Ramblings

JET-HI: PEOPLE TO PEOPLE DIPLOMACY (# 3)

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As it turned out, during that fall, 1991, visit of Russian teens and adults to Ramstein American High School in Ramstein, Germany, the Champagnes and I were not the only ones becoming increasingly aware of the dire straits faced by many of the citizens of Ivanovo.  Interest in helping just snowballed!  The effort became known as JET-HI, Joint Effort to Help Ivanovo.

Initially, Lynn and I envisioned maybe getting one or two truckloads of humanitarian goods to a Russian airfield in East Germany where a Russian plane would pick up the stuff and fly it to Ivanovo.  (The difficulties of getting trucks through the East German countryside, then through Poland and the Ukraine made simply trucking the stuff impractical.)

The German village of Ramstein is part of a far larger geographical area dominated by the city of Kaiserslautern. The Kaiserslautern area provides a temporary home for thousands of Americans.  It is, in fact, the largest American community outside the United States.  Moreover, there are several other American facilities within, say, a 70-mile radius.

Ultimately, we had trucks set up in all those communities to collect food, clothing, and necessities such as OTC medicines and vitamins.  Mind you, it could not have happened without the wholehearted support of the military itself, especially Jim Murphy, whose daughter was my MUN president that year; John Gravlee, and Alex Carothers, whose wives were on the RAHS faculty with me.  Plus a host of men and women who worked with them!  The base authorities turned over for our use a small, temporarily unused warehouse to store goods as we collected, sorted, labeled, and boxed things up.  Dozens of military people as well as their dependents and other civilians were involved in this process. (At one point I laid aside my denim jacket and it somehow got grabbed up!)  The whole thing became truly a community project.  And the German communities were involved as well; German businesses donated hundreds of pounds of such things as sugar and shoes.

Early on, it was clear that the initial idea of “a couple of trucks” meeting a small Russian plane in Winsdorf was proving to be a gross underestimation.  The most practical solution for transporting the goods was to have the Russians pick up these goods in Ramstein.  But how?

Remember: this was happening a mere two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there was still a great deal of antipathy and suspicion directed at Russians in general.  (I daresay those feelings were mutual.)

Eventually two U. S. Air Force colonels and a member of the Russian parliament (Boris) managed to cut through the red tape, but it was not easy!  They had to deal with the governments of several countries in order to secure permission for a Russian military plane to fly through their air space—not to mention their own military folks (who, understandably, become quite territorial in such matters).  They were asking permission for something that had never been done before: landing a Russian plane at the very headquarters of the American Air Force in Europe!

But they did it.

And it happened in February, 1992.

(To be continued . . .)

PEOPLE TO PEOPLE (# 2)

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Last time I told you how my friend and fellow educator, Lynn Champagne, roped me (not unwillingly!) into being the American connection for a student exchange between Ramstein American High School in Ramstein, Germany, and a secondary school in Ivanovo, Russia.

In the fall of 1991, twenty-two Russian teenagers, accompanied by seven adults arrived by train in Cologne and then traveled by bus to Ramstein.  They were welcomed heartily by their host families.  For a week the Russian students attended classes and extra-curricular activities with our American students.  At one point, they, along with their hosts, were treated to a field trip to Trier, Germany’s oldest city, originally founded by the Romans.  Besides other informal get-togethers, there was a huge potluck Thanksgiving dinner at which the Russians entertained with music and dance performances.  Among their favorite numbers: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “We Shall Overcome.”

However, it was not all fun and games.  The underlying reason for the exchange was to break down barriers of prejudice and hostility.  It is important to remember that this exchange was occurring a mere two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  The Berlin Wall had come down, but Germany was not yet fully unified, and there was still a huge Russian military presence in East Germany.

The seven adults who came with the student visitors were their principal and five teachers, including Marina Belova, my counterpart who also served as interpreter when the need arose.  These educators were keenly interested in our system and had many questions as they observed all aspects of it.  The seventh adult was Marina’s boyfriend (later her husband), Boris Bolshakov, Ivanovo’s first democratically elected representative to the Supreme Soviet (parliament).

