Friday, December 19, 2014

A Lesson on Gossip from Mean Girls

In high school, most people experienced some level of drama. All those raging hormones especially among the girls are bound to flare up in endless cat fights. However, as the song "High School Never Ends" by Bowling for Soup points out, the drama does not end, it just opens up onto a wider scale and becomes more adult, so to speak. Because of this, the movie Mean Girls has a lesson for everyone, not just girls or women. Mean Girls is about gossip among girls in high school, but it causes you to think about the gossip in your life.
I first saw this film in theaters with my dad. I hadn't heard much about it but my dad wanted to take me because all the grad students my dad was working with at UC Berkeley had recommended it. This was before I knew anything about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. We both enjoyed it very much. Cady Heron played by Lindsay Lohan is transplanted from growing up in South Africa to a typical American high school in the Midwest. Being so pretty and exotic, she is instantly picked up by the Plastics whose queen bee is Regina George played by Rachel McAdams. What starts out as a mission to bring down the reigning group, Cady realizes how broken her new friends actually are.
The main issue Mean Girls deals with is gossip. You know the saying "Devil makes work for idle hands?" The same can be said for idle tongues too. Cady constantly feels uncomfortable around the plastics because of the awful things they constantly say about people. They even have a burn book with photos and insults about everyone in school. Even when Cady participates by saying nice things, Cady quickly learns that that too can become gossip.
At one point, I felt very sorry for Regina. Her mother, played by the brilliant Amy Poehler, cares very little what her daughters do. It seems as though the only way Regina knows how to deal with the hurt is to put others down to feel better about her own miserable life. When offered a chance for redemption, however, she blatantly refuses and clearly not out of ignorance, simply pride.
I had a horrible time in middle school because of gossip. No one wanted to be my friend because I would defend the targets of gossip rather than participate. I then was also the target of gossip even among the boys who I would often catch snickering at me. I was not so much hurt by the things people said, but I was hurt by the simple isolation of not being a part of the group and just being a target for no reason, really. In Mean Girls, everyone at Cady's high school feels that same rejection. The Plastics are the fuel, but everybody gossips. In Cady's attempt to infiltrate the Plastics, she finds herself turning into them. Despite her dislike of the burn book, in a very powerful scene she writes something about a teacher that is completely false and places the teacher under a police investigation. Left unchecked, gossip spreads like weeds and spirals out of control. When in a rage, it is easy to make targets out of innocent bystanders rather than take responsibility for our actions or foster a spirit of understanding.
I decided on this film and this topic because it's such a sneaky and seemingly innocent sin. It's a wolf disguised as all kinds of herbivore skins. This film was recently put on Netflix stream, so on a quiet evening to myself, I decided to watch it again. As entertaining a film it is to watch, I had a gut wrenching experience because I could see evil parts of myself in the actions of many of those teenagers. While I don't keep a burn book, it is so easy to complain about people we don't like, to say things about people who hurt us, and make comments about people who are a little odd. When we do those things, we strip away their God-given dignity. There was one scene in particular that really struck me and shows a brilliant feat of editing. Cady's math teacher, played by the hilarious Tina Fey, has a talk with her because she's not doing well even though she is brilliant at math. She expresses concern but Cady brushes her off. The next cut, Cady is in Regina's room complaining to the plastics not about the situation, but about Ms. Norbury. I froze in my seat. How many times have I done that? How many times have I complained about teachers because I didn't like the lesson or I didn't do well on an exam? How many Sunday's have I given myself the right to complain about a priest's homily or the way he said Mass? Everyone gossips to some degree. Even when we don't think the person hears us, they are still hurt by the invisible knives we throw at them. It also hurts us. Rather than speaking loving words, we foster evil in our heart. Each word of gossip fuels that evil.
If you want a lesson on gossip and the potential consequences, Mean Girls is the perfect movie. With social media making bullying even more rampant than when the film was first released, it's important for us to model how to talk to others IRL and online to our children. If they hear us gossiping about our neighbors, what are we to say to them when we find out they gossip about their classmates? The best way to fight any sin is prayer. Sometimes it may feel like the best thing to rant about someone on Facebook, even if you don't write their name. People who know the situation can see and the person you complain about may become hurt. The best way to combat the evil gossip in our heart is prayer. Start with praying for people you don't like and tend to gossip about. Pray for yourself so that you no  longer gossip. Most importantly, just don't talk unless you have something good to say. Next time you hear a good piece of gossip, pray for the person who told you and pray for the person who is being gossiped about. (They both probably need it!) Time with friends is better spent in joy rather than ugly chatter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Lesson in Humility

