Author Archives: kiwi-monster

About kiwi-monster

I am a mother of two, wife of an archaeologist, IT Manager at a University, and hobbyist writer. If you enjoy my posts let me know so that my id can be coaxed into letting me write more often.

The Threat of Not Caring

For those of you who can look at a swastika or a confederate flag and say “Why can’t people just let it be?” I have been thinking: maybe you haven’t had the experiences I have had. Maybe you don’t know the things I know. Here is why we can’t “let it be.”

The Nazis imagined a purified society ruled by what they thought to be a master race. They tortured, mutilated, stole from and murdered millions of people. Not as part of some other plan. The genocide was the plan. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe you didn’t read the Diary of Anne Frank when you were twelve years old. Maybe you didn’t identify with the young Jewish girl hiding with her family during World War II. Maybe you didn’t read the epilogue, horrified to learn that she died in a concentration camp. That her father found her diary afterwards, read what she wrote about how she still believed people were good, and decided to publish her private thoughts so people all over the world could understand what we lost when Anne was murdered. Maybe you didn’t have that experience.

Maybe you didn’t grow up as a non-theist, being told several times that you were going to burn in hell, as I did. The first time it happened I was six years old. I heard the threat implied by those words: you’re not in the in-group, you’re not good, you’re not worthy. It’s not quite “I’m going to kill you” but more “If someone else killed you, I wouldn’t mind.” I mean, after all, if my soul is damned, why should anyone bother to protect my corporeal form? This is why a belief in the supernatural is so dangerous – it allows people to believe and do terrible things. Every time I meet a new person, I wonder: if they knew I didn’t believe in any supernatural beings, would they see me as less human? Would they care if someone murdered me for it? I am constantly reminded, by the passive assumption that Christian=good – or, at least, that religious=good – that I am seen as less human than other people. Maybe you haven’t had that experience.

I am not a person of color, so I don’t know what that’s like. But here is what I imagine. Seeing a confederate flag in a public place says to me: you are not wanted here, you are not in the in-group. It’s not quite the threat of “I’m going to kill you” but rather “if the police shoot you, I won’t mind.” The flag is not an offense. It’s a message. And the message is: white=good. White is best. All others are less than. Not quite human.

Being reminded that you are seen as not quite human is terrifying. As a human, I rely on other humans to support the environment I survive in. If they reject me, I will die. If they ignore me, I will suffer. If they exclude me, I will not thrive. And any monster may come to take me. A Nazi. A white supremacist. A fundamentalist Christian. A frightened cop. An angry young man who defines his self worth by sexual conquest. Poverty. Disease. Starvation. Any of these monsters could take me, and people won’t mind.

That is why we can’t be quiet. Why we can’t brush aside cruel remarks, or fascist symbols, or racist flags. It has to be called out. In my case, I’m asking: “Will you care if someone kills me? Am I human to you?”

Things you can do if you don’t understand:

  • Read the Diary of Anne Frank, a murdered Jewish girl whose spirit survives.
  • Watch the film Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Listen to a talk given by a holocaust survivor.
  • Read a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Consider that people were born into slavery under our system. Families were forcibly separated. For generations.
  • Read the books 1493 and 1491.
  • Read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Ask a Jewish friend if they have ever received death threats. They have.
  • Read about Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and murdered for offending a white woman.
  • Read about Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay.

It matters what people think. It matters what people say. It matters what ideas we promote or condone. It matters that public figures are equating a movement explicitly devoted to kicking non-whites out of the country with a movement devoted to highlighting the inhumane treatment of people of color. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are not simply competing theories or opinions, like a disagreement between environmental protection and resource extraction. One is about dehumanizing people, and the other is about re-humanizing them.

BLM might well have called themselves “Black Lives Matter, right? Right? Right….?” Either way the answer has been a deafening silence.

The Nazis gassed people in chambers. It took a while to die. People tried to claw their way out. Their fingernails broke off and stuck in the walls. Sometimes, the Nazis threw emaciated people into mass pits, before they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People.

