Sunday, October 25, 2009

Atlantik-Bruecke Study Trip to Germany, 2009

Travel to Germany has been exclusively in the realm of family trips for me, so when I read about the opportunity to visit Germany as a professional, I applied without much hope of being selected. According to the publicity put out by the IDOE, the program was being opened to Indiana teachers for the first time, and to Social Studies teachers for the first time. I assumed that there were many, many teachers who would be better suited for the study trip than I. When my principal came into my classroom last year to announce my selection, I assumed she had misunderstood the phone call- surely I must just be a finalist, and that interviews will follow. Only after calling to confirm the selection myself did I start to realize what had really happened.

My next moment of disbelief came with the organizational meeting. We were told that the trip was going to be completely paid for, and further that we each would be lodging in separate rooms during our travels. Teachers, at least those I am familiar with, are used to the idea that nothing is paid for unless you first jump through hoops and beg. This notion of the all-expenses-paid trip was simply amazing. I still find it hard to comprehend. Becoming a representative for my state, as well as for my profession marks a high point in my professional life that will be hard to match or exceed.

Germany is the homeland of my mother, and so I have been on many trips throughout my youth and adult life. I have cultivated a love of Germany that I will carry with me always. My love was not diminished on this study trip. Nearly every place I visited was new to me. My mother's family lives in Nordrhein-Westfalen in the town of Bad Salzuflen. All of my previous travels have had that town as the hub of other journeys. Our group did not travel to my family's state, so this meant that everything I saw was fresh and new. Even Berlin, the one place I had seen before, was new to me since I had the benefit of my excellent fellow teachers as companions. Their insights complemented my own observations and allowed me to understand everything differently. And, of course, the indispensable Mr. Pinnow helped me to see Germany through his own unique experiences. What an extraordinary gentleman and guide!

Our journey began in Munich. Mr. Werner Karg greeted us and gave us all our initial directions for the next three days. Little did we know that the first evening in Germany would include the famed Oktoberfest. As an introduction into the German culture of the south, I could think of nothing better. I tried to imagine how the same scene of Munich's Oktoberfest would change if transported to America intact. I have never been amid such a dense crowd that was, at the same time, friendly and boisterous. The police force was working, but in a much different way than their counterparts in America would have done.

At this point I must comment on the food and drink, not only in Munich, but throughout the journey. I felt like I was in a dream land whenever meals were presented. Everything was perfect. I was constantly reminded of my childhood stays in Germany with my Oma's kitchen always producing perfect meals and treats for my family. The bread, cheese, and meats were beyond compare. The mineral water and beer were outstanding. Some of my companions could not develop a liking for the waters, but I found them to be delightfully refreshing. How can something so simple as a brotchen be so elusive in America? I tried as many new foods as I could, but I was pleased that the cuisine of the south of Germany is not as different as I thought it might be from that of the north. It was all familiar and inviting like an old friend.

Along the way I tried to pay attention to details that my students would focus on. I took pictures of normal houses, traffic lights, street signs, fruit stands, bicycle racks, and many other mundane scenes not found on post cards. For it is in the daily differences of life that life in other countries really begins to make sense. I will be sharing many of my pictures with my students, but I already knew that they would become bored with nothing to see except monuments and gothic architecture. They are interested in the differences found in what is normal. It was quite useful when we visited schools and also government officials who explained Germany's educational structure for us all. What could be more normal than food, other than school?

My students and those of Germany have much in common, but seeing the differences again is important. One of the differences, visually, is that schools in Germany do not fit neatly into a normal model of architecture. They occupy different buildings, some very old, and some new. The schools we visited had the feel of America's college campuses. Students were moving about during breaks with hardly an adult looking their way. Teachers arrive according to varying schedules, and students are expected to attend classes, presumably with little oversight. And the most constant topic among the students we spoke with was the graduation exams. High-stakes testing in Germany is an even greater concern than it is in America. The testing systems are different, to be sure, but the focus on the testing at the expense of nearly everything else sounded frustratingly familiar.

