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(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

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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

Less than one week into our busy lives in Germany, and we took a trip to Munich. I would have preferred to rest up a bit more before venturing out on a long trip, but we had a reason. Our friend and Dan’s host brother from high school, Fabi, had tickets to a live taping of the German soccer show Doppelpass. It’s like something you’d see on ESPN in America. It’s a very well-produced and popular program taped in a hotel lobby near the Munich airport.

Now, in theory, a trip to Munich should be no longer than a three to four-hour train ride. We are in the southwest. Munich is in the southeast. But, contrary to what most people know of Germans, they are not always as efficient as they can be. Even our German friends can’t explain why there is no direct train to Munich from Freiburg. We had to go out of the way to get to Munich making our trip seven hours.

We are traveling right now on a 30-day rail pass that allows us five trips around Germany. If we do a round trip in one day, it only counts as one trip rather than two. So, we decided we’d make the trip to Munich in one day. That’s right. Fourteen hours in one day. I was not too thrilled about this and suggested we divide it into two days. But, Dan really wanted to save the extra trip on our pass.

We decided to take the midnight train leaving Freiburg. It stops in Mannheim before arriving in Munich at around 7 a.m. I figured I’d get a few hours sleep at best on the second train and get by on adrenaline throughout the day. Wrong. The short trip from Freiburg to Mannheim was fine. It was quiet except for the drunk guy. But, he got kicked off in Heidelberg. It was also an ICE train, which are very nice and comfy. When we got to Mannheim, we learned that our next train was running late. What!!?? Germans running late?? Yes, in fact, when it comes to Deutsche Bahn, this is not too unusual. So, we waited for about 30-45 minutes in the tunnel area where it was freezing cold. The train finally arrived. I’m thinking, “Okay, we’ll get on another ICE train, it will be quiet, I’ll dress myself up in my finest sleep gear, and I WILL sleep.” But, no. It was the only yet-to-be renovated train left in Germany, or so it seemed from my experience. The train was not terribly ugly, just quite a bit ugly. It looked very 70s/80s-ish.

We managed to find a cabin with one guy in it. He seemed a bit perturbed that we were interrupting his sleep, but he didn’t pay for five seats, so too bad. The seats were hard and didn’t recline, and it was cold. Very cold. We didn’t bring a blanket. We did bring ear plugs, but the darn train was so rickety that they did little good. Neither one of us slept even a little. It just wasn’t possible. And, it was one of those evenings where, even though you’ve had very little to drink before going to bed, you still had to get up and use the bathroom twice.

We arrived in Munich tired and grouchy but glad to see our friend Anna, another friend who taught with Dan at Purdue. She now lives and works in Munich. We had a quick breakfast before catching another train out to the Munich airport (which is so far out of Munich it may be in Poland). Fabi was there waiting for us with our tickets for Doppelpass. This is what the set looks like:

Dan and I sat in the back because that was the only place with seats together. Plus we aren’t German-looking enough to be on camera that much. Good looking, yes. We were on TV during audience shots. Fabi’s mom and dad saw us from their home in Stolzenau. Fabi and Anna sat on stage right behind the host and guests. Here’s a TV shot of Fabi. Anna is just behind him.

It was probably a good idea that we sat in the back since Dan had to translate a lot for me. I get bits and pieces, but when you aren’t yet fluent in a second language, any interruption to the clarity of what you hear makes it ten times more difficult. For instance, the acoustics made it a bit tough to hear and one of the guests kind of mumbled. I can understand a lot more when I am looking at the person. Even Dan had trouble.

This is how they ended the show. No surprise from the Germans.

It really was a lot of fun even if we did have trouble understanding everything. Dan is a huge soccer fan and I am becoming one. He hooked me on it during the ’06 World Cup. In fact, we rooted for Germany over the US.

After the show, Fabi drove us into Munich for a typical Bavarian lunch that looks like this:

That’s schweinebraten. It’s basically just pork in a thin gravy. That hard thing on the top? Well, that’s good ol’ fried skin. Not my cup off…skin. So, I gave it to Anna. Germans think it’s great. I’m sure a few rednecks from back home would, too. It’s basically a pork rind without the dehydration. Yummy.

That pretty much ended our day in Munich. We had to catch our train back and we’ve both seen Munich a few times anyway. They are preparing for Oktoberfest, which we will not attend. The thought of being cheek-to-cheek with a gaggle of sweaty drunkards doesn’t sound THAT appealing to me. They’ll be plenty of genuine Oktoberfestin’ right here in Freiburg and Gufi.

Next blog: a little on the history of Freiburg, Gundelfingen, and The Black Forest. I hear it’s haunted by witches and werewolves. Yay!

–Frau Jones

1) If you take an overnight train, avoid the ones that look like they are from the cold war era and bring a blanket and pillow. For the most part, German trains are very nice, but we ended up on THE ONE that hasn’t been renovated since Reagan said “tear down this wall.”

2) If you do take an overnight train, expect to come across very, very strange people.

3) You know what, just don’t take an overnight train unless they have beds. Just don’t do it.

4) Avoid trains on the weekend, or be prepared for this:

5) If you did take the overnight/weekend train and you are going to be on a German TV show, sit in the back where the camera rarely goes.

My Birthday in Germany

It’s come and gone. I’m 29 now. Strangely, it did not feel much like my birthday. I don’t know why, especially since Dan told me happy birthday about ten times.

