Wednesday, September 16, 2015


 Patch Adams's father was a soldier. He fought in the Second World War and the Korean war; he died in Germany when Patch was only 16. Patch was raised by his mother.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Moral Disorder

  A few months ago I read “Moral Disorder” by Margaret Atwood. It is a collection of short stories that share the same characters at different stages of their lives.

 The first story starts with the scene of an eight-year -old girl knitting an outfit for her baby sister who is due to be born in a few months. Later in life, you will find this same character (Nell) knitting a quilt. The patches that make up the quilt have different colors and appear to represent the memories or phases of her existence. I believe Atwood uses the quilt as a metaphor, and the act of crafting it may have something to do with Nell's purpose in life, and it alludes to Penelope, the wife of Odysseus.

   By putting together so many stories and experiences Atwood explores a vast array of situations that make us laugh, cry and think.  She brings to light the bittersweet side of life; she sees through the drama and encourages us to ask questions, but in doing so, she takes us back to our own childhood and to examine our life. 

  I enjoyed the narrative of the young girl who is enthralled by her literature teacher. The teenager’s arguments and literary conversations with her boyfriend are hilarious.  I noticed that later in life this assertive teenager who becomes a woman undergoes a transformation. She dates a man who already has a wife and two kids, so her parents ostracize her and then she is not even taken seriously by her new family: she ends up under the control of the man she loves and of his ex-wife.

  I believe Nell is not the person that she was meant to be, but the person that society shaped and molded out of her. There are many situations to illustrate this but I will let the reader explore them. It took me a few months to come to this conclusion.

 One of the most touching scenes I remember from this book is that of this woman interacting with her aging parents. Atwood captures the sadness and the tenderness that mingle in their interactions. She unleashes the longings of those moments in which you feel lonely because you are convinced that nobody would understand what you are going through. She does what a brilliant writer is expected to do: she puts into words what you are unable to say yourself when you are overwhelmed by emotions.

 Another case that stayed with me is the one of Lizzie. Unlike her sister, Lizzie was a bit eccentric and did not acquiesce to the rules so well. She suffered from anxiety and when she sought medical help a physician misdiagnosed her with schizophrenia and put her on antipsychotics. Lizzie had all the side effects of it and could not even go to work. To make matters worse she was neglected by this same physician whose dehumanized approach to the art of medicine left me flabbergasted. Thankfully, things improve when when a second physician is consulted. This case reminds me of Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer who was also misdiagnosed with schizophrenia due to her personality. The doctors wanted to do a lobotomy on her. Janet Frame fled from the procedure and later succeeded in her literary career.

   Margaret Atwood will make you laugh, but she will also swim through the gloom of various life situations, navigating the alienation of the main characters with an economy of style that captivates the reader.  She punches your heart and leaves you pondering for months. 

I also recommend her poetry book (Margaret Atwood's selected poetry 1976-1986) because it complements some of the tales that appear in "Moral Disorder"; it will help you to comprehend them better and to broaden your perspective on them.

I will share some quotes from “Moral Disorder”. (As I mentioned on a previous post, Atwood plays with metaphors to describe perceptions and emotions).

“We can’t really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do it’s as tourists.”

“But my dreaming self refuses to be consoled. It continues to wander, aimless, homeless, alone. It cannot be convinced of its safety by any evidence drawn from my waking life. I know this because I continue to have the same dream over and over.”

“The best thing to do when running away is not to run. Just walk. Just stroll. A combination of ease and purposefulness is desirable. Then no one will notice you are running. In addition to which, don’t carry heavy suitcases or canvas bags full of money, or pack sacks with body parts in them. Leave everything behind you except what’s in your pockets. Light is best.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Anne Frank

“We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone's responsibility to fight prejudice.”~ Otto Frank, 1970

 Fighting all kinds of prejudice is and will always be one of the themes of “My Writing Life”. A few weeks ago I heard a statement from a political candidate who bashed the people of a certain nationality, and I wondered about this man’s education.
What did he learn in school?
 A prejudice is nothing but a lie. It is an unfair judgment. What did his supporters learn from the past? They do remind me of those who supported Adolf Hitler when he imposed a segregation system in the thirties and early forties.

 In the year 1942 Anne Frank and her family had to go into hiding. The diary that she’d received as a birthday present went with her. She named it Kitty.

 Why is her diary so important?  In addition to being a source of inspiration, comfort and strength to millions of people all over the world, it is a historical document. Anne cared to record details about the war and about their life in hiding: she mentions the atrocities and horrors to which human beings were subjected as a result of the cruelty of those who believed they were superior to others. She also poured out her heart on it by revealing her intimate thoughts and emotions.

