Friday, May 22, 2015

What I Learned from Running, Part I

The hardest lesson I learned from track was that hard work doesn't necessarily get you where you'd like to go.  I started running at the end of junior high school, mostly because I hadn't figured out a way to deal with the dreaded Smith brothers on the bus rise home from school. (They had not yet been shipped to the McLaren School for Boys.)  So going out for track seemed like a good way around that.  My mother was puzzled and not at all happy about this sudden interest in track and field, as she had to pick me up after practice.  But she agreed.

Anyway, not being particularly fast or strong, I of course ran long distance.  Our practices were pretty easy, and I actually won a race--though Don Heiner, who trained with the high school runners, once lapped me.  I checked out the high school coach at the end of school, who had the reputation of being very serious, and he pointed me to a map on the wall of the U.S. and told me that I'd eventually run across it: 3,000 miles of training.  I liked a challenge, so was hooked, despite my lack of talent.  In fact I probably called him about every other day that summer to check on my training.  I would set the school record for miles trained my junior year and eventually crossed the U.S. and back again and then some, logging some 7,000+ miles.

But I didn't learn how to train smart until my senior year, and that's when I finally became a good runner.  We had one of the best groups of distance runners in the state, so even with one of our top guns injured there were always at least two guys faster than me in the spring of 1975, my last track season.  So I seldom had a chance at winning a race, whether it was an 880 (2 laps), mile, or 2 mile.

Then coach told me I'd be running the mile against a weak team and that only Jeff Edwards, among our stable of strong runners, would also be entering it.  Jeff was sort of the opposite of me: young (a sophomore); cocky; raw (he hadn't been logging 50 miles a week all winter); and, alas, talented.

I had long given up my Olympic ambitions or dreams of winning any state titles.  I thought I knew my limitations.  But I figured that I should beat Jeff Edwards and win the race.  And I certainly thought I deserved to.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Peter, Me, and Track

Distance running was my "thing" in high school.  My son, Peter, who is forty years younger, has from
an early age been obsessed with soccer.  As a sophomore he tried track for a couple of months and did well.  This year he came back and, after some indecision over what event to focus on, ended up in the 300 meter intermediate hurdles.

I had set the school record at Astoria High School for miles trained mid-way through my junior year, but it wasn't until my senior year that I became a good runner, one of the top 100 or so in the state, and my senior year I placed sixth in the two mile at district with a time of 9:53.  A couple of years later I ran a 2:42 marathon and was in shape to run about 2:36 at age 21, training about 100 miles a week, when all the years of pounding caught up with my knees, and that was that.

Years of soccer have always kept Peter in pretty good shape, but he didn't really get fast until a year or so ago--though most everyone seemed to assume that since he was skinny and black, he must be fast.  But there were faster sprinters and middle-distance runners on the team, so Peter was prevailed upon to give the intermediate hurdles a try.

Hurdling, however, requires a lot of technique as well as boldness.  Peter had never done more than a couple of hurdles at a time when he entered his first race, and he was shocked when it actually went pretty well.  His crash course (no pun intended) with Coach Conrad had him shaving about a second off per week, and on Monday he easily qualified for the district final, displacing runners who had been working on their technique for years rather than weeks.  In the final he was in position to get around 40 seconds when just before the finish line, when your lungs are burning and your legs feel like lead, the runner just ahead of him knocked his hurdle into Peter's lane, causing Peter to lose a second or so of time and a place.  As Peter noted, it was a tough way to end his last race.  Even so, he finished fifth and has one of the fifty top times in the state after his month of hurdling.

After ten years of athletics being so important in Peter's life, I wonder, what's next?  I kept running seriously as long as I could, long after it was obvious that I would never be Olympic material, and if I'm honest I'd admit there's still a part of me that misses it, nearly forty years later.  When I started working on my dissertation, eventually published by Harvard University Press, it occasionally crossed my mind that writing a book was a whole lot easier, at least for me, than running a 9:53 two mile in high school or a 2:42 marathon in community college had been.

My running achievements were the result of hours and hours and hours and years and years and years of sustained training, even suffering.  I learned what focus and effort could accomplish.  Getting through graduate school and countless hours of research and writing and rewriting wasn't so different, and it sure hurt a lot less.

Peter's soccer achievements have required more years of dedication and probably more hours of training, all told, than my running career did, as he got started at such a young age.  His brief track career testifies to a different set of virtues: boldness and confidence, a willingness to risk getting hurt or, at the very least, looking less than elegant in an unforgiving event.  I'm excited to see where these qualities take him off the track.  I suspect and hope he'll do much bigger things than write books.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Our Big Event

Hi, all:

Yo Ghana! at last had its first big event, in collaboration with the
Association of African Students of PSU on Sunday, May 3.  It was a bit of a blur for me, as there was so much to keep track of and keep up with, including, of course many things we had not thought of!

By all accounts, the event was a great success.  The 230 people in attendance loved Madam Victorine's food and the Obo Addy Legacy Project's music.  Mr. Matthew Essieh delivered an eloquent keynote address, and Dr. Kofi Agorsah conveyed some of his vivid experiences as a student growing up in Ghana.,  Miss Mercy and her helpers taught Oregon students how to play Ampe, the West African skipping game.  Our six honorees (Dr. Michael Williams; Miss Elizabeth Fosler-Jones, Mr. Roy Thompson, Ms. Jane Carlton, Mr. Rashid Hafisu, and Mr. Brando Akoto) shared heartfelt remarks.

