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Ascending Vesuvius

I first saw Vesuvius from a wobbly plane. The turbulence descending into Naples was so rough that I was trembling when I looked to the left and saw the most majestic, mesmerizing hunk of rock I’ve ever seen. It was more than a mountain and my awe eased me.

It’s no wonder that the people who have long lived beneath its commanding presence have deemed it a god. An unforgiving one at that. Yet they still live here, grow their grapes, and tend their gardens as if they know not the sorrow and trouble those before them experienced. It’s too quiet to suspect this god could be more than a mountain. But gods don’t stay asleep.

We went up the summit on a barely warm day. One of those days when the breeze is just what it claims to be. It’s about 4,000 feet up—not a doable feat after having ambled miles around an archaeological site of unevenly angled streets and a dangerous, dingy city. We went the easy way—if there is one. Vans depart for the summit from Ercolano. This is the modern-day city where sunken Herculaneum once flourished before it was flash frozen in a coat of ash and lava.

Ascending the slope of Mount Vesuvius is like exploring two different planets. There is the lush and green but rocky forest that covers most of the hill. The flora at times appears distinctly ancient and Mediterranean. There are boulders that sit as if they have just dropped from the sky and semi-tropical-looking trees, but the most odd, unsettling image we see while driving the snaking road is how many homes there are. Homes with cars, toys, fences, and yards. Yellow flowers populate the yards as if we could be anywhere other than on a cranky crag known for its eruptive temper.

People live on Vesuvius. They are there for the same reason others have come to the mountain for thousands of years—fertile soil. Never mind that they are living on the surface of a dormant, beastly bomb bulging with a fiery filling. When it goes again, the people may make it out alive. Their livelihoods won’t. But darn if Vesuvian wine doesn’t taste fine, crisp, and clean. Their livelihood has been my liveliness for part of the week.

Our van driver drives like a mad man. This is the Italian way. The narrow road wraps around the mountain like an Egyptian bracelet, tight and coiled. Each turn takes us further away from the city and the sea bringing the Bay of Naples and Isle of Capri into aerial view. And suddenly, the landscape begins to change from earthly to alien. We’ve landed on the moon—a gray, barren, rocky desert. We begin to see lava-streaked scars from the most recent eruption in 1944.

We are dropped off right where the summit starts. Walking up feels like wading against weighty ocean waves. The wind whips and the stuff beneath our feet isn’t stable. The switchback is silty, lined with something in between sand and gravel—slippery yet gritty. The khaki-colored lane contrasts with the more Martian-like terrain that extends up to the crater. Grays, browns, reds, oranges, and blues run throughout the porous, volcanic rock blending together and breaking apart. Some parts are smooth and sandy like the trail. Others are jagged and faceted like a newly exhumed jewel. Whole chunks of rock look chiseled and nicked in an erratic fashion.

The air is thinner 4,000 feet up than below at sea level and it gets harder to breathe with each forced step I take. This is not walking. It’s pushing and prodding with only my will and a walking stick to drive me along. A long-time dream of seeing this wonder has made this a quest for me—something to conquer. Something about its history and mythical ways has brought me to this bastard mountain. What it has done and meant. How it destroys and wastes yet feeds and sustains. Vesuvius is a contradiction to be reckoned with. Its calm and inviting presence belies what it is capable of unleashing on the least suspecting—the fatalistic denizens of its rocky slopes. The ones too close to see or believe the raging tantrums their land can turn loose. I wonder if they’ve been to the summit and stared into the deceptively cool crater. It steams.

We stand there at the crater looking for any sign of unrest. We stare, search, and strain to find something rising up out of this huge rocky depression as if we are consulting the orifice of some great oracle. We finally eye some steam seeping out of a thin crack inside the crater wall. It is small and silent but a mighty harbinger of the things to come . . . some day. Any day. I can’t help but feel the danger and awe standing there on the precipice looking in. It is profound. Then, to turn around and look out over the bay and across the sea and beyond the isles. The contradiction of this volcano brings out a contradiction in me. I am at once envious that people get to live near something so extraordinary and baffled that they would live near something so powerful and destructive. Vesuvius tests, teases, tempts, and takes. It announces nothing in its everyday existence. There may be a rumble here and there to warn it is time to wrestle, but when it blows and bails, it will shock, stun, and spew and, just as it has down before, it will trample on everything in its purging path.

What keeps them here? The land, their family, the immeasurable beauty of a storied volcano that sits at the sea? Many have the mountains and some have the sea. Very few have a mountain at the sea and maybe this is why they stay. To cultivate their vines, take in the sun and sky, and breathe in the salty ocean air.