   Anne did not feel understood, so it was only her diary she confided in. I admire Otto Frank for having the courage to publish it in the year 1947. Some parts had to be omitted. (For instance, passages about sexuality had to be left out because it was not customary to discuss sexuality openly in the forties).
  I recently finished reading the latest edition which includes all the parts that had been censored in previous versions. Anne exposes her vulnerabilities, sorrow, joy, dreams and conflicts with the people who lived in The Annexe.

  Of the group of eight people who lived in The Secret Annexe for two years, Otto Frank was the only survivor, and he committed the rest of his life to combating discrimination and prejudice. He died in 1980.
There are historical details  that you may not find in your conventional textbooks:
“Morale among the Dutch can’t be good. Everyone’s hungry; except for the ersatz coffee, a week’s food ration doesn’t last two days. “
“The Children are ill or undernourished, everyone’s wearing worn-out clothes and run-down shoes. A new sole costs 7.50 guilders on the black market. Besides, few shoemakers will do repairs, or if they do, you have to wait four months for your shoes, which might very well have disappeared in the meantime.”
 “People have to queue for vegetables and all kinds of goods; doctors can’t visit their patients, since their cars and bikes are stolen the moment they turn their backs; burglaries and thefts are so common that you ask yourself what’s suddenly got into the Dutch to make them so light-fingered. Little children, eight-and eleven-year-olds, smash the windows of people’s homes and steal whatever they can lay their hands on. People don’t dare leave the house for even five minutes, since they are liable to come back and find all their belongings gone.”
“The electric clocks on street corners are dismantled, public phones are stripped down to the last wire.”

   The veneration of wars and violence that we hear about on a regular basis reminds me of the mindless slogans that George Orwell describes so well in 1984 and Animal farm, so it is timely to cite Anne Frank’s insights. They still resonate today:
“What’s the point of the war? Why, oh, why can’t people live together peacefully? Why all this destruction?
“The question is understandable, but so far no one has come up with a satisfactory answer.”
“Why do people have to starve when mountains of food are rotting away in other parts of the world?”
“I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh, no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!”

   Despite their confinement, Anne found moments of joy.  She read, wrote and studied. Her dream was to become a writer and a journalist. She had a special interest in art and history and crafted short stories Her diary is a lovely tribute to the helpers who risked their lives as they brought the much needed supplies to the two families hiding in The Secret Annexe.
  Anne's fortitude and the energy that kept her active against all odds are inspiring to me. She strove to find the rays of sunshine inside every dark spot while she longed to play outdoors.
 “Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is. With all that, why should I despair?”

  She disagreed with her mother when she said that they had to feel thankful for not being in the concentration camps.
 “This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: ‘you’re not part of it’. My advice is ‘Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the beauty within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.
“I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you supposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune.”
 “A person who has courage and faith will never die in misery.” 

  As she writes about the suffering of others, she expresses her emotions of guilt, sadness and fear.

   Anne becomes infatuated with Peter, and the couple get together in the attic to whisper to each other and contemplate the sky. She reflects on love in her diary:
 “Love, what is love? I don’t think you can really put it into words. Love is understanding someone, caring for him, sharing his joys and sorrows.”

 Their relationship is stunted after her father’s advice:
“Well, you know I understand both of you. But you must be the one to show restraint; don’t go upstairs so often, don’t encourage him more than you can help. In matters like these, it’s always the man who takes the active role, and it’s up to the woman to set the limits. Outside, where you’re free, things are quite different. You see other boys and girls, you can go outdoors, take part in sports and all kinds of activities. But here, if you’re together too much and want to get away, you can’t.”

 Anne Frank’s introspective nature makes the reading compelling. Her honesty leads her to explore her identity:
“As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, a saucy joke. This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer. No one knows Anne’s better side, and that’s why most people can’t stand me. Oh, I can be an amusing clown for an afternoon, but after that everyone’s had enough of me to last a month. Actually, I’m what a romantic film is to a profound thinker—a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten: not bad, but not particularly good either. I hate having to tell you this, but why shouldn’t I admit it when I know it’s true?”
 Anne explains that she conceals her deeper self because she fears that she will be ridiculed.

As the diary progresses the people in The Secret Annexe are challenged by starvation. Dangers abound.  Yet she continues writing until August 1 1945.
 After receiving an anonymous tip the German Security Service raids 263 Prinsengracht on August 4 1944. Having been betrayed, the eight people in hiding and two of their helpers are arrested.