In the realm of politics, I found it quite intriguing that the ghosts of older political parties were still haunting the ballot boxes of Germany. The former communists, I can understand, since their reign in the east has only ended 25 years ago. But when we visited our friends in Saxony, they spoke quite plainly about the "nazis" in politics under a new name. The NDP was said to command close to 7 or 8 percent of the votes in Saxony, though far less nationally. Apparently they are able to capitalize on the fears of the people who believe foreign influence is harming Germany. I suppose it might be similar to a German visiting America's southern states only to learn that the KKK is still an active group in our country, and still has influence in politics, though it is not a party unto itself.

As this is meant to be a summary of my journey, I will end with a few of my most memorable observations. Please stress to everyone next time exactly why you should pack light. Hauling, hoisting, and pressing overloaded suitcases above our heads became a running joke of the trip. Many travelers learned their lesson on that important point. Germans are welcoming, accommodating, and gracious people. The home visits were serene. German public transportation is amazing in its efficiency, but that includes punctuality. Do not arrive late. Germans live with and among their history. It is always under your feet and in your line of sight. Americans are sometimes forgetful of our history because its visual remnants are not always around. Finally, it is essential to know that among allies as well as enemies, common ground and cultural similitude is as easy to see as are differences. The more energy and effort we spend focusing on our common ground, the sooner we can joyfully share common spaces.

Thank you to everyone associated with the Atlantik-Bruecke organization. You have conferred upon me the blessing of a great learning experience, and I am in your debt. Call on me if I can ever be of help in the future. All others who read this, know that to travel abroad with an open mind will afford you an education like no classroom can provide.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Atlantik-Bruecke Study Trip, 2009

I took part in this fantastic journey through Germany thanks to the Atlantik-Bruecke Foundation and the Indiana Department of Education. Twelve teachers of Social Studies from across Indiana were selected based on their applications and recommendations. We traveled throughout the southern and eastern parts of Germany. The focus of the trip was the study of the German political system as well as to interact with other educators and students in Germany.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Living the life

Hey there to my one or two readers! Sorry I have been out to lunch for so long. I can't seem to sit in front of the computer for more than a few minutes at a time lately. Life is very good, though.

I have been enjoying the transformation of my wife into a cyclist. I have been in awe of my kids growing into young people rather than just children or toddlers. And I have been anticipating future events and possible changes.

More writing on the way....

Friday, June 19, 2009

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

This Fabulous Married Life

A wonderful thing has happened. My wife has taken control of her personal life and health after too many years of being a victim of selfless momhood. She has chosen cycling as her primary form of exercise outside of the gym.

I have gone to gyms and have been a guy who "works out" off and on since before high school. I even tried to talk myself into being a runner in college. I've had many dry spells in which I have let myself slip into lethargy and poor health. So far I have managed to come out of it reasonably well. I am in a good phase of health currently, and I plan to keep it that way. I have been as much as thirty pounds heavier than I weigh now. And that wasn't thirty pounds of muscle. It's always on my mind when I exercise, this past self who laid down for about three years. I excused myself into every pound of it, too.

So my wife has really done it this time. I was expecting the usual ritual. We buy a piece of so-called exercise equipment only to have it languish in stasis until it eventually migrates to Goodwill. But this time is different. She has attached something new to the resolve- a promise to cycle for our daughter. Failures in the old cycle were limited in effect. Now failure is on par with letting your children down. What a simple and brilliant psychological maneuver. Since doing it for yourself has never been good enough, announce that you'll do it for others. And now with the success that surely breeds success, she is doing it for personal improvement and actual enjoyment. It feels good to exercise and eat well.

The biggest sign of truth for me? There is a case of Pepsi in the garage that has been there for weeks now, nearly full. Pepsi was like a little devil on my wife's shoulder. It was a crutch and a huge health roadblock. I won't make too much of it, but dropping the Pepsi as a regular beverage has affected a net caloric loss that would be hard to match through exercise alone. It's a victory that can be measured in numbers, but one that is also symbolic. It represents a personal weakness that has been conquered.

I'm looking into the kitchen and I see bright and colorful fresh fruits and vegetables. We are eating them, too. Very little gets thrown out. We are eating wonderful food and not missing a thing. The kids are better off for it, and are now less likely to have bad food habits to struggle with later in life. Anything can happen, I know, but habits do form in childhood. We are not denying our kids what they want. Why stock the house with bad options to begin with? They see us drinking water or other healthy choices. They follow our example. We don't have to trick or bribe them to eat good food. They ask for it.

