Sunday, April 27, 2014

On Gray Hair and Assumptions

Recently, during a trip to the pediatrician, my gray hair got me The Look. The boys and I waited in the exam room until Doogie Howser came in. Have you noticed how pediatric interns at teaching hospitals get younger every year? This is definitely a trend item.

Anyway, Dr. Doogie gave me The Look.

The Quizzical Look.

The Look that asks, "Are you the grandmother or the mother?"

He actually asked, out loud and interrogatively, "Mom?"

No, dearie, I'm not your mom. I am, however, the mom of these two boys: the polite and compliant teenager you will examine and the 11-year-old with autism who will, for the next half hour, repeatedly tell you he hates shots, ask to use your stethoscope, and teach you what the otoscope is for...all while trying to play with said otoscope (though I will not allow're welcome).

Oh, he will also occasionally turn off the lights in the windowless room, just for his entertainment and to provide you with excellent training for any pediatric combat situation you might find yourself in during your years of service to the United States Air Force.

Wow. Wright Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center ought to pay us for the excellent training we provide.

Anyway, I'm not the doctor's mother, though to be fair, I suppose that at 47 I'm technically old enough to be his mother and to be my 11- and 14-year-old children's grandmother. But that isn't what I see when I look in the mirror. I see me. All of me at a glance. Susan Raihala. A woman with a history, a fabulous story arc, wonderful relationships, strong values, and preferences and choices that meant a long wait for children...a smart woman who had accurately diagnosed Nick's problem even though Dr. Doogie needed to take us to a specialist to figure it out.

Yay, me! (And don't was nothing serious.)

My point, which seems to be coming very slowly and I'm sorry about that, is this: we human beings are a lot more than can be learned in a quick glance. Wow. That seems so obvious, so banal when stated baldly like that, but how often do we honestly pay attention to how we are judging others at a glance or--just as importantly--how we react to other's glancing judgments of us?

I've thought about this sort of judgment for a very long time, ever since 1988 when I judged a man from Tennessee as mentally slow because he spoke in that slow Tennessee drawl. Oddly, I didn't even realize I'd judged him until he was named the distinguished graduate in his USAF navigator class and my first reaction was surprise...followed quickly by shame. I'm from the southern United States, and I know better than to equate slow speech with slow wit. Ever since, I've tried hard to grant others grace when they judge me on assumptions, and that's why Dr. Doogie's question made me suppress laughter rather than indignation.

Assuming is, oddly enough, a fundamental function of our brains. In the fight-or-flight lives of our primitive, pre-historic ancestors, our brains had to make snap decisions based on very little information and then react before our slower (yet more sophisticated) cognitive functions could engage. We will get bitten by that cobra and die if we start trying to reason out whether the snake on the trail is, indeed, venomous or just a harmless rat snake. Instead, our brain screams "Snake!!!" and our body takes off running before we can even think about it.

Assumptions can save lives on the African savannah, but in the world of complex social interactions, assumptions can seriously mislead us, and sometimes, when we are very, very lucky, give us a good laugh.

Yesterday at Barnes and Noble, I sat on the floor in Home Décor thumbing through books, looking for the magic bullet of decorating. You know the one I'm talking about. The magic bullet that will make my house look like houses in the books, except personalized to our Raihala style, at zero cost to us and minimal effort. THAT magic bullet. Anyway, I heard a male voice ask, "Are you finding what you're looking for?"

Assuming this was an employee, I replied, jokingly, without looking up, "No, I'm not. There's no magic solution in any of these books to make my house look great without spending a lot of money."

My assumption that this was an employee was based in sound logic. When I worked in book stores, I asked that very question thousands of times and never expected much response. If people needed help, they generally made eye contact (unless they wanted porn) and asked; otherwise, they grunted and kept their eyes on their books. When someone joked back, it lightened my day with a brief, funny interaction. I always appreciated those exchanges that went beyond a grunt, and didn't want to take customers away from the books.

Anyway, in my peripheral vision, I saw the guy stop, and thus began a very strange conversation that quickly veered off script. He asked me about my drink, which was from the café in the bookstore that serves Starbucks coffee, but he didn't seem aware that there was a café in the bookstore and referred to the Starbucks in the strip across the parking lot.


Realizing I'd badly misjudged this person's inquiry, I looked up and saw he wasn't wearing a lanyard around his neck and thus clearly was not a Barnes and Noble employee. He was, ahem, an older gentleman who didn't even appear to be a regular customer at the bookstore.

Once I got a good look at him, things got creepy. Most casual conversations with strangers are just that: casual. He seemed...purposeful, probing, like he was trying to get the small talk out of the way before giving me an Amway pitch.

And then it hit me.

He was hitting on me.

