Berlin Wall and Breaking Down Barriers

On November 9, 2009, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, signaling the end of the Cold War. It is also the sad anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) the Nazi state sanctioned anti Jewish pogrom which led to death, destruction and 30,000 Jews being sent to concentration camps. Like Germany, each nation’s past reflects good and evil, gallant moments when man did the right thing, dark hours where his actions were morally wrong.

No matter where you live, walls surround you. But in the West those walls have doors. Free to wander outside our homes, around town, over the state line, across the border, it is hard to fathom waking up one morning to a city split by barbed wire and concrete, dividing friends, lovers, and families. How could something so atrocious have happened in the 20th century? Unimaginable! But the political climate was different during the peak of the Cold War, where the communist east and capitalistic west were at odds.

During the 60s, 70s in the States, growing up in the heartland, one understood, almost by osmosis, that communism was evil without really knowing why. Calling someone was a commie was a defamation of character. In schools, we learned to duck under desks at the sound of an alarm in case of an air raid, as well as, a tornado warning. To children it was all mysterious and intriguing. Had anyone actually ever been inside the neighbor’s bomb shelter?

Yet childhood lessons remained ingrained. When I lived in Germany in the early ‘80s, friends proposed a trip to Berlin to see Check Point Charley, yet owning an American passport, I feared approaching a 100-mile radius of the Berlin Wall.

How much was propaganda? How much childhood fantasy? The fact remains, hundreds of East Germans lost their lives attempting to escape and millions of others lived in fear. Without a doubt, in that time, the Soviets ruled by force and oppression. The wall, originally built to prevent those in the east from fleeing to the west, served its purpose brutally well.

Yet walls remain dividing nations, races, religions, ethnicities, classes and ideologies. The Israel- Palestine wall of discord along Cisjordania. China – North Korea the wall of anti exodus. S. Korea –N. Korea the last wall of the Cold War. Botswana and Zimbabwe wall of unwanted. India-Pakistan –separating the two Cashmeres. Between Mexico and the United States, India and Bangladesh, Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco barriers prevent illegal immigration.

Invisible walls of racism, intolerance and discrimination still stand in our homelands, even in our neighborhoods. It is important to remember, to witness, and to bear testimony, to learn from our past.

Good and evil exists side by side in society. Yet to judge an individual by his race, country, religion, ethnicity or political affinity is to shortchange ourselves.

Today I treasure my friendships with those once labeled enemies. Wherever you live, dare to reach across the boundaries, to break down walls, real and imagined, that continue to separate us.

A Word A Day Keeps Doctor Away

I subscribe to A. Word. A. Day, though anyone who never deletes messages and regularly receives warnings, “your mailbox is full, you may no longer send or receive mail “ has no business collecting more words. But there are too many wonderful expressions out there.Like the word that flashed on my computer screen today. Nihilarian comes from Latin, nihil, for nothing, and means one who feels their work, is useless. Like it sounds, this word is hilarious, so LOL, which in SMS speak, means laugh out loud, (not love a lot, like I thought.) Great word. Describes my life.

Probably depicts your life too especially if you work in business, government, military, or education, like me. Unless self-employed, like it or not, we are cogs in the machine. My medium, education, epitomizes bureaucratic redundancy. Bureaucrats love to develop new theories and adopt new strategies. It makes administrators feel creative.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in education. No one loves the double speak, gobbledy gook, psycho babble more than school officials who pontificate on how to learn, what to learn and what constitutes knowledge. Consequently every so often, educators worldwide are obliged to rewrite the curriculum, so that it can sit on a shelf for the next decade until it is time to pass accreditation again.

At our last staff meeting, gearing up for our next accreditation, our director urged us to sign up for horizontal and vertical assessment teams. Horizontal squad? That’s for me, I thought, slumping in my seat, eyes at half-mast, nodding off.

