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Showing posts with label tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tales. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Art of Misdirection

A skilled magician is a usually a master of misdirection.  While keeping the audience's attention focused on something that seems important but isn't, the magician is accomplishing a clever deception just to the side.  The cognitive bias known as "inattentional blindness" or "perceptual blindness" causes our brains to ignore vast quantities of sensory information.  If we are vigilantly focused on one thing, this inattentional blindness can be even stronger.  (I like to this this is why an almost-13-year-old with a paintbrush in her hand doesn't hear my voice saying it's time to set the table for dinner).

Inattentional blindness is a characteristic of the human brain that storytelling and storytellers can really use to advantage, and parents often do it quite naturally.  In fact, most parents will quickly develop a whole bag of tricks for distracting a child's attention from something that is happening or just about to happen.  From bright noisy toys to the spell-binding "Once upon a time," misdirection tends to narrow the focal range and shut out the rest of the world - for a while.

And yet while the attention is focused, the world is still there.  It doesn't actually go away, and we may absorb those sensory inputs without being aware.  Here is a story my mother told me once that made a deep impression on me.   Because time is part of the our physical experience, patience is associated with physical courage.  So, here's a story combining physical courage and the art of misdirection.


Long ago in China, a young man set his heart on becoming a master jade carver.  Fired with enthusiasm, he went to the greatest jade carver in the land and asked to become his student.  The master agreed, and placed a piece of jade in the young man's hand.  "Please sit, we can begin right away."

The young man eagerly sat with the stone in his hand, his gaze on the teacher.  "Please tell me everything you know about jade."

Nodding, the old man began to tell a long and rambling story about his own youth, and the student waited patiently for the lesson to begin.  The story was actually a bit boring in parts, and the student clenched the jade in his hand to curb his impatience while the old man went on and on.  At last, the master said, "Oh, it is late.  You must come back tomorrow."

The next day the student came again, and the master handed him another piece of jade.  "Here, take a seat.  Let us begin."  Now I will learn everything about jade! the student said to himself.  But to his great disappointment, the master carver launched into another long story.  The student tried very hard to focus on this story, sure that at any moment it was going to get to the point.  But again, the master interrupted his own story and said, "Oh dear.  It's time for dinner.  Come back tomorrow."

Day after day this went on, with the teacher handing the student yet another piece of stone.  Every day the student listened with his whole heart, trying to understand how these stories were teaching him everything about jade while he held one stone after another in his hands.  He grew discouraged, thinking he had made a terrible mistake.  At last, after this had gone on for many months, he arrived at his teacher's house and said, "Master, forgive me, but when will you teach me about jade?"

The jade carver picked up yet another piece of stone and tossed it to the young man, who caught it deftly in two hands.  "Now, this piece of jade -" the master began.

"This is not jade," said the student, who had not even opened his hands to look at the stone.

The teacher nodded.  "Ah, I see I have now taught you everything I know."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Girls Gone Wild? No: Lady Godiva

John Collier c. 1898, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
This enduring and popular English legend is, like many legends about historical figures, very unlikely to be true.  But what I like about it is that given the culture and norms of the period when this story gained popularity, this is a story of extreme social courage.  Imagine if you will a Zeitgeist very different from Girls Gone Wild (and if you don't know what that is, it's just as well.) In the 11th century, a noblewoman's virtue was her most valuable possession, because without it her future was grim indeed.  We're not talking about the risk of embarrassment.  This would have been the risk of being banished to a cloistered convent or worse.  There would have been a wide selection of sanctions to punish her with, but (according to legend) Lady Godiva risked it anyway.

A certain nobleman, the Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, had imposed heavy taxes upon the people of that town.  They struggled to feed their families and pay their taxes as well.  Bellies ached with hunger, and some were driven penniless from their homes.  Lady Godiva, the earl's wife, pleaded with him daily to relieve the burden.  "My lord, the tax is too heavy," she told him, day after day.

At last, annoyed by her persistence and her tender heart, the earl replied, "My lady, I will remove the taxes the day you ride naked through Coventry."

Word went swiftly from house to house that the lady would take his dare.  Out of respect for her modesty and gratitude for her compassion, the people shuttered their windows and drew the curtains.  As the dawn broke, Lady Godiva disrobed in the stableyard.  Mounting her horse, she draped her long hair around herself like a cloak, and rode through the streets of the town.  They say only one person peeked, but that he was immediately struck blind by fate.

