Friday, October 31, 2008

The beginning of wisdom

is when you haven't seen your Mom for a couple months and right away she feeds you a beautiful lunch on her porch accompanied by the sunshine and mountains and you don't take it for granted.

Teaching English to Zombies

In honor of Halloween today, I'm sharing a video created by The Language House in Prague, where TEFL students get to try their stuff on zombies rather than Czechs. Click on the title for a laugh.

I'll probably be continuing my twin postings on Colorado and the Czech Republic until I leave for Prague on November 5th.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Spectacular Hike to Gem Lake

Do you need a break? Join me on a spectacular hike to Gem Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The aspen trees are at their peak, and there is enough of a breeze so the leaves quake gently back and forth in the wind. It's not a long hike: about 1.7 miles one way. If we're quiet, we may see some wildlife.

The glorious aspens await you.

A view of Long's Peak, with Estes Park below it.
The locals like to come up here and watch the
fireworks on the 4th of July over Estes.

Elk scat

A beautiful side view of the mountain as we ascend.

Liquid gold

You can see why some people call this their church

Who saw who first?

The top of the mountain reveals Gem Lake

A beautiful spot for lunch

Expat Life: The Truth About Unpleasant Things

Before every grand adventure, somebody has got to make you doubt your decision. I don't actually doubt my decision to move to Prague, but this woman did made me laugh. Click on the title to hear her experiences.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

10 Words of Survival Czech

Type "Czech" into YouTube and all sorts of useful things come up. Click on the title to become polite to 10 million new people.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Planning for Prague

I've had a fantastic time in Colorado this month enjoying the mountains and wildlife and my family. I'll try to do a few posts about this magnificent spot before I leave. But at the same time I'm enjoying this fabulous Western state, I've started to get excited about PRAHA!

I have purchased my plane ticket to Prague and I'm leaving November 5th! I was going to leave earlier and my mom said, "How can you bear to miss the election coverage?" She's right. I can't! I put it off to November 5th to at least get a full 24 hours of watching history being made.

How does anyone ever edit everything down to one or two bags when going overseas? It's impossible! Just in shoes alone, every woman must need one whole bag just for them.

This morning I spent rereading letters from my two Czech pen pal families that got me all excited to see the Czech Republic in the first place. How lovely to keep an enthusiasm for over 18 years! That's how long I've had this "thing" for the Czech Republic!

I'm off to find luggage!

How broke is Illinois?

I finished off my visit to Springfield with a visit to the current state capitol (somebody, please move the smokers out of the doorways) and the Museum of Funeral Customs (very interesting actually, especially the video about Lincoln's Death Train).

President Harry Truman had a phrase that "if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." The current governor of Illinois might want to make sure he owns one! Every state employee and food server in Springfield had nothing nice to say.

They're angry that so many jobs will be lost when cultural sights that bring tourists to town are shut down. They're angry he refuses to live in Springfield and insteads lives in Chicago, using a private plane to fly back and forth at great expense while state workers are losing their jobs. They're angry the DOT is going to be moved out of Springfield and thousands of state workers will have to uproot their lives. What about the press organizations? Most can barely afford a Springfield bureau. How will they cover the billion dollar business of the Department of Transportation if it's moved down to southern Illinois, they ask. To state employees, it feels like disrespect.

"Why doesn't he shut down the governor's mansion instead of our state parks and cultural heritage sites? He refuses to live in the Governor's mansion and the only use it got was when the Saudi Ambassador came to town to see the Lincoln Museum after the Ambassador gave a gigantic donation," they ask.

Illinois hasn't paid it's bills on time for years (hospitals routinely wait a year to be paid) but one state worker summed up best how broke the State of Illinois is. "This week," she said, "I received a call asking me to count the rolls of toilet paper in my department's storage closet because the State didn't have the money to buy more for other departments running out and needed to know if we had some we could send to other buildings. Now that's broke."