Humility is one of the seven virtues and may be the most important for it begins the journey to all other virtues. I am constantly learning humility, and I thought I was on the right track until last Monday and Tuesday a series of events brought me to great shame. Later that week I read the chapter on humility in Lisa Hendey's book The Grace of Yes: Eight Virtues for Generous Living which also brought me full circle to realize where I need to grow in humility. During this blog, I shall recount all my experiences in the hopes that they will help you see where you can grow in humility.
Last Monday, I had an appointment with the priest before Divine Liturgy and was running late. I called him on my cell phone and placed it on the trunk of the car when  the call was terminated in order to put my toddler in the carseat. Well, in classic Violet fashion I completely forgot about it. About five minutes before Liturgy, I open my purse in order to put my phone on silent, and it is gone. I panic because I remember what happened to my phone, knowing it could potentially be anywhere. I check the car, it is gone. I check the whole area around my apartment complex where I drove, and it was nowhere to be found. If I had lost it on the street, I was sure I would never see it again. I mostly was upset because I have only had my phone for about six months, and I bought it to replace my previous phone which had also disappeared only to be found three months after I bought a new one. Instead of a contract, we agreed to pay for our phones over a period of two years. I hadn't even finished paying for it, and it was gone. My husband had emailed me saying he received a text message from a woman who had found it. When he returned home, I called her and arranged a meeting. What she had done for me was so amazing, there was no way I could rightfully repay her. In a meager attempt to do so, I brought her three of my favorite cookies. The ones I had made for St. Nicholas. When I arrived at our meeting location, I noticed that it was not in as nice an area as where I live. We met in a Starbucks parking lot, but across the street were apartment buildings that I saw her walk towards at the conclusion of our meeting. When I finally saw her, her clothes were not as nice as mine. I could tell that she was probably not as well off as I am, and I'm not doing so well. She was so joyful when she returned my phone. She explained that when she was at the corner waiting to cross the street, she saw something fly off my car. She was curious what it was. A young lady took a look at it and walked away. This woman took a look herself and saw that it was a cell phone. She risked injury to grab it when no cars were coming and promptly texted my mom, my best friend, and my husband with a number to reach her. I was so grateful, and I know that she could have just kept it for herself or sold it, but she didn't. She was worried that I would be frantic wondering where it was. She also was grateful for the cookies.
I was so humbled. In her story, I know which person I probably would be. I probably would have been the young lady who saw the phone and kept walking. Let me tell you, I will never be that person again. I was also humbled by a poor woman servicing me. Growing up and still today, I am taught that it is important to be generous with the poor. I'm not great at this, but I do what I can. Rarely have I ever heard about someone poor doing something for someone of wealth. Christ says. . ."Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Mark 12:31) Your neighbor is all of God's children, so the implication is that if there is a need, the poor can serve the wealthy. True generosity and love is unconditional. If a woman with little is willing to do an act of love for me, how much more should I be willing to go out of my way to commit acts of love for those around me?
On Tuesday, I was once again shamed. I had a game on my cell phone that I would let my toddler play. I gave it to him as a distraction while I was in the bathroom brushing my hair. I'm brushing my hair, and I hear the game playing. Suddenly, I hear splashing next to me. My son had opened the toilet seat and was splashing in the toilet. (Don't worry, it was clean.) At the bottom of the toilet, however, was my cell phone. I was in utter horror. I took it out in an attempt to save it, but it was too late. It has since stopped working. This is not the first item my son has broken. He has broken three picture frames, spilled beans all over the floor, broke the food processor, and countless other acts of horror.  He has officially cost our family about $500 in damage including my cell phone. Sure, some parents may blame me for giving my kid my phone to play with. You know what though, he really liked that game. It was one of his favorite things to play with. It would often keep him quiet for a few minutes while I brushed my hair. How is this humbling? I shouldn't put too much value on something that met its end by the hands of my toddler in the bottom of the toilet. I also shouldn't put too much value on something that I often times put before my son.
I spent the week reflecting on these two events with an emphasis on Monday's events. Those two events began what I would consider the worst week of my life. And guess what, it's turning into the worst TWO weeks of my life. Hooray. I had been reading Lisa's book as part of a book club on just to make sure I read it a prayerful manner, and to read what other people think of the chapter. Last week, the chapter happened to be about humility, the very virtue I was praying about that week. With the help of the book, I realized where I was lacking in humility that is the root of both the events of last week.
Lisa spends much of the chapter talking about forgiving others and ourselves. God taught me that a few years ago, so I have no trouble forgiving others. (Especially since that is how I will be judged by God.) She began the chapter, though, talking about every professional's constant struggle between pride and humility. I could relate to that. As long as God is the root of our professional work, everything is fine. Alright, makes sense. She later quotes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity to define humility as follows: "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." Wow, I felt like God whacked me over the head with that one. I had been focusing most of my "humility" on the first part, thinking less of myself. When it came to thinking of others though, I often times would even put myself even before my family. I realized how selfish I had been. Since I read this, I fortunately have been making an active effort to put others before myself. If I had found someone's cell phone, would I have done the same thing the woman did for me? Probably not. Hopefully with prayer and active selflessness, the answer will one day be "yes."
Everyone is called to humility because Christ was humble. "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) If God is not exempt from serving others and placing others before himself, neither are we. All the great saints had emphasized the importance of humility, and all searched for it. If we are to join Christ in the beatific vision, we too need to wear the robe of humility.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Movie Roundup