True to his word, the earl lifted the taxes, and the people of Coventry remained grateful to Lady Godiva for all her days.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Horatio at the Bridge

One of the very popular tropes in action films is the lone fighter making a courageous last stand in order to buy time for others to get to safety.  "Go!  Save yourselves!" is the command through gritted teeth.  "I'll stay and hold them off as long as I can!"  Typically the odds are wildly against this hero: an entire army, a savage monster, a powerful wizard.  "He's never gonna make it," someone in the retreating party will mourn.  "I'll never meet anyone braver than him!"

It's a popular tradition in stories of physical courage.  One of the most enduring versions that has been told again and again since Roman times is the legend of Horatio at the Bridge.

The mighty army of the Etruscans was marching toward Rome, which was still a young and small city.   Farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside had fled in advance of the enemy, streaming across the bridge that spanned the river Tiber, seeking shelter within Rome's walls.  "But what happens if the Etruscans cross the bridge?" the people wailed.  "They will tear down our walls and destroy us!"

A troop of Roman soldiers stood guard on the bridge, hearts pounding with suspense.  At last, over the crest of a hill showed a line of spears that grew taller and taller as the advancing soldiers marched forward.  The army came on inexorably, massive and terrible, the tramp of their feet booming like thunder.  Rome's walls could not withstand an assault by such a force.  

Among the soldiers stood young Horatio, tall and proud.  "We must tear down the bridge," he said to his companions.

"There's no time, Horatio!"

"Tear it down, I'll hold them off," he replied, gripping his shield straps tight in his fist.   While the other soldiers raced to the safe side of the river and began hacking at the wooden bridge, the vanguard of the Etruscan army came within shouting distance.

"Who among you will fight in single combat!" Horatio cried, evoking the epic battle between Achilles and Hector before the gates of Troy.  "One soldier of Rome stands to fight your whole army!  Who among you will do the honor?!  Or are you an army of slaves, ordered to die by a tyrant?"

The Etruscans hung back,  unsure how to proceed.  Horatio could hear the frantic chopping behind him, and the groaning creak as weakened bridge timbers began to sag.  From among the ranks of the Etruscans, someone threw a dart, hitting Horatio in the eye.  Emboldened, the enemy surged forward, and several spears flew toward the lone hero.   Horatio warded them off with his shield.  Then, as he heard the bridge collapse with a great splash into the Tiber behind him, he dove into the river.  

The Romans who watched this show of bravery turned their faces away in grief.  Their city was saved, but how could Horatio survive falling blinded into the flooded Tiber in full armor?  "Wait! Look there!" came a triumphant shout.  And there, swimming powerfully across the churning river, was Horatio.  Cheers of victory greeted him when he reached the Roman shore, and forever afterward he was hailed as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

St. Ailbe and the Wolf

Among the values that social courage can help us promote in our children are compassion, tolerance, caring and charity. These are the values we exhibit in the social realm in our behavior to others. Here is a wonderful legend from Ireland that demonstrates these values. Compare it to the legend of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, or Androcles and the Lion. It also fits in the same tradition of foundling heroes we've discussed on this blog before.

Long and long ago in Ireland, almost so long ago the wood that built the first harp was still a green twig, a poor couple had a boy baby and couldn't keep him - that's how poor they were. Without knowing what else to do, they left him on a hillside and hastened away in shame. It wasn't long after that that a she-wolf was trotting by, and her keen ears caught the sound of a cry. Her nose led her to a heather bush, and there lay a pink, furless pup, or so she thought. It wasn't like her own pups, but she picked him up carefully - Ailbe was his name, though how was she to know it? - and brought him along back to her den to suckle him beside the others. Ailbe soon grew strong and hale, and ran four-legged with his brother wolves. If his wolf-mother sometimes thought him a strange creature with fur nowhere but his head, she loved him all the same.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Letting Go: The Death of Ra

In the beginning all was darkness, but then came Ra, and he called all things into being. He was the first god-pharaoh, and he ruled in Egypt for thousands of years in human form. Over time, his human frame grew frail and weak. His head shook as he walked and he drooled like a baby. People whispered and laughed behind his back. His children, the deities Isis and Osiris, were impatient to take his place on the throne, but he would not relinquish it.

Isis was the greatest worker of magic in the world, but even she could wield no power over Ra without knowing his most secret name. He had many names for the many forms he had taken, but one was most secret and powerful of all, and he would not whisper it even to the last grain of sand at the root of a sand dune. Without that name, Isis could do nothing.