There's no need to worry about freedom of speech in Springfield. The budget, yes. But not freedom of speech.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Route 66 Road Food

If you are young, or European, or both, you may not be familiar with a fabulous American pop song called "Route 66" that was very popular in the 1950s. It's a classic. The song captures all of the freewheeling joy of taking the open road and driving westward across America in the spirit of discovery. The road starts in Chicago and ends somewhere in the southwest like New Mexico or California.

On American roads, there are signs celebrating the local groups that take on the task of picking up litter for two miles at a stretch. One of the groups celebrated on a sign in Illinois was the Route 66 Corvette Club. Now doesn't that just bring you an instant smile? Can't you just imagine their fun "motoring west?'

Springfield, Illinois is right on Route 66. And with that history comes two famous culinary traditions. I had to try them both!

The Cozy Dog Drive-In has been operating since the late 1940s when the owners popularized the forerunner of the Corn Dog. Stopping in this establishment was an exercise in nostalgia for Route 66 road culture.

The other culinary legend Springfield is famous for is the "horseshoe sandwich." This culinary invention had not spread beyond Springfield's borders but I had been told by natives for years that should I get to Springfield I needed to give it a try.

I thought the sandwich was something I would pick up with two hands! Au contraire! This unique creation starts with two thick pieces of Texas Toast, holding the meat of one's choice (I chose hamburger), covered with crinkle-cut french fries, all covered in a Welsh rarebit cheese sauce. There is a "pony" version for those who only want to take in double the recommended daily calories.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

America's finest example of Prairie School Architecture

Another thing I had to see in Springfield, Illinois before I left was the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in America that he created that was complete with all of it's original furniture. It's called the Dana-Thomas house. The State of Illinois had announced it was closing the home due to budget cuts.

There is no way any photo can convey the beauty of this home! As I walked up to it, my mouth dropped open and didn't close the whole time I was there. I'm literally not kidding.

As I walked up, what struck me most, was the size and unusual floor plan of the home, followed by the green frieze work unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere else. That green, maybe it's caused by copper patina, glistened in the sun and drew the eye over and over.

Frank Lloyd Wright is known for his horizontal line. One of the ways he achieved it in this house was to make the vertical morter in his brickwork flush with the brick so that only a horizontal line was created. Can you imagine what a painstaking and expensive process that was?

Surprisingly, this house started not as original construction, but as a remodeling job. The aim of the remodeling was not to create a house for cozy living, but rather a showcase for entertaining. Mission accomplished.

Photos were not allowed of the home so please click on the title to go to the website and see images. Creative souls within the state government must find a way to keep this house open to the public! This is more than a state or national treasure, this home is a worthy of international interest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shoved outside the Republican tent

It's getting really ugly in the American election.

I come from a loooong line of Republicans; both of my parents were Republican elected officials and I served as the county chairman for a Republican candidate for President in the Iowa caucuses and the presidential election during the 1990s.

This season, I have been told repeatedly that I don't fit the profile of the people Republicans "approve of" to be pro-American and support their candidate. I"m not from a small town, I'm not from what they consider a "pro-American" part of the country, and this morning on CNN GLOBAL television, there was a Republican pastor attacking the 1.2 million members of my faith, the United Church of Christ, as not "biblical" or "Christian enough" because the denomination supports gay marriage (really, news to me? I've never heard it discussed even once in my church). The reason he singled out my denomination is cause it's the same denomination as Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor.

I can't tell you what it feels like to hear your faith attacked as not "good enough." It's hate speech. And if he would take a look at our congregations, he would see that there's probably a ton of potential Republican voters there. Our congregations actually skew older which is the natural demographic to support the Republican platform. Why alienate us?

I watched the VP debate with six people, who discovered when we all started chatting about our political history, had all left the Republican party cause we no longer felt welcome. Two of them were once elected Republicans. This is exactly what Colin Powell described as the "narrowing" of the party. We have literally been shoved out of the tent.

