Friday, September 25, 2015

5 Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About Pope Francis
Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, has been causing quite a stir this week with his visit to the U.S. cities of Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. Throngs of people have turned out to greet him, listen to him speak, or attend Mass celebrated by him.  The 24-hour news media have provided pope coverage 24 hours a day during his visit.  U.S. political leaders invited him to address a joint session of Congress, and today he gave a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Many of this country and the world's most powerful have gone to great lengths to shake his hand. 

And he, Pope Francis, in his usual humble way, has turned his attention during this U.S. visit to the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned. His message has been one of love, forgiveness, acceptance, and the need to care for the planet which God gave us to live on.

A Pope of Firsts

Most people know that he is the first pope to be born in the Americas; He is Argentinian, born in Buenos Aires. His birth name, which he used up until he became pope in 2013, is Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

He is the first pope to take the name of Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian saint who gave up a life of wealth in favor of extreme poverty and who believed it is the duty of all to protect nature.

He is the first Jesuit to become pope. Jesuit priests belong to the Society of Jesus, an organization founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500’s. Missionary work is their core, but they may be most famously known for their academic prowess and the large number of topnotch colleges and universities they have founded, including Georgetown, Boston College, and Marquette University. Jesuits tend to be “free thinkers,” which is maybe why there hasn’t been a Jesuit pope before now.

You might have even heard that he is the first pope in 110 years who refuses to live in the Vatican’s grandiose Apostolic Palace. Instead, he lives in a simple apartment in the Vatican guesthouse, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, (St. Martha’s House), on the edge of Vatican City. He has apparently said that he doesn’t like being isolated and he enjoys daily contact with ordinary people, which these more humble quarters allow. And of course, he refuses to ride in limousines, preferring instead his favorite used Fiat while in Rome and a modified Jeep Wrangler Popemobile for his U.S. visit.

5 Interesting Facts About Pope Francis

Much is already known about this very public man, but there may be some things you hadn’t heard. For instance,

1)  Pope Francis has nine Twitter accounts! Each is in a different language. His English language Twitter account has 7.34 million followers (as of this posting). Worldwide his number of followers is second only to that of U.S. President Barack Obama with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million global followers. However, with an average of 9, 929 retweets-per-tweet, he is considered the most influential tweeter on the planet. 

2)  Pope Francis once held a job as nightclub bouncer. Obviously, this was before he joined the priesthood. He also worked as a janitor, sweeping floors, and as a chemical technician which is what he studied in college before he got his advanced degrees in philosophy and theology.

3) You can probably guess that Pope Francis is a soccer fan—a HUGE soccer fan by his own account. He has been a lifelong, passionate supporter of Argentina’s San Lorenzo football team. He has said that his love for that particular sport and team is "part of my cultural identity."  But you might not know that another part of his cultural identity is that he used to dance the Tango! He has admitted to a biographer that he “loves tango” and that there was a certain young woman that he used to share his love of tango with.

4)  It might not surprise you to learn that when Francis, then Jorge, was promoted to Cardinal in 2001 he asked those who supported him in Argentina not to come to Rome to attend the ceremony, but instead to take the money they would have spent on the journey and donate it to the poor. Nor to learn that in 2005 he supposedly came in second in behind Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then elected Pope Benedict XVI upon the death of John Paul II.  However, did you know that Pope Francis’ mother did not want him to become a priest in the first place? According to Francis, she eventually acquiesced and even asked for his blessing once he was ordained.

5)  Pope Francis was the proud owner of not one, but two Harley Davidson motorcycles for a short while. A very short while, it turns out. The motorcycles were originally intended as a gift from Willie Davidson, grandson of the original founder of the Harley Davidson company, to Pope Benedict XVI to commemorate the 110th anniversary of that famous company in 2013. In fact, that pontiff had blessed and signed the two gas tanks the previous year. But Benedict abdicated before he could take possession of the Hogs, and so they ended up in Francis’ garage. Hand-me-downs, I guess you could say.