What else has better family health brought? How about a happier family? Everyone has energy enough to get things done, and then energy still left over for fun. It's like the old joke says, "if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." Mama is much happier now since exercise and better nutrition have become the norm.

I have always thought my wife is beautiful, but women are always more attractive when they feel good about themselves. The best is when the good feeling is intrinsic, rather than something fleeting that might come from a new outfit or hair style. With our twentieth high school reunion coming soon, my wife looks and feels better than she has for a long time. It's a change that I believe will become a lasting one.

I am loving the changes, and couldn't be more proud of the woman I married for becoming dedicated to health and all of its benefits. Life is beautiful.

Live well.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

History on the Landscape, II

Since it came to my attention that there are no women represented in any of Indiana's national historical markers, I have been thinking the obvious thought- why not? In Indianapolis it would seem to be a natural choice to erect a marker for Madame C J Walker. We have the Walker Theater building, but why not enhance the historic perspective of the casual visitor with an informative marker?

The more I thought of this I became more upset at the omission. There are plenty of groups or individuals, I would think, who would be interested in seeing such a national marker created. I will not retell here the history of this remarkable woman, but her place in Indianapolis should certainly be fortified in the public domain with as much as possible, rather than with the oral tradition we seem to be reliant upon.

Live Well.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

People Who Offend for a Living

Rush Limbaugh is a tool.

That's it.

Live Well.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Resolution Town Meeting

I just got home a short while ago from Cardinal Fitness. It's officially the new year. Resolution Season is apparently in full bloom (perhaps full burn). This is the time of year when the gym actually gets crowded. I see many more new faces than those of the regulars whom I recognize.

Some of the unfamiliar faces are there with partners, which is tremendously helpful most of the time. Some are independently slogging through their paces. I've seen this season of high resolve many times before. It won't be long before the collective force of all good intentions begins to falter under the relentless assault of bad weather, obligations, and non-stop images of high fat cooking on Food Network. Some who are heavy on determination, but ultra-light on experience will quit because of excessive pain brought on by overdoing it. Most will cheat their own desire for physical improvement simply due to the aversion we all have toward delayed gratification.

The work-to-reward ratio is extremely overloaded on the work end, at least when compared to nearly everything else we choose to do. Instant gratification has become the norm in many of our lives, so much so that even slight delays become intolerable, or at least annoying. Makers of diet and weight-loss products and services capitalize on this lack of tolerance and fleece us out of billions of dollars each year. Bottles of pills tell us how we don't have to exercise or even change our diet to lose weight, just swallow these. Fitness gurus sell themselves as in-home weight-loss coaches on your own TV. How many of their videos feature someone who looks like they need a half-crazed exercise coach for motivation? Richard Simmons has been made fun of for so long that he even parodies himself now in commercials. He put people with real weight problems in front of the camera, though, and has done much good.

I like watching The Biggest Loser sometimes because the format of the show allows everyone to see that hard work, careful diet, and discipline really does yield amazing results. But even the contestants do not get immediate results that take them to the "end" of their ideal journey. I included the before and after image of a former Biggest Loser, Eric. What an incredible transformation he made!

I dislike the show for several things they do that are very wrong. Too much emphasis is placed on the weigh-in they have each week. It seems that not enough education has been given the contestants regarding what really should be happening inside their bodies during this transformation. People are shedding desperate tears because they lost nine pounds in a week instead of twelve or sixteen. Madness! Why not measure changes in much more informative terms such as BMI, Body Mass Index? I suppose that adding complexity to the contest would turn off viewers. The show has used fairly shameless product endorsements embedded in the program, which I would rather not see.

I saw several people in the gym recently who are there to add years to their lives rather than to look cute at the beach this summer. That is a real inspiration. I'm continuing with my own fitness plans for a variety of personal reasons. Long life and good health are a very appealing combination. I know how I feel when I have been in fitness mode for many days. I also know how much worse I feel when I have stopped the exercise routine.

Along with the rest of the city, I will strive to outlast and foil my own efforts at self sabotage this year. My family deserves a father, husband, brother, etc. who feels good about himself. When that happens, I feel better about everything else in life. It's not a very hard deal to accept. Join me.

Live Well.