Friendship Trials

I had to do something hard this week. I had to let go of a friend—temporarily at least and possibly longer. The friendship had become strained and unhealthy over time. I’ve had to do this before, but it’s usually been with someone who is obviously destructive to my life. But, this time, it wasn’t a bad person and it took me by surprise…even though it was my choice; however, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a completely appropriate and needed decision. I put a lot of thought and care into the situation so that when I came to the conclusion of saying “goodbye for now”, I knew it was the right thing even though I still love that person. I was feeling too negative about the situation and certain things that had transpired.

If a friend is bringing out negative feelings in you, it may be a good sign that the friendship is what many call toxic. It’s a strong word, but it’s fitting in that anything that breeds negative feelings is emotionally poisonous. A friendship can involve two good people and still be toxic. It can be toxic for one and not the other. But, if there are negative thoughts, words, and actions being tossed around, something isn’t right. But still, there seems to be this expectation that friendships should always weather these issues. That’s just not realistic.

Dr. Irene Levine is the author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. In an online Pscyhology Today blog, Dr. Levine talks about how the media romanticizes female relationships in novels, movies, etc. She claims that people “tend to shy away from talking about girlfriend breakups…because women are often judged by their ability to make and keep friends.” I could not agree more and it’s often unfortunate and unfair. She says that “men attribute (female) breakups to stereotypical female cattiness.” But what about the women who walk away from friendships to get away from this? I walk away because I don’t want to engage in so-called typical female cattiness. I want to break that stereotype.

Dr. Levine goes on to talk about the expectation that close friendships are meant to last forever but that most of them fall apart at some point. I’d like to think that as we get older this happens less. For me, at this point in my life, I’m looking to really establish a healthy circle of friends that I can hang onto for life. I want the kind of relationships that provide nurturing and bonding complimented by space—the kind that can bend with changes so they can last. Creating this healthy circle of friends may mean letting go of some who don’t contribute to that goal. Levine does say that female relationships—apart from couple friendships—are really important. I certainly agree with that. But, they should be based on honesty and trust rather than habit.

People do outgrow friendships and that is okay. People change, have different experiences, and develop new needs. Stuff happens: marriage, children, moving. These things change us. But, we too often treat friendships as if they should stay the same and last forever and it’s abnormal if they don’t. It’s an ideal and it does happen, but it’s perfectly natural to step back, assess a relationship, and determine that it may be unhealthy. We expect people to choose healthy romantic partners and to leave them when they aren’t. Why don’t we have that same expectation for friendships?

Because there’s this unrealistic idea that we must be loyal and to be otherwise means betrayal, but loyalty isn’t sticking around in a friendship that’s painful. True friendship isn’t about acting or looking the part. True friendship is flexible, spacious, and free.

An area where I need space is phone communication. Most of my friends know I’m a terrible phone person. Most everyone in my family is this way. We’ll talk on the phone, but we aren’t the type to pick up and call people to chat for long lengths of time. We aren’t the type to wait by the phone. At least, I haven’t been that way since my single life of marginally messy love liaisons. This doesn’t mean I won’t talk on the phone and don’t even enjoy it sometimes. I’m just a little allergic to it, and, in a world obsessed with phones, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. But, I have tried to be more available when friends do call and I’ve made a concentrated effort to call my friends more.

Trying to be a better phone-caller is where I give. And, in return I expect my friends to give back by understanding that I’m just not a phone person. Yes, my friends will probably always call me more than I call them, but I try to make up for that in other ways. I email. I am a writer, so that is where I’m most comfortable. Oddly enough, I enjoy Skype. I like it more than the phone by far. I think it’s because I can see the person. I find it easier to be engaged.

This is where real friendship is. It’s give and take. It’s allowing minor flaws—the non-toxic ones at least—to be what they are. It’s understanding that we lead busy lives and have lots of people in them, especially after living in two countries, three states, and seven cities. It’s understanding that though I may not get back to you right away, I WILL get back to you. For the most part, all of my friends respect this unspoken rule and seem to live by it as well. That’s why our friendships work. But, sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes the give and take just doesn’t happen. But, I’m always trying. Here’s to me sucking it up and picking up the damn phone every once in a while…as I’ve been told I should.

Resource:Breaking Up with Friends: Can You Empathize?
http://tinyurl.com/kkqxg9

Racism is Racism

I like inappropriate humor. I like that it can push the edges of political correctness. I appreciate that humor can point out the ridiculousness of certain beliefs or reveal how we take some things too seriously while other more truly serious things are ignored. But, there is a fine line between racy humor and saying something that is just plain racist.

This week, I encountered such a statement and it shook me through and through. I was shocked, appalled, and every other word that denotes disgust. Let me put this into context. I had a friendly conversation going on Facebook about Sarah Palin. I don’t like her, and I make no bones about it. But, that is neither here nor there, and this is really not about politics.