 If you are planning to visit Anne Frank House in Amsterdam be prepared to stand in line for a while. Reading her diary, however, does not require a visit to Amsterdam and it is far more powerful.
 Anne Frank’s diary is not only the narration of somebody’s life journey. Her message is the voice of the victims of war anywhere today.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bluebeard's Egg

If you need a good dose of laughter start by reading the first short story from this brilliant collection by Margaret Atwood: “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother”. Every single paragraph made me laugh. Atwood has an intelligent sense of humor. There are many funny situations that involve the narrator’s first boyfriend, Buddy, along with anecdotes about her family.
 “I kept my knees pressed together and my arms around his back. Sooner or later Buddy would attempt to move his hands around to the front, but I knew I was supposed to stop him, so I did. Judging from his reaction, which was resigned but good-natured, this was the correct thing to do, though he would always try again the next week.”

   The stories in this collection are all entertaining and thought-provoking. 
   Many of her characters are exotic and a few of them are somewhat conventional, but all of them manage to make the stories engaging and intriguing.
In “The Sunrise” we meet Yvonne, a bohemian eccentric. She is a professional artist who likes to follow men to request them to pose for her.
 “Once Yvonne gets the men into her studio she is very delicate with them, very tactful. With them in mind she has purchased a second-hand armchair with a footstool to match: solid, comforting, wine velvet, not her usual taste. She sits them in it beside the large window, and turns them so that the light catches on their bones. She brings them a cup of tea or coffee, to put them at ease, and tells them how much she appreciates what they are doing. Her gratitude is real: she’s about to eat their souls, not the whole soul of course, but even a small amount is not to be taken lightly.”

    Yvonne, however, eats nobody's soul, but she is so devoted to her art that men are puzzled and sometimes angry at her. Although her rich imagination gets her in trouble sometimes (due to the fact that she is a woman) she remains committed to her vision.

Warning: In “Uglypuss” there is a cruel act against a cat (Uglypuss). By the end of it, however, Atwood made me feel something that lies on the road between compassion and pity for the bully. I have to confess that I did not like the characters of this specific story, except for the cat (Uglypuss). 
 I think the originality of her writing stems from the complexity of her characters, the social commentary interwoven into them and the unexpected turns. Her writing flows like a breeze, but it is also loaded with wit and irony. It becomes addictive.
  I’ve also noticed that she incorporated metaphors and images into the plots and that she used them as the titles of some of the stories: “The Sunrise”; “The Salt Garden”; “Bluebeard’s Egg”; “The Sin Eater”; “Unearthing Suite”.
  She plays with images to express something meaningful about the characters, and I surmise this has something to do with the fact that she has a flair for painting and drawing.  You can check more of her artworks here.
    All in all, Margaret Atwood makes her interesting characters jump off the page and elicits empathy from the reader in most of these stories. I prefer Margaret Atwood's stories over Munro's ones for this reason.
     If I had to choose two words to describe her writing I would say it is fascinating and mesmerizing. It kindles my imagination and makes my mind soar. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


“When you are feeling down and out and defeated and ready to give up, read this inspiring book and share it widely with others.” Marc Bekoff

Elephants are intriguing creatures and after reading “The Elephant Whisperer” I fell in love with them. I was spellbound by the compassion, intuition and wisdom that elephants reveal through their actions.  If you have an interest in the emotional life of elephants “The Elephant Whisperer” will fascinate you, and even if you are indifferent to them you may find this book life transforming.
After saving the life of a herd of elephants from being shot to death, Lawrence Anthony developed a special bond with them over time. Building up trust led to a connection of love that surpassed the boundaries of their own lives. Lawrence Anthony transports us to the natural reserve of Thula Thula in South Africa.
 Nana, the matriarch of this enigmatic herd, saved Lawrence’s life when Thula Thula was on fire. She also rescued him on other occasions.
 If you think that these elephants only act out of self-interest you are wrong. Nana released a group of antelopes that had been caught to be transported to another natural reserve. 
 Lawrence also rescued a female teenage elephant (ET) whose herd had been shot by poachers. ET was adopted by Nana's herd. ET did not trust Lawrence at the beginning, and the interaction with her was dangerous. It became a complex process, but the final outcome was a positive one.
 “From ET I learned forgiveness. I had managed to reach out to her through her heartbreak and distrust, but only because she had let me. Somewhere along the way she had recovered her life and in the process taught me how to forgive, as she had forgiven humans for the horrors they had visited on her own family before she came to us. She had given birth while I was away and was standing close by looking at me, proudly showing off her baby.”