Not surprisingly, Boris had political motives in accompanying a school group to the West.  Not only was he shoring up support for an upcoming election, but he thought he might be able to lay some groundwork for a link with the German government to secure some much-needed medical equipment for Ivanovo.  To this end, a meeting was set up with the local representative to the Bundesrat (comparable to our House of Representatives).  I was invited to sit in on this meeting.  Ultimately, nothing came of it, but I have to tell you, it was pretty impressive!  Here was a man who had been a young soldier in the German Army in WWII and a former KGB officer calmly discussing issues of concern to their once-enemy governments.

[Sidebar:]  The visit of Russian students and their chaperones had been dutifully cleared with the Ramstein Base authorities; they were given a complete list of names, occupations, and passport numbers.  Apparently no one bothered to examine the list.  But in any military community nothing goes on for long without someone eventually taking notice.  My friend Lynn was called out of her class one day and told to report to the base commander’s office where she faced the general and an aide.  “Do you know who this man is?” they demanded, referring to Boris.  “Yes, he is a friend of mine,” she said.  The aide went on to explain that Mr. Bolshakov should have received VIP treatment including accommodations usually reserved for the highest ranking visitor officers.  Lynn assured them that her guests were content with their situation as it was.  Later, she said, “I hadn’t the heart to tell them that Boris was quite happy sleeping on the floor in my basement.”

At dinner the evening after the disappointing meeting between Boris and his German counterpart, Boris and Marina opened up about the bleak conditions faced by their town, including an urgent need for medical equipment.  “In fact, we desperately need everything,” Marina said.  “Our people are really suffering.”  (Later I saw it for myself and my earlier comparison to the more depressed areas of Detroit was right on target.)  Knowing that members of a religious group in the military community had recently delivered a two truckloads of donated goods to the Ukraine, Lynn and I suggested we might be able to organize such aid for Ivanovo.  Marina’s response was that “every little bit would help.”

However, we also knew that those trucks bound for the Ukraine had run into a great deal of red tape and other difficulties in East Germany and Poland.  We pressed Boris: if we could get a truck loaded with goods to Winsdorf, an air base Russia still had in East Germany, could he get a plane to meet it?  He thought he might be able to do so, but he was very skeptical of the whole idea.

“Boltushski!” was his exact response, said with a smirk and a wink at Ned, Lynn’s husband.  Roughly translated, he was dismissing all three women at the table as “chattering females.”

 

[Next week: JET-HI—Joint Effort To Help Ivanovo.]

PEOPLE TO PEOPLE . . . (1)

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Or, Foreign Relations As They Should Be!

During  the recent election campaign, we heard a great deal of negative rhetoric about refugees and how we should or should not view people who were not lucky enough to be born Americans.  It brought to mind what, for me, was an event showing Americans at our very best—our generosity, our compassion, and our “can-do” optimism.

[Warning! This is a long story, so I am telling it in segments here.]

In June of 1991, with graduation over and students long gone, I was busily sorting, tossing, and storing things until the fall, when this cheerful little sprite of a woman came waltzing into my classroom saying, “Have I got a deal for you!”  I knew her, though not well, as a fellow teacher, albeit in the elementary school on Ramstein Air Base.  Lynn Champagne was also the mother of two students in my English and U.S. Government classes.  On a recent tour to Russia, Lynn had met and become friends with Marina Belova, a teacher of English in a Russian secondary school.  Lynn’s “deal” was that I should agree to be the American sponsor of an exchange with high school-aged students from Russia.

Ramstein Air Base was and is a NATO base, headquarters of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, and an important element of the American military presence in Germany.  Lynn had already persuaded my principal that the exchange could be a good educational experience for our students, and he later cleared the way for it with the base commander.  I bought into it because I sponsored the Model United Nations club, and because I and my students were keenly interested in people-to-people international relations.

My Russian counterpart was to be Marina, whose school was located in Ivanovo, a textile center some 150 kilometers NE of Moscow.  This was 1991, only two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Ivanovo was hard hit by the economic crises that followed.  (Think Detroit in recent decades.)

I mentioned to Lynn that if the Russians were interested in a student exchange, perhaps they would be interested in Model United Nations as well.  Oh, my.  Were they ever!  Me and my big mouth.  MUN is a big deal in the international schools in Europe.  THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) sponsors a week-long conference every January in the Congressehalle in The Hague, The Netherlands.  It involves about 3,000 students.  Each school is assigned a country to represent and discuss—from that country’s point of view—whatever issues the U.N. itself deals with that year.  The trouble was that country assignments are made in January each year for the next year’s conference.  My club already had two full delegations.  But “our” Russians were eager to participate; THIMUN directors were enthusiastic about involving the Russians; and I hadn’t the heart to disappoint those kids.

