Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus

The gods of recreation smiled on Sunday.  A light shower in the early morning kept the temperature relatively cool as “The Raptors” stepped into the muck and mire under an opal sky.  I formed a team with work colleagues to participate in Minnesota’s annual Tough Mudder, an eleven-mile military-like obstacle course carved out of hilly farmland just over the border in Wisconsin.  The event raises millions of dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that supports injured members of the U.S. military.  This was my second go at it, as I had been part of a Tough Mudder team last September with soldiers from my Army unit.

Build it and they will come.  Oh, they came, in the hundreds, adventurous individuals wanting to test their stamina, mettle, athletic prowess, and whatever else they got.  Our team, the aforementioned Raptors, met the week prior to the event to train as a group.  Getting through the course would hinge on a collaborative effort.  We climbed over walls, waded through a vat of ice water, received mild electric shocks, crawled through tunnels, leaped mounds of mud, jumped bales of hay, carried logs, plummeted 15+ feet into blood-red water, sprinted up a greasy half-pipe known as “Everest,” and the list goes on.  Mud had saturated our very essence.  Yes, we became one with the sludge.  We could taste it.  We could feel it.  In fact, by the end, we could no longer tell where we began and the mud ended.  I can pleasantly report that this latest team of academics were in much better shape than the Army team from last year.  We did more than survive the gauntlet of 20-odd obstacles.  As we crossed the finish line, we felt like Julius Caesar, who upon victory in battle is alleged to have uttered (and I paraphrase): Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus.  We came, we saw, we conquered. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Summer Running

I ran a 13-miler this morning in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.  It’s my fifth “half marathon” within the last three years.  I got my worst time ever, but that’s okay; I didn’t get a chance to run sufficiently this week and decided to register only a couple days prior.  The running event bears the name of the town’s annual July festival, Wa Du Shuda, which, I’m told, means “Watchya doin’, Shuda?” in Portuguese, Shuda being the patron saint of seafaring vessels.  (By the way, that is a lie.)  Anyway, I wanted to do something in preparation for the Minnesota Tough Mudder next week.  Five colleagues from my university job agreed to form a team with me for the challenging 12-mile obstacle course.   We’ve called ourselves the “Raptors,” after the school mascot, and we’ve all been training for it in our own way since the latter half of May.  I’ll probably write about the experience next week.  A small event, the half marathon in New Lisbon consisted of only thirty people.  I shamefacedly crossed the finish line in the twenty-fifth place.  Usually a competitive spirit gets the better of me in spite of what my body might be saying, but I told myself to take it easy and simply complete the run, nothing more.  The weather was pretty good, given the middle of July, and the runners were nice.  I didn’t stay around too long after the finish, though.  As they were reading off the race results on the loud speaker, I was already on the interstate heading north and thinking about the next challenge.

Friday, July 12, 2013


So I was in line getting a cup of Joe at Starbucks early this morning, feeling somewhat self-conscious in my military uniform, when I glanced at the cover photo of the New York Times.  At first I thought I was seeing huge seed pods lined up, but on closer inspection it was a woman in a headscarf grieving in a row of green-colored coffins.  On this day, July 12, eighteen years ago, perpetrators of a horrific crime begin to separate males aged 12 to 77 from the throng of fear-stricken victims, ostensibly for the purpose of interrogation.  The genocide in Srebrenica was the worst case of mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust.  Bosnian Serb troops under the command of Ratko Mladić transported over 7,000 Muslim men and boys from a designated UN Safe Area to various killing sites throughout eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina while UN peacekeeping forces stood by.  Actually, the Bosnian Serbs took over a compound at Potočari, just outside Srebrenica, where a Dutch battalion was struggling to provide shelter and protection for thousands of Bosniak refugees. 
I begin teaching a summer course on genocide and political oppression next week.  I like to start the first day of class with a dramatic opener that gets the students’ attention and also shows the relevancy of the topic.  I decided to use this article as the starting point.  After all, I’m having the students read a selection from a Bosnian Muslim’s memoir at the end of the term, so I’d be giving them a heads-up.  The NYT article focuses on Radovan Karadžić, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who orchestrated the killing with General Mladić.  The UN tribunal in The Hague have recently reinstated genocide charges against Karadžić.  Both men had been in hiding for years until the Serbs, under pressure, delivered them up to the authorities.  The world, especially the families of the victims, await justice.  1995 was the not Middle Ages.  It was not 1944.  We still live in a world of uncertainty, one in which humans have the potential to commit the worst crime known to our species and have the world community do nothing about it.  The words Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and 911 have become infamous symbols of evil in the modern world, but let us not forget Srebrenica.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