I go back and forth between starting these conversations and continuing them. I’m well aware that political comments can be dangerous on Facebook and that, if it’s out there, it’s out there. But, I never write anything I don’t truly believe in. I rarely intend to start an in-depth conversation. I’m usually just venting or offering an idea. And, contrary to what some may think, I hate conflict. I like rational discussion. But then, I admit that I like to be provocative because I think it’s sometimes needed to challenge misguided, dangerous beliefs and propaganda that spread and infect, and I take responsibility for that. But, sometimes someone says something so blatantly offensive that there is no excuse for.

Some friends of mine were replying humorously to a comment I made about Sarah Palin who I think is a terrible representative of hard-working, intelligent women everywhere—Republican or Democrat. Okay, fine. This is not an uncommon opinion among people—Republican or Democrat. I often make cynical statements but most of my friends know how to take it and know I am not an overall cynical person. They usually respond in jest. Everyone who replied was in agreement with me until a cousin of mine jumped into the conversation.

This is a cousin with whom I’ve spoken very few words in many years. We’ve never been close and I don’t see that side of the family much. Not that unusual really. But, actually, it is strange. We connect with family members on Facebook who we may not have talked to much in the past and are hoping to maybe reconnect. You are connected to them for weeks, months, etc., and no words pass until someone says something political and the other disagrees and needs to retaliate. Isn’t something wrong with that? Who cares about what our kids are doing or HOW we are doing. Let’s be honest. We all just signed up and friended each other for the sole purpose of showing our nice pictures off. This seems to be the main reason for distant relatives and old high school friends to connect anyway. I mean, if we aren’t talking, what are we doing? I digress…

So, we have a cousin I never speak to, a somewhat provocative political statement, and a social media networking platform. Yeah, I’m safe here, right? At some point–and I can’t recall what prefaced it other than comments about not liking Palin and a Kenyan friend mentioning her home country–my cousin of the tea-bagging, conspiracy theorist extremist persuasion decided to make this comment, “Speaking of Kenya…there is a little hut over there some people would be better off in:)” This a glaringly ignorant, racist statement and no amount of smiley faces makes it okay. I suspect it was directed toward our President, but it was offensive to all Kenyans.

I called the cousin out on this and apologized for her to my Kenyan friend and firmly said I do not tolerate racist comments ever. Retort: “Classic liberal defense. RACISM!” And, “I have black friends so that couldn’t be racist.” We have some serious flaws in logic here. I mean, surely even Richard Nixon and Henry Ford had at least one friend named Shlomo Berkowitz, right? Having friends of other races does not make you magically immune to saying stupid things. You may not have a white sheet that converts into a funny hat, but you just said something undeniably racist and ethnocentric and you need to own up to it and apologize. The liberal defense excuse is just a tired political buzz phrase to shirk off responsibility for saying such vile things.

I’m weary of these useless buzz phrases being thrown around on both sides that carry no meaning and are merely used for defense or offense without having any applicable truth. Look, I may be liberal standing next to this person, but what she said is racist plain and simple regardless of my political views. This isn’t political. It’s moral, and we need to be able to call things what they are without lame excuses entering the conversation. You just said something ignorant and painful and a person included in the group you disrespected is in this thread.

Thankfully, my Kenyan friend is classy, magnanimous, smart, and, sadly, far more used to such ignorant, hurtful statements than she should be. She doesn’t pay attention to people who say such wicked things. I would be wise to follow her lead. But, boiling blood and a writer’s mind make for a quick Facebook retort, and I believe it was necessary to point out how egregious such a statement is. I feel like I have this superpower ability to change people with words. I know this is wishful and not-too-humble thinking, but it comes from a good heart that believes people don’t deserve such nasty words to cross their ears and eyes. The conversation went on a bit longer until I just shut it down out of embarrassment for everyone involved by completely deleting my Facebook page altogether. I’ve had enough…again.

Before I hit delete, to further aggravate a hopeless situation, this same person went on to tell me there is nothing she can learn from other cultures and that university education is basically bad because college professors aren’t challenged to think in the university forum. So, you just told me you are against learning and you expect me to believe you have an educated, intelligent opinion? Exactly.

You know, I know of this great piece of property in Kenya with a nice little house…plenty of room for narrow minds. Location, location, location.

I’m back on Facebook, and I have mixed feelings about it.

I fled Facebook a few months ago. It just got to be too much. I want to stay in touch with people, but Facebook is like the close-talker of social networking. Whatever happened to good old email?

Remember when you could ask someone for their email and it didn’t seem like you were coming on to them? Now, it just feels awkward. I expect to hear, “Hey, I like you and all, but I’m straight.” It’s kosher to email someone whose email you have through work or another friend. But, to outright ask for it because you think someone is cool and you would like to hang out with them…well, it’s gotten weird. Why would you ask for their personal email? Why be so private?

