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

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Concretize and Personalize the Abstract

One would think that war would be very concrete, but it is not. It is abstract, far too abstract. That is the only way that leaders, soldiers, and individuals of one country can go about slaughtering the leaders, soldiers, and individuals of another country.

I had a friend from Kuwait when I was an undergraduate student at Pennsylvania State University during the days of the Vietnam conflict. Al was also an undergraduate, but he was a published poet at home. For a couple of semesters, we spent out free time together, composing poetry. Then, we took a course together in writing poetry. While that course convinced that I did not want to (and probably should not) settle on contemporary poetry as the mechanism through which to express my ideas, I will never forget a poem that Al wrote about that war. (Let's call it what it really was.)

To many of us students, Vietnam was an abstract place and the war an event to which many of our friends went and from which some did not return. Others returned but not in good physical, or mental, shape. We fought against it, yelled about it, held rallies, and otherwise tried to convince our leaders to eliminate this horrible abstraction. We decried it as immoral, but we did not feel it in a way that those who served there did and those who lived there did. The closest we ever came to personalizing it was the fear that seeped out when Uncle Sam beckoned his finger at someone we knew.

To Al, the Vietnam conflict should have been even more abstract. After all, it was not his country that was engaged in that war although certainly some of his newly made American friends found themselves sent off in the direction of Asia, dressed in combat gear.

However, Al was a born poet with deep understandings. He knew how to use a metaphor and how to personalize it. He talked in his poem about someone who "crept about the fields, filling satchels of weeping." That someone, of course, was the collective population of the country, the "enemy," an abstraction. (It is much easier to fight the enemy on a large scale when the enemy is an abstraction.) And so Al admitted the abstraction, beginning his poem with the words, "The name was Len Nui." His next line, though, made the enemy real: "Her name was Len Nui."

Human relationships are often like war. We do not personalize them enough. With the growing number of interactions that take place from home or the office via the computer, the tendency is toward greater, not lesser, abstraction. Unfortunately, abstract notions seem to cloud our view of the person we are looking at when we do have an interaction with another human being. More and more in recent years, I have watched acquaintances and strangers alike treat people as categories, not as individuals. The co-worker is not just a colleague; there is a real person there. The teller at the bank is not just a money dispenser; there is a real person there. The neighbor we have never met is not just someone with a house in the same neighborhood; there is a real person there. If everyone personalized relationships, there would be less animosity in this world. Killing the enemy is much easier than killing Len Nui. Seeing Len Nui in place of a faceless enemy might mean far fewer wars.

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Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.


Note: For a dramatic enactment of this concept, see the movie, Joyeux Noel.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Red Snow

Once when Mommy got all grown up and we kids had shown up in her life, she decided to take us to the farm to see Grandma. Grandpa had died by then, but some of my aunts and uncles were still living on the farm with Grandma.

After dinner the second day we were there, Grandma decided that she wanted to go to town to find some excitement. One of her neighbors was going to take her. So, she got all fancied up, and pretty soon the neighbor drove into the yard. Grandma rode off with him, and we all waved good-by. We were glad that she was going to go find some excitement.

Mommy and Uncle Willie did the dishes together after supper. Normally, that would only take a half-hour, but Mommy and Uncle Wesley like to talk. In fact, they really like to talk. They talked for a long time; perhaps two hours or even three.
It got late, and it got dark outside. About that time, Uncle Wesley looked out the window at the snow banks. However, instead of a white snow bank, he saw a red one.

"Oh, my goodness," he said. "I got talking, and I forgot to close the damper on the chimney. We have a chimney fire—or a roof fire—or a house fire."

Mommy came upstairs and got us all out of bed. We had to go outside and stand beside the red snow.

Uncle Willie called the fire department. Well, actually, he called our neighbor, Dodie. In farm country where Mommy grew up, the fire department was composed of volunteers, and the fire truck was always kept in one of the volunteer's driveways. This time, it was at Dodie's.

Uncle Willie then tried to put out the fire. It was a long wait for the fire department—a half-hour. By then, Uncle Willie had everything under control. The firemen went up on the roof, anyway, and they looked into the chimney. They made sure the fire was really out. Then they left.

Soon after, Grandma came home. She said it was boring in town. She had not found excitement.

Then, she asked how our evening went. Mommy told that Dodie came to visit—along with the rest of the fire department!