She waited. One day, as he stumbled down the path, drooling and trembling with age, she crept behind him and gathered some of the earth his spit had dribble on. Kneading the wet earth into a long snake, Isis set the lifeless thing upon the path. Only Ra could give life, so the earthen snake lay there until Ra stumbled past again. The moment the glance of his eyes fell upon it the cobra was filled with life, and it reared up and bit him in the heel. Ra fell, writhing in agony. As the poison worked its way through his body, the pain became even more intense.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Perseverance: The Courage of a Spider

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never."
                         - Churchill
If you've ever seen the movie Braveheart, you know something of Scotland's struggle for independence from King Edward Longshanks in the late 13th and early 14th Century. Here is one of the legends from that era. The next time you are tempted to intone, "If at first you don't succeed, try try again," tell this story instead. Perseverance is one of the qualities that physical courage can activate in us, and we can see it in the tiniest illustrations if we are observant:

Robert the Bruce, true king of Scotland, had tried six times to prevail in battle against the English. Six times he had failed, and now he was on the run, hunted like a wild animal from forest to farm to glen. Desperate, and with faltering hope, he took refuge in a cave while the rain beat steadily outside.

As he gazed with weary eyes through the entryway, he noticed a spider hanging from the ceiling. It was working a web, and seemed to be determined to fasten its next strand to a stone some distance away. It launched itself, swinging through the air, but missed, then patiently climbed back up to the start again, and made another attempt. Robert the Bruce watched, fascinated, while the spider struggled again and again to reach the stone. Six times the spider swung itself through the air, and six times it failed.

"I know what it is to lose six times," the exiled king said to the spider. "My heart goes out to you."

Once more, the spider launched itself with all the force it could muster, and this time gained its prize. "Yes!" the king cheered. "So shall I try a seventh time! I will not give up hope!"

And indeed, he was able to rally an army around himself, and encourage his people with new zeal. This time he prevailed, and drove the English from Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn.


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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pecos Bill

This American tall tale - or collection of tales - comes from the great tradition of brag stories from the Wild West. Decades of cowboys sitting around the campfire trying to outdo each other with exaggerated exploits gave rise to the legend of Pecos Bill. The stories were collected and put into published form in 1932 by an East Coast writer for The Century magazine. What's fun about these stories - about all tall tales, really - is the zany bravado that takes physical courage to the extreme.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Surviving the Lion AND the Fox!

Travellers' Decorated CaravanI found a very interesting story the other day that highlights moral courage in an unusual way. Animal fables typically offer the lion and the fox as examples of physical courage and intellectual courage, brawn vs. brains. Here we have a story from the very old Gypsy tradition, a story which demonstrates a different way an outcast group manages to survive. I found The Lion, the Fox, and the Bird in The Fish Bride and Other Gypsy Tales, retold by Jean Russel Larson. This is book well worth reading if you can find it. I'll just summarize this story briefly.

In this story, a new bird arrives in a part of the forest that is home to a lion and a fox. Not being a fast flyer, the bird is warned by everyone to leave. "I'll have to get the lion and the fox to leave," the bird replies. "It's really too dangerous to have them here." While the lion and the fox are both contemplating the nice meal they'll make of the bird, the bird turns the tables on them both by appealing for help. The bird asks the lion to perform an act of physical strength (moving some fallen trees to reveal the berry bushes) and the fox to figure out how to get reeds from the pond for building a nest (he tells the herons that the fishing will be better if they pull out the reeds). Both lion and fox are stymied by this appeal to their generosity, as they cannot eat someone they've helped, and they must help when someone weaker asks for assistance. Once they have taken responsibility for the bird by helping, they must do the right thing and leave it be. Hungry, and rather baffled at having chosen not to eat the bird, the lion and the fox leave that part of the forest and search for somebody else to eat.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jean Labadie's Big Black Dog and Shivering in the Bath

Here is an old Quebecois story I ran across recently in Kevin Crossley Holland's The Young Oxford Book of Folk Tales. It's an easy story to tell with your own details, and it is just begging for exaggeration.   This is my retelling, but you can easily put it into your own words.