In the education factory, caught up in the frenzy of curriculum, reports, assessments, accreditation, and accountability, I wonder what happened to the good ol’ days when all we did was teach? I spend more of my waking hours in meetings and in front of computer screens diagramming and documenting data, than in contact with kids.

The school system offers a parody of real life. Committee membership reigns over thought processes.A famous French leader, De Gaulle, coined the adage, “Want to bury a problem, form a committee”. Politicians taught us that.In the USA, we can also thank government for No Child Left Behind legislation, which as any teacher knows, is still wreaking havoc in our public school systems.

Schools offer a smorgasbord of committee choices.Strategic Planning Assembly. Campus Development Group. Ecology Awareness Association.Pilot Program for Global Responsiveness.And now our new Horizontal Assessment Team.

Alas in an era where technology makes us slave to machines and human contact is at a all time low, at an age when the food we eat, air we breath, and water we drink can be hazardous for our health, words remain a harmless indulgence. A word a day dropping out of cyberspace for free is a mini gift for our minds. When the drudgery of your job gets you down, google Wordsmith.org. for an environmental-friendly, safe, cheap chuckle a day.

The Paper Pack Rat

I am an obsessive-compulsive word saver. I keep anything printed. I own more books than the local library. My favorite authors’ ‘chef d’oeuvres’ are triple stacked on shelves lining my home’s hallways. So many guests have been knocked out en route to our restroom that I posted warning signs. Proceed at your own peril. Beware falling books!

I have file cabinets loaded with newspaper articles from the 70’ and 80’s and binders filled with columns, articles, books, screenplays and other half-baked ideas. My musings are stacked from the floor to ceiling in every corner of our house

Semi annually, I make a pact to get organized and head to nearest stationary store with best intentions. I buy cartloads of color coded folders and dividers, but never file a single story. Where do I begin? Consequently, I now have shelves filled with a lovely assortment of empty organizers in rainbow colors.

Worse yet, I also save every warm-hearted letter, card or poem anyone ever wrote me. My inspiration shelf is covered with kind words penned by family or friends.

If only I had confined my vice to the home front, I could cope, but my malady invaded my work place as well. Lesson plans, students’ portfolios, and professional journals are sprawled across offices in four different departments in the school where I teach. Now, in addition to my hubby, I drive my colleagues crazy, too.

If this illness was only confined to hardcopy, it could be manageable, but now I collect everything written in cyberspace. At work I have 400 emails in my inbox, some from people whose names I no longer recognize. At home I have double that number with another 500 saved in sent mail. There is no longer any blank space on my writing table or on my virtual Mac Book desktop.

Ironically, though I hoard ideas in fear I may need that article, quote, or comment, I would never find it again. I waste hours tearing up the house and school searching for the perfect phrase that aptly inspires or consoles, that I know I saved somewhere.

When did I become a word junky? I blame my grandma, also a writer, when she gave me my first diary in grade school. Naturally, I misplaced that too. However I wasn’t surprised when thirty years later, new owners of the house discovered my diary tucked on ledge in my former bedroom and mailed it to me. Like homing pigeons even lost words find their way home.

Not only do I collect paper print, but I also saved T-shirts bearing the logo of every team I was affiliated with during my forty year career. Therefore not only are my shelves filled, my closets are overflowing.

I debated starting a self-help group for chronic collectors, but we would never move beyond the initial confession, “My name is Pat. I am a pack rat.” Though I would be the first to admit my addiction, I am the last person on earth to know how to cure such an ailment. Alas blogger buddies, I turn to you for advice. How do you begin to part with a lifetime’s recording of memories. Any tips for how to let go of words?

Walk away worries !


When I was growing up, I abhorred walking. Walking was too slow, too boring, for old people. I would bike, run, skate, even parade around the block on stilts to reach my destination. After a car accident ended my athletic career, I aged overnight. Forced to give up the pavement pounding I once loved, I concentrated on being able to put one foot in front of another and walk again.