Conclusion: You do not need to leave the farm to find excitement.


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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, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanskgiving

I am taking the day off from blogging to attend morning Mass and then help out all afternoon at Old Mission's community dinner -- open to all, regardless of SES or church affiliation. I will also take some time during the day and evening to drop in to followers' blogs with Thanksgiving greetings.

Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Friend's Dark Days

My friend, Jean, was the instrument through which God nudged me (well, more accurately, pulled and pushed me) back into the flock, beginning with a very clear conk on the head. So, I was used to going to Jean for spiritual advice and help.

Help, though, was something I was called upon, surprisingly, to do for Jean not long after she had helped me so remarkably. The need to help Jean unnerved me at first. I had depended upon her insights and guidance up until that point. Now she needed me, and I was not sure that I was ready. There was, however, no choice. I had to be ready.

Jean handily worked in my building, so she often dropped by after work, and we would grab a bite to eat, talk, or do something together. One evening, as I was working late, Jean burst into my office, eyes large and frightened. “Beth,” she exclaimed. “I think the Evil One is after me!”

I had never heard Jean or anyone else mention evil in those terms before, so I was taken aback at first. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I suddenly feel estranged from God,” she replied. “I feel like I am being pushed to do things that I would not normally do and that God would not want me to do.”

“Such as what?” I asked. She would not tell. She said that she was ashamed of the urges. I understood that they were related to selfish acts, wantonness, cavalier treatment of family members, and other characteristics that just were not Jean’s. We prayed together, and she left in a calmer state.

This one session, however, was not to be the end. She came by nearly every evening, and we prayed. Always for the same thing: to bring Jean back to where she had been spiritually, to eliminate this negative influence, to be in compliance with God’s will. Although it seems that I am unceasingly praying, given my history and idiosyncrasy, when I petition God for specific help, I usually ask only once, assuming that God heard and trusting God to respond in the way that is best for the situation or person about whom I am praying. With Jean, though, it was different. It seemed that just as soon as Jean leaped over one hurdle, another was placed in front of her. Just as soon as one prayer seemed to have been answered, the need for another prayer appeared. Just as soon as her faith reared its head, it was stomped into the dust again by something she kept referring to as evil. I even saw her do things that I found incomprehensible. Those acts were not in keeping with Jean’s character as I knew it to be.

I began praying for her every day, for hours. I also read St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. It seemed to speak to some of what Jean was experiencing, but not all. I thought that if she read the book, it might help. Although Jean seemed lost and desperate and to a point depressed, she was unwilling to read the book. She felt that it would make her feel more, not less, trapped.

I, too, became desperate. At one point, I recall marching around the mission grounds in the small town where I live and proclaiming that I would not pray about anything else until God brought sunshine to end the darkness that Jean was enduring. In all, I spent more than 20 hours in petition for Jean.

In the midst of all this petitioning, one not-so-fine evening, I asked God to allow me to feel what Jean was feeling so that I could understand better. Immediately, the Presence departed from me. No matter how much I tried to communicate, I could not feel the presence of God. I felt lost and alone. I had not realized how much God had become an every-minute part of my life. Irony of ironies, I desperately wanted back the Presence that I had earlier tried so hard to evade. “Where are you?” I asked again and again that evening. I received no answer.

When I awoke the next morning, the Presence was back. Thank God! From that brief disappearance of the Presence, I understood that this was akin to what Jean was experiencing. Now I know how terribly depressing that experience can be. I also understood that what got me through that night was faith without spirituality. Clearly, God had been spoiling me, granting me spirituality, not forcing me to walk in faith alone. Since that experience, I have often wondered if I am capable of living by faith alone. I knew at the time that I did not want to have to try. “Please, God, don’t do that again!” I implored. “I am too weak for that. I don’t like it when I cannot feel Your presence.” If the purpose of the dark night of the soul, as some have suggested, is to create great longing for God, I can attest to its effectiveness after just a few hours.

Two weeks later, having emerged into daylight, Jean told me that 18 years earlier, she had met someone she thought was her guardian angel. Among other things that person had said to her was the following: “Some day you may experience temptation and trial. Should that ever happen to you, I hope that you will have someone at your side to help you.”