So here I am in my late forties and only now have been introduced to the world of medication!  I’m a late bloomer, I guess, but thanks to colleagues and friends I’m assured that meds can do the trick in coping with life’s slings and arrows.  How cool is that?  Back in the day I had to wrestle with my demons, confront my pangs of conscience, the sting of regret, the disappointment of failure, and other forms of mental torture.  Not anymore, my friends.  I just take pills.  Am I fighting sleep at night?  I just pop a couple Tylenol PMs into my mouth and await pharmaceutical magic.  Do I have a hangnail or did I stub my toe?  Ouch, right?  No!  I cram ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory drugs at hand into my mouth and down them with some Jack.  I’ve gotten to the point that I eat them like candy (even keeping the pills in a yellow M&M bag just to make it feel like a treat)!  When consciousness rears its ugly ahead again, no worries.  I got some prescription drugs for that menace.  The doctor doesn’t waste time asking questions about what might be the source of my mental anguish, he just keeps them pills coming.  It’s more about experimentation as to what works best, and with the least side effects, rather than consideration of any life situation that could have caused my desperate need for medication in the first place.  That works for me.  At the first sign of pain or even mild discomfort, I’m tossing those bad boys down the pie hole.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Community Collaboratory

How do you encourage college students to get involved in the community?  How do you ignite their potential for collaboration and equip them for a life of civic engagement?  To address these questions, I’ve participated as one of eight instructors in a new experimental course we collectively designed and taught at the University of Minnesota Rochester this past academic year. We’ve called it the Community Collaboratory, or “Co-Lab” for short, as a way of suggesting the content at a glance.  With guidance from the team of instructors, students work in groups with influential members of Rochester organizations, whom we’ve called “community advisors,” to discuss areas of need and draw up at the end of the semester a proposal of practical ideas for collaboration.  Our main purpose is to create and facilitate a reciprocal relationship between the education goals of the university and the specific objectives of community institutions.  We’ve formed this partnership largely with medical organizations because UMR students are majoring in health science.  Co-Lab was an overall success this past semester and is now a required course in the university curriculum, replacing an earlier attempt to integrate service learning into the fourth semester of Spanish.  However, creating a course that could meet the high expectations of the faculty and staff involved, let alone offering the community advisors something worth their time and getting the chancellor's stamp of approval, was no small chore.
The team of volunteer instructors had assembled by the beginning of the fall semester and met in early October to bounce around ideas and think big thoughts.  Here was an opportunity to do something meaningful and different, and with the full backing of the university.  Consequently, we wanted to approach this project with great care, even if the timetable was pressing upon us to offer this course in the spring of 2013.  Fortunately, the faculty and staff who have been a part of Co-Lab are a rather congenial and easy-going bunch, so arriving at a common vision was less problematic than it otherwise could have been.  Our diversity in terms of academic discipline, teaching experience, and personality is both a strength and challenge.  It was a strength precisely because we wanted an interdisciplinary curriculum that considered community involvement from different angles.  The challenge involved finding a curriculum that satisfied academic requirements of the university and also integrated topics, concepts, and skills that we individually thought was important.  It wasn’t lost on us that the credibility of a course about collaboration hinges on the ability of the course designers to collaborate successfully!  In the end, the real challenge stemmed from our ambition to create an innovative interdisciplinary hybrid course that links the university to the wider community.
After the initial meeting, we gathered together on a bi-weekly basis throughout the fall semester to work out the details and put together a syllabus.  We formed breakoff groups to explore different aspects of the course, such as course texts and assignments.  Some of us took on the nuts-and-bolts task of forging a workable syllabus, while others brainstormed ways we could include community organizations.  We explored the theoretical roots of our endeavor by reading relevant scholarly articles on community engagement and related topics and discussing them in our meetings.  We knew that this course would be worth three credits and entail a letter grade, unlike other non-discipline offerings at UMR.  Since the spring schedule would only allow the course to meet for one 75-minute session per week, we needed to find a way to make up the missing credit hours.  We ended up creating a hybrid course: part of the course would occur in the classroom and part online.  The online component mostly consisted of a weekly discussion forum where students address questions from the course texts, post assignments, and sometimes follow up on discussion from class.  We divided the course into three modules, each of which require a major assignment, in addition to the online forum and class activities.  These assignments include participation in a community event with a follow-up report; a narrative on citizenship; a group recommendation for future collaboration; and a presentation. The instructors paired up to plan and teach each weekly session, which I’ll discuss below.  Critical to the course was a mandatory Community Collaboratory Conference about six weeks into the semester where students met in their assigned group with their respective community advisor in a structured discussion format.
We didn’t want this course to be merely about “service learning,” and in fact wanted to forge new terms to avoid these associations.  There’s nothing wrong with service learning, but we wanted to widen the angle and have students make larger connections.  This course was not about volunteering on a short-term basis.  We wanted them to understand the complicated so that they could come out of the course with a knowledge of complex social issues that can enhance or hinder community collaboration as well as a set of communicative, social and research skills to facilitate this work.  To use the well-worn cliché, we didn’t want to give them a fish but teach them how to fish.  Having the students work in groups and work through these larger issues was particularly important for this first offering of the course.  In subsequent semesters we will recalibrate the curriculum.  For the upcoming fall semester, for instance, students taking the course will not be starting from scratch but building upon the recommendations that last semester’s students presented...

