Thursday, April 19, 2018

That Was Difficult

This week I have been asking the students in my English classes to write a small essay about a difficult decision that they’ve made in their lives. After the students submit their essays, I mark them and then give each student feedback on his or her writing. The whole process is relatively easy for me. However, I haven’t once stopped to think about how the exercise is for the students. Is it very difficult to write an essay in another language? To be fair, I decided to write the essay that I have been assigning, in German. What’s it like to write a small piece in another language? Let’s find out.

 „Eine Schwierige Entscheidung“

Als ich meinen Bachelor-Abschluss in 2006 kriegte, kriegte ich danach sehr schnell einen Job. Die Stelle war eine Werbetexten Stelle für eine Firma. Jedoch entdeckte ich an meinem ersten Tag, dass die Chefin der Firma wolltet, dass ich „sales calls“ mache. Ich sagte ja, weil ich einen guten Eindruck machen wollte. Jedoch sagte ich auch, dass ich irgendwann schreiben wollte. Meine „kleine Chefin“ versprach mir, dass ich irgendwann schreiben würde.
Der ganze Sommer vergang, und ich schriebe gar nichts. Jeden Tag machte ich die blöden „cold calls“. Ich verdiente sehr gut aber ich war sehr unglücklich.

Also musste ich eine Entscheidung treffen. Soll ich in dem gutbezahlten Job bleiben oder soll ich den Job kundigen und dann nach einem anderen Job suchen.Ich kündigte. Es war schwierig, eine Entscheidung zu treffen, weil zurzeit ich nicht wusste, was passieren würde, wenn ich den Job kundigen würde. Jedoch war ich nicht glücklich mit diesem Job.
Vier Monate später kriegte ich einen neuen, besseren Job und ich war sehr glücklich damit. Ich denke, ich traf die richtige Entscheidung.

Phew. That was really hard. No joke. I thought it was going to be a little bit easier. But wow. It took me a good hour to get that as perfect as I could. I guess I should not be so cavalier next time I tell my students to just fire off an essay on the topic of my choice.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Invisible Transitions


I once read in a book about writing that the best transitions were none at all. What the author of the book meant was that a properly used transition word, such as “however” or “therefore,” can be effective, but the best transitions between paragraphs, or even sentences, involve no transition words whatsoever.

Today, as I was listening to the Gettysburg Address -- don’t bother asking why I was listening to the Gettysburg Address; I just was -- I noticed that it was a good example of a piece of writing that moves seamlessly from one thought to another without the use of transition words.

To show you exactly what I mean, I'm going to reproduce the super famous speech, or at least the part of it that relates most to my point, and I’m going to highlight the words that Lincoln uses to connect his ideas in subsequent pieces of text with those in previous ones.

I hope you find it all of  some interest. 
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.    
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that warWe have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Just Right

OK, so I was just teaching an English class, and to fill some spare time at the end of the lesson, I told the students a small story from my life. I had known that the story was amusing, but the students thought it was exceptionally funny. I'm going to reproduce this story below.

A tiny bit of backstory before we get started: the tale is about my experience buying a mattress. That’s about all you have to know. Oh, also, I’m going to write the story in a manner similar to how I related it orally, just for fun. Enjoy.

Oh, man, do I have a funny story for you when it comes to buying a mattress. OK, so a few weeks ago I bought a new mattress. I had really liked this one particular mattress in the store, but when the thing arrived at my house, I was unhappy with it because it was too hard. When I called the store to ask if I could return it, they said no. When I asked them why the mattress I had tried at the store was soft and the one I had in front of me was so hard, they said, "Well, the mattress in the store has been lain on thousands of times." Great, I thought, just great! I was really upset. My girlfriend, however, said that I should not worry. She said once the mattress was broken in, everything would be fine.
A few weeks, later the mattress was still totally hard. But things weren't all lost because my girlfriend, who lives with me, still had her own mattress, from her old apartment. But that particular mattress had been too soft. What were we going to do? We did some thinking and came up with an idea: What would happen if one lay a soft mattress on top of a hard one? And would you know, the answers is this: You get the perfect mattress! Yup, the mattress on which we now sleep -- it's actually two mattresses -- isn’t too hard or too soft. It's just right.
How great is that? Oh, oh, also, this story has a funny coda. After this was all said and done -- it was probably about two weeks later -- my girlfriend and I went back to her hometown for a weekend. When we were there, we stayed at her mom’s house and slept in her childbed, like you do. And this bed, wow, let me tell you, it was a stone. It was the hardest bed I had ever slept in. When the weekend was over, I asked my girlfriend what was up with that bed. She then said to me, "Oh, it's always been like that. I've had it for 15 years."
I couldn’t believe it. "15 years!” I said, “and it’s always been like that!” I was flabbergasted. “OK, so then what made you think that the mattress that I had bought was going to get any softer?” And at that,  she just smiled. She smiled because she had been gotten. She had no answer.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Arm & Hammer