She did. Ironically, Jean, who had served as God’s instrument to shepherd me back to the flock, had me at her side. Even though I did not know what to do or what I was doing when I was doing it, I had God to guide me. So, Jean, though she did not know it, could not feel it, and even at times did not believe it, had God at her side throughout her ordeal. I was clearly little more than a conduit through which God pulled Jean back from the forces of darkness that were dragging her away and deposited her once again in the light. I like to think, though, that I was the person Jean's guardian angel had hoped that she would have 18 years earlier.

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This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bare, Do Not Bear, Prejudice

Prejudice poisons the soil and keeps tender flowers from growing. If we would gather pretty posies at a later date, we need to make sure the soil is pure and free from the poison of prejudice. We need to eliminate our own prejudices and keep our environment free from the prejudices of others. Sometimes that means taking an active, preemptive role in the life of others who would infect our soil. Sometimes it means stating we will not accept prejudice in our work, or play, world.

Years ago when I worked as a training program administrator for the U. S. State Department, military officers (defense attach├ęs) and State Department diplomats were trained together prior to being assigned to an embassy abroad. When I first arrived on the training scene, I was surprised to see that there appeared to be two classes of students in many of the teachers' eyes: the upper class diplomats and the lower class attach├ęs. Having been a military officer myself, I did not share some of the teachers' opinion that the military students were intellectually inferior to the diplomatic students. Matters quickly came to a head when at one staff meeting the suggestion was made to leave military students in the classroom while the diplomatic students took a field-study trip, ostensibly for financial reasons but subtly for reasons of discrimination. Finally, one teacher put the prejudice into words, saying, "Well, the military students are less likely than the other students to get something out of the trip."

Time for drama! I slammed shut a book that lay in front of me, sending a pencil that had been lying on top of it flying toward the ceiling. (The pencil's action was not planned but it did add to the drama.) "If the military students do not go," I said emphatically, "no one goes." With that, I walked silently out of my own staff meeting and into my office.

The teachers were stunned. They remained in the room and discussed the situation, or so I was told. Twenty minutes later, I heard a soft knock on my door and the head teacher peered in. "I guess you feel strongly about this," he said.

My discussion with him was followed by a similar one with the teachers about the evils of prejudice--especially when one does not even recognize that prejudice exists. When that particular class graduated, one of the military students told me that he and the other military officers in the class had felt like second-class citizens until I arrived. Then that changed. Military officers in future classes often commented on the lack of prejudice among teachers in my section compared to what some of their peers were experiencing in some other training sections. Teachers, too, began to feel better about their interactions with military officers. Clearly, prejudice bared was prejudice overcome. My drama had planted seeds that had taken hold and grown into flowers for both teachers and students.

Along similar lines, one of the most complex things I have had to do is to establish a Serbian and Croatian language program at a large language training institution during the beginning of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Because all students had to learn both variants of the languages quickly and well, the most sensible thing was to assign two instructors, one Serb and one Croat, to share the 6-hour training day with each group of students. The instructors would teach two hours separately, and then they would teach two hours together in a classroom team.

This all seemed simple enough, except that the program was large and a couple dozen teachers were needed overnight. Finding unemployed teachers of these languages who could begin work immediately among citizens of the United States turned out to be impossible, and so recruitment had to occur from among citizens of both ethnic areas of the former Yugoslavia. People who were warring with each other at home now had to share a classroom, a group of students, and a common goal (a specific and high level of language proficiency in the students). If they did not work together, they would not reach that goal. To meet that goal, they would have to establish rapport with the students and create a productive learning environment. Further, they had to talk about the war without bringing in their own opinions and prejudices. A tall order, indeed!

Management had to set the tone and the rule to keep the discussion of the war in the classroom, while keeping any personalized reenactment of the war out of it. The working rule was: Feel and act as you want from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. -- dislike each other, do what enemies do (whatever that is), if you will -- but from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. project a collegial, warm, student-supportive learning environment in the classroom. Management expected the teachers to like each other as well as the students, and management made it clear that it liked all the teachers equally. Further, management brought in an American director for each component of the program, a Serbian curriculum specialist and a Croatian curriculum specialist. These two truly liked each other, worked together to form a common curriculum, and became role models for the instructors in how to have a personal relationship that was not politically influenced.

This group of teachers did a wonderful job of not showing prejudice even where there probably was some, or, at least, there were differing opinions about which side at home was right and which was wrong. Students never knew those opinions because teachers adhered to the 8-to-5 rule.