Both cycles—a Dyna Super Glide and a Heritage Softail Classic—along with a leather Harley Davidson jacket signed by Pope Francis—were sold at auction, with the Dyna Super Glide fetching around $327,000 in 2014. One lucky rider managed to snag the Softail Classic for a bargain price of $67,700 a year later. The leather jacket?  Reports are that it was snatched up for somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000. All proceed went to the Pope’s favorite soup kitchen charity in Rome.

There are no reports of Francis having ridden either of the Hogs, but c’mon! A soccer-loving, tango-dancing former nightclub bouncer who defied his mother and refuses to ride in limousines? Can’t you just picture it? Sneakin’ out after dark… shrugging on the leather jacket…v-room v-room…!

What goodies have you heard about this popular Pope?  Post your comments here. I just love hearing about this man!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Discovering Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

I have recently retired from forty years of teaching. It was a rewarding forty years, and I have to admit my job defined me. Most people look at retirement as the ending of something, but I see it as the opportunity to embrace something new in my life. I don’t expect to stop teaching. At some point, after the wonder of having whole days to do nothing or to do whatever I want, I expect to either tutor, find a part-time job, or volunteer as a teacher. Teaching is a skill set I have no intention of letting go of.

But I am also an avid learner and a writer. So, three weeks ago I took a deep breath and stepped away from my teacher desk, walked out the door of my school, and took the plunge into the next adventure in life. I’m still figuring out what shape that adventure will take, but poking around, I have come across some interesting guideposts.  One of those guideposts is by a blogger I have only just discovered: her name is Maria Popova and her blog is called Brain Pickings.

From what I gather, Ms. Popova contacted a few friends in 2006 announcing her intention to start “a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week.” Apparently her Brain Pickings became so popular that her readership grew from the few friends to over a million readers from all over the world. I, of course, am generally late to the party, so it looks like I have nine years of Brain Pickings to catch up on. But I look forward to exploring Ms. Popova’s backposts.

What first caught my attention, however, was an entry from October of 2013 titled, “7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living.” In this short essay, Ms. Popova explained that she is often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or to “those reorienting their calling at any stage of life.” That would be me! And while she doesn’t like to use the word “advice” she does offer these seven tidbits of “learning.”  Here they are in the short version:
  • Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  • Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone.
  • Be generous.
  • Build pockets of stillness into your life.
  • When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. 
  • Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity
  • Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.
Of course, she expands on each of the above and gives credit where credit is due. I recommend you read her entire post for yourself.  But when I think about the people in my circle that I admire the most, they seemingly embrace (likely naturally) most if not all of these precepts and live their lives being generous, being present, willing to work on their passions over the long haul, and do it for satisfaction rather than prestige, status, or money (most of which they attain regardless).  I’d love to say these seven tidbits of learning are the mantra I live by, but I have to admit that they are only what I strive for.  But striving is good, right? 

Maria Popova also lists her seven favorite Brain Pickings posts, which provide a good starting point for exploring her blog, the first of which is the intriguing sounding “The Art of Looking: What 11Experts Teach Us about Seeing Our Familiar City Block with New Eyes.”  I am off to read that one.  Perhaps you will, too?

Let me know in the comments if you find one or more of her posts that particulary speak to you. I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Can Mindfulness Rewire the Brain to Cause Kindness, Compassion, and Ease?

The Dalai Lama issued neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison a challenge: instead of spending so much time studying conditions like fear, depression, and anxiety, why not apply your rigorous scientific methodology to studying the qualities of kindness and compassion? That was in 1992, and Dr. Davidson has been doing just that ever since.

One manifestation of Dr. Davidson’s work is the mindfulness training going on in schools like Glenn Stephens Elementary, here in Madison where I currently teach. Our 4K classes have been learning the power of empathy and kindness through mindfulness as part of their social emotional curriculum; and our fifth graders and their teachers are learning mindfulness techniques as well. Both experiences are part of larger research studies being conducted by the UW's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded and headed by Dr. Davidson.