I am a huge fan of Christmas movies, and the sappier the better. I have about 20 years of experience watching Christmas movies, so if you're looking for something to put you in the mood for Christmas, here at my top favorites.

1. The best Christmas movie out there is It's a Wonderful Life. My husband would argue it's not a Christmas movie, but it totally is. In fact, it was a box office flop but became a hit when aired the entire month of December during the late 1980's when the world realized what a brilliant film it is. Nothing more sappy or well written. George Bailey, the main character played by James Stewart, is the prime example of how God asks us to live our lives. Nothing but the best from Frank Capra.

2. A Christmas Story is a film every demographic will enjoy year after year full of memorable moments. It almost feels like it was one of your past Christmases. This is also the film which started the tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas Day. 

3. A Muppet Christmas Carol is by far my favorite version of this Charles Dickens classic. This film maintains the spirit of the original story with all your favorite Muppet characters and such great music. One of the best Muppet movies for sure. 

4. This is where the list gets a little wonky because all the following movies don't really have as clear an order. It may even change day to day. I recently re-watched Love, Actually, so I'm going to put it here. It's such a fun romantic comedy with different stories with different outcomes all coming together at a school Christmas pageant somehow involving a lobster. 

5. The 1947 original version of Miracle on 34th St. is a classic. Brilliant story, acting, everything. Edmun Gwenn as Kris Kringle is just such a beautiful portrayal of a humble, noble Santa Claus.

6. Nothing Like the Holidays is a Hispanic Christmas movie about a typical Mexican-American family coming together to celebrate Christmas. I used to work in a movie theater and every week I was allowed to see a movie for free. One week, my mom and I saw this movie and were both quite pleased. It is such a rich story with the drama you find in a typical large family, not just a Hispanic family.
7. Santa Clause 1 & 2 are two films about the origin of Santa Clause. The first one is about Scott Calvin, played by Tim Allen, a divorced father who works for a toy company. He learns the true spirit of generosity and the magic of Christmas. The second one is about Santa finding Mrs. Claus. A romance about Santa Claus? How much better can it get?

8. Polar Express seems to be the only animated film on my list. I saw this in 3D when it was in theaters and the animation blew me away. By today's standards, it's a bit crude, but still quite magical. Tom Hanks plays about every character but the little boy. This is a great adaptation of a children's book with beautiful music to match.

9. Mystery Science Theater 3000 Santa Claus & Santa Claus Conquers the Martians are two of the funniest Christmas classics in the context of commentating robots, of course. Santa Claus is a Mexican film about the myth of Santa Claus. Just, wow. But with the talking robots, rather than being a cringe-worthy film is a laugh fest for the whole family. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is about Santa Claus keeping Martians from invading Earth. With Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, and Crow, it is another fun film that will keep you laughing until Christmas morning.