Good writing can make us laugh, cry and think. Lawrence Anthony can do this well. His deep understanding of the jungle and his communication with elephants left me in awe. He ignited my curiosity, and now I'd like to read his book about rhinos.
 "The Elephant Whisperer" also introduces us to the beliefs  and behaviors of the Zulu culture.
“Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.”
  Through his interactions with this herd of elephants  we learn about their emotional lives and behaviors, but there is still a lot that we can't comprehend about these mysterious creatures.
 “During the twenty-year war between northern and southern Sudan elephants were being slaughtered both for ivory and meat and so large numbers migrated to Kenya for safety. Within days of the final ceasefire being signed, the elephants left their adopted residence en masse and trekked the hundreds of miles back home to Sudan. How they knew that their home range was now safe is just another indication of the incredible abilities of these amazing creatures.”

    The chemistry between this herd of elephants and Lawrence Anthony is a gift to the world, and Mr. Anthony’s legacy will live on in the actions of Earth Organization. When Lawrence died in 2012, the beloved herd walked to his home. They were mourning the loss of their friend. 

 Here's another website/organization where I learned a lot about elephants.

I received a few e-mails from readers of this blog asking about the lack of comments. To answer your question I will share Matt Gemmel's blog postHe gives you some ideas on what you can do if you come across a blog post that has disabled comments when you feel motivated to comment.
 All blogs are different- not better or worse than any other. Some blogs have comments. Others don't. They all appeal to different audiences and contribute to our diversity.
"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
 Albert Einstein

Till next time.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Woods Scientist

"We send thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us people. We are glad that they are still here and we hope it will always be so." ~ Excerpt from the Thanksgiving Address, Mohawk version
(I found the above quote  printed on my passport).

  "The Woods Scientist" is about reading forests. 
  How can we read forests?
 Sue Morse has had a fascination for forests all her life. She grew up in Pennsylvania to a family who did not watch much TV. Her parents filled their lives with a love of animals and the outdoors.

 Every day after school, Sue ran more than four and a half miles to reach the Wissahickon woods. Her passion to get to the woods turned her into a strong distance runner. In 1967, as a senior in high school, she became the first woman in the United States to run a twenty-six mile marathon.

 Sue also has a passion for books, and reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” when she was a teenager inspired her.
  I learned some interesting facts about wildlife from The Woods Scientist.

 Sue has a didactic way of explaining what biodiversity means. She does so creatively, by using the example of a puzzle. Biodiversity is like a puzzle in motion. This “puzzle” is made of trees, shrubs, insects, flowers, mushrooms, amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals. This dynamic puzzle is made of thousands of species, and they all depend on each other.

  Now imagine removing a piece of that puzzle. What happens?

When species are killed off, the puzzle falls apart. Every living thing counts in this delicate puzzle of nature.
Harvard biologist E.O Wilson states that we are losing species at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Wilson estimates that this current rate of extinction is 10,000 times faster than what is “normal” or natural.
  Animals that are more vulnerable to habitat fragmentation are called “indicator species”. Grizzly bears, river otters, wolverines, Canada Lynxes and bobcats are a few examples.
 The decline or absence of such creatures serves as a warning.

  The Woods Scientist helped me to understand the importance of corridors. Even the biggest parks in the country such as two-million-acre Yellowstone National Park and Adirondack Park need to be connected to other big tracts of land to allow animals to move back and forth. They are necessary for them to survive. 

 Four-lane highways and other developments lead to the fragmentation of their habitats, which prevents them from finding food and cover. By keeping tracks of wild animals Sue intends to create alternatives that can help to protect the fragile wildlife.
 As human population grows more housing developments, highways, roads, and corporate offices threaten the existence of these complex ecosystems.
  Here in Wisconsin we deal with many challenges. The Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, changed regulations to allow the pollution of lakes, streams and wetlands.  This may have something to do with the false belief that protecting the environment is at odds with the economic progress of a region. How do we define progress? Perhaps we need to redefine it in order to understand that dollars cannot be drunk or eaten, and that human health is not dissociated from Nature, although some people seem to believe that dollars can be breathed in (excuse my sense of humor here.)
 To learn more about this situation you can read this article.

 Nature is not our enemy. Educating our communities and raising awareness are part of the solution, but changing regulations to pollute the environment is not a sign of intelligence.

   The more we discover and learn about Nature, the more we can understand how ignorant we are. Educating ourselves is the way to love Nature and to develop creative solutions to live in harmony with the environment. 
     We can also learn about the destruction around us through our senses... but would would Mother Nature say if she could speak?


Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Poem by Loris Malaguzzi

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.
A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
 a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.
The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.