This week I was invited to watch and discuss an incredible documentary on the power of mindfulness meditation (thank you, Marci of Backyard Yoga!) called Free the Mind: Can You Rewire the Brain Just by Taking a Breath? The film traces two unique research projects at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. In one a group of veterans, all suffering from PTSD, went through an intensive meditation training program. The purpose of the training was to attempt to rewire their brains so that they could reduce the amount of daily trauma they were suffering. The research methodology was rigorous, using MRIs, attitude inventories, and other methods of documenting and analyzing emotional and physical changes in the men. A corollary project was going on in the Waisman Center’s preschool program. The children participated in compassion meditation training.

The focus of the film was on two Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD and a five year old suffering from ADHD and extreme anxiety.  One of the veterans had witnessed unforgettable horrors during the war including when one of his buddies had all four limbs blown off. The other had been an intelligence officer and interrogator and suffered immense guilt over what he’d done to others. The five year old had many manifestations of his anxiety, but the most visible and heart wrenching was his deep fear of elevators. 

The men made measurable improvement in their ability to deal with their PTSD in just seven days, with residual effects in the months afterward. The film ended with the little boy getting onto the Center’s elevator with a group of his classmates—although not without trepidation—and riding to the sixth floor to look out the window from that height.

I’ve been reading a lot about the success various schools have been having with meditation techniques such as Transcendental Meditation. Celebrities like Anderson Cooper and Jerry Seinfeld have reported on how learning meditation changed their lives.  The technique used by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds is called “mindfulness.” 

Dr. Davidson is quoted on the movie’s website as saying, “We actually have no idea of how conscious experience arises from this blob of matter that weighs three pounds. It’s really still very much a mystery.” And, "The brain is the most complicated organ in the universe...we're just beginning this journey [of discovering how it works]."  Watch for more posts on this subject as I begin to explore my own mindfulness and the work of people like Dr. Richard Davidson.

If you’d like to read more this topic, try these titles:

Read about my experience when the Dalai Lama came to Madison.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival Features Peter Anton in "Almost There" Documentary

One of the jewels of the Madison cultural scene is the Wisconsin Film Festival. This year’s 150 films are spread throughout seven theaters over a span of eight days.  Run largely by the grace of a huge volunteer force (headed up by a relatively small paid staff), the festival prides itself on its diverse offerings from a wide variety of international fair to “Wisconsin’s Own” offerings, from student films to a recently discovered Orson Welles film.

This year my husband Mark and I lucked into a couple of tickets (thanks, Stan and Theresa!) to the festival’s showcase documentary, Almost There.  Described as a “coming-of-(old)-age story,” the film traces the discovery of 83 year old “outsider” artist Peter Anton who was found living in isolated squalor in East Chicago, Indiana.  At times hard to watch, the film takes the viewer on an emotional journey as Anton’s first chance at artistic recognition is brought low by a potentially sordid discovery about his past. But this particular tortured artist ultimately demonstrates his resiliency and this particular audience member (me) was left with a sense of awe and wonder at how his life turns out. 

The film probes many facets of the human experience: creative obsession, mental illness, the heroic if unappreciated willingess of individuals to step up and try to make a difference in another person's life, and so much more that you have to see it to get it. What I was amazed by was the way in which Anton, irrascible and often demanding, drew people to him. From the little girl who cleaned up his pastels at the Pierogi Festival to the neighbors and social workers who made sure he had a place to live and food to eat, people constantly looked beyond his scabbed face and unkempt hair and clothes to the inner man. While some might say he used those who reached out to help him, in the end he gave as much as he took in terms of lifting others up. There were just an incredible number of layers to this film.