We wanted to do something special for the first session of the semester in order to set the tone and make the course a different experience, so we had the students assemble at the civic theater instead of the classroom and invited both the theater director and the chancellor to speak about opportunities for collaboration in Rochester.  After giving a brief overview of the course and introducing the instructors, we explained the Social Change Wheel to the students (see image) and asked them where they would place themselves on it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

We set aside a day each year to commemorate our nation’s birth and take unabashed pride in our heritage.  The American idea is a bold one, perhaps bolder than our white male Founding Fathers realized when they set quill to paper over two hundred years ago; through arms, placards, and ballots each generation has worked out the full implications of the U.S. Constitution.  We fought a horrific civil war a century and a half ago to end the evil institution of slavery.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and feminist movements paved the way for equal rights and greater opportunities for ethnic minorities and women.  Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of allowing same-sex married couples access to federal benefits and essentially supported gay marriage in California, the largest state in the Union.  The America of 2013 is different from the America of 1865 or 1920, but the same principle of liberty and equality has been at work.  As a young Theodor Roosevelt stated in a Fourth of July speech he delivered in North Dakota: “American citizens whether born here or elsewhere, whether of one creed or another, stand on the same footing; we welcome every honest immigrant, no matter from what country he comes, provided only that he leaves behind him his former nationality and...becomes an American, desirous of fulfilling in good faith the duties of American citizenship.”  Both the strength and challenge of America, I submit, has been the diversity of her citizenry: E pluribus unum.  We’re a nation of immigrants committed to an idea.  The American system, our representative democracy, can get rather messy and disputatious when it comes to implementing this idea in concrete terms, but thankfully we have an open forum to air differences, a freedom of expression embedded in our political culture, enshrined in our founding document, and protected by an all-volunteer military force.
My daughter Jessi started Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis one week ago.  I think of her most when I think of Independence Day, and I can’t wait to spend time with her at the end of this grueling process during Parents Weekend in August.  She’s strong, smart, conscientious, and adventurous—everything you’d want in a future naval officer.  Serving in the U.S. military is no small commitment these days, as threats loom in various corners of the world.  North Korea is talking tough and threatening our allies in the region.  There’s the prospect of a future naval conflict in the Persian Gulf unless cooler heads prevail within the Islamic Republic of Iran.  (I was serving a tour in Afghanistan when the Iranians seized 15 members of the Royal Navy and held them for nearly two weeks in early spring of 2007).  Relations with the People’s Republic of China seem civil enough, but the Hainan Island incident of 2001 should remind us that minor confrontations always have the potential to escalate.  Pirates off the coast of Somalia and worldwide terrorist networks likewise could draw us into a regional conflict.  Jessi and her peers at the Naval Academy carry the star-spangled torch of freedom.  Is that overstating the case?  Well, remember that for all the ill-will we elicit in certain regions because of our military presence or economic interests, our political freedoms and peaceful transition of power from one political party to another are still the envy of much of the world.
So let us put aside partisan rancor on this day of celebration.  Let us gaze upon the firework display this night with wide-eyed wonder.  Let us appreciate the self-evident truths that Thomas Jefferson penned so eloquently.  And let us give way to patriotic fervor as we behold Old Glory.  I was watching a documentary about the Holocaust the other day.  In an interview, Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Jewish-Austrian “Nazi hunter” and a Holocaust survivor who died a few years ago, described in his thick accent how he felt when the Yanks entered the Mauthausen concentration camp:  “In the day of liberation I could not walk, but I wish to see the sun, I wish to see the American tank.  On all four I came out of the block and looked on the American flag.  I feel that every star…this is a star of justice, and this is a star of friendship, and this is a star of culture.  And the stripes…this is a road to freedom.”  With proper maintenance, occasional readjustment, and constant vigilance, the United States of America will remain the Land of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Perspicadius and the Plagiarist

Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  For over two millennia this statement has provided thinkers a rationale for their queries.  These words have inspired those wanting to reflect upon their life and be deliberative in their actions.  What most people don’t realize is that the Athenian philosopher stole this line from the fifth-century orator, Perspicadius of Corinth, and pulled it out of context.  Historians of ancient Greece had only recently discovered the Corinthian’s original words buried in a Carolingian codex on the discarded shelf of a French monastery.  Posterity is more familiar with Perspicadius’s oft-cited line: “All Athenians are assholes.”  (Harsh for pious ears, a medieval scribe amended the phrase to “All Cretans are Liars” and attributed it to Epimenides of Knossos.)  Here are the words of Perspicadius: “The unexamined life is not worth living, but it is even more worthwhile to live your life without any thought at all.  Consider the beasts of the field.  Do they not live without introspection? Do they not care about their purpose or the meaning to life and yet they seem to be content?  Why should man be different?”  As it turns out, historians think the randy Socrates plagiarized the first statement in order to entice Athenian teens wanting to study philosophy under the master.  For the younger boys, Socrates used candy.  The historical damage has been done.  Socrates lives on in the memories of future generations, while the deeper truths of Perspicadius remain in obscurity.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Most people who meet me don’t like what they see.  Some think I’m the mother of all assholes, while others consider me no more than a loathsome spider they’d just as soon stamp out if they could.  What they have in common is that they’re repulsed, quite visibly so, and I can’t blame them.   I mean, I’m okay on paper, but once people interact with me face to face, they soon become bitterly disappointed.  One woman after meeting me, I’m told, contemplated suicide but somehow managed to pull herself out of this dark place enough to live at least a life of emotional pain and solitude in her basement.  Do you ever have moments when you wish you could have lived your life differently?  Do you ever reflect in the quietness of your heart that the road to happiness and enlightenment starts with little steps?  Do you ever come to a kind of cosmic realization that you could turn your life around?  That a person’s worth is not measured by others?  That there's always a way out of the darkness if you just look for the light?  Well, not me, but let me be absolutely clear on one point: If you see me from afar, you won’t think much of me, good or bad.  If you hazard a conversation or otherwise interact with me, however, you’ll walk away feeling convinced that there is no God and all that you hold as sacred in this life amounts to a pile of poo.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Book of Job

I haven’t been feeling well these past few days.  Bearing these ills with patience and longsuffering, wretch that I am, is no easy task.  I’m not looking for sympathy, just an ear.  Why has food become such an enemy?  I don’t deserve to be obese and have type 2 diabetes.  Anyway, I’ve run out of insulin and the pharmacy won’t be open until Monday.  My liquor cabinet has been empty for days and I don’t have money to restock it because I basically torpedoed my family's financial security at the casino last Thursday.  Worst of all, my meth lab exploded yesterday and ruined the entire basement.  Fortunately the wife and kids were out of town at the time, as I had sent them to my parents' house with explicit instructions on how to play on their guilt for some cash.  To add insult to injury, the strip club down the street closed down.  That was my only recreation in life.  Really?  Am I really reduced to looking up call girls in my little black book?  Yes, unfortunately.  It's not easy to endure this suffering with a quiet heart.  I cry out to you, O Lord, but you do not answer me.  Oh well.  At least I haven’t broken out in boils from head to foot.