People did this to people. Ordinary people did this. And not that long ago. And in a culture not far different from our own.

American soldiers took German civilians afterwards into the camps and confronted them. The American soldiers were horrified. Adult men weighing 70 pounds – walking skeletons. Mass graves. Murdered children. The Germans acted like they didn’t know. But it was worse than not knowing.

They just didn’t care.

Nations of the World: Kurdistan

Şahmaran

“Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” – Kurdish saying

The Kurdish people today live in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, a largely mountainous region they have occupied for perhaps as much as 2,000 years. Kurdish people have lived under the rule of the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and others. While they lack a single autonomous country of their own (see however: Iraqi Kurdistan) they have proven to be an irrepressible ethnic group.

The Turkish government, in its nationalist zeal, attempted to suppress Kurdish culture by calling the people “Mountain Turks” and prohibiting use of the Kurdish language. Yet today there are between 20 and 30 million native Kurdish speakers.

The Kurdish myth of Shahmaran, the queen of snakes, is more heart-warming than it sounds. There are of course many variations, as the story has traveled thousands of miles and probably thousands of years. In this version, the queen of snakes saves a young man abandoned by his friends in a well. He later betrays her unwillingly to the king’s men, who cut her into three pieces. But even as she dies she manages to save the young man and to outwit their enemies.

Although Kurds today embrace more modern religions, the myth of Shahmaran persists in Kurdish culture. With the head of a woman and body of a snake, you might expect her to be terrifying, but she is more of a positive image than a frightening one. And as a figure divided but still powerful, I find her a worthy symbol of the Kurdish people.

 

How Writing Should Be Taught

pencil

The way writing is taught is, by and large, terrible.

Starting at an early age, English teachers encourage students to think of writing as an unbearable chore, a hellish task, and something that only the rarefied few will ever excel at. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I loved writing as a kid, and love it still, but it was in spite of my writing teachers, not because of them. They did their damnedest to make writing a miserable experience. Frequently a first draft writing assignment would come back to me marked up with red ink, with harsh comments in the columns. This is not the way to teach a creative process.

Often the way writing is graded by teachers puts too much focus on the mechanics. I know why teachers do this. It is a fact that poor mechanics in writing will make other people think you are stupid. A single typo on a resume could mean you don’t get invited for an interview. People love finding ways to elevate themselves above others, and the English language is an absolute minefield of opportunities for error – homophones, silent letters, foreign spellings, irregular plural markers. And often in modern society your first impression on another person is through your writing. An error in mechanics can have an outsize impact.

But writing is not mechanics. Writing is not spelling and grammar and handwriting. Those are the tools we use to produce writing, just as paintbrushes, paint and brush strokes are the tools a painter uses to create art. But the writing itself is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Writing can be many things. Analysis. Explanation. Persuasion. Expression. Good writing has a voice that is unique to the writer, and ideas combined in new ways. The raw material of writing is drawn from experience, and the practice of writing improves the result. This is a creative endeavor, and it should be taught as such.

If art teachers taught painting the way English teachers teach writing, no one would enjoy art. And in fact, some art teachers do teach art badly, and the result is a lot of people giving up on something they enjoy, because they think they can’t “hack it” as artists. Shame on those teachers.

Imagine if you were trying to learn to paint, and every time the art teacher came around to look at your work they said things like “your lines aren’t straight enough” or “these proportions are all wrong”. How long would you last under that treatment?

And yet so many people think this is the way to teach writing. The vast majority of my writing teachers felt it was appropriate to laser in on every error, prejudge my work before talking to me, and to deconstruct what I wrote rather than to engage with it holistically. Very few of them ever asked questions like “what were you trying to do with this section?” – and of the few who did, I LOVED those teachers.

edited paper

By way of contrast, let me describe the methods of my favorite art teacher.

First, she made us comfortable. She made tea. Sometimes there were crackers or little cookies to nibble on. We talked about our week, and how we were feeling that day. Sometimes a student was tired or just “not feeling it today” and would abstain from painting. Instead, they would watch the rest of the class and provide encouragement. This had the double benefit of giving them a break (you can’t force art) and making the process feel more like a team effort.

