body parts, but it is a being he cannot love because it is a monstrosity. He abandons the creature, and the creature must fend for himself. He yearns for companionship, compassion, and communication. Despite his best efforts, though, he is denied these by the people around him. He becomes angry, vengeful, and violent. This rational being becomes the agent of death, killing Victor's loved ones, driving Victo…

Gordon Lightfoot: 'Ring Them Bells When Innocence Dies"

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Maybe it was appropriate that the Don Juan behind us narrated his love life story to his much younger date during Gordon Lightfoot's concert at the Warner Theater in Torrington, Connecticut, last night. Ballads are a type of story, after all.....

He regaled this giggling girl with the titles and deeper meanings of the ballads on the charts at each romantic turning point in his life. She was better than the rest, but that there were so many to be better than should have told this child she was next in the deli line. I wanted to drive her home. Tell her to go to the ladies room and never come back. Tell him to shut up so she could enjoy the music before she realized what she had gotten herself into. But it was too funny. It was okay.

This balding stranger changed for me forever the associations I have with "Carefree Highway," which has become a theme song--and in some cases a goal--for me of late. Alas and oh well. It was a great night.

At 69 years old, Lightfoot remains a co…

Holding Fast to What is Beautiful in a Time of Sorrow

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The massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16 wants our silence. Indeed, it is right that we turn our hearts in silent prayer to all who suffer directly from that mass murder.

But how do we now affirm the sanctity life?
I have been advised that the best way to navigate a time of sorrow such as this one as we face the murder of 32 people and the suicide of their killer is to set our course by the beautiful. I had a hard time doing that today. I found myself turning this way and that without success. My inability to do this frightened me. Surely, there must be something beautiful?

So I closed my eyes for a few minutes and my mind returned to my daughter this morning. She camped out on her bedroom floor last night, and this morning I found her lying in a sea of blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows reading a novel. The heat purred through the vent, daylight sifted through her blinds, and she fingered her baby blanket. My father's mother made it for her in the mid-1970s, when she was diagnose…

A Prayer for Virginia Tech

A thought from Hasty Ruminations

Strange Attractions: The Loathsome Tag

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The loathsome tag: the hastily sprayed graffito marring some public place--bridge, phone both, mail box, trucks, wall, window--that says, "I marred this because I can."

The loathsome tag undermines urban renewal. It kills off our hope that we can have anything nice. It tells the company our children don't know how to behave.

There are tags all over the gentrified section of South Norwalk, Connecticut--formerly a run-down and dangerous section of a run-down harbor side town on the Boston Post Road and Interstate 95. As a kid, I knew Norwalk as a place to put the boat in the Sound. In the 1970s it was old and seedy, a thing to get through to get to the water. The ancient wooden buildings that housed variety stores selling everything from beer to bait on the little byways that led to the harbor ebbed and flowed with the heave of 100 frosts. The place looked ready to gasp its last breath.

On the other side of the drawbridge near the harbor were the brick buildings where long ag…

The Great Music of Richie Havens: 'I Call it Breathing'

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All my life I have been partial to male singers who play guitars. When I was a kid, I was in love with John Denver. I wanted "Annie's Song" to be for me from someone someday. Those were the days of Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Van Morrison...passionate men who feel deeply, sing from their souls, and , pull you in deep.

Add to that list Richie Havens, famous for such songs as "Freedom," "License to Kill," and Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." Listening to him at the Warner Theater in Torrington, Connecticut, April 14 to life the magic that used to emanate from the vinyl records on my turntable. (more)

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: The Gift of Morning

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Thriving on the pond at the bottom of our hill on a morning at the end of March were a young beaver intent on his morning ablutions, two wood ducks resentful of intrusions by this strange mammal, and a couple of Canada goose suddenly aware they slept through take off. The beaver sat on a slushy bit of ice, a small floe broken off from the rest of the pond, which seemed to stubbornly resist spring--or rather to cling to winter.

On the way up the hill: the woodpecker, back from the mysterious place woodpeckers go for the winter. Large, red-headed, and hungry, he pecked and pecked until he could derive breakfast from the dead tree.