Almost There was co-produced and co-directed by Chicago filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden who were just as repelled by and drawn in to Anton’s life as the people they interviewed and featured in the documentary. Their ability to take eight years worth of footage and tell a difficult yet compelling story with honesty, focus, and the unexpected twists and turns of life makes the film Oscar quality in this reviewer's opinion.

For those who find in-depth studies of humanity on the personal level to be as fascinating as I do, I highly recommend this film if it screens anywhere near you. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Unravelling Shakespeare

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, produced by the Strollers Theatre company which performs in the Bartell Theatre here in Madison, Wisconsin (thank you, Project Famous, for the complementary tickets!).

The play, under the direction of Greg Harris, uses the traditional Shakespearean script but takes place in present day with modern (or maybe a bit retro) set design and costuming.  While I’ve seen a number of Shakespeare plays produced live or on the big screen, I have to admit up front that I am no scholar of the Elizabethan era bard. And in fact, if I hadn’t quickly Googled Twelfth Night just before the lights went down and the curtain opened and read the Wikipedia entry, I would have been totally lost as far as the storyline goes, despite the fact that the acting was dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged regardless of whether we (meaning me) understood the plot or not.

Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

Shakespeare is a unique beast in the literary world. The grand master of complex plots, he seems to have generated quite a controversy over who actually penned all those iconic plays. Were they written by the man whose gravestone carries the name William Shakespeare? Or were they, in fact, written by someone else…or perhaps several someone elses?   I had seen a documentary on PBS a number of years ago that made a convincing case for the ghost writer to have been Christopher MarloweOther top contenders appear to be Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and more recently two different women, Mary Sidney and Amelia Bassano (who at one point had an affair with Christopher Marlowe—ah, dear reader, the plot thickens!) among many others.

For those who love a good literary mystery, here are few titles about the authorship of the Shakespearean plays to get you started:

Understanding Shakespeare's Plays

But if you are less concerned with all the controversy surrounding who actually wrote the plays you were forced to study in high school, but just want to understand what they are all about, you might turn to the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered

This series uses a variety of popular actors to walk the viewer through the plots, subplots, characters, and themes of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.  Joseph Fiennes, who first caught my eye in Shakespeare in Love, narrates Romeo & Juliet; Morgan Freeman tackles, The Taming of the Shrew; and Kim Cattrall helps us understand the motivations in Anthony and Cleopatra.  As of this writing, these and others in Shakespeare Uncovered Series II are available in full episodes on the PBS website.  Shakespeare Uncovered Series I, which focuses on Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry the V, among others, is available on DVD through Amazon

What I like about this series is that each episode always begins by taking the viewer back to the Globe Theatre in London, but includes clips from a variety of theatrical productions as well as from popular movies based on the various plays. 

Shakespeare does not make for easy reading or easy viewing. But when you think about the fact that this body of work was written (by whomever) over 400 years ago and are still being produced today, it’s really quite amazing. The themes in his plays are so universal that writers often adapt them to modern storytelling, as found in movies as diverse as West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet),  Ten Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew), She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and The Lion King (Hamlet) .

A playwright who is as popular as ever 400 years later… I wonder how many of today’s writers will have that kind of legacy?  

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Heroes to Me: Ferguson Public Library

I got a kick out of the advertisements this week for the TNT show The Librarians,  featuring young librarians as super heroes.  While not as dramatic and absent the explosions, real life librarians are often truly the super heroes of our society. Case in point: the Ferguson, Missouri Municipal Public Library.

The racial tensions that began in Ferguson, Missouri last August with the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer actually go back to the very beginnings of our nation. Racism is one of the disheartening aspects of American society that weighs on us as a nation. But this story isn’t about racism. It is about the role of libraries in supporting and healing our national psyche.  And the role that the Ferguson library is playing in the healing of that community is a perfect example of how important libraries are, and why their funding should go up in times of economic strife, rather than be cut.

I first heard about the Ferguson library in November on the show of my favorite MSNBC news pundit, Rachel Maddow. Steve Kornacki did the reporting in this 3 ½ minute bit.