Next, she helped us find ideas. You can’t just sit down to paint. You need to have something in mind that you want to work on. Often, this is the hardest part of the creative process – just getting started. Sometimes she would bring a curious object. “I found this wierd lamp at a yard sale!” she would say, holding up some ugly glass thing. “Anyone want to paint it?” Often, she took us outside, where the light and subjects were always changing, and inspiration was much easier to find. If we brought our own ideas to work on, she encouraged that heartily.

She engaged with our art on its own merits, not based on what she wanted us to produce. Once we were sitting in the alley, painting a scene of the fence and trees in her back yard. She came to look at what I was working on, and asked me “tell me about your piece.” This gave me the opportunity to describe what I had picked and why. “I liked the way the light was coming through the tree and breaking up on the fence. See? I’m painting the speckles.” She nodded. “That’s great!” she would say with real enthusiasm. She meant the idea, not the painting – she was encouraging the process, not the mechanics. She did not say things like “your fence lines are all wavy” or “this shading is all wrong.” She might, however, after asking several questions about the choices I had made and the techniques I had chosen to employ, offer some advice about technique. “You’re spending a lot of time in this corner of the paper. See if you can fill the whole sheet.” This had the effect of stretching me, encouraging me to build on what I had already achieved. It buoyed me, and made me want to work harder. If she had criticized my fence lines, do you think I would have felt buoyed? I don’t think so.

alley with fence

The way writing is taught can be this way. It SHOULD be this way.

Writing is a creative process, and writers get better with practice. Too much focus on mechanics, like spelling and handwriting, gets in the way and discourages people from the real meat and potatoes of writing – the analysis, the expression. Does a 9th grade English teacher really think they are going to improve on a student’s handwriting at that point? Are they really going to succeed where the 3rd grade teacher, who spent considerably more effort, has failed? If a person has bad hand-writing by the 9th grade, they probably always will. Give that student a computer and never look back. And as far as spelling goes, that is something that improves the more a person READS. Correcting spelling is important, but it should happen at the end of the editing process, never near the beginning of the writing process. And this is where a computer can shine, too. Students should be taught not to trust spell check or auto-correct completely, but to use them as tools to help find errors, which are difficult to see even for the most experienced of writers.

Writing, a skill so needed to be successful in our modern society, must be taught in such a way that it does not terrify or shame the student. Here is a hypothetical way that a writing teacher could adapt the methods of my favorite art teacher, and in fact, a poetry teacher of mine did many of these exact things.

First, encourage students to WANT to write. By 6th grade, many of my classmates had come to view writing as some form of punishment. Perhaps if they had been invited to write about something that was of interest to them, they would have been more inclined. For example: you like model planes? Here is a book about it. Write me a page about anything you loved in here. That sort of method works for some people. For others, writing seems like a boring, pointless pursuit. Appeal to them on practical grounds. Don’t like the way the city runs the parks? Write them a letter. Don’t like the way the movie theater overcharges for popcorn? Write a complaint. Write a review. Want to get a scholarship? Write an essay. For people who don’t enjoy the expressive or explanatory aspects of writing, it’s important to show them its practical value as a tool for getting what they want in life.

Second, encourage an environment where writing can happen at all. Asking a class to sit down together – with people they perhaps don’t like, in uncomfortable wooden chairs, with fluorescent lights overhead, in a drafty room, probably on an empty stomach, tired from staying up too late watching TV – to write an essay about the use of symbolism in Catcher in the Rye, is just too damn much. The hand writing is bad, and they know it, but they can’t help it. Their spelling is wrong, and they know it. They never much liked Sallinger anyway – they prefer Star Trek/My Little Pony cross-over fanfic. They can’t think of anything to write. Their mind is wandering. They scribble something down. They turn it in. They get it back the next day, covered in red ink. Missing paragraph breaks. Poor transitions. Lacks a conclusion or thesis. They got the dates wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, all wrong. This is not a situation that’s conducive to writing.