At the time, the Department of Defense operated about fifteen high schools in West Germany, most of which had MUN clubs.  I knew that some of them did not have full delegations for the 1992 conference.  So, I called other faculty sponsors and asked if they would be willing to add a Russian student to their delegation.   Not a single one of them turned me down!  What’s more, they were willing to pay the fee ($135) for the Russian student.  (I did mention that they were from a severely depressed area in a country hit hard by its political turmoil.)  One American school took two Russian students, and another took three!

So the Russian students were spread out that year among several American delegations, but the next year they fielded their own delegation, and the following year they hosted their own mini conference.  Today, MUN is an important element of schools in Ivanovo, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

But I get ahead of myself.  We have not yet got to that first exchange and its aftermath.

(To be continued . . .)

CARING FOR PEOPLE OR FOR #1 ABOVE ALL OTHERS??

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In up-coming blogs, I intend to share with you a story that took place in the early 1990s, a story of Americans who extended helping hands to Russians suffering in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But—PLEASE—let no one misread anything I write here as in any way condoning Russia’s meddling with our 2016 election.  What Vladimir Putin did to put Trump in power was absolutely despicable—not to say “deplorable”!

Moreover, the collusion of the triumvirate of Trump-McConnell-Ryan marks them as traitors not only to the United States as a nation-state, but to the very fabric of American life, for it strikes at our freedom to select our leaders.  What they did/are doing is treasonous—in spirit, if not in fact.  And now they compound their wrongdoing by dragging their feet on the matter of a full-fledged investigation—an investigation in the manner of those probes into Watergate and 9-11, not the weak-willed cover-ups the they are proposing.

Theirs is the behavior of political hacks—NOT of American statesmen.

FRIEND—OR UNFRIEND?

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Facebook offers several options in dealing with others’ posts.  Basically, you can “like” something or “share” it, but if you care to do so, you may also comment on it.

Sometimes commenting—or even simply sharing—is tantamount to opening Pandora’s box.  I am always somewhat astonished by the vitriol that is unleashed in some comments.  Facebook offers relative anonymity—or at least the knowledge that one is unlikely to meet so-and-so on a daily basis, if ever.  Knowing this, some folks seem to think it gives them carte blanche to engage in hateful, personal name-calling—such as they would probably never use in face-to-face discourse.  (There is a certain degree of cowardice there, I think.)

Well, Facebook does offer us some recourse.  You can, of course, simply ignore such comments or memes and happily scroll right on past them. (Probably the best option.)  Or, if it really gets under your skin, you can “hide” or delete a given post.  In more egregious instances—you are fed up with a given person’s rants—you can “unfollow” him or her.  This seems a reasonable choice in lieu of responding discourteously yourself.  But in really extreme instances, you can “unfriend” the person from your Facebook life.

For the most part, I enjoy Facebook.  I love connecting with former students and colleagues—a godsend for someone whose acquaintances are quite literally spread all over the nation!  I share and/or comment on things I find interesting or amusing, but I certainly do not assume that everyone who stumbles onto my page will always agree with me.  How boring would that be?

For the record, I rarely “hide” things (and I hate that Facebook wants me to explain why when I do—isn’t it enough that I simply do not want to see that thing anymore?).  But I do choose to hide things that are especially crude or cruel.  No, not mere language.  I am never offended by language that Ms. Manners might frown upon in elegant society.  (Frankly for me to be offended by mere words would be incredibly hypocritical—not to mention just plain phony.)  To date, I have “unfollowed” only one person.  And I did “unfriend” a person who persisted in calling me names. . . .

I am quite sure others have used these tools to protect themselves from me too.  So be it.

IS THIS WHAT YOU BARGAINED FOR?

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Questions for my Republican friends (yes—believe it or not—I do still have a few!) and other Trump supporters:

Is this really what you had in mind?  Is this what you envisioned for America?

–Putin’s puppet in the White House?

–Our government to be run like the Russian oligarchy, with DT  and his billionaire buddies raking in the spoils?  (Ronald Reagan must be spinning in his grave!)

–The weakening of alliances with other countries by threatening to abandon NATO and attacking other individual nations?