I’ve seen a huge drop in emails coming into my inbox in the last year. Some of my good friends have stopped emailing me almost altogether. I know I’m not the best at emailing, but I almost always reply even if a bit late. It’s like Robert Deniro has invaded my friends’ souls. “Are you talkin’ to me? ‘Cause if you wanna talk to me, you talk to me on Facebook! “

Another obstacle in my coming to terms with Facebook is my being distinctly extroverted and introverted. I can be a little of both at the same time, but I tend toward being one or the other. When I’m feeling like the extrovert, Facebook seems brilliant. When I’m feeling like the introvert, it feels overwhelming and dirty. The bad kind.

Extrovert me wants to say what she feels and doesn’t care who knows it. Introvert me needs a certain amount of privacy and does not want to be bothered with the more trivial aspects and constant draw of Facebook. Sometimes, I like hiding. I like being busy.

Facebook has taken away the right to be busy. It announces to the world, “Hey, though I say I’m really busy and have no time to send real emails, look at how I just did on these five movie quizzes.” It blows the “I’m busy” cover out of the water. It’s out there. None of us are that busy if we all have time to take quizzes, play games, and find out what cocktail we are. Do you really need to take a quiz to find out what your porn name is? It’s Princess Calloway, and I learned that my sophomore year in college. Don’t get me wrong. These games and things can be a fun distraction. And, if you don’t know your porn name, I suppose it’s time you found out. For me, I prefer the old-fashioned method: your pet’s name plus the street you live on.

There is one other reason in particular why Facebook gives me the heebie-jeebies. You know how you have those one, two, or ten people that you just don’t need to run into again any time in this life or the hereafter? Call it a childish fear, but we all know those people. The ones that scarred us in love. The ex-friend/Diagnostic-and-Statistical-Manual-of-Mental-Disorders-poster child for clinical narcissism who suspiciously kept sabotaging little aspects of your life.

These people lurk. They lurk because we stay connected to people who are connected to people who are connected to them. Couple that with the fact that Facebook publishes the crap out of every move you make, and you are going to run into these people. It’s human—completely natural—that we don’t want to run into these people. I don’t need my skin to crawl anymore than it does already with that neurological sleep disorder whose name shall not be spoken. I’m all for forgiveness and moving on, but I don’t need to be e-hanging around with ghosts from my marginally sordid past.

But, I’ve come to feel as if I have no choice. If I really want to keep up with some friends, I have to be on Facebook. My main concern is getting in touch and staying in touch with people I’ve met here in Germany. I’ve met some amazing people, and I don’t want it to be one of those get-in-touch-and-go things.

So, I’m back on—for now. We’ll see how it goes. I won’t be on often, and I won’t answer every comment, poke, and I’m certainly not starting a virtual aquarium. I’m too busy.

–Frau Jones

P.S. Do NOT get me started on Twitter.

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Dan and I were asked to deliver an address in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Some of our colleagues in the English/North American studies department here at Freiburg held a dinner in his honor. We expected to just give this to a small group of friends, but a waiter at the Irish pub offered us the open mic. The Germans seemed to appreciate us. This was my contribution.

The myths, the stories we all know, don’t always accurately portray who Lincoln was and why people like us gather to remember him. The stories are nice—though some of them are stretched truths that don’t really resemble what many of us have discovered in our readings about Lincoln. Yes, he probably split at least one rail, and, yes, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—he was a hero—but he was also a man of contradictions. He was an abolitionist with reservations. He had religion, but he didn’t care for church. He was real.

It’s in his complicated yet honest humanity where I have found my true admiration for Lincoln—the man who was up against monumental odds, who didn’t always have the right answer but could admit it, who cherished wisdom and reason over extremes, who sometimes crawled further inside himself than any book could go—when his inclination toward depression got the best of him. He wasn’t always the steadiest in emotions, and Lord knows Mary Todd Lincoln was not either, but Mr. Lincoln was always steady in intellect, and that’s why his memory endures.

Not until this year, more than 140 years later, have so many American’s felt we have a President that may come close to matching Lincoln’s talent for fairness, reason, and interest in true morality—the ability to question what is truly best for the people. It’s in this increasingly rare combination of goodness that many Americans find they admire Abraham Lincoln the most.

When I have set foot in the places where Lincoln worked, lived, studied, and played with his children, I sense the greatness that is so firmly attached to his image still. At his boyhood home in Kentucky—about 20 miles from where I married—in his Springfield home, and in the room where he died, I could sense that he was real—a son, a husband, a father, a president. He was more than a myth. He was a good American.

Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Lincoln.