Ohmygosh. The silly gray-haired woman sitting on the floor in Home Décor was a target of elderly lust. She should have looked up immediately and seen the creepy bait-and-switch snake slithering toward her and run fast the other way. She assumed poorly.

Fighting the urge to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, I smiled. He took this for encouragement and left the topic of coffee, asking, "Do you live around here?"


"Is your house nice? Judging from that book you're looking at, it must be."

"Yes, we are very blessed with a beautiful house."

Plural personal pronoun. I'm giving you a clue!

He pounced on it.

"Are you married?" Hmm. Very direct.

"Yes. Yes, I am. My husband's around here somewhere, and our two boys. Oh, look, there's one of our boys now. Hi, Jack!"

"Hi, Mom!" Jack offered obligingly.

"Oh, well," he said immediately. "Bye." He turned quickly and walked away.

And that was that. I chuckled to myself. Like Jack at the doctor's office, I found it rather entertaining to turn out his metaphorical lights...which perhaps says something not entirely flattering about me, but there it is.

It's interesting how many conversations--casual, anonymous conversations--I've had with men over the years that were not at all creepy. In the past year, two older gentlemen complimented my silver locks in ways that didn't feel creepy or odd. Their compliments felt just like the compliments offered by Jack's silver-haired principal (a woman) and the 20-something check-out clerk at Target (also a woman). Neither the men nor the women had ulterior motives detectable in their conversation, and the men certainly didn't send off any trolling-for-tail vibe whatsoever. They just seemed friendly. They brightened my day and made me feel happy. I appreciated them and tried to pass on their kindness to others.

I assumed this man at Barnes and Noble was an employee because he asked me if I was finding what I was looking for. As soon as my assumption proved false, I let the situation play out as politely as it could, knowing that George--my strapping bald husband who can look very threatening even though he's a sweetie--was a shout away. This man assumed I was alone and perhaps available for...whatever. Perhaps my gray hair led him to imagine he stood a chance. As soon as his assumptions proved false, he slithered off as fast as he could, faster than good manners allow.

I have no idea what story arc led this man to hit on gray-haired old ladies in Barnes and Noble, but I feel sorry for him and hope he can find happiness and warmth and kindness...and that he can learn to give these good things to others as well. I certainly felt no kindness or warmth from him yesterday.

On the bright side, I'm not the gray-haired old lady he assumed I was. I am Susan Raihala, a beloved child of God (flaws and all), a woman with a 47-year history, a fabulous story arc, wonderful relationships, strong values...a smart woman who has a head full of sparkly silver hair and absolutely no need or desire ever to hook up with random old dudes at Barnes and Noble.

Thank you, Jesus. And I mean that. Seriously. Thank you.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reason #1,493 to Love Pinterest

It proves over and over again that we are not alone.


Soft pretzels. And chocolate. Salty and chocolate. Yes. With a large serving of hostility on the side. That's what PMS is all about.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Being an Adult Is Stupid

Okay, I know, I know. I am usually Pollyanna positive (or at least not negative), but today, I have PMS and all bets are off.

Yesterday, I put together my brand new shiny vacuum cleaner and gave it a trial run. Wow. That thing sucks like nobody's business. I found myself smiling as the canister filled with the dust and dog fur from one small room. Suck it, Hoover!

And that's when it occurred to me that being an adult is stupid.

When have you had this thought? Aw, come on. You know you've had it. Something stupid made you happy and you realized this is what being an adult is all about. Please do share because I'm feeling very hormonal and just knowing I'm not alone would be helpful.

Thank you.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Gratitude Journal #233

Today, I am grateful for spending last week with my mom, niece, and nephew. We had a wonderful--if too short--visit that included a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo.

Spring in Ohio

Mother and Baby, chillaxing until...

the big, bad silverback chased them off. If that had
coming running at me, I'd have skedaddled, too.

More gorgeous color...and the smell, divine!

My Mom and Rory on the train.

Mac, Nick, and Jack strutting down the lane.

Today, I am grateful for safe travels.

Today, I am grateful for Holy Week, and for the continuation of the Easter victory through all time.

Today, I am grateful for spring, with its glorious color, the sounds of birds and frogs and insects, the warmth and sunshine. It was a long, cold winter.

Today, I am grateful for my sister-in-law Angela and her husband Mike, who are making it possible for me to begin plans to attend the Stephen Ministry Leadership Training Course in Pittsburg this August. I thought it would be a few more years before I could take this step, but Angela insisted that this was my year. Thank you, Angela!

Today, I am grateful for my husband, who introduced me to the delights of leg of lamb yesterday. Yum.

What are you grateful for today?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter

May the blessings of Easter shower you in hope, love, mercy, grace, healing, and all great things that are eternal in God.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dogs and Children Are Amazing

Please watch this video about Owen and Haatchi. Have tissues ready. You have been warned.