It reminds me of that poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

I hope when this election is over, the far right will see that the broad middle are not evil people. We're just people that think everyone in America deserves a voice, regardless of their faith, not just our own folks.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Lincoln's words are everywhere in Springfield. It's easy to learn much of them just walking the sites. This is the old State Capitol where Lincoln gave his famous U.S. Senate nomination acceptance. The speech is referred to as "A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand." It's most famous passage:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South."
This is also the exact spot where Senator Barack Obama
chose to announce his candidacy
for the Presidency of the United States of America
and where he came back to introduce
his new running mate Senator Joe Biden.
It's so fun to hear the locals talk about those two days.

All the locals seemed surprise when I suggested
that the future Obama Presidential Library
would be housed in Springfield.
Heck, if I was the Mayor, I'd already have the lots picked out!

I love the symbolism of Senator Obama
announcing here. Like Lincoln, Senator Obama
is a healer and a uniter, something
this country needs after eight years of polarization.

Lincoln lived a very pedestrian life - his office was immediately
across from the capitol building
and he walked home every night to his house a couple blocks away.

A tourist reincarnation?

This is the Secretary of State's office
in the old capitol. The idea of our current
dynamic and beloved Secretary of State,
Jessie White,
operating in this sedate environment
gave me the giggles-
Call me a complete history geek!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A living tribute to Abraham Lincoln

One of the beautiful ways Abraham Lincoln has been memorialized in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois is through the Lincoln Memorial Garden. In 1936, this tract of land was empty pasture next to Lake Springfield. Legendary Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen was chosen to create this incredible tribute in native plants from the states Lincoln inhabited.

What else would surround the entire garden
but a split rail fence-
honoring Lincoln's legend as a logsplitter

Garden Clubs across America
sponsored dozens of park benches
featuring Lincoln's wisdom

I spent an entire morning exploring the six miles
of woodland and prairie Jensen created -
it seemed like five minutes

Jens Jensen loved to create woodland council rings
in all of his work

Can't you imagine sprites and pixies
entering the rings from all sides of the forest?

The circles are often used for
weddings, storytelling, nature programs, even turtle races!

Beautiful Midwestern tall-grass prairie
in the morning sun

The garden was in the middle of a costume change
from summer to fall when I visited
Mushrooms and tree seed pods were every where.
Other amazing times to visit:
in the spring when the dogwoods and crabapples
are blooming, when the fall leaves are out,
when the maple trees are tapped for syrup.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

When I first drove into Springfield, I was shocked to see all kinds of signs about the Springfield Race Riots of 1908. What the heck was that about? There is a walking tour of spots detailing what happened over two awful days but there also happened to be an outstanding temporary exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library about the whole traumatic episode.

These episodes always seem to have the same theme
Two weeks later she admitted she made it all up

During two hot and humid days in August of 1908, some of the white population of Springfield went on a rampage and terrorized the African-American population. It all started when a white woman accused an African-American man of raping her. Two black men were held in the county jail for crimes against whites including this one. A large white crowd assembled outside the jail, wanting to take matters into their own hands, chanting for vigilante justice.

The police got the two men out of there immediately. When the angry mob figured out they had been tricked, and the prisoners had been spirited out, they went on an ugly, destructive rampage that lasted over a couple days. It didn't end until the Governor called in the National Guard.

The nation was shocked something like this could happen
in Lincoln's Springfield
The skill with which this exhibit was put together is astounding. It starts off with a proclamation from the current mayor that includes an acknowledgment of the events that took place 100 years ago and an apology. Each panel then explains exactly what the white mob did. Teachers are warned about exercising caution before exposing children to the exhibit.

Despite the incredibly sensational nature of what is shared, I did not find the exhibit induced "white guilt." I found it to instead produce "white growth." There's something about the quiet explanation of each cruel act that is like hearing someone's wrongs and really processing it and feeling it. I wasn't even there and it was 100 years ago, but I could feel some of my own denial cut through like a hot knife through butter by the presentation. I wish I could drag this fantastic explanation of history to some local malls. It needs to expand it's reach beyond those who would come into a library.