10. I mostly put Elf on the list because of its popularity. It's a good film, and when it came out it exploded with fame. I think what makes this movie unique is that Will Ferrell's character Buddy has innocence and though he's a bit naive, he quickly grows up without losing the Christmas spirit.

11. Dear Santa is a surprising film. There are so many other Christmas movies I could have put on the list, but I put this movie on for a number of reasons. Dear Santa is really indi and low-budget. The acting is mediocre along with the rest of the elements of the film. The characters and story, however, are so captivating. It's a pretty generic story of spoiled rich girl turned nice girl by handsome, perfect man. He clearly wasn't perfect though because the woman he was dating was not a good fit for him. The main character Crystal, played by Amy Acker, works hard to make herself worthy of such a good man and her heart genuinely changes throughout the movie. Of all the movies I could have put on the list, I added this one because it is such a pleasant surprise, you won't be disappointed.

Right now Netflix instant view is airing Muppet Christmas Carol, Love, Actually, and Dear Santa. You can rent the rest on this list from Amazon or Netflix.

Special mention of Charlie Brown Christmas special. Classic and so good. Watch it!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Vegan for the Holidays

Chocolate Mint Chocolate Chip cookies for St. Nicholas
My husband's students are worried that because I'm vegan my son will not have warm Christmas memories of cookies and treats. Well, this year no because we don't give him sugar, but for the last three years, Santa has enjoyed the vegan cookies we leave for him. Nicky has many years of delicious Christmas cookies to look forward to. It is different having a vegan holiday, especially for Thanksgiving. These are the times I am most tempted to throw aside the Tofurkey and enjoy an animal-based dinner. I have my little mantra I say to myself that keeps me in check, and I smile as I enjoy a delicious vegan food.
This year for Christmas Eve dinner, I decided to make for myself vegan Polish sausage and pirogi. At first I was very excited until I realized I would be the only one enjoying them. My husband claims he wants some, but we'll see how well the crab distracts him. Even my son will be having crab with the rest of the family. The holidays are supposed to be about bringing people together. This has been achieved throughout history with food. Each country that celebrates Christmas has their own traditional Christmas foods. Being from San Francisco, it was Dungeness Crab for our family. By intentionally refusing to participate in the foods of Christmas, I am choosing to separate myself from everyone else during a celebration. Desserts are usually vegan at the holidays because that's easy to accomplish and no one notices, so I can fully participate in dessert. For dinner, however, I end up feeling alone even though I'm surrounded by people who love me. At Thanksgiving this year, I was severely let down by my Tofurkey. In retrospect, I should have just made it myself instead of buying it frozen. Never doing that again. I also was too busy and forgot to put it in the oven on time. I ate my mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans but had to have the "main course" after everyone had finished and was cleaning up. My son was even too full from potatoes, bread, and green beans to have any. When I did eat it, it tasted pretty bad. On the flipside, I didn't want turkey. I never really liked it anyways. I always found it dry and tasteless. What was I to do? I guess nothing really. Omit the "main dish" all together? What kind of celebration would that have been?
I really enjoy baking. This weekend, I made chocolate mint chocolate chip cookies for St. Nicholas. I normally bake desserts that are healthful so my husband can enjoy them without guilt, but these were for St. Nicholas. I couldn't not put sugar and butter in them. For our Christmas party every year, I bake three batches of cookies which last for days even after my friends devour half of them. Around here, I am the queen of desserts. No one ever complains about my desserts, even when full of healthful substitutions. That's probably why I enjoy baking so much. As I say, you put enough sugar in something and no one can tell it's vegan. I have plenty of friends who can attest to this. 
I guess once we move away, I won't have to worry about this anymore because we will be on our own for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We'll have vegan Polish sausage and pirogi for Christmas and homemade turkey roast for Thanksgiving. When my family and I are in our own home eating our own food, eating vegan feels normal, and I have no doubts. Things do become a bit sticky when at other people's homes or out to eat. Eating vegan can feel like a celebration because it is a lot of work when making things from scratch as I do. Even as a vegan, how can my seitan roast compete with a turkey, or my bean sausage with fresh crab? Even when surrounded by temptation, I know abandoning my vegan ways will not make me any happier, even if I would fit in better. I guess I just would like to meet one other person who is like me: Catholic and vegan.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Commentary on Killing Animals