            So, this farmer, Jean Labadie, he had his suspicions about his neighbor, Pierre Martin. Yes, two weeks running Jean was missing chickens, and he was pretty sure Pierre was stealing them. Weasels would have left a path of destruction, but no, this was just one chicken at a time. But he could not bring himself to say, "Hey Pierre Martin are you stealing my chickens one by one?" With this on his mind he was helping Pierre Martin pull some stumps and he said, "Something has been stealing my chickens, sure, so I went to the Huron village and got me a big black dog. See him? - there he is at just over there."
            Pierre Martin squinted up his eyes to look across the field. "Where?"
            "That big black dog, with his red tongue dripping, and those big black paws, you see him there?"
            "Oh!" Pierre Martin went back to work.
            Sure enough, no more chickens went missing from Jean's yard. But one day he ran into Pierre Martin in town. "Hey, Jean, you should chain up your big black dog, he chased me down the road," said Pierre.
            "No, he's at my farm guarding the chickens," Jean replied, very surprised.
            "Looked like the same dog," Pierre said. "Big black paws, red dripping tongue. Keep him on a chain."
             A few days later, Jean again met Pierre in the town, and this time Madame Sasson was with him. "Was that your big black dog chasing my sheep?" she demanded to know. "That dog is dangerous."
            Jean Labadie raised both hands. This was getting complicated. "No, no, my dog is chained up in my yard. That is a different dog chasing your sheep."
            "No, your dog broke the chain," Pierre Martin said.  "You should take him back to the Huron village.  That's a mean dog."
            Well, for sure this was getting to be ridiculous, but the next day Jean Labadie hitched up his wagon and drove past Pierre Martin's house, shouting, "I'm taking this dog back!"  And he made a pretense of patting something down inside the wagon until he was out of sight.  He spent the day with his Huron friends, and then came home.
             Pierre Martin was waiting for him.  "Your crazy dog came back!  Chased some children and scared them right into church.  You can't keep a dangerous dog like that!  You should shoot him!"
             Now what could Jean Labadie do?  He could not at this point admit he had made up the dog, and although he was sure Pierre Martin was raking him over the coals, he was sure stuck.  "I'll shoot him," Jean Labadie replied.  "Satisfied?"
             There was a little small smile on Pierre Martin's face when he said, "Oh, I suppose I am."
             At home, Jean Labadie got out shotgun and whistled loud.  "Here you, dog!" he shouted.  Then he fired into the ground, and then dug a grave and filled it back in.  And he hoped that would be last he heard about his big black dog.


             I don't know about you, but usually when I've been afraid to ask a question, say what I think, or speak up, the problem only gets worse.  I have a personal story that I've told many times to the Lovely K. with much laughter.  This story features me in the bathtub while answering a phone call from a new business acquaintance.  There was a moment at the start of the call that would have been the appropriate time to say, "This is not a good time to speak - I know it's 11 a.m. on a business day but I was thrown from a horse this morning and now I'm soaking in the tub, so can I call you later?"  That moment slipped by, and I found myself trying to avoid any splishy, splashy, watery sounds that would give me away (So unprofessional! I was very concerned at that stage of my career about seeming very very professional!) The call went on and on much longer than I expected, while the water cooled and I began to shiver.  Somehow I couldn't summon the social courage to say, "You know, all this time we've been talking I've been in the bath."  And when this editor began giving me information to write down (clearly assuming I was sitting fully dressed at a desk) I pretended to write, making suitable "mmhmms" to indicate I was ready for the next bit of dictation.  My daughter howls at this last bit as I pantomime writing with a wet finger on the rim on the bathtub, nodding and shivering, wondering how I would explain this to my agent.
            Now, at the age of 50, I have long since let go (I think) a majority of the social fears that kept me quiet.  I don't like shivering in the tub, and I don't want to shoot any imaginary dogs. 




Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Truth to Power

On this blog we've been discussing moral courage quite a lot lately.  One sign of a lack of moral courage is hypocrisy.  A story the Lovely K. has enjoyed hearing is from the Jewish tradition of midrash, or tales that fill in some of the sketched outlines of Bible stories with more detail. This is one of the more famous of the traditional midrashim, Abraham the Idol Smasher. 

In his youth, Abraham lived in Babylon, in Iraq, and his father was among the elite favored by the king.  Abraham had the habit of turning a studious gaze on power, and he had plenty of opportunity for doing just that. His father was a prominent idol merchant, who manufactured statues of this god, that god, any god his wealthy customers asked for. "How old are you?" Abraham might ask a customer, over his father's protests. "Sixty," might be the reply. "Strange, how a man of sixty will bow before a stone statue carved yesterday," Abraham would point out. (This was not so good for business!) One day, Abraham's father reluctantly left his son to watch the store while he made an out-of-town delivery, and woman came in with an offering of grain to leave before one of the statues. "I'll take care of it," Abraham assured her as she left.

When she had gone, he put the grain before one of the statues. And nothing happened. Then he put it in front of a different statue, and again, nothing happened. Certainly there was no argument from the first god who'd been offered it! Abraham then picked up a hammer and methodically smashed all the statues except one, and left the hammer in front of that idol.

Upon his return, Abraham's father was horrified to see the mess in the shop. "What in all gods' names have you done!" he cried out to his son. "Me?" said Abraham. "This idol here did it," he continued, pointing to the one unbroken statue. "What are you talking about, that stone has no power!" the father roared. Abraham nodded. "Exactly my point."