On the eve of the most important election of my lifetime, I’m copying here this powerful little post by my friend Celeste Headlee. She is a reporter for NPR. She talks here about the feeling of covering an Obama rally. It’s a different perspective than what we normally hear.

Believe me when I say that reporters are among the most cynical people in the world. I wasn’t like this before I became a journalist. I was optimistic, idealistic, and had perfect faith that the majority of people in public service were good, upstanding citizens with our best interests at heart. Now, having spent the past ten years studying these people, hanging out with them, talking with them and watching them, I believe that most of them are self-serving, opportunistic phonies. Maybe they start out following the path of righteousness, but bit by bit, they give up some of their integrity in order to get elected and stay elected. By the time they are career politicians, not much is left of the young city councilman or school board president that they were.So, the months between July and November in presidential election years are not my favorite. I get tired of the staged events, the cliche applause lines, the waving American flags and the way candidates are carefully dressed, lit and scripted to appeal to whatever audience they’re facing. I went to Barack Obama’s Labor Day rally in Detroit with a job to do: get the audience response to his speech, file the story and collect my check.But as I stood there in the heat, sweating into my headphones and praying for rain, I had a totally unexpected reaction. I looked out over the crowd… tens of thousands of people waiting to see Barack Obama. There were white college students in oxford shirts, black fathers with their kids on their shoulders, Arab-American autoworkers with time off for the holiday… dozens of races, occupations, and faiths were represented. And there they stood, waiting to see a black man from Illinois. And I started to cry.

The past welled up on me rather suddenly. I thought about my great-grandmother, whose father was her white owner on a plantation in Mississippi. I thought about my grandfather, who had to drive to Tijuana to get married because his bride was white and their union was illegal in his home country. I thought about the time that he had to drive without stopping from Los Angeles to Ohio because the white hotels wouldn’t take him and the black hotels wouldn’t take her. And my grandmother was abandoned by family and friends because she dared to marry a man whose skin was brown. I thought about the kid whose eye I blacked in elementary school because he called me a “nigger.”

And then I started to think about how my grandparents would feel if they could be standing in that crowd of thousands, waiting to see the first African-American candidate for president. That’s when I began to cry. I was overwhelmed, in every sense of that word. I can’t begin to describe how it felt when he stepped onto the platform and a deafening cheer rose up around him. Is this how Catholics felt when they watched John F. Kennedy speak? Is this how they felt in the audience watching Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial? I don’t think this feeling of hope and joy and sheer wonder has a political affiliation; I don’t think it would have mattered if the man at the dais was a Republican or Democrat.

In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama said that his detractors don’t seem to understand this his campaign is not about him, but about us. And that’s something I can agree with. We are not on the edge of doing something historic; we have done it. And Obama’s presence on that stage, as a candidate for president, is something that every American can be proud of, both Democrat and Republican.

I don’t know if Barack Obama will become president. I know, sadly, that many people who say they support him will change their minds in the privacy of the voting booth. And it is sad, not because Barack Obama should or should not be president. It’s tragic because those people will not vote for him because of the color of his skin, and they will feel guilty about it, and they may not understand where their fear springs from. But they will feel fearful and they will feel guilty, and they won’t mark that box next to Obama. And if this man loses because his skin tone is brown, it will be a tragic for all of us, and for our country.

I think most of you know that we moved here because Dan was asked to do an exchange program between Purdue University and Freiburg University. It’s one of the most prestigious universities in Germany; however, I’m sure most of them claim that.

Even though Dan finished his Masters in German Linguistics at Purdue, they still allowed him to do this exchange. It’s really a friendly, verbal agreement between the schools. Dan teaches German in America, but he’s handling the English language here. He’s running the writing lab created two years ago by another Purdue graduate student. The standards to get into this school are high and most of the students speak quite good English, but some of them really struggle with writing and grammar. They need a lot of help learning how to properly express themselves and how to do so in an organized manner. Dan will help those students struggling most with these issues.

As for me, I am teaching. I have long felt the yearning to teach college and knew that I would probably end up doing just that at some point. The best deal is to get a teaching assistant’s position in graduate school. You get your education, you get paid (meagerly), and you get to teach. That’s basically what I’m doing.

It’s truly providence for me. The last few years have felt like a jumble as I’ve been around a few jobs and towns while trying to figure out just what I want to be when I grow up. I know my heart is in a few places: music, journalism, writing, media studies, etc. The only reason I got away from journalism was because I was in a very unhealthy place at WVPE in Elkhart. I left there a wounded and somewhat intellectually malnourished puppy, and I feel like I’m finally back on top where I need to be. I have worked to get here. I’ve done a lot of observing, listening, talking, and tons of reading to make up for what I didn’t get within the drab walls of WVPE.  My last job at Purdue also helped get me on the path to renewal.