Owen and Haatchi: A Boy and his Dog

You're welcome.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reading Right or Left

I recently had an unsatisfyingly brief conversation with a woman who's purchasing new textbooks and online resources to implement the Common Core Curriculum in our school district. I'm rather neutral in the whole Common Core debate. Having taught freshman composition at five different colleges and universities, each with a different philosophical approach to the subject, I developed a pretty flexible understanding of the "right" way to teach. Basically, there are lots of right ways to teach, and lots of wrong ways. The Common Core, at least in its general approach as I understand it, doesn't seem exactly wrong to me.

Whether it turns out to be right, only time will tell.

But as a result of that brief conversation, I started wondering how Great Literature will fare in the Common Core. From my cursory research on the matter, the answer is far from clear, if only because states and individual school districts have enormous freedom to customize the Common Core. No one really knows what will end up being taught from Great Literature and what will end up being deleted from reading lists...and thus, potentially, eventually, from our culture.

In some ways, my using the phrase Great Literature with initial capitalization is a betrayal of my moderate stand in the politics of literary criticism. Oh, yes. Literary criticism is highly political, as is most of academia. In literary criticism, we have the conservatives who claim that there is truly such a thing as Great Literature and it needs to be vigorously protected from contamination by the plebian affection for commercial trash. The conservative critic Harold Bloom, for instance, classifies Hamlet as Great Literature and Harry Potter as trash.

Of course, he hadn't actually read Harry Potter when he offered up his condemnation of it, but he won't let a little thing like total ignorance stop him from expressing his expert opinion. He has, however, written some lovely, intelligent, and insightful essays on Hamlet that I have happily quoted in academic papers. Bloom comes across as an insufferable literary snob, but he's not stupid.

On the other end of the political spectrum we find the anything-goes liberal critics. For them, all the classics are generally referred to as literature with a lower-case "l." In truth, however, the liberals are suspicious of even lower-case literature and instead prefer the term text to refer to whatever writing they analyze. The adorable marketing blurb on the back of a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing, for example, is a text, as is the Anglo-Saxon epic  Beowulf. These two examples of writing are equal in value and interchangeable as legitimate subjects for literary study.

Obviously, liberal textual egalitarianism gives conservatives apoplectic fits. I confess to a certain delight in the red-faced sputterings of the snobs, but I also recognize that Beowulf probably deserves a bit more attention than marketing blurbs on bottles of Newman's Own...unless you're studying marketing, in which case Beowulf is pretty much useless.

Hmmm...I suppose you could shoot a commercial in which Grendel leaves a bloody mess for the queen's laundry women to clean with Oxi-Clean.

If anyone makes that commercial, I want royalties.

Anyway. Back to Great Literature.

I'm a moderate in the literature war. Great Literature is distinctively awesome, but when it comes to school reading lists, I honestly don't mind students reading popular fluff on occasion. Nick had to read The Hunger Games in 8th grade. I've not read it and am uniquely unqualified to pass judgment on its quality (ahem, Mr. Bloom, take note), but it's new and popular and only time will tell if it survives long enough to become Great Literature. Nevertheless, it sparked in Nick a desire to read that has hitherto been smothered by his love of screens and things that go bang through the Xbox.

I don't care what gateway books schools use to get kids hooked on reading, as long as they also teach those undeniably influential great books that have shaped our culture for good. Get the reading monkey on their backs, and the great stuff is easier to push.

And thus we come back to my concern: how much Great Literature will survive the Common Core? According to my source in our district, English teachers are going to have to start teaching at least some informational texts, which seems utterly wrong to me. Social studies and science teachers can and should cover how to read informational texts (this is a vitally important skill virtually ignored in my own classics-based education), but English classes are where we read literature, where the cultural creativity of our past meets young minds of the present and lays the groundwork for the cultural creativity of the future.

The language of literature isn't literal or merely informative. Its density of meaning vastly exceeds the sum of its words. Literature layers meaning, explores ambiguity and depth, reveals the complexity of life and death and what it means to love and live and breathe and change. Reading literature right can only happen when one reads literature broadly and deeply...because as soon as a poet writes a poem or a novelist writes a story, s/he joins an ongoing conversation with all the poems and stories that have come before, just as we join the ongoing conversation of humanity when we are born.

English classes are where our cultural conversation reaches back to the Bible and Sophocles and Chaucer and Dante and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Donne and Austen and Dickens and Joyce and Eliot and Hemingway and Angelou. English classes are where we start participating in that cultural conversation in active, meaningful ways.