In the beginning, I still hated walking, too slow, too boring, for old people. But now that I am old people, I have learned to appreciate it. Europeans helped me acquire a taste for walking. My German friends insisted on “spazieren gehen” through the woods surrounding Marburg. In Paris, like the French, I escaped my tiny apartment by heading outdoors, rain or shine, to a “promenade” in the park. In Switzerland, walking is as natural as breathing, especially in this nation of hikers, where every mile is beautiful.

In our techno, fast-paced, modern world, walking has become a lost art. Yet walking, which combines fitness, relaxation and meditation, is the safest sport. It costs nothing, wastes no energy, burns calories, builds muscle, fights fatigue. When I feel anxious, angry or depressed, I walk until worries slide off my shoulders.

I step outside my door into orchards and vineyards on the fertile slopes above Lake Geneva. While the sun slinks behind the Jura Mountains over my right shoulder, light shimmers around the white-peaked Mt Blanc to my left. The fields flame in amber, gold, rust of autumn marking the harvest in earth’s last hurrah before lying fallow for winter.

Walking forces us to slow down long enough from our hectic lives to appreciate the beauty of the moment, to take stock and count our blessings. Even though I live thousands miles from loved ones, I picture them walking in their daily lives. My sister paces around Yorkville’s newest subdivision at dawn, my daughter strides the halls of Minneapolis hospitals during morning rounds, my parents meander around Northland Hills mid day, my son dashes through Macalester quad to ball practice early afternoon, my niece marches in the band across Shaker Heights football field after school, my sister and brother-in-law stroll oak-lined streets of Golden Valley hand in hand at dusk.

Somehow when I walk, I am closer to family, matching each footfall step by step round the clock. Every hour of the day someone I love, somewhere, is walking to work, school, or practice.

I once dreamed of running marathons and skiing mountains, alas injury and illness prevented those goals. Though each year it is harder to roll out of bed, instead of lamenting what I can’t do, I focus on what I can do – walk. No matter how badly the rest of the day has gone, I am filled with wonder and wellbeing. Suddenly all is right with world.

An Hour with a Revolutionary

In thirteen years, a baby grows to an adolescent, a child finishes education, and a man grows paunchy and gray. Imagine spending over a decade in solitary confinement in a cell the size of a closet? Picture being tortured for fighting for equality?
The world remembers the names of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King,Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, but who has ever heard of Mauricio Rosencof?
In the 1960’s and 70’s, like a modern day Robin Hood robbing banks and kidnapping political prisoners, he worked with the Tupamaros Revolutionary group in a fight for of social justice in Uruguay. Never heard of him? Me neither. Worse yet, I had to look up Uruguay on the map.
Though technically, I am the teacher, I learn more from the people I meet each day at an international school in Geneva, in this culturally diverse community in the heart of Europe. Yesterday my English class met with Mauricio, a small-stature man from a little country whose big ideas for humanity made a huge difference.
Dressed in a grey jacket, beret and brown trousers, 76- year- old Mauricio addressed a room full of thirteen-year-olds. “ The most important thing in life is having a dream. My dream– everyone has the right to have basic needs met.”
In Spanish he recounted the story of how Uruguay, an agricultural country, had “millions of cows” and only a few owners. While most of the population starved, a few got rich and fat. The Tupamaros tried to talk to the owners, but no one would listen. Instead they threw the leaders of the movement into jail in hopes of crushing the revolution.
“We were in three separate cells without any daylight or human contact. We drank urine and ate bugs to survive,” Mauricio said, “but we learned that flies make a good dessert because they are sweeter.”
How does one survive such torture with an intact sense of humor? What they did do all day to pass the time?
“Think,” Mauricio answered. “We devised a type of Morse Code to communicate through the walls. We talked about our childhood, our families, our girlfriends, our revolution, our dreams.”
My student asked him, “Do you believe in destiny or the work of man?”
“I am profoundly religious but do not believe in any of the religions. However, there is too much harmony in the universe for there not to be a God,” Mauricio answered by paraphrasing a quote from Albert Einstein. “God didn’t have time to enter into the destiny of man because he was too busy balancing the universe. Therefore, every individual needs to help him out. Everyone holds the whole world in his hands.”
“Was it worth it?” Another student asked.
“Yes. It took a long time but today, Jose Pepe Mujica, my friend, in isolation in the cell next to me, is set to become the next President of Uruguay.”
In 1985, democracy was restored in Uruguay and Tupamaros returned as the political party, Movement for the Popular Participation. Mauricio lived through WWII, solitary confinement, and tremendous social upheaval. Though he regrets now that the Tupamaros resorted to extreme measures, he believes in non-violence. He continues to write books and run a children’s Cultural Center of the Arts, yet he remains humble enough to cook dinner for his wife when she comes home from work.
“My belief? Equality for all. Men, women, rich, poor, black, white, brown!”
This self-effacing, courageous fellow retains a twinkle in his eye as he tells simple stories with profound lessons. Little man. Small country. Big dream. Great change.