Basically, in the midst of all the upheaval and strife that was going on in that community in August of 2014 and again in November, so much so that public schools and many businesses were forced to close, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library announced that they would remain open offering “Wi-fi, water, rest and knowledge” to anyone in need. Children, especially, were invited to spend the day in a setting supervised by over 50 volunteers comprised of parents, teachers, and retirees. Free lunches were provided, along with story times. In November, the library also made space available to businesses looking for a way to preserve records and file insurance claims for damage done during the violence of that month’s protests.

As Steve Kornacki said, “Just by being open this week, by doing pretty much what they do every day, by doing it amidst incredible upheaval in the larger community, by doing that the Ferguson library made a difference…”

A short Weekends with Alex Witt piece (also on MSNBC)  focused on the national response to the story of the Ferguson library. 

That alone is heartening: that all over our nation people will reach out to one small community library to offer support in words and in donations of books and money.  As of this reporting, more than $400,000 was contributed through the donate button on the library’s website, most of it in small amounts from people who care. 

Rachel herself, on December 23rd, featured the Ferguson library in her “Best New Thing in the World Today” segment.  But what she focused on was the fact that the library received so many donated books that they did not have enough personnel to catalogue them all for use by their patrons.  

The best new thing in the world, according the Rachel Maddow, are the librarians from communities as far away as the East Coast who went to Ferguson over the Christmas holidays and volunteered their time to help catalogue the books.

The story of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, the donations that flooded in during a time of need, and the people who stepped up—both locally and from far away—to volunteer, points out one of the wonderful things about America amidst so much that is disheartening and disturbing.  The soul of our nation can be found in many places at many different times, but it can be found any day of the week in any of our local public libraries.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Interview with Ben Perreth of Making Lemonade with Ben Fame

Ben Perreth is an incredibly amazing young man. At age seven he survived a brain hemmorage, as chronicled by his mother Katherine Perreth in the must-read book, Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope.  That singular event launched him and his family on a journey that reads more like fiction, but is every bit reality. I can't say enough about the book. It is a page turner from beginning to end, a roller coaster of emotions, but a story told with incredible humor and perspective. 

In a previous post I interviewed Katherine by email. You'll want to take a look at that conversation. Of course, Katherine is articulate and expressive. But I think you'll be blown away by Ben's own voice. He is an individual with much to say about his life and life in general.  It's no wonder he was elected to travel to Washington D.C. to accept a national award on behalf of the Children's Museum of Madison where he works. I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more from this young man in the future.

A Conversation with Ben Perreth

MCW:  Ben, how old are you now?

Ben:  In months, 310, but in years, 25. Since I started working at the children’s museum I noticed that when I ask how old their babies or toddlers are, parents answer in months. So when they question me, “How old are you?” I answer the same way.

MCW: Tell me about what it was like during the time your mom was writing the book. Were you aware of what she was doing? Did you have any input into it or any influence over what she wrote?
Katherine and Ben Perreth at a local award ceremony
Ben:  I was always thinking that this book would be too much for her, and I was trying to stay out of her way and my dad kept on reminding me until I got it. It was during the last summer when my mom was writing the book, I think when I saw her she was exactly like a statue, always in one place, in the back yard under the lilacs writing very fervently.

Yes, I did have influence. My mom would always come and ask me, “Hey, Ben, I was thinking of taking this out,” or “I think you won’t like this,” and I said to her, “Mom, slow down, go to yoga, remember my words: this book is the only book you’re going to write and you have my stamp of approval for putting in all of it, the ups and downs, depressions, psych ward twice, and going to Disney to enjoy it before the radiation.”

I wrote three sections, from myself. And I have the last word, in the whole book, which I think is very uplifting, especially when people read it.

After I read the final draft of the book I said to my mom, “It’s flawless sprinkled with awesomeness!” And ain’t that the truth!