It means something that the story of Superman repeats the story of Moses. It means something that Oedipus was destroyed by pride and unintended consequences...and so are modern politicians. It means something that JK Rowling modeled her "Tale of the Three Brothers" on Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. It means something that so many people saw in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings an allegory of World War allegory Tolkien himself vigorously denied. It means something that James Joyce modeled arguably the greatest novel ever written on Homer's ancient epic The Odyssey.

All of literature engages in a conversation. And that's literature with a lower-case "l." The good, the's all connected. Those blurbs on the backs of Newman's Own dressing bottles? They cleverly riff on classic stories and history. The more you read of both Great Literature and lower-case literature, the more you understand the conversation. The more you read, the easier the conversation is to follow.

I recently sparked a bit of a kerfuffle on my stamping blog when I quoted the first line of TS Eliot's The Waste Land. I encouraged people to think of a loved one going through a tough time and to send them a card this month. I closed the post by saying that, after all, "April is the cruelest month." Several people took offense, and one went so far as to accuse me of promoting negativity.


That's why we need to keep reading Great Literature. If we strip all texts down to their literal meaning (April sucks, for instance), we get information devoid of context. Nuance, creativity, individuality, and spirit are lost in the literal. The conversation gets derailed when we're not speaking the same cultural language, a language rich in history and imagery and words with more than one meaning and expressed in contexts that matter. The more deeply we understand the connectedness of words and images and thoughts, the more deeply we understand our world and each other. Reading our cultural masterworks teaches that connectedness in profound and vital ways, ways that informational texts (for all their undeniable value in some areas of thought) simply can't teach.

At least, that's what I think.


And now it's your turn. What do you think? Should school reading lists for English classes include Great Literature, or is Great Literature ceasing to be relevant in our fast-paced, high-tech world? Are English classes the proper place to teach students how to read informational texts? Should we replace To Kill a Mockingbird with Time Magazine or Has Great Literature had an effect on how you think, what you think, what you feel about life?

Note: You can find links to all the photos in this post (and many more!) on my Books Pinterest Board.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Gratitude Journal #232

Today, I am grateful for this card which was left on my doorstep by my girlfriend Angela last week. It came with cookies. Just because. I have amazing friends.

Today, I am grateful for another card which appeared in my mailbox on a very gray and rainy and cold day late last week. It's from another friend named Angela whom I've never met in real life but have known online for years through the card-making community. The card, handmade by Angela, is signed by her and her students who read my blog post on Authenticity. Apparently they liked it. A gray, cold day turned warm and sunny through their expression of gratitude!

Today, I am grateful for our high school's musical performance of Hairspray. There are some amazingly talented teens in our town, and Nick and I so enjoyed our evening Saturday night together. He's looking forward to auditioning for whatever musical they put on next year since he'll be in the high school. You can't stop the beat!

Today, I am grateful for our church, our pastor, and the opportunities I have to serve God in a wonderful Christian community.

Today, I am grateful that George was able to ride his bike on Saturday and Sunday. Sunny spring days make him happy to be spinning on the open road after a long winter of indoor training rides. Only 154 days until Ironman Wisconsin. Moooooooo!

What are you grateful for today?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

April's Word: Delete

When I participated in the Word of the Year project, by April I would have forgotten my word. My new plan to choose a new word each month seems much more successful. Not a month has gone by that I've forgotten my word. Yay!

Here's a review of my first-quarter words for 2014.

January - Wonderful
February - Coffee
March - Process

And now for April, we explore Delete. A friend sparked this idea when she posted on Facebook asking how to close her Twitter account that had been action I took last fall after my third hacking. I deleted the whole account.

Take that, hackers.

Delete is a powerful word, useful for good or evil, a word that must be used with discretion and discernment. It's one thing to delete old emails or (in old-fashioned deleting) to throw away old, ratty clothes, but it's quite another to delete a person from your Christmas list or from your life.

We've all had things deleted from our lives through no fault of our own. Friends move away, we lose files or photos on our computers, things get stolen, we get laid off, someone doesn't return a borrowed book, or worst of all, loved ones die. Rarely, we're relieved about our loss, but mostly, we're sad or angry or upset.

Deleting, in other words, is like rhetoric. It is neither good nor bad in itself, but how you use it and how it uses you definitely can have moral or emotional implications.

April is the month of spring cleaning (at least in the northern hemisphere), and that prompted me to pick Delete as its word. Good deleting. Clearing out the trash in life, the over-abundance that distracts us and clutters our homes and minds in unpleasant ways. In April, I want to delete the dross, the dregs, the dust, the dirt, the dung, the detritus from as much of my house as possible. I've already begun and am happy to report that one full leaf bag of trash has been cleared.

It's a start.

Do you need to delete stuff? Perhaps it's simple and your email in-box needs clearing out, or  perhaps it's complicated and your heart needs clearing of anger or resentment. How can you use the power of Delete for good in your life this month?