This form of hate may be under glass now
but there are always new forms of hate
for us to guard against

If this could happen in Lincoln's Springfield, activists at the time believed it could happen anywhere. The Springfield Race Riots of 1908 led to the formation of the National Association of Colored People, an organization that has been incredibly effective at curbing these abuses.

You might be interested in these posts:

Why the Obama Presidential Library needs to be in
Springfield, Illinois

A near spiritual experience at Central High School in
Little Rock, Arkansas

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Inspires Stories?

One of the objections I kept hearing about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (across the street from the Museum) is that there's nothing to see there. It's true that the library is a working research library and the staff are busy taking care of historians and researchers working on their projects. Personally, I wanted to browse the stacks but they're closed to the general public!

If Lincoln has garnered more books about him than anyone else in the world, save Jesus Christ, I imagine a terrific way volunteers or staff there could infect people with a passion for primary documents ("why do we save this old stuff anyway?") is to give a walking tour of some of the neat stuff in the collection.

For example, one book about Lincoln that is beloved by Lincoln lovers is "Team of Rivals" by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. What are the interesting primary documents she used to assemble her story? What a terrific way to share with people, especially young adults, how a well-researched book is put together. Such a tour could inspire a few books from the next generation.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Entering the Land of Lincoln

I realized when I made the decision to move to Prague that there was a whole lot of stuff in Illinois and the Midwest in general that I didn't get around to seeing. I didn't know if I would ever live in Illinois again, and there was one thing I absolutely had to see before I left because it went to the core of what the people of Illinois are proud of and hold dear.

I needed to go to Springfield, Illinois and see the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. The minute I drove into downtown Springfield, I could understand why my United States Senator, Barack Obama, chose this place to announce his candidacy for presidency of the United States and later, his choice of running mate. I got an instant lump in my throat just arriving -- such is the immediate visibility of American history here.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President
of the United States of America

The museum was designed with the help of people from Disney, so it's the first "experiential" Presidential museum. People come here from all over the world, which surprised me, because Lincoln was president of the United States in the 1860s. I'm always amazed when people from other countries know our history so well.

The staff have the hardest time
keeping kids from pulling all the hair and eyelashes
out of the Lincoln family.
They look so real and the kids want to touch them.

One of the terrific
Presidential Museum volunteers -
there are many

When the museum was built,
the workmen kept trying to get all of the pieces
of the flooring to meet beautifully in the middle
but the tips kept breaking.
So a workman said, "I'll fix that,"
and he put a Lincoln penny into the floor so the tips didn't show.
It's still there! Some of the gentlemen volunteers keep a ready supply
of new shiny pennies to put on that spot
so kids can find it and have a neat souvenir:
a lucky Lincoln penny from the Lincoln Museum.

Museum visitors start their journey
by experiencing life in Lincoln's log cabin
and later go on to experience life in the White House.

During the four days I was visiting Springfield, the whole Bailout story started in the news. Somehow it made me appreciate the sacrifice of this Civil War Generation and what they went through to keep the union intact even more. The sacrifice and stress on the Lincolns themselves was incredible, with three dead children and of course, Lincoln's own death.

One of the most telling displays was the whispering gallery. As you walked through, you could hear all of the awful things people would say about the Lincolns while they were in office whispered out loud.

Another display that I appreciated was a presentation answering the question "what do we save this old stuff for anyway?" Explaining this to children has never been more important since children often no longer have a real librarian teaching them about libraries anymore in their schools. The presentation was so well done, many of us could not tell if the historian in the presentation was a hologram or an actor.

Listening to tweens come out of another "experiential" presentation, I heard them exclaim "that was so fly! That was awesome! Can we go in again?"