Here is what my poetry teacher did. He asked us how we were feeling. We chatted, we laughed, together as a group. He took us outside, had us walk around, and talk to each other about what we were seeing, smelling, feeling. He gave us good writing to read, and we talked about it, as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and making new connections. Then, and only then, he had us write.

Third, always engage with the writer first, not the writing. Ask questions. “Tell me what you were trying to do” is a good place to start. Writing is just thinking, written down in a linear fashion. Our brains don’t really think the same way that writing works, and this translation is harder than most people appreciate. A good teacher will ask the student to think about what they were trying to accomplish, and then help them assess whether or not they achieved that.

Fourth, encourage the writer’s voice. If I had a nickel for every time a teacher told me a phrase I used was “too informal” or used “inappropriate tone” I could buy a sandwich. Fortunately, I had some well of “fuck you” to draw on that saw me through those frustrating situations. I often argued with my teachers. I would say “that is my voice and if you don’t like it, too bad.” Later in life I have looked at these writing samples and agreed with my teacher’s comments, but that is NOT the point. By commenting on my voice, they were telling me what my voice should be, and that is wrong. If my art teacher had said my painting in the alley was “too cheerful” she would have been just as wrong. Perhaps my tone was inappropriate to what I was trying to achieve with my piece, but did these teachers ask what my intent was and engage me that way? No. They assumed and dictated, and in doing so, they were inadvertently crushing my unique voice and risking damaging my desire to write at all.

Finally, the last thing a teacher should do is to critique mechanics. Mechanics do need to be taught. Good writing does need to be readable. But there is a reason that professional writers write first and edit later. Writing and editing are two completely different processes.

My art teacher gave suggestions, but they were not commands. If I chose to ignore her and press forward, she never said another word unless I asked for help. Once, when I expressed frustration with a piece – and crucially, was in a place where I wanted to hear advice – she suggested that my painting looked overworked. That I needed to learn to recognize when it was done and to stop, to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer. In this way, she gave me an idea for future pieces, but was not overly critical of the one I had just produced. I took this feedback graciously and have carried it with me ever since.

girl writing at chalkboard

And so, in conclusion (look at me! I have a conclusion!) I learned more about writing from an art teacher I met with a few times for fun on Saturday mornings, than I did from countless hours spent with English teachers and their red pens. Writing is an art form, and a crucial skill for success as an adult. Everyone can learn to do it well, but only if they practice. And people will only practice if they enjoy it at least a little bit.

Writing can be a powerful expressive skill. Teachers, please: don’t kill that spark.

Goodness and Compassion

How good or evil a person is has less to do with innate virtue and more to do with opportunity and example. If we want people to be good, we need to make sure their basic needs are met. The only other solution is to kill them, and so far we have not found a way to do that that does not harm us, too.

There is no limit to what happy, well-fed, well-loved people can accomplish working together.

I am not naive. My compassion is logical and evidence-based.

If the suffering and problems of other people overwhelms you because you have too much suffering of your own, that’s okay. I will be the compassion champion for you, too.

To Be Taken With a Grain of Salt

salt-1475007_640

I wrote this in 1998, when I was 20 years old. I’m posting it here with no edits.

I am pleased to say that I have mostly followed my own advice.

Note: the part about integrity right after I displayed my love of being inscrutable was meant to be a little inside joke. I’m funny like that (or at least, I think I am).