The funny thing was that once they donned the garb of collegiality during the day, most teachers found it hard to take it off and put on the robes of prejudice in the evening. Over time, many became social friends as well as colleagues. There was soon a field of beautiful flowers growing behind the school house. If only war at home could have been resolved as easily and flowers planted on the scarred and burned soil there.

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Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Lords

In a far-away land in a far-away time there lived two lords, each with his own fiefdom, His Excellency Dejan and His Excellency Mejan. Now Dejan and Mejan each hoped to wed the king's daughter and ensure security and riches for his own fiefdom. The price of the bride was to make a present to the king of the best honor guard in the whole kingdom, as determined by the most successful completion of an unknown task to be assigned to all contending honor guards.

In preparation, Lord Dejan and Lord Mejan each gathered together ninety-nine of the best soldiers in their fiefdom for training as an honor guard. They determined that members of the honor guard needed three skills: marching, firing, and collecting intelligence. So, each selected thirty-three soldiers with strong legs, thirty-three with strong eyes, and thirty-three with strong ears.

Lord Dejan put his chief administrator in charge of the training for the soldiers in his fiefdom. The chief administrator agreed immediately; he had a number of ability and achievement tests that his staff had been developing that he would be able to use in the service of his lordship.

The chief administrator first tested all the men nominated for the honor guard on ability and found two-thirds of them lacking in marching skills, two-thirds lacking in firing skills, and two-thirds lacking in listening skills. He immediately found three remedial instructors, one for each subject area. Soldiers with strong legs spent most of the next six months in remedial firing and remedial listening classes. They sat for most of the day, and their legs grew weak. Soldiers with strong eyes spent all day in remedial marching and listening classes. They marched to the point of fatigue, and their eyes clouded over. Soldiers with strong ears were sent to remedial marching and remedial firing classes. The noise of the weapons dulled their hearing. After six months great progress had been made. All of the soldiers tested "average" in all skill areas on achievement tests.

The chief administrator knew that "average" would not be good enough for Lord Dejan, so he implemented a motivation program, associated with periodic progress testing. For testing, he used multiple choice test items, based on a componential analysis of each of the three skills, as well as hypothetical tasks. When soldiers assigned to a particular instructor exceeded their previous percentile scores by more than 10%, the instructor received a bonus. Soon, the instructors were familiar enough with the test items that they could begin direct instruction of the soldiers in the specifics of those items and how best to handle the test questions. The instructors initiated an incentive program for the soldiers: the higher the test score, the more privileges a soldier would receive. The scores of the soldiers began to rise dramatically, and the chief administrator was immensely pleased. When the scores reached nearly 100% for all soldiers, the instructors received a big bonus, and they were immensely pleased. The instructors handsomely rewarded the soldiers with lavish benefits for their high scores, and the soldiers were immensely pleased.

Nearly a year had passed, and the time for the competition for the king's daughter neared. Lord Dejan, assured by his chief administrator that objective test results proved that these were the very best soldiers in the entire kingdom, proudly presented his honor guard to the king for the competition. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other nervously, wondering if the task would match any that had been on their tests and what would happen if they failed to be the best honor guard in all the kingdom.

Now, during this same time, Lord Mejan also established a training program for his soldiers. First, he approached a retired, old general, who had been known for his exemplary service and multiple soldiering skills, tested and honed in some very fine battles. He asked this old general to oversee the training program for the new soldiers. The general, at first, declined, "Sire, I am too old. I no longer walk well, let alone march. I no longer see well. I no longer hear well. How can I train your soldiers to be good marchers, good marksmen, and good intelligence collectors?"

Lord Mejan would not listen to the general's demurring. He replied, "You do not have to march or to walk or to see or to hear. I have thirty-three soldiers with the strongest legs in the kingdom; they will carry you. I have thirty-three soldiers with the best eyes in the kingdom; they will see for you. And I have thirty-three soldiers with the best ears in the kingdom; they will listen for you. You have been the best of all my soldiers. You have accomplished remarkable feats. You can share your ways of soldiering with these new soldiers. They, not you, must now do the marching, the firing, and the intelligence collection; they need you to support them in doing this the best way that they can.