After dawn but before the morning parade of traffic is a magical time to walk. Animals move about unselfconsciously; they let you watch. Birds are audible. The sky is a magical blue and grey and white, and the neighbors are friendly as they emerge from their homes with their dogs, their bedhead, and the day ahead on their minds.

I don't think about much more …

Strange Attractions: Fun with a Nuisance

Sharpton is no Guardian of God's Mercy

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Al Sharpton did not miss the boat when he tore into Don Imus for his scurrilous "nappy headed hos" comment about the Rutgers women's basketball team. He was right to call out Imus on that one, but Sharpton's message wasn't about the Gospel but about Al Sharpton. He boarded his own political craft.

Imus's comment was horrible and stupid. To repeat it and talk about it seems to be a perverse way of keeping it alive. Over the past few days, I have tried to imagine what could have happened if Sharpton had responded to Imus's April 4 comment with the Gospel. Think of what he could have accomplished as a man of the cloth in the middle of Holy Week.

Imagine if Sharpton had publicly forgiven Don Imus in the name of the God whose love he pretends to minister. There is power in that love, which is not to say control. The power is the freedom to do, give, love, and be more in every moment of your life. It is a mighty wind that blows the cobwebs out of your soul and ev…

To Big Media: Local is as Local Does

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You go down to the tree and turn right. Turn left at the rock. About a quarter mile down you'll see an old barn....

These are directions Connecticut style. If you're from around here, you get it. Forget about the satellite.

I have a great-uncle who gives these directions and is about as local as they come. He knows every rock, every tree, every person in his town. He or his wife will give you the low-down on the celebrity weekenders, too.

He'll tell you the last time an American chestnut attempted to live in this soil and how it died. He'll walk you through a barn full of lumber acquired from ancestral barns or renovated public buildings. He has filled houses with the furniture he has built from such wood. He can tell you how the out-of-towners paved a road through a graveyard and some New Yorkers then paved their patio with the gravestones. He'll tell you whose nursing a martini while the leg of his patio chair is grinding into the I of our family name. He knows this…

Good People, Good Gifts, Fair Trade

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I bought a hand-painted wooden cross for my daughter for an Easter gift that came from El Salvador. It depicts a Central American woman carrying a bundle on her head and walking through a village. It captures the Truth of faith--the cross of Christ--with a practical, living expression of it. It's beautiful, lively, bright, and exotic. This little $10 cross that teaches many lessons at once came from The People's Market by way of Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut.

Here are some things I learned about the source of this gift:

The People's Market was created in 2000 to support fair trade and ethical sourcing of crafts produced by small cooperatives and women's group in El Salvador. Since 2000 it has been working with 25 groups of artisans scattered throughout the country. Most artisans combine their craft production with some agricultural work if in the country side, industrial or informal work if in the city.

The People's Market is a project of Crispaz, Christian…

Peanut Butter is a Loaded gun?

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In the burbs: A mother of a six-year-old peanut allergy sufferer campaigns for a ban of peanut butter from Seymour, Connecticut, schools. Bringing peanut butter near this kid, concerned mother Lisa Searles says, is like pointing "a loaded gun" at Matthew (Republican-American, 4/7/07).

In the city the next day: The assistant rector of a large, multi-ethnic church invites all the children to participate in an egg hunt. "The eggs were donated, and we have no idea what's in them, so look and decide if you want you kids to eat what's in them," she says.

Spot the difference: Where the trees grow, rearrange reality to create the version of normal I would like to spoon-feed my son. Where the pavement grows, you are cordially invited to deal with life.

The story of the one-woman anti-peanut butter police force has been a topic of conversation since it appeared. A neighbor put the question, "Why should this boy be denied a normal social life over peanut butter? Wha…

Blog Your Blessings: Remembering Craig Lundwall

My daughter and I spent the day in the very good company of some very special people: first my parents and then friends who are the parents of a dear friend who died six years ago on April 8.

Craig Lundwall was a beautiful friend. We met in the eighth grade when we were in confirmation class together at the Danbury (Connecticut) United Methodist Church, the pastor of which at the time was another dear person, the Rev. Terry W. Pfeiffer.