I guess you’re wondering what I’m teaching. Dan’s boss, the dean of the English seminar, asked me to create a class on journalism and writing. They’ve had a few journalism classes before, but it’s not something that is offered much. What I came up with is now titled Professional Writing with Clarity and Style. The professional writing part implies that we will learn about non-fiction writing in the journalism/marketing vein. I hope to prepare these students for exploring careers in any of those areas or to at least equip them to do freelance writing. The clarity and style part is for the emphasis we will put on how to write clearly, concisely, and in an organized manner while maintaining a unique voice.

All students struggle with this whether they are native speakers or not. Sadly, I don’t believe our public education system at home does a good job of teaching students how to do this. It barely teaches them the basics of grammar. I find this to be a terrible shame. It’s not because I am a language snob and think we should all follow the rules down to the letter; however, I know for certain that some mastery of language and writing allows us to express ourselves better, which is truly empowering. It can mend fences. It can also tear them down. How we wield that power determines this. I am a great champion of commas and punctuation in general. They tell your reader where to pause/how to read, and they can completely change the meaning of a sentence. So, as you can see, there is power in commas alone.

You can probably tell that I am very passionate about writing and teaching, but I am a bit nervous. I have worked with many college interns and have worked for NPR as a mentor in their Next Generation Radio program. I’ve been a panelist for political debates. I’ve been a television guest many times on public television. I’m not bragging here. I’m saying that I have some experience in front of people. But, no amount of radio or TV experience really prepares you for the responsibility of a classroom. I feel a great duty here to impart accurate information and strong ethics to these students. Most of them are freshman or sophomores, so what I say and do can make or break their interest in writing and journalism. I am excited and I want them to be excited.

My first class is this coming Tuesday the 21st. I will blog here frequently about my experiences and how it feels to become a teacher. There is a lot of becoming to do, and I imagine that the becoming—the learning—never ends, which is really why I like knowledge. You can’t get too much and there’s always more.

Besides teaching, we are both taking classes.  Dan is taking a class on teaching German as a second language. I am taking a class on teaching English as a second language. I am also taking an intensive German course. I expect my German to be much, much better in a few months. My comprehension is growing quickly with the experience I already have to build on, but I still hesitate to speak. I’m afraid I’ll say something dirty like Dan did in high school while living with his host family here in Germany. At least when I say something dirty in English, I’m aware of it.

We also just learned that we will get to visit Romania! This will be quite an adventure. I’m anxious to see eastern Europe. We will teach a writing workshop together at Iasi University (pronounced YASH). We’ll leave on November 10th for five days. I hear that they spoil their guests with food. Any country that wants to spoil me with food is one worth visiting.

Iasi Palace of Culture

When this year is said and done, I think these opportunities will have served to open some doors for us. I expect to continue on into grad school back home. My time here should make getting into the program I want and where I want a lot easier, I hope. I have yet to determine the what and where. What I do know is that that I’m going confidently in the direction of my dreams. I still don’t know exactly where they will lead me, but I know I’m going in the right direction. I’m doing what I want to do.

I really want to hear what teachers have to say about their experiences. Do you have advice for me? What should I avoid? I can tell you I’ve learned a lot about what to avoid from mediocre teachers in my past. I’ve learned the most from the good teachers. Observing really is one of the best ways to learn, but I’m still quite green. Suggestions are very welcome.

-Frau Jones

(Disclaimer: This post is NOT personal. It is a professional exercise on something I do for a living. It is mostly geared toward professional writers or those who write within their career.)

With this political season so heavily upon us, arguments and debates, fact and fiction, are swirling in the so-tense-you-could-cut-it-with-a-dull-edged-spoon breeze. It’s inevitable.

And, with the advent of this not-so-joyous season, I’m hearing and reading more arguments that defy the laws of proper debate. Really, I hate the word “argue.” I prefer that we all engage in civil discourse by avoiding name-calling, emotion-driven responses, and other childish games. I will admit to sometimes falling victim to these methods (I can hear some of you growling now); however, it’s usually in verbal exchanges with my family and friends rather than professional writing exercises. When I do fall prey to these poison devices, I can usually see it and call it, though I may not always say it. A little introspection can’t hurt.

Why do people resort to such empty ploys? It’s usually because they are insecure and don’t know their facts, but it really damages an argument. My professional background has provided me the opportunity to learn about this and to coach others in proper opinion-writing.

Preaching to the choir: It’s a waste of your time. What I mean by preaching to the choir (PTTC), is stating your opinion in way that can only appeal to those who agree with you; however, many who use the PTTC method usually aren’t preaching to the choir. They are preaching to the damned, which doubly defeats the purpose. You must learn to think from your opponent’s point of view if you truly want to reach them.