My daughter laughs at this story (okay, I use funny gestures and expressions as I tell it; it's not especially hilarious on its own). This one is always food for conversation about how often we see people say one thing but then turn around and say or do the opposite. We sometimes discuss why that might happen, and I try to keep the speculation compassionate - I don't want either of us to become sanctimonious or self-righteous about it, after all. From people with no power, saying one thing and doing another may be a matter of survival. But it is important to know what speaking truth to power requires, and it's always worth shining a spotlight of attention on doublespeak and hypocrisy from people in authority. I do include parents in that group, in the context of the family. Our children are always watching us, and noticing if our deeds and our words are in alignment. So I tell my daughter this story, and I ask myself privately, what idols am I paying lip service to that she may one day smash?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Dragons

In the West, we frequently use dragons as a metaphor for evils, wrongs, or unnamed fears that must be conquered. In China, however, dragons are benevolent. Powerful, yes, but benevolent. One beautiful legend from ancient China speaks of the Four Dragons: Black Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Long Dragon and Pearl Dragon. Here it is, as I retold it to my daughter:


A very long time ago, there were no rivers in China. No lakes, no ponds, no streams or springs or waterfalls, either. There was only the great ocean in the east. Fortunately, the land was watered by rain, sent by the Jade Emperor, who ruled in Heaven. A time came, however, when the Jade Emperor stopped paying attention to the earth, and forgot to send the rains for a very long time. The earth began to dry out, and crops withered.


One day, as the Black Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Long Dragon and the Pearl Dragon were gliding through the air, they noticed an old woman kneeling in the dust below, her face streaked with tears as she prayed. Then they noticed that the earth was cracked and brown. "Why has the Jade Emperor sent no rain?" the Pearl Dragon wondered. "Let us go to him in Heaven and ask."


When they arrived at the throne of the Jade Emperor, he was annoyed that they had come to him, pointing out his failure. "I'll send the rain, now go away," he snapped.


The dragons left, relieved that all would be well again on earth. Yet when ten days passed with no rain falling, they knew the Jade Emperor had forgotten about the people on earth again. "Let us help them," said the dragons to one another. "We can fill our bellies with water from the great ocean and spray it onto the earth, can't we?" And so this is what they did. The moment the water touched the dry soil the wilting rice and wheat stood tall again, and the people rushed to catch the water in bowls.


Up in Heaven, the Jade Emperor caught sight of what the dragons were doing, and shouted with anger that they had taken it upon themselves to help the earth. "Bring mountains!" he roared to the Mountain God. "Crush those dragons!"


Faster than wind over rice paddies, four mountains came and bore down upon the dragons, pinning them to the earth. Yet the dragons were still full of water, and continued to pour it out, even as they were crushed. And so the four great rivers of China were formed, the Yellow River, the Long River, the Black River and the Pearl River, bringing water to the people forever.


I asked my daughter how many kind of courage she thought were involved in this story. "It took courage to show the emperor he had forgotten his job," she said. "And it took courage to go ahead and do the job themselves." "Do you think it also takes courage sometimes to pray for help?" I asked. She shrugged. "Maybe."

Compare this story of self-sacrifice to the story of Fenrir the Wolf, from Viking mythology, and The Legend of the Banyan Deer, from the Buddhist tradition. In all of these stories, the powerful put themselves at risk to help the weak. Endurance, love, charity, compassion, stewardship, responsibility and leadership are values that parents can model in their own behavior toward their children as examples of all six types of courage. Of course, it's often much easier said than done!

I know that, for myself, explaining to my daughter why I'm making a sacrifice is key. The sacrifice might be giving my money, or my mental time, or my physical effort to something other than my myself and my own immediate needs. Because fear is correlated to lack of control, we can infer that the opposite is true: courage is correlated to taking control. When I see something in the world that grieves me (poverty, injustice, hunger, etc.) I could allow feelings of helplessness overwhelm me. I could begin to fear that the world is a hopeless place. On the other hand, if I take even a small step, make a small sacrifice of money or time or effort to help alleviate that problem, I gain a measure of control. As a result, my feelings of futility diminish, and my fear subsides. Dr. Lisa has explained this eloquently in her posts about an internal v. external locus of control.

When we help others, we truly help ourselves. The greater our sacrifice, the less fear we will experience. Two quotations say this better, and more succinctly, than I have:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage." ~ Dale Carnegie.