Rev. Pfeiffer introduced us to the wonder, mystery, horror, and majesty of Holy Week when we were kids. He made palpable the truth of Jesus, whose commitment to the truth of love knew no bounds. At Craig's memorial service 21 years later, he opened up the wonder, mystery, horror, and majesty of God's hope through the Bible. He read so many passages that I was sure he would read the whole thing to the friends and family overflowing that room. I still see him in my mind's eye moving from book to book and reading and reading.

This image of a devo…

Jesus' Last Week: Not What You Think

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The Last Week by Jesus scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan is not your granny's version of Holy Week.

In place of the sacrificial lamb making good on the debts of every rotten sinner who ever walked, we have a daring, courageous rebel passionately committed to growing God's kingdom in the here and now of his world. This rebel maintains that commitment to, through, and beyond his public execution on the cross. (more)

Talking Walls: Strange Attractions in New Haven, Connecticut

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Self Medicating with Peanut Butter

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A friend who has been struggling with illness and was frustrated with the quality of medical care she had received recently remarked to me that she worked hard to nurture all of her cells in an attempt to get better. Her disappointment with doctors stemmed from their failure to notice she was a complete human being; they had focused on her symptoms alone, as if these phenomena had landed on her like a strange bird, and didn't ask her any questions to determine what might have brought on her maladies.

The idea of nurturing every cell struck a chord with me. It reminded me of a Buddhist mealtime meditation in which one thinks about every aspect of the meal--from the landing of the seed into the soil to consumption at your dinner table. Obviously, you have to meditate and eat at the same time with this one or your soup will get cold. By the end of the meditation, though, you realize everyone on the planet played a roll in creating your food. You walk away from the table with a whole n…

Mockingbird: Fighting the Good Fight

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We Big Readers committed the big sin over the past two nights: we saw the movie in lieu of reading the book. Waterbury is participating in The Big Read with Harper Lee's novel set during the Depression To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a story about fear and its attendant gremlins, bigotry and violence. Lee weaves together the story of Southern lawyer Atticus Finch's defense of an African American man unjustly accused of raping a white woman and the story Scout Finch's choice of compassion over cruelty as she overcomes her fear of the unknown neighbor Boo Radley.

My eight-year-old daughter spotted the book at Atticus bookstore in New Haven on Sunday and remarked that everyone in Waterbury is supposed to read it. I thought of getting a copy and reading it with her, but the old movie junkie in me thought Gregory Peck should have the honor of teaching my daughter that cool reason, common humanity, and basic decency can come together in a person, and such a person can become a con…

Sound Bites: From Grief Comes a Gift

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I subscribe to a daily email meditation called Sound Bitesthat is provided by United Methodist Pastor Dave Wilkinson, Minister of Communications of First United Methodist Church of Green Bay. He started Sound Bites in memory of his son.

Describing the email ministry to 1,750 subscribers and others five days a week, Pastor Dave says: Over the years I have collected quotes that pertain to the Christian faith and life in general. As I have read or studied what others have written, I have been struck by the profound thought that is captured in their few words....During Lent 1999 God prompted me to think about a new idea as to how I might share these thoughts with a broader audience. At the same time, our family was experiencing the first anniversary of the death of our son, Dustin, who died at the age of 16 from a brain tumor. So, beginning on that anniversary, March 29, 1999, we began an email ministry in memory of Dustin that we call "SOUND BITES: Something to chew on that is good f…

Strange Attractions: The Mind of our Kind

Here's a sketch of some walls in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Invisible Jesus

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"Were you there when the crucified my Lord?" is a very different spiritual for African Americans than it is for whites largely because black America can relate to the experience. The lynching tree--whatever form it takes in our society--is so much like the cross of Jesus that African Americans feel the pain of it in a very real way.

So says Prof. James H. Cone in the Winter 2007 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. I brought up the idea in my English class last week as we discussed Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Jesus is crucified for the same reason blacks have been--are--lynched: he is invisible to his audience, his nearest and dearest who don't understand who he is. Their perception of him is informed by a set of expectations, personal despair, and a misreading of scripture that causes them to miss out on Jesus altogether. Thus, the message to love one another goes to the wall; Jesus is a trouble-maker and little more; indeed, if he were more he might jump …