The day was cooler than it’s been, overcast, and a bit rainy. We began the day with breakfast on the terrace. Dan gave me my present after breakfast. He gave me a beautiful set of earrings with a matching pendant. He bought it in downtown Freiburg. It came in this really cute felt egg. It kind of looks like a Kinder Egg. Those are chocolate eggs with yellow plastic eggs inside. There’s a toy in the egg. I love them. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the same toy twice. Anyway, here is a picture of my gift, pre- and post-egg cracking.

For my birthday cake, we went to the local Penny Markt (kind of like Aldi, which is German) and bought a strawberry cream torte.

After lunch, we went to IKEA. Though our apartment was nearly fully stocked by the landlady, we still had some things to buy: a clock, trashcan, organizers, etc. Now, I’ve been to a few IKEAs, but I’ve never had the opportunity or reason to go in and buy several things. For those of you not familiar with IKEA, it’s a giant Swedish furniture store. They also have plants and every knick-knack you could possibly need for a home. The stuff is hip yet classic, and it’s also pretty cheap. We have them in America but only in big cities. It took us a bus, a streetcar, and another bus to get to IKEA from our village.

The trip to IKEA lasted most of the afternoon. We came back home and got ready to meet our friend Claudia for dinner in Freiburg. Claudia and Dan taught together at Purdue last year. She is from Germany and is back here working. She is a very kindred spirit (Anne of Green Gables and all). We had dinner with her at an American-style restuarant that played on the Cheers theme. You can see a pic of the tv show cast in one of the pictures below. Claudia gave me two books and a card game for my birthday. Claudia’s boyfriend, Bernadin, joined us later in the evening.

We attempted to catch the train into Gundelfingen at around 11, but we don’t quite have the arrival and departure times down pat. So, we missed it and had to wait an hour for the next train, which put us home very exhausted at around midnight.

There are certain habits and customs that you really have to adjust to with this kind of lifestyle. I’m very happy to not have a car. There is a kind of freedom that comes with having no responsibility for a two- to three-ton gas-guzzling hunk of metal. But, you do lose the freedom of having a few extra minutes to apply that lipstick. If you do apply that lipstick in a hurry, you end up running to catch your train and barely catch it before it leaves. Not that I did that yesterday. But, I did. Dan has quickly learned that he must tell me exactly when I must be ready in order to leave on time to catch the train. We live about two blocks from the train station, but that doesn’t mean the train will wait for you. Sometimes, it’s a matter of waiting ten minutes for the next. But, last night, it would have been an hour and we had dinner plans. We are definitely at the mercy of the train schedule. But, it teaches you punctuality–something I used to have in radio but have since begun to slack on.

All in all, it was a wonderful birthday. I received many email and facebook birthday wishes. I got a card from my mother in the mail today (Saturday). Vielen dank, everyone.

–Frau Jones

I’m not sure my lovely wife quite captured the essence that was old-Indian-woman-peeing-with-the-door-open fiasco. So, here’s my version. Enjoy.

I had just come out of one of the stalls on the opposite side of the plane from our seats. (Referring to airplane bathrooms as a bathroom is more than overly generous. We all know it. Why not admit it?)  Before I could cross the corridor back to my seat, a man appeared and blocked my way as he tried desperately to get into a bathroom. Probably because he had looked over his shoulder, and being Indian himself, knew what was coming. I mention him mostly because his interference is proof that fate had it in for me at this particular moment.

Anywho, as a result, I wasn’t able to cross the corridor because my mother taught me to be polite (Oh fiddle my upbringing!), so I let him go through first. After he finally closed the door and there was room for me to pass, I again attempted to make my way back to my seat, but alas that was not to be—two very old Indian women at least in their 80’s, and yes they did look like goblins, made their way into the corridor and opened the closest bathroom stall blocking my way yet again.

Now as the first elderly woman entered the stall and the door began to swing shut, my life to that point had been relatively normal and unstained. The second hag had other plans. At first, I thought she was simply catching the door to quickly remind the woman to flush, as they seem to need reminding of that. Then, as the first woman began to shift her skirt, I thought maybe they were unaware that I was there and that the second woman had only held the door open so wide for so long because she was maneuvering herself to join the first woman in the narrow stall. The physics of that having quickly been calculated along with the realization that the door was still open…still open…still open… I gasped as the skirt continued its journey upwards as the first elderly woman began to squat. Thankfully—and I do find it hard to use that adverb in any way associated with this tragedy—there was a screen within reach that I used to obscure my view.

I waited patiently, checked, waited patiently some more, checked, waited less patiently, and then prayed a little. Finally, the ladies finished their bladder matinee and waddled their way out of the corridor. They did not flush. I cautiously made my way back to my seat, ashen and speechless. The torture was dragged out further by the fact that the ladies were trapped between the bathrooms and our seats by the cursed flight attendant who was now serving beverages. After returning to my seat, I realized I would have to endure more as the wretched goblin-woman sat down in the empty seat next to me to rest her smelly, weary bones whilst waiting for the service to finish and allow her to return to her seat. I smiled at her weakly and vomited a little in my mouth.

It took me a while to express what had happened in words. Adding to this blog has helped me deal with my emotional scars. I hope to be a whole person again some day soon.