And so, the old general agreed to teach the new soldiers. He knew that they would all need to be able to do all three skills well, so he organized them into groups of three. In each group there was a soldier with strong legs, a soldier with strong eyes, and a soldier with strong ears. When the soldier with strong eyes could not march well, the soldier with strong legs guided him into a marching rhythm. When the soldier with strong ears could not fire well, the soldier with strong eyes helped him aim his weapon for better marksmanship. When the soldier with strong legs could not collect data well, the soldier with strong ears showed him how to use his legs to get just close enough and positioned well to hear better.

To help the new soldiers, the old general selected the best marcher, the best marksman, and the best intelligence collector in the fiefdom and gave them roles as counselors. When individual soldiers determined that they needed extra help or simply wanted assistance, they could come to these counselors to practice under their mentorship, to receive individualized instruction, or to have questions answered. The counselors' roles were to serve as mentors and role models, as well as to be foster the growth of skills and confidence in each soldier by observing how each soldier went about soldiering, making him aware of what he still needed to know (and why he needed to know it), showing him the best strategies for improving his soldiering skills, and encouraging him to take risks and to experiment with his own training program.

When all the soldiers had improved their weaker skills, the general tasked them to complete meaningful missions. Often, these missions involved going to far parts of the fiefdom where information on subjects' living conditions could be brought back to Lord Mejan. The soldiers had to march there, use marksmanship skills to forage for food, and listen well to bring back accurate intelligence to his lordship. Sometimes, when they had done this, Lord Mejan would send a detail of soldiers back to those same subjects to bring to them the supplies and assistance they needed. The soldiers felt good about this—they were helping their countrymen, and their countrymen loved them. Their confidence grew, and they became better marchers, marksmen, and intelligence collectors.

The old general sometimes went with them, and they did carry him. Sometimes he stayed behind and allowed them to fend for themselves, debriefing them and making suggestions when they reported back to him. Sometimes he gave them detailed instructions in advance. Other times he simply provided general information and let them determine what they needed to do. What he gave them and asked of them depended upon what he knew they could do and where they still needed support. With time, he removed more and more of the support. With time, they stopped relying upon him and began relying upon themselves and their developing skills.

The old general did not check the soldiers' knowledge through standardized exams; instead, his observations served as informal "tests." He would have examined the soldiers objectively, had Lord Mejan required it, but then he would have used the test results only to supplement his observations. He watched the soldiers complete their missions. He listened to their descriptions. He evaluated their successes. He analyzed their failures. Where he found the soldiers lacking, he provided individual or group instruction or practice, as need dictated.

In a year, when the time for the competitions for the king's daughter neared, he approached Lord Mejan. "Are my soldiers the best in the kingdom?" asked Lord Mejan.

The old general answered his lordship, "Sire, "best" is a relative word. Those with strong legs are still the better marchers, those with strong eyes the better marksmen, and those with strong ears the better intelligence collectors, but all the soldiers possess strategies for accomplishing all these tasks both independently and as one unit. Sire, these soldiers are capable today, and they will not disappoint you. But more important, they have the knowledge and skills to become better tomorrow and even better the day after that. Your soldiers have competed not against peers but against their own potential. They have cooperated in helping each other become better. They have the thinking skills to handle both the known and the unknown and enough self-confidence to take any risk. They are ready for this competition."

Lord Mejan marched with his soldiers to the castle and presented his honor guard to the king. Standing at their head, carried there by the soldiers with the strong legs, was the old general. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other in anticipation, wondering what exciting challenge might lie in store for them today.

Now, which honor guard do you think won the competition?

Note: Also posted on Clan of Mahlou.

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In the mid-1990s (ocpyright 1997), I wrote a book about teaching and learning any subject at any level in any location by any kind of learner that has now been translated into a few different languages and is in use in many of the countries where I consulted and in others where I did not. The book can be found in many libraries and bookstores, as well as online.

If anyone would like the name of any books that I cite on this blog (books that are written in my real name, not my Elizabeth Mahlou pseudonym, which I must maintain because of where I work), I will send you the particulars if you contact me by email: elizabeth.mahlou@gmail.com.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Driving Instructor

Since Mommy grew up on a farm, she learned to drive a tractor very young, like many other farmers' children do. Mommy was the oldest of all Grandpa's children, so she was the one who drove the tractor most of the time.