Proud Moment for Americans

After a mere nine months in office, only history may tell whether President Barack Obama is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize. But as an American living abroad, that is not the issue; what is at stake is the image this honor symbolizes for my country. Thirty years ago, I moved to France during the Rea “gun” era. I have endured the Bush blunders and survived a backlash of anti-Americanism ever since by keeping a low profile. If anything, USA has always been the country everyone loves to hate.
Obama’s role is like the one I once played as a professional basketball player on European teams, only on a much greater scale. He is expected to win every battle without stealing the show.
That he received such an unexpected honor one morning, and met with a war council that afternoon, reflects his precarious position during an unsettling time. War is no farther away than the next terrorist act – acts that respect no borderlines.
Should the USA withdraw from Iraq? Should we send more troops to Afghanistan or enter Pakistan? In retrospect, history allows us to weigh repercussions of past decisions such as dropping the atomic bomb in WWII. No one, however, can predict the implications of today’s policies. The stakes are even higher. A nuclear war would never allow hindsight.
What has Obama done in a short time to deserve such a highly esteemed award? He turned around the image of the Ugly American. In a nation once divided over slavery and split by centuries of racial inequality, his election as the first African American to sit in the White House gave hope to other oppressed ethnicities around the world.
He extended an open hand to the Muslim world, demanded a ban on nuclear testing, reopened the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and reversed the unilateral American foreign policy by becoming more compromising and multilateral.
The Nobel Peace committee awarded Obama the 2009 Nobel Prize, “For his extraordinary efforts in reinforcing diplomacy and cooperation…. creating a new climate in international politics.”
Humbled by such an honor, Obama stated that “this not about my accomplishments, but an affirmation of my country… I accept this award as a call to action.”
Instead of demanding what HE is going to do to prove his worthiness, I ask what are WE going to do in our own lives to help him in his vision. As everyone insists, one man alone cannot change the world.
Obama, nor the USA, exists in a vacuum. For better or worse, in sickness and health, in rich times and in poor, all of us – black, white, Jew, Muslim, capitalist, communist –are intermixed, destined to share one planet with limited resources.
When asked if Obama merits such an award, former Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, said simply, “He is a good man.”
At the International School of Geneva in Switzerland, I struggle to unite my class of freshman English students hailing from dozens of different countries, speaking in as many different mother tongues. I can only imagine Obama’s challenge in addressing the United Nations where policy decisions affect the wellbeing of entire nations.
“What has Obama done so far? “Nothing,” critics insist, “he is only a great orator.”
Well, that’s a start.
Words may be our safest weapon, language our best tool of communication. Communication fosters understanding. Understanding breeds compassion. Compassion makes for a better world.
Today, I will ignore the naysayers and stand tall. Congratulations, Mr. President. Thank you. For the first time- in a long time- I am proud to be an American.