It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. ~ Napoleon Hill




Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bloody Hook and Halloween Candy Poisoners


When I was a teenager, we heard that two kids from a rival high school had been "parking" near the reservoir late one Saturday night. A news broadcast interrupted the music on the radio to warn that a dangerous serial killer with a hook for a hand had escaped from a hospital, and was being hunted by police in the area. The teens heard some scratching on the car, and without pausing to investigate, the boy put the pedal to the metal. That car spit gravel as they spun around and sped back out to Route 35. When they got back to the girl's house, they were horrified to find a metal hook dangling from the rear bumper, still bloody from where it had been ripped out of a man's arm. Swear to God, totally true. My cousin's friend's dentist's baby-sitter knew them.

This spook story made the rounds when I was a teen in the 1970s, whispered in huddles of girls in the school halls and in the cafeteria. In fact, it had been steadily making the rounds since at least 1960, when this particular urban legend was first "reported." We greeted the news as marginally credible, totally gross, and perfectly thrilling. Sociologists and folklorists have been collecting such urban legends for years, trying to tease out what these contemporary "myths" reveal about our culture, just as anthropologists search for cultural clues in ancient myths. In the case of the Bloody Hook, the consensus seems to be that it's an effective warning not to go out necking with your boyfriend on Saturday night. Sex = mortal danger, in other words. We were happy to repeat the story, enjoying the thrill of grossing out friends who hadn't heard this "totally true story," yet, and speculating on how likely it was that it actually had happened.

And every Halloween, there were "reliable" reports and warnings about people who gave out poisoned candy and apples with razor blades in them. We didn't really believe it then, but I'm sorry to say that the "reliable" reports have gained potency year after year until now there are communities where Trick-or-Treating is a relic of a "safer" past. Parents are too fearful to let their children go door to door and risk being given chocolate laced with strychnine or arsenic. However, if you go to Snopes.com (the premier hoax-busting website) you will discover that there never has been a case of a person maliciously poisoning candy to give to Trick-or-Treaters.

Why are we so ready to believe our neighbors are capable of such things? Why, when hearing patently dubious claims, are we so gullible? Why do we not ask to see the police reports or news stories? Why, when someone tells us that such-and-such causes cancer, do we not ask for the source of this "information," but dutifully forward it to everyone in our address book? It's tempting to surmise that people just like to believe they are beset by dangers on all sides (otherwise why would they so willingly believe it?). With the Internet handy it's often the work of just minutes to bust a hoax, and yet hardly a week goes by when I don't find some heartfelt warning in my inbox, urging me to share it with my loved ones.

I think back to my teen years and the thrilling sensations I experienced when hearing about The Bloody Hook; among the feelings I relished the most were the ones relating to how safe I felt that my friends had shared it with me! We had each other's backs! No crazy Hook Man was going to get me because my girlfriends were looking out for me! That feels awesome, and it's worth having a crazy Hook Man on the loose. Maybe nameless teen angst needs a scapegoat, a boogeyman we can circle the wagons against.

But seriously. If we actually want to be safe, instead of just feeling safe, it's up to us to be critical consumers of information. A feeling of security is pointless without actual security, and a false sense of danger can distort a secure life in truly harmful ways, not the least by trampling joy and freedom. Intellectual courage can help us dig for verification of the alarms and warnings that come our way. It can help us teach our kids what healthy skepticism is, and teach us to be better at risk assessment (e.g. air travel not statistically dangerous, driving without a seat belt statistically really dangerous). Intellectual courage can save us from the bloody hook.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The good news: here is a delightful story I was reminded of recently, the story of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, a tale of moral courage, physical courage, emotional courage, the story that gives us the popular image of beating back disaster by the narrowest margin: the finger in the dike. I loved this story when I was young. It was so inspiring!

In the old city of Haarlem, the sea was held back by strong dikes, great walls of earth which protected the low-lying coastal lands. From atop the dykes one had beautiful views of the sea on one side, and the rich green farms on the other. For a little boy named Hendrik, walking along the tops of the dikes was a great pleasure, and one evening, coming home from his grandmother's house, he was enjoying the view of the wintry sea when he heard a small, watery trickle. The light was fading, but he peered around, wondering where the sound was coming from. He cocked an ear, and following the noise he made his way down the back side of the dike, where shadows were already gathering. To his dismay, he saw water spurting through a tiny hole. Now, Hendrik was very young, but even young children in that country knew that the dikes were what protected their farms and homes and livestock. A small leak could quickly become a larger leak, and when the tide turned and pressed with all its might the dike could give way completely, flooding the entire city! In growing alarm, Hendrik looked around for something to plug the hole with. Nothing. Without giving it further thought, Hendrik stuck his finger into the dike. "Help!" he cried, looking out across the twilit fields. "Help!" Night fell, and the cold, damp air wrapped around the shivering, frightened boy. Visions of his warm supper and fireside filled his imagination, only to be chased away by visions of raging floodwaters. He dared not leave, for he knew it could spell disaster. "Help!" he called again, his voice hoarse. "Someone help me!" At last, he saw a lantern bobbing in the darkness, coming closer and closer. A search party had been sent to find him, his father in the lead. "My brave boy!" Hendrik's father cried. While the strong men of Haarlem set to work repairing the dike, the young hero was carried home, given his supper, and tucked into bed.

