short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Working within the Framework of the Other's Values

People make decisions about us all the time. Are we good or bad? Do they like us? They use their own value systems, not ours, to make these decisions. During the Cold War, most official documents required by Americans in the Soviet Union were difficult to obtain, so it was no surprise that three weeks after I had arrived as an exchange scholar at the University of Moscow, the American Embassy was no closer to getting the paperwork to enroll my daughter, Lizzie, in school than they had been when we arrived.

"Don't worry," I told the embassy officer. "Soviet officials are used to working with embassy personnel, but I doubt that they've seen a mad American mother."

I home and asked a friend who had moved from Krasnodar to Moscow what she had done to enroll her child, and I followed the same procedure. I dressed Lizzie in a pretty pink dress since she did not yet have a school uniform and tied Russian-style ribbons in her hair, which I braided in Russian fashion. Then, off we went to meet the director of the school that I wanted Lizzie to attend.

The director of the school was very taken with Lizzie and with the fact that after only two weeks in Moscow, she was answering questions fully, accurately, and in literate Russian (something, as a foreign language teacher, I made sure of before going to the school). She was also impressed with Lizzie's level of education. (Of course, it helped that Lizzie had skipped two grades at home.) She accepted Lizzie and told me to get the napravlenie (enrollment permission) for her school at the Main School Directorate, located on a small alley off the Old Arbat.

Off I went, Lizzie in her pink dress and pink ribbons in tow. Lizzie quickly garnered the sympathy of the elderly lady in charge of transfers. Unusually gentle for a bureaucrat, she sympathized, "It's wrong to hold a child out of school for two weeks."

I concurred and mentioned that Lizzie cried at night because she could not attend school. Well, that comment, made to someone from a culture that puts children first and foremost, immediately brought forth a document. We were in fine shape until the bureaucrat had to fill in the name of the transfer city: Washington. She had thought we were transferring from another city in the Soviet Union and had no choice but to send us away to the International Division. However, she did send along a partially filled-in document, which made it easier for the International Division bureaucrat to make the decision to enroll Lizzie.

Technically, no one had to enroll her because she had not yet received permission for enrollment from the Ministry of Education. In those days, the ministry could dally forever so the mad American mother had to come up with a plan. I did. That plan was to use Russian values (love for children and appreciation for education) to get what Lizzie needed. Before leaving earlier in the day for the Main School Directorate, I had given myself 24 hours to get her enrolled, but I managed to do it in even less.

The International Division bureaucrat wavered. On the one hand, she had the paperwork from the International Division, but on the other hand, she had nothing from the ministry. I jumped in and pleasantly explained that I realized I might seem impatient but that was because of an American upbringing that I could not walk away from, even in a foreign land. "In America," I said, "we value education, and we love children."

"So do we," insisted the International Division bureaucrat. With that, she sat down and signed the napravlenie.

As she handed the document to me, she muttered, mostly to herself, "I wonder if we will ever get the permission slip for the files from the ministry." To this day, I have no idea if she ever did. However, Lizzie spent delightful months in school in Moscow, thanks to a bureaucrat who was willing to bend the rules during the height of the Cold War. I don't know if that kind lady ever felt any kind of reward for her remarkable deed, but I do know that, thanks to her, Lizzie, her friends, and school did as the one American child and the many Russian children learned a lot about each other and each other's countries from each other in a way that no political system can foster -- or undermine.


Excerpted and adapted from a story I published in a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Assume That Your Problem Will Be Resolved

Often problems become greater, rather than disappear, because subconsciously we anticipate trouble. By remaining calm and focused on the task, not on the complications surrounding the task, we can often resolve the problem rather than simply coping with it. Imagining the problem as already resolved will in many cases lead to its resolution.

Several years ago I flew from Novosibirsk (Siberia) to Tashkent (Uzbekistan) on Siberian Airlines. Yes, there really is a Siberian Airlines!

When I arrived, the Uzbek border guard paged through my passport several times, looking at me occasionally. I knew instantly what was going on in his head. First, I had no visa for Uzbekistan. Second, since the aircraft was Russian and the flight was coming in from Siberia, only Russian- and Uzbek-speaking border guards were manning the posts. No one expected an American to be flying that particular route. So, what the guard likely was thinking was, "What? No visa! And how on earth am I going to talk about this with her?"

He tentatively asked, "Vy sluchaino ne govorite po-russki?" (Do you, by chance, speak Russian?)

I conceded, "Da, sluchaino, govoryu." (Yes, I, by chance, do.)

He smiled and said, "Chudesno; mozhno obshchats'ya." (Wonderful; we can communicate.)

Then he went on to explain that he could not find my Uzbek visa. I assured him that he was, indeed, correct in his ascertainment that there was no Uzbek visa in my passport. I then went on to explain that I had heard that it was possible to use a Russian visa, which I had, for up to 72 hours during which time one could obtain an Uzbek visa in-country. He told me that this possibility did not exist. Only if one were to stay less than 72 hours could one use the Russian visa.

Well, this was certainly a dilemma. However, I assumed that the problem would be resolved, that I would not spend the rest of my life beside the border guard station in Tashkent. So, I said to the guard, "Nu, kazhetsya, chto u nas problema. Kak my reshim ee?" (Well, we seem to have a problem. What are we going to do about it?)

He laughed and said that we could not do anything at all about it but he could once the whole planeload of people had passed through. True to his word, he got me a an uncommon multi-entry yearlong visa and obviously felt very pleased with himself. When I asked what I owed, he said, "Nothing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will collect the fee from your sponsoring organization."