Part of what I most enjoyed about the event was its blend of diversity and commonality.  The ethnic diversity was readily apparent.  One would not have guessed that Portland is the whitest city in the U.S. from visiting our event.  But too often we inscribe ethnicity as the alpha and omega of our identities.  At one point Mr. Essieh pointed out that he has been in Oregon long enough to consider himself an Oregonian as well as a Ghanaian.  More and more, our cultural identities are dynamic hybrids, not static and mutually exclusive boxes.  Yo Ghana! aspires not just to bring people from different places or ethnic groups or colors or races together, but to facilitate "transformative exchanges" that open us up to each others' cultures, relationships that enable us to both care for and learn from each other in ways that leave us different from who or what we were before.  There was a lot of that happening last Sunday afternoon in the Smith Center Ballroom of PSU.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Forbes Article on Yo Ghana! Friend

Kpetermeni Siakor is featured in a Forbes article on his work helping to stop the spread of Ebola in Liberia.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mr. Kpetermeni last September at Ashesi University, where he is a senior, as part of my research on Ashesi University.  As I wrote about at the time, Kpetermeni has a remarkable story.  Twice a refugee fleeing violence in Liberia, in Ghana he taught himself advanced computer skills from online sources.  At Ashesi he set about helping other West Africans access excellent and free online educational materials and continued to work with iLab, an organization that he helped to found which helps people in impoverished parts of Africa to communicate crucial information electronically.

This capacity for communication is of course crucial for mapping and stopping the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola, and Kpetermini has spent much of the past year on that work.  I think it is fair to say that he helped to stop the spread of the deadly disease in Liberia.

During and after our September visit he has also advised Yo Ghana! on how best to address our own electronic bottlenecks.  In fact Miss Lucy, our coordinator on the ground in Accra, now has a smart phone recommended by Kpetermeni that makes and sends pdfs of outstanding resolution even when the lights are down and the internet is balky.

It is truly an inspiration and a blessing to know someone with such a rare combination of intelligence, determination, and passion to help others.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Parallel Challenges of Doing History and Cross-Cultural Relations

Wednesday I had the pleasure of spending all day at Hosford Middle School with Mr. Essan Weah, who told more than 100 students about what it is like to be a student in Ghana.  The following day got to speak at the High Desert Museum (one of their exhibits is pictured here) to a group of very engaged museum volunteers and others about women and domestic violence in western history.

On the face of thing, this seemed like two very different activities, speaking to middle school students about becoming friends with people their age in West Africa and talking with (mostly) seniors about the history of gender in the Western United States.

But it struck me last night that becoming friends with people from different cultures and coming to terms with the past are in fact very similar activities.  We bring to both endeavors a set of expectations and beliefs that are often disappointed, at least at first.  Most Americans have very high expectations of privacy, and Ghanaians tend to expect that friendships require a substantial investment of time.  That's one point of tension.  Likewise, when we look at the past, we expect to find facts and developments that mesh with our understanding of the world.  When I wrote my dissertation and first book on the history of violence against wives in Oregon, I did not want or expect to find so much variation.  So I had the unwelcome task of explaining that variation.

But the fruits of these challenging interactions are rewarding.  Giving friends the gift of time (such as a long, detailed letter) is a very important skill to learn, and if one's handwriting is illegible, one needs to hear about it.  Likewise, being confronted by parts of the human story that don't fit our preconceptions prompts us to get closer to the truth about what the human story is actually like.

Change is not comfortable.  But it is good.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Yo Ghana! Dinner Update

Just a couple more weeks until Yo Ghana! has its first big bash, in collaboration with the Association of African Students of PSU and sponsored by EAI Information Systems and Thompson & Bogran PC..  It looks like most of our twenty or so Oregon teachers will be in attendance, and a good swath of our students and many West African ex-pats and other friends.

The Obo Addy Legacy Project will be drumming and dancing, Madam Victorine and her crew will be cooking, Dr. Agorsah will be the emcee, and Matthew Essieh will be our keynote.  And we'll be giving some awards to some special people and honoring all of our teachers for taking on Yo Ghana! work on top of everything else.

It's May 3, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Smith Memorial Union Ballroom, PSU.

We are striving to make the dinner a microcosm of what Yo Ghana! stands for.  We won't be requiring anyone to pay anything to attend, we'll be presenting Ghanaian and American people and cultures as equal partners, and we'll be doing a lot of laughing with, supporting of, and learning from one another.

If you want to join the fun, make your reservation soon at:

Hope to see you there,


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Is Judgement Always a Bad Thing?

Slate recently published an interesting opinion piece by William Saletan, "Judgement Day."  Although critical of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone's decree that teachers in Catholic schools should not "visibly contradict, undermine, or deny" church teachings on morality, Saletan also  finds fault with the "empty-headed liberalism" expressed by many of the Archbishop's critics.

Saletan's point is that much of the opposition to the Archbishop's act seems to be rooted in the belief that any sort of judgement is wrong.  "A morality clause has no place in our schools," says the Facebook page of Support SF Teachers.  "We want teachers to be able to be themselves."  "Be who you are and don't care who says what," comments another critic.

I seriously doubt that these people literally mean what their words suggest, that teachers guilty of, say, advocating or practicing incest should "be free to be themselves."  Most of us believe that freedom must be curbed when it inflicts harm on others.  But the point at which that happens is far from clear cut, and it also evades the question of whether religious groups have the right to demand that members live out and defend certain beliefs.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not defending any particular judgement or act of discrimination, Catholic or otherwise.  But it is concerning that the very idea of making judgements, of discretion, has become off limits to many of us.