To be taken with a grain of salt

Make friends of your enemies.
Celebrate diversity, sometimes; other times, transcend superficial differences.
Reveal your heart; be vulnerable.
Know when to speak up; know when to shut your mouth.
Embrace others suffering as your own.
Cry passionately.
Laugh heartily.
Give firm, bone-crushing hugs.
Look for trouble.
Fight injustice.
Change things.
Never be content.
Listen to loud music.
When no one’s around, drive fast.
Tell the neighbors to go to hell.
Bake them cookies.
Call your grandmother and tell her you love her.
Kiss slowly.
Talk to little kids; pretend they are adults.
Ask kids their opinion; take their ideas seriously.
Sometimes, dress sloppy; other times, dress up.
Never be typecast.
Integrity, integrity, integrity.
Watch leaves fall.
Admire the sunset, the sunrise.
Go out for coffee, even though you have some at home.
Kiss leaves.
Be careful which leaves, though.
Sing to plants – sing to yourself.
Treat your pets like friends.
Be serious, be silly.
Laugh at yourself.
Like yourself.
Do little things for others; don’t tell anybody.
Take showers with your lover.
Have tickle-fights. Win.
Sometimes, watch the news; other times, watch The Simpsons.
Cuddle.
Stop to smell flowers.
Smile back at daisies.
Let snowflakes melt on your tongue.
If you like someone, say so.
If you don’t, find out why.
Be creative with food.
Build your own furniture.
Share books.
Bicycle to work.
Lie down on the floor – on your back – stretch out and relax.
Learn to play an instrument; go outside to practice.
Smile at passersby.
Live in the city; live in the country.
Plant trees. Name them.
Learn a second language. And then a third.
Waste nothing.
Take only what you need.
Share food with friends; split the cost.
Tell your friends you love them; tell them why.
Watch the Discovery Channel.
Watch the Muppets – they’re still funny.
Leave work and drive to the coast – watch the sun set – and then go home.
Wear scandalous underwear.
Gaze at the stars; wink back.
Howl at the moon.
Let your dog kiss you.
Work hard.
Don’t look at the clock.
Put up Dilbert strips.
Smile, for no reason at all.

 

Nations of the World: Navajo

monument-valley-986395_640

Today I read about the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and you should, too. The short version is that coal mining and uranium mining was developed in the region with the promise of developing the economy. Instead it left the region and the Navajo people with polluted air, a depleted aquifer, and a ruined economy.  Now local activists are working to replace the defunct coal mines with solar energy, turning polluted, damaged land into something that can produce real value to the region. (Click the link above to learn more or donate.)

The Navajo live in the Four Corners region in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, having moved into the region about 600 years ago. The nation has over 300,000 enrolled tribal members – about the same number of people as Iceland.

Navajo mythology contains one of my favorite mythical characters of any time or place: Coyote, the trickster. But, I stumbled across this legend that’s more modern, and worth a quick read (and a thoughtful chuckle): The Navajo and the Astronaut.

The Navajo nation, contrary to what your high school history book may have lead you to believe, is not defunct. They are struggling with economic hardships, poor high school graduation rates, and high levels of cancer and diabetes. But they are still telling stories, and they are still developing their land to make a home for their families.

Traditional Navajo houses are always built facing East to welcome the morning sun, the way Coyote taught them. I can’t think of a better metaphor for hope.

Hell

Hell is empty; there’s no one there
No breeze to stir the stagnant air
No tempest tempting something sweet
No pain or change to senses’ treat
A place where only regrets may dwell
Forever motionless, that is my hell

Perfect Man

One day I thought I’d try my hand
At writing up the Perfect Man
I wrote him kind, I wrote him keen
I wrote him the best you’ve ever seen
He pleased me ’cause he loved me so
T’was I who wrote him, so I should know
He brought me flowers, he sang me songs
We talked for hours, he was never wrong
He kissed my tears, was kind to my friends
Listened with a patience that never ends
But he had no thoughts that were his own
He never used an impassioned tone
He never challenged a thing I said
He repeated only what he’d been fed
I realized I wrote him so
So I wrote him a door and let him go
I wrote him away so he could be free
For Perfect Man can’t belong to me

The Pumpkin

My daughter asked me to write about a pumpkin, so here goes.

Giant pumpkin
burning bright
in the suburbs
of the night
your ghoulish grin
and hollow eyes
brought to life
by sharpened knives
your guts ripped out
a fire within
your head comes off
to let it in
silently
you stand guard
o’er goblins and ladies
who trek thru your yard
the last dark hope
of autumn’s time
you laugh and rot
into the long
winter’s
night