A goat at the Santa Ana Zoo investigating us
I read a very touching article today on Huffington Post about a farmer who grows plants, raises animals, and enjoys hunting. The post is titled "Do I Enjoy Killing?" by Jenna Woginrich, a small farmer who was once a vegetarian herself. Even though I'm a vegan, I can appreciate what she has to say. In fact, it may have swayed me to allow my toddler to have some crab at Grandma and Grandpa's on Christmas Eve.
The title of the article comes from criticism she has faced by animal rights activists which is an over simplistic criticism. The statement reminds her of a school trip to a river. A fish was injured and beached, dying when a school boy dropped a rock on its head to "see what would happen." This infuriated Jenna. So when being accused of enjoying killing, in the end she concludes that she is not like the boy and she does not enjoy killing. She kills because it is necessary, she loves the animals, and loves her family. I really respect that. She even mentions how when roasting a lamb, she fasts all day so she can enjoy the lamb in the evening. As Byzantine Catholic, I really appreciate that attitude.
In the article, Jenna talks about what green eating really means. She knows all about factory farms, but one thing that I even struggle with that she mentions in the article is tofu. Soy beans are grown on a farm, shipped to a facility where they are processed, packaged, and shipped to the big city where I can buy it. When she goes hunting, she captures an animal that has been living in the environment around her. Which one sounds more environmentally sound? I do not have personal experience with farming as Jenna does, but the type of farming I have heard about that seems the most green is one that raises all the animals, allows them to do their unique chicken, cow, pig, etc. behavior, and grow crops on the same land. This is the type of farming children are taught about, but sadly is not what most farms look like. It is, however, what Jenna's farm sounds like.
Jenna loves sharing her animals with her friends and family. On their plates of course. In the article, she takes possession of her flock of sheep. She makes sacrifices to keep them comfortable, she knows what they give her, and she cares deeply for them as any good shepherd would. This is the Catholic attitude of animals. They are not to be placed above humans or even equated with humans. They are to be cherished and used as deemed necessary. When used properly, animal meat can be used to bring families together as a celebration like Turkey on Thanksgiving or Dungeness crab on Christmas Eve.
My blog post in response to Ms. Jenna's article may seem confusing considering I'm vegan. In my blog post "Debunking the Catholic Vegan Myth", I talk about how theologically sound it is to be either vegan or non-vegan, but factory farming is not the way to be non-vegan. Jenna's farm clearly embodies Catholic teaching on the treatment of animals and her attitude towards her animals is quite touching. In fact, her article is more loving towards animals than any other piece of writing I've read about being vegan.
If I appreciate Jenna's point of view, why do I continue to be vegan? As I explained in my blog post, I like it. I just do. No, I won't be eating crab on Christmas Eve with my family, but I don't really want to. Just before college, I knew my vegetarian options would be slim in the dining hall, and with the stress of starting a new life, I did not want to put in the effort to be vegetarian. The first non-veg meal I had was a Burger King Wopper. I was overwhelmingly unimpressed. As I ate my burger, I thought to myself, "I wish I had ordered the veggie burger." Since then, I have had In-N-Out and found a burger made of meat that I actually like. That has been the only real hamburger I have eaten that I've enjoyed and probably the only one I ever will eat if I ever eat meat again which is quite unlikely. However, if the need to buy meat should ever arise for family or any other reason, I will only buy ethically raised meat products from farms like Jenna's.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

December Photo a Day

You can find lists all over the internet with tips on capturing those Christmas memories. This year, in an attempt to expand my photography and really capture our traditions, I decided to do a photo-a-day challenge. I found one I liked among this two year old list here. I'm following the Lily Pad prompt. Even though it's the fourth of December already, I encourage you to use the lists at least for inspiration for capturing your own family traditions. Feel free to look around the internet for a list you would enjoy. I'll be posting daily throughout the month of my December on my Tumblr here. For now, below are my first four photos.

Day 1:  Twinkle 

Day 2: Green 

Day 3: List

Day 4: Box