MCW:  When you look back on the years from when you were seven and into your teens, what memories stick out most in your mind?

Ben: I thought about that and it’s still to this day that the sharpest memories that really stick out are the ones that I am peaceful. Like, five minutes before I drift off to dreamless sleep, knowing that I don’t have to be so resilient at the moment. Hearing my mom’s voice, singing, “I love you, Benjamin.”

Running with my favorite cousins and my brother and sister, running around the red-leaved burning bush and into the garden while my mom took a picture. I felt so alive and the weight of all the bad stuff, the medical, and hospitals and stresses of my life were gone in those moments. 

When I got the news from my drama director, telling me that I got the part of Grandpa Joe, knowing that I made the cast as one of the main parts in the play.

When I went into a new cave, a sense of wonder, astonishment and a deeper sense of longing to find the end of the cave. In Arizona, in my junior year of high school when I was having depression, we went into the biggest cave I’ve ever been in, and I had my body leaning against it, and the guide said, “Ben don’t lean on it more than what you are, because we don’t know how far it goes down.”

I said, “Maybe a mile?”

And she said, “Well, it’s deeper than that.”

I felt, and I made an illustration, that this cave was my life. That there is no end until I finally pass away. It was taking the weight off my chest again, the not knowing what’s in store for my life. It was very moving.

Whenever I’m in an airplane, I’m above the clouds and letting my spirit fly. I’m looking down at night seeing the lights, and seeing the images and shapes in my mind. I saw a baseball player hitting a ball with his bat and the white rabbit in Frosty the Snowman.

When Sam, Sarah, Mom and Dad and I climbed up the very steep hills of the Black Hills, and I saw tens of thousands of grasshoppers. And my mom started singing, “The hills are alive, with the sound of music,” and I started to move like my mom, bringing my arms out, up and floaty, and I felt the increase of my contentment and joy of being wild.

When me and Pilot Neal, it was just us in the Morey Airport taking off, and I was telling him my story. We flew and I navigated the coordinates of Tyrol Basin and finally found my Grandpa Syrup’s house in the country. We saw three turkeys fanned out, grazing on his hill. Flying back, I saw my mom’s house that she’s been living in for many years of her life. The neon bright, sun-golden flowers in my grandmother’s rock wall at mom’s house, and feeling the love emitting from them, drilling into my soul.

MCW: What are you doing now with your life and work?

Ben:  I’m being very vigilant and proactive, putting first things first, keeping the end of the goal in my mind from day to day, thinking win-win, because most of my life has been down. I feel most of those principles guiding my heart in the right direction.

For work, there are two places. The Yahara House, where I hone in my skills weekly, cooking for whoever is going to eat lunch that day or the next day. We occasionally make a pie or have a discussion of what’s going to happen the next week. There’s a weekly menu. With the help of a staff worker at Yahara House, Janet, who I’m so grateful towards telling me, “Get yourself up again, Ben, and shine!”
Ben and Katherine Perreth
I work at the Madison Children’s Museum. I like to rephrase my work into, “I get paid to have fun at the children’s museum!” From the time I started working there, I have said that. Being the Discovery Guide for kids and people of all ages brings more than money into my life.

Hobbies are very crucial to my life. Being an actor from an early age, I have been in an Acting Techniques class, for four years now. Mind you, I have to pay for each session, and I’ve been in for 19 sessions.

I also go to a free thought group, AHA! That stands for agnostic, humanist and atheist. We have philosophy discussions. And afterwards we go to the Rathskellar.

For my solitude, I like to walk in nature.

All those three things, my life, work and hobbies cannot function without the other two. Like a stool.

Thank you, Ben, for such awesome thoughts and insights!  

Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope won the Readers' Favorite 2013 International Book Award in the "non-fiction, inspirational" category.  You can find it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or request it through your public library.

And be sure to check out my interview with author (and Ben's Mom) Katherine Perreth