When my aunt Katrina, the next-younger child in the family, became old enough to drive, the lot fell to my mommy to teach my aunt how to do that. Mommy was really big by then and an experienced tractor driver. She had already turned thirteen. She took her teaching task seriously, but I guess she did not think of all the details—as usual.

On the driving-learning day, my mommy and my Aunt Katrina headed out to the field to practice driving. It was a sunny day—perfect for learning to drive a tractor.

When they got to the field, the old Allis Chalmers 1939 tractor, the one that Grandpa, Grandma, and Mommy drive was right where it had been left on the edge of the rows of corn. It was ready to be driven.

Aunt Katrina got up on the seat, and Mommy stood on the ground and shouted instructions to her. Perhaps that was Mommy's first mistake.

Aunt Katrina put her foot on the clutch and brake like Mommy instructed. Then Mommy told her to turn on the ignition, and she did that. All was going very well. At least, that's what Mommy and Aunt Katrina thought.

Then Mommy told Aunt Kartrina to put her foot on the gas and to let out the clutch. She did that, and the tractor jumped up and then forward. Oh, my! Mommy told Aunt Katrina that this was normal. but that if she were to let out the clutch more slowly, the tractor would not jump as high.

Now Aunt Katrina was ready to roll. Mommy told her to practice steering around the edge of the field. Aunt Karen did that. So, all was still going well.

Aunt Katrina practiced and practiced. She became good at steering around the field.

Then it was time to go home. "Okay," Mommy told her, "we better go home now. It's getting late." With that, Mommy started walking back to the house. Perhaps that was Mommy's second mistake.

Aunt Katrina followed on the tractor. Almost immediately, she ran across a barbed wire fence.

"Help!" she called. "How do you turn off the tractor?"

Mommy did not hear her. She had walked too fast and was too far ahead. Perhaps that was Mommy's third mistake.

A few minutes later, Mommy looked around. She could not find Aunt Katrina. She walked back a little bit, and there she found her — and the tractor — all tangled up in the barbed wire fence.

Aunt Katrina had only one thing to say when she saw Mommy. "How do you turn off this thing?" she asked.

At last, Mommy told her.

Conclusion: Do not start something, unless you know how to stop it.


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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.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Be a Mentor

A mentor is more than a cheerleader. A mentor oversees and actively supports the development of the mentee.

Socrates may have been the first great mentor. Socrates mentored Plato, among others. Plato, in turn, wrote down the ideas of Socrates, making Socrates's name and ideas known to generations of scholars and ensuring Socrates's eternal fame.

Mentoring others is truly one of life's greatest joys. It is very rewarding seeing someone whom you have helped with career and skill development moving into good, new positions. Often, mentees hand an even greater reward to their mentors by passing on through the mentoring of others what has been given to them. Sometimes they can do more to enhance one's reputation than one can do for oneself.

I learned to mentor because I had good mentors. Some came from my military days; the military perhaps more than any other organization knows about mentoring. Some came from my academic days, and some came from daily life.

I remember one mentor at work. I will not give his real name here because for some former colleagues that would also reveal the identity of the bad boss and nonmentor who followed him, and I should probably protect the guilty in this case. Howard was the first civilian boss I had. We worked together well. He gave me much independence, was excellent at playing devil's advocate, and would freely spend any amount of time in discussing ideas, theories, and plans with me. When he was promoted, I was very much disappointed by his replacement who not only did not mentor but also was actually destructive in his relationships with employees. As a result, I decided to fire the new boss by moving on to other work. When that happened, Howard met with me, expressed his concern that I would leave, and told me something that I have never forgotten.

"Had I known what was going to happen to you," he said, "I would never have accepted the promotion. I don't need the money, and I don't need the recognition."

Clearly, Howard took mentoring seriously. That comment made some of the other difficulties more bearable. In my mentoring, I have often thought of Ron and wondered if, given the same situation, I would be willing to turn down a promotion for the sake of a mentee. Fortunately, I have not had to make that kind of decision, but I think such a decision would bring with it many rewards.

I have had several mentees in my life and have garnered many psychic rewards from mentoring them. While some have gone on to different kinds of careers, most have stayed in touch. Many have acknowledged me in their dissertations and publications. Some have become friends, and I stay with them when I travel. Others have become well known in my career field and have contributed chapters to books I have edited. Some have gone on to become colleagues; they may be the very best, most supportive colleagues.