–Ties with neo-Nazis, the KKK, and others of that ilk?

–An administration clogged with rank amateurs in terms of governing experience?

–People in power who are on record as despising specific minority groups?

–Subtle and not-so-subtle threats against folk who refuse to make nice with your man in the WH, who will not become sycophants in praising him or printing only flattering images of him?

Is this really what you thought you were voting for?  If so congratulations.  You got it.  And in the process you have weakened democracy egregiously and you are in the process of reducing this once truly great nation to a satellite of Russia—wittingly or not.  (Again RR must be whirling in his grave!)  I prefer to think it was NOT done wittingly, for I still have hope.

But I have to tell you: it hard to hang onto that hope when we see such things as:

–a racist/misogynist running things in the White House for a President who has already announced that he will be only a part-time resident there;

–an Attorney General with a reputation of suppressing civil rights (wonder how vigorously he will pursue hate crimes?);

–a Secretary of Education who does not believe in public education (the very foundation of democracy!);

–threats against Medicare and Social Security.

Are we entering the “let them eat cake” phase of our republic?

BATHROOM READING

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100-banned-booksWhether soaking in the tub or sitting on the “throne,” many of us find time spent in the “little room” put to better use if we have something to read while we’re at it.  (I once heard—probably read—that if you spent a mere fifteen minutes a day reading, you could read twenty books a year!)

So—like so many others—I read in the bathroom.  But, not wanting to get involved with characters and their escapades in such short spurts of time, I read things that present a whole idea in a paragraph—or less.  Well, sometimes in 2 or 3 pages— but no more.  Things like those collected lists of Harper’s Indexes or a book discussing 2,000 things that might have merited only a footnote in longer treatises.  Magazines like Readers Digest and People make perfect bathroom reading.

For the last few weeks, I have been reading 100 Banned Books by Nicholas Karolides, et. al. (Checkmark Books, 1999).  By no means a complete list of banned books, it manages to present an overview of books outlawed over time from Ovid’s poetry and The Canterbury Tales to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.  It would appear that, as soon as Guttenberg lifted the first works off his marvelous printing press, the thought police were out there trying to stifle his efforts.  Karolides and his collaborators have divided their selections into four categories of reasons for banning: political, religious, sexual or social.

For each title discussed, they present a summary of its content, its censorship history, and suggestions for further consideration.  Among the one hundred titles, you would immediately expect to find D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and the anonymously written Fanny Hill of the Nineteenth Century.  And you do, but there are surprises too—such as Anne Frank’s diary and William Tyndale’s translation of The New Testament.  (Tyndale was burned at the stake.  In the Sixteenth Century, those thought police took their work very seriously.)

Most of those advocating censorship do so from an arrogant assumption that only a few people should be permitted to pass judgment on what the rest of us may read.  Of course their battleground of choice is the world of education—English classes in particular, from middle school right on up to university classrooms.  There is little consistency in the final decisions on whether given works remain in school curricula.

Personal note:  In my first year of teaching I ran smack dab into this issue.  Teaching American literature to 11th graders, I gave students a two-page, single-spaced list of books from which to choose for individual book reports.  One parent—one!—called the principal to object vehemently to the inclusion of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  I took exception, of course, but my principal suggested that the way to avoid a confrontation was to give students a list of authors, for most parents, often as not, would not recognize authors.  He was right.  But really—The Grapes of Wrath???

ALVIN TOFFLER’S “THE THIRD WAVE”

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In the 1970s, Alvin Toffler wrote the best-selling book Future Shock.  He followed it up in the early 80s with The Third Wave which I finished re-reading a couple of weeks ago.  Thirty-five years later, the book holds up quite well. [I thought it could do with some examples and anecdotes to flesh out some of his ideas, but as is, the book is over 400 pages long.]  This time around, I found it quite interesting to see if his prognostications for the future were even beginning to play out.  I think the world is not moving as fast as Mr. Toffler had thought it would (though, to be honest, he did not set time frames).  I also found it extremely interesting—and apropos—in light of recent political rhetoric.

For Toffler, the First Wave occurred when humans became food producers rather than food gatherers.  A settled, agricultural way of life revolved around the home with family units producing and consuming such things as they needed to survive and make life easier and more comfortable.  Anything extra, they sold in local markets.  This was the prevailing way of life all over the world for not just centuries, but for millennia.  Political organization—such as it was—tended to be patriarchal (despite an occasional female leader) and structured along a well-defined hierarchy that was, nevertheless, rather remote from most of the people.