Delightful story! Beloved by millions! But here's the bad news. I'm sorry to say that this story is not a traditional Dutch story at all, but 19th Century American product of "Holland-Mania." Careful consideration of the story along with even the slightest experience with wet soil will make it clear that the story cannot represent any sort of real scenario. The Dutch, with centuries of experience of using dikes to keep the sea out of their low-lying country, would never have invented such an improbable tale. If an earthen dike is saturated enough with water to start leaking, one finger will never hold back the tide.  I reckon the inventor of the tale was picturing something more like a brick wall with a bit of loose mortar, not a real levee or dike.

And yet, what is interesting (to me) is how popular the story became, and how enduring the image of the boy with his finger in the dike is. We like to imagine the lone, small, heroic figure struggling against a mighty force to do the right thing. Perhaps what comforts us is thinking that we can be saved by the efforts of a few individuals while we are comfortably eating our dinners, and that our courage can be kept warm and dry while someone else braves the rising tide. Sorry to say, I don't think that's true. Neither do the Dutch, by the way. In 2007 that country prepared a 200-year plan to deal with the effects of global climate change and rising sea levels on their low-lying nation. Talk about the intellectual courage to tackle uncomfortable facts!

Just because this story isn't a traditional folk tale doesn't mean I won't tell it to my daughter.  Helping her develop courage is part of my plan for preparing for the future.  It's not a 200-year plan, more of a 20-year plan.  We all need the courage of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, even if he was fabricated as an unrealistic, romantic fantasy.  So really, this is more a Bad News/Good News essay than a Good News/Bad News one.  The bad news is we are all going to need a lot of courage; the good news is, we all have that potential, especially our kids. 




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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Three Billy Goats Gruff

Mention the words "courage" and "stories" in the same breath and someone will ask, "Are you going to tell the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff?"

Yes. Yes I will.

This tale from Norway, by the way, is an excellent story to tell by acting it out. If you happen to have three kids you can direct them in a play. If you don't know the story, don't worry - the part you are to play will become quite clear!


On a fine summer day, three billy goats gruff looked up at the hillside across the stream and decided the grass looked very nice over there. So the youngest billy goat set out across the wooden bridge, trip-trap-trip. Beneath the bridge lived one of the ugly trolls who dwell in the mountains of Norway, and he pulled himself up onto the bridge by his hairy hands, his long warty nose all a-wobble. "Who's that crossing my bridge? I'll eat you up!"

The first billy goat pointed his little horns back the way he had come. "No, wait for the second billy goat. He's bigger than I am. Let me pass." And he scampered the rest of the way over the bridge and onto the green hillside.

The second billy goat now stepped onto the bridge, trip-trap-trip. "Who's that crossing my bridge?" roared the troll. "I'll eat you up!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Monkey's Heart


Versions of this tale have been collected from many countries, including Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, Tanzania and Kenya. Details change to suit local circumstances, but the gist of the story - and the payoff - remain the same. I've written before about the benefit of telling trickster stories. Here is a classic example of quick wits and intellectual courage in action.

Monkey loved mangoes, of course. Who does not? And his favorite mango tree had branches that reached out over a river, where a certain crocodile came quite often.

"Why do you come here, lurking and smirking?" Monkey asked one day, hanging just out of reach and eating a sweet piece of fruit.

"I come because one of these days you will slip," Crocodile replied. "And I will catch you and take you to my king."

Monkey laughed, and swung back up onto the branch. "Really? We'll see about that!"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Courage Book Review - treasures from Geraldine McCaughrean