There is no way I can convey what the Museum so expertly conveyed which is how damn lucky the American people were to have this leadership at a time of enormous uncertainty when things could have gone so many different ways. As the historian in the first presentation said, the reason we save these old things is "so that the best in us-- live on in you."

A Czech Life Well Lived

I came across this New York Times story about a Czech glass designer who revived the Waterford brand in Ireland and wanted to share it in case anyone missed it. His work is appreciated worldwide. Click on the title to read the article.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wacky Missouri History

While leaving central Missouri, I passed a community called Kingdom City. If I hadn't been told by Walt, my couchsurfing host, what the name referred to, I would have assumed the community got that name through a religious reference.

Turns out that during the American civil war, Calloway County, Missouri decided to succeed from the union and become it's own kingdom. Now that's wacky.

So can you guess where I'm going next? Here's two hints:

1) I'm not driving in a straight line to Colorado.

2) I'm going to learn about the human being, who second only to Jesus Christ, has more books written about him than anyone else in the history of world.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"An Iron Curtain has descended"

Driving through Missouri is a pleasure because the glaciers did not make it down this far from the North to flatten the earth. All the county roads are hilly and curvy. Walt, my Couchsurfing host, told me about a terrific one, Road WW, that I should use to arrive at my next destination. I felt like I was in a car commercial, such was the pleasure of the drive!

Just 30 miles from Columbia, Missouri, where daughter #2 goes to university, is the charming small town of Fulton, Missouri. It looks like the kind of community that would be terrific for raising children. It's small enough to be safe for riding bikes all over town but with intellectual stimulation for the community from the local college.

The Winston Churchill Memorial

It was here that the local institution of higher learning, Westminster College, took advantage of having a Missouri native son in the White House, to see if they could finagle Winston Churchill as a speaker for their annual address on international relations. President Harry Truman wrote a handwritten note on the bottom of the invitation telling Mr. Churchill that he would introduce him. Winston promptly accepted.

In 1946, in this small town in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill named and described what was happening to Eastern and Central Europe after WWII. It was forever to be known as the "Iron Curtain" speech.

This is the actual hard copy of Winston Churchill's speech describing "the iron curtain" that had descended over the ancient capitals of Central and Eastern Europe. It's impossible for me to look at the page without reading it mentally in my best Winston Churchill imitation. How about you?

Winston Churchill's life experience is shared through the exhibits. A recurring theme is the ability to foresee what would happen before others could.

The exhibit makes the point again and again that no Czech was present
when the Munich agreement was negotiated
between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

Which immediately begs the question: what if one had been?
Would the outcome have been different?
Or would that poor Czech and his descendants have had to live with that?
What do you think?

It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway --
this was not the West's finest hour.

What is that quotation?
"Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it."
The museum described that when Churchill assumed leadership of his country,
it was exhausted by war and broke.
He had to decide if he could afford troops on the ground in Iraq
or mere influence. He accepted reality and chose influence.

To commemorate this important speech, Westminster College administration and trustees, pursued importing and reassembling an English church designed by the great Christopher Wren to memorialize the wisdom of Winston Churchill. There were so many churches damaged in the Blitz that the English could not restore them all and were happy to let this one go.

The stones, while marked, became all jumbled when they were used as ballast in the ship's hold coming over (using them as ballast lowered the shipping cost). Then they were jumbled a second time when they were transported across country. Walt's uncle was the lead stone mason on the project. He had the job of puzzling which stone went where.

Winston Churchill's granddaughter created an additional commemoration entitled "Breakthrough" utilizing a segment of the Berlin Wall.

The West German side

The East German side lacking any individual expression

Winston Churchill is my hero so I can't recommend this visit enough. I'm excited to know that I haven't read everything he has published. His writing gives me strength and inspires me.
Great leaders who have followed Winston Churchill to this site include Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, British Prime Ministers Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and Sir John Major, Polish President Lech Walesa, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Touring this site takes about three hours. Admission is $6. I would like to recommend a lively restaurant downtown with great value. A local told me about it. It's called Bek's.

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