The Second Wave (Toffler always capitalizes these terms) came with the industrial revolution and brought with it tremendous upheavals in society as populations were forced to move from the country to the city for viable livelihoods.  Their jobs required more structured (restrictive?) ways of doing things to ensure that standards were met.  This, of course, brought changes in social institutions, especially in government and education, which were expected to serve the needs of the new structures not only for the workplace but for most social interactions.  This period lasted for a few hundred years and Toffler argued in the early 80s that we were in transition from that age to the next.  We still are, for such changes literally take generations to achieve.

The Third Wave arrived with incredible advances in technology—particularly those dealing with communication.  The book was written before the advent of Facebook and Twitter and all those other instruments that allow us to communicate with others (after a fashion) while never encountering them in person.  Third Wave people are not as tied to the workplace as in previous times—they can live farther and farther from actual job locations—hence, the flood of Americans who have escaped to the suburbs and beyond.  Toffler sees the attendant changes in lifestyle as requiring new thinking about the institutions of government and education that were once designed to further the causes of the Second Wave.  He also suggests that these changes bring a degree of anxiety that have not been known before, and that many people keep looking to a past that no longer exists for guidance in choosing leaders for this new age.

His most profound points (for me) have to do with how external aspects of life have influenced how we think and how we form communities, large and small—our individual and collective personalities, if you will.  I found the book just as interesting this time as I did way back when (though I would still argue with him about a few of his conclusions!).

PTSD—DEPRESSION—SUICIDE

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You know how Facebook always asks “What’s on your mind?”

Well, I’ll tell you what is on my mind:

SUICIDE.

It has been on my mind for weeks.

No, not in the way you might think.

In July, I lost a very dear friend to suicide.

Marilee Swirczek was the founder and the guiding light of my writing group, Lone Mountain Writers in Carson City, Nevada.  She was a terrific teacher and loved the academic world, but beyond that she had a strong sense of duty to the community at large.  Besides spearheading the “Always Lost” tribute to military men and women lost in the Afghan-Iraq wars, she wrote op-ed pieces for the local newspaper.  She also wrote some very moving poetry.  As a teacher, as a writer, as a friend, Marilee always encouraged and inspired others to exceed their expectation of themselves.

But in the last months of her life, she fell into a deep depression and could not seem to pull herself out of it, despite consulting all the usual sources for physical and emotional help. The truth is she suffered PTSD from events dating back to long before she came to Carson City and made a new life for herself.

You see, it is not only veterans who suffer PTSD.

And those who suffer it are NOT weak people.

I think they are often people who do more and who care more than the rest of us.  But I have to tell you: when Donald Trump made his crass statement about soldiers who suffer PTSD being “weak,” I was just furious.  As Americans we owe it to our returning soldiers (from any conflict!) to try to understand what they are going through.  Depression is an insidious disease.

Marilee’s daughter, Stephanie Swart, wrote a beautiful op-ed piece, “For Mom” in the Sept. 10 edition of the Nevada Appeal about her mother’s battle with depression.  Google it.  It is well written and contains a very helpful list of symptoms of depression and what others can do to help those suffering.

We lose 22 veterans every day to suicide.  (That is a group only slightly smaller than the size of one of my English classes!)  That number—22/day—is appalling, but suicide affects many others in our society as well. It behooves all of us to aware!  Read Stephanie’s article!

THE RETURN

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OK.

It’s not as melodramatic as Return of the Native, but I’m back.  Hope you missed me.

Just finished the book that consumed almost MY WHOLE LIFE for the last few months.  I don’t have a title or a publication date yet (those being at the command of my editor), but I will keep you posted . . .

The work was slowed intermittently as I dealt with catastrophes of varying degrees of seriousness. Most serious: I lost two very dear friends this summer to “death’s dateless night” as Shakespeare put in Sonnet 30.  They came from totally separate parts of my life, but I loved them both dearly.  Less seriously: I fell (tripped over my own feet, you might say) and really skinned up one of my knees.  The open sore healed well enough, but the damage to the already arthritic knee is still there.  There should be some consolation in that I now have matching knees, but there isn’t!

Getting’ old is not a whole lot of fun some days!