The Golden Hoard: Myths and Legends of the WorldWe rank Geraldine McCaughrean among today's most resourceful and exciting retellers of myths and legends from around the world.  Her vivid writing style makes her treasuries of stories gripping, funny, provocative, fascinating and beautiful.   In these books - The Golden Hoard: Myths and Legends of the World, The Silver Treasure: Myths and Legends of the World, The Bronze Cauldron Myths And Legends Of The World, and The CRYSTAL POOL: MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE WORLD -we have a dazzling variety of traditional tales, all gloriously illustrated by Bee Willey.  There are creation stories and trickster tales and stories of how stories came to be.  Above all, there are hero stories.  These stories of quests and courage show us how people from around the world told their tales highlighting all six types of courage.  Many of them may well be familiar favorites already, or at least ring some bells: St. George and the Dragon, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, Midas and the Golden Touch, the Golem, the Tower of Babel, William Tell, the Pied Piper and many others that readers may already recognize.  But there are also tales from cultures whose stories were once considered "quaint" or "curious" by Western readers.  Legends and folktales from New Zealand,  Melanesia, Bolivia, Finland, Togo and many many other places show us what is the same, and what is different, about how cultures portray courage.   I particularly liked the Hittite myth of the goddess Inaras conquering a family of dragons by feeding them until they were too fat to get back into their underground lairs.  As the old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to conquer dragons.  These collections show us that in dazzling, delightful detail.   Great for reading aloud or handing to an independent reader. 


The CRYSTAL POOL: MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE WORLD (Illustrated Stories for Children)
The Bronze Cauldron Myths And Legends Of The WorldThe Silver Treasure: Myths and Legends of the World

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making Soup

When K. arrived here from Ethiopia at 8 years old, I felt she was more than old enough to help cook. (The fact that we had quite a few bumpy months of adjusting to American food is a separate story!) Our first Christmas together, I gave her her own kitchen knife, a short, sharp orange blade with an orange scabbard. Who wouldn’t want to cut vegetables with that?! Sharp knives are the safest knives, and I never felt nervous about letting her cut potatoes or carrots or apples. We are a vegetarian family, so vegetables are the bulk of what we cut. I taught her how to use the peeler and the grater, and the first time she made the dinner salad on her own she was as proud as could be.

In the third grade in Waldorf education, children cook in school and spend a week on a farm, milking cows, harvesting vegetables, pressing cider, baking bread, cooking soup. At this age children begin to recognize that they won’t always live in the family nest; learning to cook assures them that they will be able to feed themselves. K. and I started a vegetarian cooking club in third grade, and we had many wonderful meals cooked entirely by the kids. Now in 6 th grade, K. and her friends often cook weekend lunches on their own. I generally keep out of the way, knowing that the best cooks learn by experimenting for themselves.
 An ideal story to tell in the kitchen is Stone Soup, a story so well known it hardly seems necessary to retell it. But on the chance that there are readers who don’t know it, here it is. This story, as with so many traditional tales, has many variations in the details; each teller adds her own seasoning, as I have.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Birbal Shortens the Road



The emperor, Akbar, was on a journey surrounded by advisors and servants. As it was a hot day and the road was long, he grew impatient and annoyed.

“This road is so long," he complained, as petulant and cranky as only an emperor can be. "Can’t anybody shorten it?”

By his side, wise Birbal said, “I can.”

Everyone who heard him rolled their eyes. “This is the only road – there is no other way,” one man said in a know-it-all tone.

“If he can do it, let him do it,” said the emperor. 

Birbal lowered his voice so only the emperor could hear. “I can do it, but first I want to tell you a story – it’s important.”

“Fine, fine, go ahead, but be sure to shorten the road as soon as you can.”

With that, Birbal started a long and complicated story with many twists and turns and dramatic surprises, keeping the emperor as focused and attentive as a cat watching a mouse hole. In no time at all, it seemed, they reached their destination.

“What? So soon?” the emperor marveled. “I can’t believe we are here already.”

Birbal smiled. “I told you I could shorten the road.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Are You the Ant or the Grasshopper? And Which Are You Raising?


A fable from Aesop that has seen a lot of play over the centuries is the Ant and the Grasshopper. The story extols the industrious ant who spends the summer working and storing food, and also points out the improvidence of the grasshopper who fiddles and sings all summer long, ends up starving through the winter and knocking on the ant's door for a hand-out.

Chances are, (if you are American) you're a grasshopper. The U.S. personal savings rate is the lowest among developed nations. Why is that? And what's it got to do with Lion's Whiskers?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Good Samaritan

There are a few ethical principles that have appeared throughout world cultures and religions, and the ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you) is one of them. I suppose we can infer that the universality of this ethic suggests that it really is part of what it means to be human. The parable of the Good Samaritan is among the most popular in Christianity. It's a story (very very short!) told by Jesus in a conversation about the admonishment to "love your neighbor as yourself." "But who is my neighbor?" asked his listener.

A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a mountain road so steep and dangerous and infested with bandits that it was known as the Bloody Way. This day it matched its reputation. The traveler was attacked and robbed by highwaymen, and left bleeding and unconscious on the side of the road.