PTTC will quickly destroy your point with those whom you seek to convince. Trust me. If you want to persuade someone, you better do it with some style and humility, or you will lose your audience. It’s also okay to say, “I see your point.” But, don’t take it back. I get a lot of that in people who disagree with me. It’s also okay to say, “I was wrong.” I’ve been saying it since the last election. Man, does it feel good. It feels good to know that by allowing myself to admit an error in judgment, I’m more likely to have more informed, balanced opinions than those who drive on emotion and refuse to turn around when the road is blocked.

Grammar and punctuation: You may find this snobbish of me, but it is what it is. The better your grammar and punctuation, the better your opinion will ring with credibility. Why is that so important? Because, it tells your audience that your opinion isn’t merely an emotional response or that you are arguing for the sake of arguing. It tells them your argument is rooted in something more solid.

Now, you don’t have to be an egghead or a college grad to use decent grammar. Grammar, i.e. the proper use of commas, conjugation, and vocabulary, can give your argument clarity. It also tells your audience that you are attempting to make an intelligent case. I find it very hard to read writing without any punctuation. It can change the meaning of a statement entirely and, without punctuation, the reader does not know where to pause in thought. This can be most harmful in email conversations where tone is left to the reader who can infer at random, missile-fire will. Again, I can plead guilty here in the last week alone, and when I look back on how I’ve inferred things before, it’s often been because the writer wasn’t clear or their thoughts ran together. I couldn’t see the point they were trying to make. I saw something else.

It’s a courtesy to your reader to at least attempt something resembling proper writing. If you are rusty on grammar and punctuation, there are plenty of websites online that offer quick lessons. It WILL improve your credibility and the quality of your argument ten-fold. It will also make it easier for your reader to follow your point. A good grammar resource: http://thegrammargang.blogspot.com/. It’s linked on my blog roll.

Language: Don’t use big words just to sound knowledgeable unless A) you know what they mean and B) they add to your point. Professional writers will tell you that many words and big words do not mean good writing. Clear, concise, thoughtful writing is good writing. It sounds more intelligent to write clearly and use fewer ten-dollar words than to write in a sloppy manner using big words that don’t make sense. Smart readers will catch on.

Also, avoid profanity. Your argument goes down the tubes as soon as you bring in the four-letter words. It ruins your credibility quicker than anything else will and gives your opposition the upper hand. It immediately tells the reader that you are running high on emotion and low on reason. Avoid personalizing your argument period. It can be hurtful and is really a result of a weak argument. I will admit to admiring some columnists who tend toward strong language and, at times, anger. But, they have been around so long and are so informed, that they can usually get away with it. Most of us haven’t, aren’t, and can’t.

Statistics and facts: As a journalist, I can assure you that numbers and statistics leave much to be desired when it comes to making a point. They do help. But, too often, people take them out of context or rely on them too heavily. There is usually another number to counteract the first statistic or a context-providing story that goes along with it. Not to mention, statistics are often dead wrong.

Here is an example NOT meant to be a political statement. According to Expatica.com, a publication I read for European expatriates, the usual number of the reported dead in Iraq is somewhere around 3,600. But, that’s just for U.S Operation Iraqi Freedom alone. That number doesn’t take into account contractors lost, Iraqi civilians lost (almost 68,000), military suicides (more than 110), lives lost in Afghanistan (more than 400), etc. The point is, the first number doesn’t tell the whole story though it’s often used in a way that would lead a reader to think just that. But, we can see here that other numbers really round out the full picture. It’s about the whole story. Not just part of it. Statistics without context can speak volumes of nothing.

When you do present facts, quote a reputable source; otherwise, your facts are useless. If you don’t have facts, go find them. I must caution you here. You might change your mind about some things. Don’t worry. This is a healthy thing. (Note: political ads are not reputable sources coming from either party. They most always flat-out lie or misrepresent things in a most disgusting way. They are essentially empty propaganda not intended to really inform you but to manipulate, and they assume you are not smart or industrious enough to look elsewhere. Same goes for press releases from political action committees) Bottom line, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. This most certainly demands research.

Assuming: Don’t assume for your reader and/or opposition. Assuming for your reader is insulting. When reading the opposing viewpoint, unless your name is attached to a statement or you are directly referenced, don’t insert it on behalf of the writer. Let go of the ego. It’s infuriating to someone who had no intention of speaking directly to you or your beliefs and it, again, murders your credibility. Also, don’t tell your reader what he/she thinks.

Labels: Don’t use them. If you do, there goes that credibility again. It’s an attack method and there is no room for attacking in a mature argument. Plus, it’s no one’s right to put a label on someone that hasn’t been claimed. It’s not our place to label others according to our faulted filters.

Personal beliefs: Be careful here. They may inform your view, but they don’t make you right. It’s important to maintain humility when making your point, especially when religion is involved.