A former U.S. poet laureate once said that one quality that makes a great poem is specificity. As an example, he cited a poem about the culling of chickens and how the event was meticulously, even lavishly, described.

I really agree with his statement. If you look at great poems, one common denominator that they often have is that the objects and images described within them have been described accurately and with great specificity.

For example, just think about how well Wordsworth describes the abundance of daffodils in his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way
They stretch in never ending line
Along the margin of a bay

Or how about how ominously Edgar Allen Poe depicts the raven:

And his eyes have all the seeming of a
demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming
throws his shadow on the floor

There is certainly something about specificity that makes it an undisputed ingredient of good writing.

Enter Kevin Gates, a rapper from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Kevin Gates is a badass, tattooed-covered dude who wears diamond studded fronts – or, a “mouth full of ice” – in many of his music videos. He had been or still is very involved in street life and has served time in prison on several occasions.
At first blush, he’s not the kind of guy one would think would have something in common with Wordsworth or Edgar Allen Poe.

But he does. It’s the writing. Yes, Gates lives in a totally different era from the other two writers and has quite the different lifestyle, but he too has written something that transcends the mundane, or even the good, thanks to specificity.

On his 2014 mixtape “By Any Means,” Gates has a song called “Arm and Hammer.” Yes, that’s the Arm & Hammer that your mom used to put in the refrigerator to absorb odors. However, drug dealers also use Arm & Hammer, which is really sodium bicarbonate, to turn cocaine into crack. Gates’ song of course refers to the latter usage. The main idea of the song is that the narrator is so successful as a drug dealer that he keeps running out of Arm & Hammer.

Now, of course I don’t condone drug dealing and drug use. But by zeroing in on this one object, Arm & Hammer, and its importance in the world of a drug dealer, Gates has written something that surpasses good and rises to the level of exceptional. By focusing on this one object – an object one would never think to write a song about or to make art about -- he really brings us vividly into his world.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Refugee story from 2015