While in Uzbekistan, I provided consultation that pleased the Ministry of Education, which asked me to return in 6-9 months for extensive consultation. When I asked for an extension of my visa from the Uzbekistan Embassy in the USA, I received it very quickly, possibly because of having been granted that uncommon type of visa (multi-entry, year-long) in Tashkent, and was surprised to find that my new visa was for five years, a rarity.

The next time I came to Tashkent, then, was quite a different experience although not initially. The border guard looked at my passport and the visa, which he easily found, then at me and then back at the visa. Apparently, the five-year visa is indeed quite rare. "Est' problema?" (Is there a problem?), I asked him.

He smiled broadly. "O, net," he responded warmly. "Vy nasha." (A rough translation: Not at all, you are ours, i.e. one of us.)

It is so inconceivable to me that today that wonderful country is closed to Americans. I will always remember the feeling of being "nasha."


Excerpted and adapted from a story I published in a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Raindrops Keep Falling on Her Head

Once upon a time Mommy worked at NASA in Houston, Texas for a year. She liked her work, but she did not like the Houston climate. It rained a lot. In fact, it rained off and on nearly every day in the spring.

Being from California, Mommy was not used to that much rain. She figured out how to cope, however. She bough a small umbrella that folded up to fit inside her backpack. That way, if it rained, she could quickly pull out the umbrella, and if it did not rain, the umbrella would be out of the way in her backpack. This was especially helpful because Mommy walked back and forth from work .She liked walking, but she often got caught in surprise rainstorms.

One day, it was not raining when Mommy left her house. In fact, it was pretty hot.
Mommy had a long walk. She lived more than two miles from NASA. When she walked, she thought a lot. She thought about work, about her family, about lots of things. So, she did not pay a lot of attention to what was going on around her. (That is probably why a lot of detail-oblivious people get called absent-minded.)

Mommy got pretty used to doing things automatically, without thinking, while she walked, so that she could think about the things that she wanted to. When the cars stopped moving, she sensed a red light and crossed the street, and when her skin felt wet, she sensed the rain and put up her umbrella. It all worked out pretty well.

On this day that I am talking about, though, she was already at NASA, and there had been no rain. Somewhere in her subconscious she was thinking about how great it was to have a morning without rain. Then, suddenly her skin felt wet, and her automatic reaction took over: Out came the umbrella and on Mommy walked.

Mommy felt pretty good about her quick reaction to the sudden rain, until she noticed that people had stopped walking around the buildings and were looking at her. That was when she realized that she was walking through a sprinkler with her umbrella up.

Conclusion: Make sure it is raining before you put up your umbrella.

This story is excerpted from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah, my severely mentally challenged youngest son, to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Car That Would Not Start

Once Mommy returned to the parking lot after work to find that she did not have the keys to the car. Before going back to the office, she looked inside the car. Sure enough, there were the keys, right in the ignition. At least with this car, she knew how to break in and get the keys. In a little while, she was inside, but the car would not start. It was now pretty late, and there were not very many people around. Mommy went to the garage attendant and asked if he knew someone who could give her a jump.

"Are you driving that brown van on the top level?" he asked.

"Yeah!" Mommy was surprised that he knew which car she drove.

"Well, you're out of gas," he said.

"How's that?" she asked. How could he know she was out of gas? Besides, the car had not been on empty when she parked it.

He did know. He explained, "Because you left the keys in the ignition with the car running and the door locked. We tried to get in but could not. The car finally ran out of gas in the middle of the afternoon."

Oops! He probably thought that Mommy was crazy. Maybe he was right.

Conclusion: If you want to go somewhere, you have to be able to start the car.

This story is excerpted from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah, my severely mentally challenged youngest son, to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Rewards of Revealing Your Incompetence

My children, secretaries, and friends have always been very protective of me. This, I think, is because they consider me incompetent in some areas of life (and therefore vulnerable). They are seemingly correct.

At least in terms of cooking, I would not lay claim to any awards. I have to admit that much. That started as a child, when I proudly presented my first cake to my father, who took one bite and proclaimed the cake "not fit for the pigs." (And, indeed, when we threw it into the pigpen, the pigs refused to eat it, kicking it around for a couple of weeks until it finally biodegraded.)

My kids would often beg other people to make their party meals not because I would not but because they were afraid that I would. At one point, my secretary asked me to buy one of my sons a birthday cake on the way home. When I asked why, she said that he had called and asked her to bake him a cake and upon learning that she could not because she was not going to be home, he had sobbed, "If you don't, Mom will."

I'm not much better when it comes to painting. I can usually get a room started, but someone else ends up finishing it. It's not a Tom Sawyer act or an act at all. It's good old-fashioned incompetence. For example, recently I wanted to pain a room before a tenant moved into it. I covered the floor with plastic and started busily to cover the walls with paint. Before I could finish covering them all, however, I managed to step into the paint bucket (painting my foot), trip over the plastic covering (exposing the carpet), and tip over the paint bucket (painting the bucket). The room with the painted carpet was fully painted, thanks to a tenant taking over. That's pretty much par for the course for me when it comes to household chores.

People not only seem to accept that kind of incompetence, but they quickly step in to help me. When my father-in-law first met me, I was cooking bacon for his breakfast. He immediately took over, without waiting to be introduced. He apparently thought that breakfast would be in some kind of danger if left in my hands. And so it has gone always.

Are there any rewards to be found in revealing one's incompetence? Certainly! All my children, regardless of gender, became good cooks. (They, of course, claim that learning to cook was self-defense.) My rooms get painted. Other people offer to help with anything that is based on handicraft. So, I get pampered. All by being just a tad honest about a few deficiencies.

I have a feeling that all those folks who step in to help gather some sense of reward as a result of their helping. Why else would they help?


Excerpted and adapted from a story I published in a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.