How many of you are saying, “But Beth, I’ve seen you break all of these rules”? True enough. I’m not particularly great at following them when conversing quickly to people, especially my kinfolk. But, I do know the rules and strive to put them in place when I can. Sometimes. Occasionally. Okay, not on Facebook.

So, what have we learned? Civil discourse with emotional detachment and solid facts grant credibility to our words. They allow you a measure of security in your position, right or wrong, and garners you more respect. Without them, you will lose the battle against someone well-versed in these practices. For more reading on this topic, see these links:

http://www.madisonmag.com.au/learn_the_art_of_arguing.htm
http://www.srichinmoybio.co.uk/blog/life/the-art-of-effective-argument/

-Frau Jones

As you can see in these two articles, there are some grave issues with local and state crime labs that need to be addressed. I would imagine this extends far beyond just Detroit and Mississippi. But, it lends evidence to my claim that the death penalty is a very dangerous thing.

http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080926/METRO/809260367/1409/METRO

“The Michigan State Police audit of the city’s gun lab, which began in June after firearms evidence was found to be tainted, revealed a systemic problem that calls into question all forensic evidence handled in the city’s police laboratory over the past several years, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said.”

http://www.slate.com/id/2184798/

“Between them, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks served more than 30 years in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. Brewer was sentenced to death, Brooks to life without parole. The crimes for which each was convicted are remarkably similar: A female toddler was abducted from her home, raped, murdered, and abandoned in the woods. In each case, Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood decided early on that the boyfriend of the girl’s mother was the culprit. In each case, he asked Dr. Steven Hayne to perform the autopsy. And in each case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. Michael West to perform some analysis of bite marks on the children. West claimed to have found bite marks that had been missed by other medical professionals and then testified in court that he could definitively match these marks to the teeth of the men Allgood suspected of committing the murders.

In each case, West was wrong.”

These innocent men did not get justice and deserve some form of it now. The guilty ones running free over shoddy police work deserve their due, too. For more information on people working toward this cause, please look into the innocence project at http://www.innocenceproject.org/.

All life is valuable.

I’m taking a break from writing on our lives in Germany to write about an issue increasingly important to me.

Last night, a man named Troy Davis was due to be executed in Georgia for murder. There is no forensic evidence and most of the witnesses have recanted their statements. Two hours before he would be put to death, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. You can see the full story here:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-executesep24,0,7081629.story

This is Troy Davis:

I was very relieved to wake this Wednesday morning and see that this stay was granted. I am a big supporter of overhauling the death penalty if not abolishing it completely. Too many innocent people have died: see Illinois and former Gov. Ryan’s moratorium on the death penalty. My uncertainty on the issue comes with the most heinous of crimes where innocence is not in question and children are involved. The act of murdering a child invokes ire in me that no other act can. But, to what end does the guilty person’s execution serve? I’m not sure.

I have studied many high- and low-profile murder cases as well as forensics, and my studies show me that our death penalty system is severely flawed and dangerous. No new revelation really. According to BBC News, McCain would likely expand the death penalty. Pro-life? Hardly.

Even if Davis is guilty, because the evidence is so weak, it’s important that he receives another trial. More actions like this will further ensure that we do not hastily execute more innocent men and women. Several wrongly accused people have been released from death row in the last year because DNA or new evidence proved their innocence, which they maintained from day one (unless ruthlessly coerced). See Texas.

How many innocent people have died? How many more?

Now, the race issue: I often feel it is overused, which demoralizes instances when it is in fact in question. Here, I’m not so sure it isn’t. This is in Savannah, Georgia after all, and to deny that race is not an issue there or anywhere else is to be in deep denial. The lack of evidence and accountable witnesses in this case have long demanded a second trial for this man, but the local authorities have refused to bend, to admit they might be wrong even though the Pope, Desmond Tutu, and former President Jimmy Carter have supported a stay. That is quite disturbing to me. It is indeed very dangerous to maintain a firmly closed mind on any issue. It is possible to be wrong. That’s why we are called humans and not gods.

I do not know for fact that he is innocent, but for the preservation of future innocent lives, this stay of execution was absolutely necessary.

For a Germany tie-in, Germany does not allow capital punishment except for high crimes—as I understand it. I’m still reading up on this.

–Frau Jones

P.S. For a story on a man recently exonerated (not on death row) in Michigan, listen to the story below. My good friend, Celeste Headlee, produced this for NPR. These men are lacking in help rebuilding their lives.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93498556.

AND, for a look at a pro-life Christian’s perspective on the upcoming election, go to the link below. This guy and his father helped invent the conservative, evangelical political platform. He’s independent now. Very interesting.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/why-im-prolife-and-pro_b_85636.html