During the summer of 2015, about a million refugees from war-torn Syria and the surrounding area came pouring into Germany. For journalists, especially in Germany, this was a big deal. I mean, tectonic plates were shifting and the influx of people created thousands of story opportunities. How, for example, were the refugees fitting in? Where were they being housed? What problems were they facing? How had the journey been? The opportunities for stories were endless. 
Now enter me. The only real thought I had to myself during this time, journalism-wise, was, "Dude, if you don't write at least a few stories off this, there is something wrong with you." Well, in the end I did write a few stories related to the refugee situation, but I'm most proud of the one below.
A bit of backstory: around Christmas 2015, I would always pass this one particular area at the main railway station in Hamburg. It was this makeshift command post for refugees who were just arriving or stuck in limbo or just needed some help. What struck me about this command post was how ragtag, yet efficient it seemed. They had translators at the place, supplies, bulletin boards, and there would always be people manning the area, even around the clock. 
I became intrigued about the people working at this station. Below is a story I wrote about them. I had sent the piece on spec to the Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, the editor there said, "We are pretty well covered on the subject," and passed. All right. But here the story is. I thought it was worth sharing, even if two years have elapsed.
***
For the last five months, a small brigade of volunteers working at a makeshift aid station at the Hamburg Central Train Station has been offering various forms of assistance to the droves of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees who have been passing through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia to seek asylum.
The volunteers, most of whom are German citizens but some of them refugees themselves, translate for the newly arrived refugees, help them buy the proper train tickets and show them where they can get food and water. They also help the refugees solve the many unique problems that they face.
It has been well documented how kind and generous many Germans have been to the refugees who have been arriving in Germany from war-torn countries. But the aid station is a good representation of how grassroots and vigorous the effort to help the refugees often is.
“We just try to help the refugees however we can; the most important thing is that help is being given,” said Felix Brugger, 27, a volunteer at the aid station, which is located in the train station’s main entrance hall. Brugger made his comments after having just told two Afghani refugees which route they need to take to reach a particular city in Sweden.
Ever since last September, when Angela Merkel began allowing thousands of refugees to enter Germany, a couple hundred refugees have been arriving at the Hamburg Central Station each day.
Though the German government gives cash subsidies and other benefits to refugees who are in the process of seeking asylum in Germany, the refugees at the Hamburg train station are looking to go to Scandinavia, which means that the German government views them as “Transitflüchtlinge,” transit refugees, and does not give them any special support.
But that’s where the volunteers at the aid station come in. The volunteers -- there are about 40 of them in total and they work in shifts -- know which shelters are open for the night, keep detailed lists of the trains leaving for Scandinavia, escort the refugees around the train station and constantly stay abreast of the border situations in Scandinavia. They also raise money for the refugees, so if a refugee gets in a major jam, there’s cash on hand to help him get out of it.
“We try to make things easier for the refugees,” said one volunteer, Sumane, a 19-year-old Hamburg resident with Iraqi heritage.
Though the effort to help the refugees at the Hamburg Central Station seems robust and well coordinated, it wasn’t always that way.
Only a few people helped the refugees when they first began arriving at the train station in September. Those helpers, said Brugger, just handed out bottles of water and put makeshift barriers around an area where the refugees had been sitting to give them a little breathing room.
However, in mid-September, it was rumored that members of a far-right political party were going to hold an anti-immigration rally in Hamburg, and fears over how those protesters might treat the refugee if they encountered them at the train station galvanized more people into aiding the transit refugees.
“After that day in September,” Brugger said, “the effort to help the refugees here just got larger and more sophisticated.”
Indeed it did. In October, the volunteers got several humanitarian non-profit agencies to set up large tents with soup kitchens just outside one entrance to the train station, so all transit refugees now have access to free meals and an enclosed place to rest. And in December, the volunteers raised enough money to rent several rooms in a nearby office building so they can administer services to the refugees in a nicer environment, guarded from the elements and away from the hustle and bustle of the train station.
Though the number of refugees who pass through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia has gone down since the winter began, it may rise again in the spring.
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Monday, July 24, 2017

Nail on the head


Ever notice how sometimes someone will say something that is so on point, you just have to say, “Yeah. Wow.”

Recently, I heard someone say something just like that, that really just hit the nail on the head.

I had been watching a video on YouTube about the history of the Air Jordan sneaker. The documentary was very positive about the shoe, but some criticisms were shared too.

One criticism was that people had been willing to commit violence to obtain a pair of Jordans. 

The person who shared this criticism was Dr. Harry Edwards, a former professor of sociology at U.C. Berkeley.

What made Edwards' words so insightful was that he didn’t just address the problem superficially. He tried to describe the underlying issue with American and consumerist culture at large. 

Here is what he said:

“The tragedies that took place between kids -- the killings, the assaults, over clothing as well as shoes -- was an indication of what we had taught as a culture. [And unfortunately] wearing the right clothes, identifying with the right image became some kids' sole hook and handle on their own personal self esteem.”

That about says it, I think. Yeah . . . Wow.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Desert Island Discs

A few weeks ago, I was searching iTunes for podcasts that involved Paul McCartney in any way. After a few minutes, I found one. It was called Desert Island Discs. Desert Island Discs, I learned, is a BBC show in which the guests have to tell a host which 10 songs they would bring with them to a desert island. A Desert Island Discs from 1982 featured Paul McCartney as the guest. 

After finding this episode, I downloaded it and played it on my computer. At first there was a bit of banter between McCartney and the host, but after that the two got down to business. Some of the songs that Paul said he would bring with him to the "desert island" were “Heartbreak Hotel,”  "Tutti Frutti," "Searchin'" by the Coasters and "Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon. 

I found this show very interesting. But what I found the most interesting was this: At the end of the episode, the host asked McCartney which one of those 10 songs he would bring with him if he could only choose one. 

And McCartney chose “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon. 

Wow. 

Here’s a link to "Beautiful Boy"; here’s a link for more info on McCartney’s appearance on Desert Island Discs.