One of the most heart-warming experiences I have had in mentoring was a 4:00 a.m. call on a Saturday morning from a former mentee who had gone on to become a colleague, then surpassed my own aspirations, and now was selected for a high government post. I was the first person he called with the news -- but he forgot about the time difference between his location and mine. No matter! Who does not enjoy being awakened to that kind of news?!

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Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Farmer in Leningrad

Mommy, the farmer's daughter, grew up to work in a profession that required her to live in the city. It also required her to do some fancy things once in a while.

Once Mommy and my sister were in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Back then, it was called Leningrad.) Mommy and my sister were visiting the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate there, and they were the guests of honor at breakfast.

Mommy and my sister talked with everyone around the table. The guests chatted, as the maid placed an eggcup with an egg in front of each person's plate.

Mommy did not know what to do with the egg in the eggcup. She thought about it, as she continued to talk, and she still could not figure it out. There was not an obvious way to handle it. She watched what the others were doing. What they were doing was waiting for her, the guest of honor, to start eating before they did. Here was a dilemma. Mommy kept talking, hoping that someone would get hungry enough to start eating, but none did. That is the way it is with diplomats. They have to be polite.

Finally, Mommy was very hungry, and she figured everyone else was, too. She decided to do a very brave thing. She would eat her egg as she was used to eating it. She seized the egg, dragged it out of the eggcup onto her plate, and smashed it with a knife.

The egg was very soft. It made a very big mess on Mommy's plate.

Everyone else then gently tapped open his or her eggs with a spoon and scooped out the egg bit by bit, eating it. My sister did that, too, as she whispered to Mommy, "I don't think you were supposed to kill the egg with a knife."

Poor Mommy! She was not able to eat very much of that egg, so she was very hungry after breakfast.

She was also embarrassed, but she was used to that. She had learned over time that things are done differently in the country and the city.

Her first embarrassing high society incident occurred while she was at college. Her best friend invited her to Philadelphia. There her family took the two of them to a very expensive restaurant for dinner. Mommy dressed up as best as she could, and she was on her very best behavior. At least, she tried to be.

She did not like soup, however, and had never been able to force herself to eat it. (That was very strange for a farm girl, where soup is a staple, but that is the way it was then with Mommy.)

So, when the waiter brought her a huge bowl of warm liquid, she picked up her soup spoon and enthusiastically started sipping what she considered to be a very tasteless dish.

The waiter looked very confused. "Miss," he said. "This is the finger bowl for washing your hands."

Conclusion: You can take the farmer off the farm, but you cannot take the farm out of the farmer.

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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.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Be Someone's Cheerleader

One of the most rewarding "jobs" is to be someone's cheerleader. Most people need a cheerleader at one time or another, and most can be a cheerleader for others. There are likely to be any number of people among your friends who need and deserve a cheerleader.

There are all kinds of circumstances in which one can act as a cheerleader. Perhaps someone you know is looking for work, and success is elusive. Keeping that person's spirits and hope high is one way to be a cheerleader.

Another way to be a cheerleader is to support someone trying to reach a specific goal. Perhaps a colleague wants to become an American citizen and needs to take some tests. Perhaps a relative wants to get a GED and needs to go through that series of tests. Perhaps a friend is experiencing medical problems and needs to find the right treatment and the right doctor. Doing such things alone can be discouraging. Having someone in the background who sends positive signals, is confident that success is attainable, and even occasionally directly helps can make a critical difference.

As a teacher and academic administrator, I was a cheerleader for all my students. I think that is natural and necessary if one wants to have a successful educational program. In one government language training program that I supervised, there was an older enlisted student, Thomas (not his real name), who had applied for appointment to warrant officer. I provided encouragement in the ways that I could, which were all indirect, although I did let the Air Force know that Thomas was an exceptional student.

I considered my participation in Thomas's life to be only that of a supportive administrator. Therefore, when Thomas received the appointment and invited me to attend the swearing-in ceremony in the office of one of the generals in the Pentagon, I assumed that this would be a grand and gala affair. It turned out to be very private: his immediate family, the general for whom he had worked, five or six friends, and I. He commented that he was pleased because "all the meaningful people" in his life had showed up for this important moment. What a reward for being a cheerleader!

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Excerpted and adapted from 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.
   

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