Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

On Motherhood

What I write here is based on my personal experience. Your mileage may vary, but I still claim that what's here is good food for thought, even if you don't completely buy into it.

So much of motherhood seems to revolve around those infant, baby and toddler years. While those years are challenging and exhilarating, I am today, entering the parent-of-adult-children domain. That seemed a good time to reflect back on parenting teenagers. I find my teenage children to have been challenging, fascinating, and rewarding in very different ways. And like those early years, they provide lots of room for parental growth as well. In fact, I believe that the teenage years require a deeper, more challenging, commitment than those early years.

In the early years, love and good intentions (and perseverence) really do go a long way. In the teenage years, those are the very things that get you in trouble. Instead, it seems to me that one needs to temper one's love with the ability to be wrong, the ability to realize that your children are not you -- they may develop different values and a different outlook on life -- you can either accept them or alienate them.

I am always careful to avoid posting things that will annoy or embarrass my children. I fear that this one may cross the line today, but I post anyway, because I believe that at some point, each of them will get it and realize that it is neither embarrassing nor annoying.

I've been working on this for years, waiting until I might post it without incurring the wrath of the children.

Being a Mom Means:

  • Not flinching even though your stomach churns when you learn that the foreign country your 14-year-old will be visiting tomorrow experienced a 5.8 earthquake.
  • Nodding goodbye at the airport as you bid your firstborn adieu for a 10-day adventure with his teachers and classmates, because hugging him would embarrass him to death, even though, when alone, he's willing to admit that he'll miss you.
  • Watching the clock and realizing that your child is now navigating an airport he hasn't seen since he was 10-weeks old -- only this time, he's with teachers and friends, not you.
  • Knowing that there is nothing you can do or say to ease the pain of middle school social challenges.
  • Being at home while your child lives it up and has the adventure of a lifetime in a foreign country.
  • Letting a child mess up and suffer the consequences, regardless how just those consequences seem.
  • Watching a child fail without offering to help, because only through failure can s/he learn.
  • Making your child spend three days at a place she'll hate, eating food she doesn't like, with strangers, in the rain, because it will help her grow and adapt.
  • Letting your child make decisions, without comment or judgment.
  • Hearing, "I don't want to talk about it," and letting it go, even though you want to hear about "it" with every fiber of your being.
  • Watching your child shed tears of love and loss as s/he leaves a community.
  • Not knowing all your child's friends.
  • Stifling that gasp when you see your children from afar and realize they look much more like young men/women than children.
  • Knowing when it's OK to touch your children and when it's not, and resisting the urge when it's not, even if you desparately want that high five, handshake, hug, or other sign that you matter.
  • Knowing enough to say, "Is there anything I can say or do that will help or should I just shut up?" and then just shutting up (because the answer is always, "No, you should just shut up.").
  • Asking permission before telling their stories as if they were your own. Your stories of parenting are your child's stories of life -- let them set the access controls.
  • Letting your child struggle to accomplish something, because helping him/her doesn't actually help him/her learn.
  • Saying, "OK," when your child says, "Yeah, I can navigate the public transportation; you don't have to do it with me."
  • Pretending not to exist when you chauffeur your teenage children and their friends around.
  • Knowing that even though your 15-year-old says he doesn't want to do anything for his birthday, making his favorite food is still the right thing to do.
  • Struggling about how much to pry when they tell you they were "hanging out with friends" after school.
  • Swallowing that, "I told you so," or "What did you think would happen," before the tiniest bit of it escapes from your mouth.
  • Telling your daughter how much you love her for her hard work or brains or cleverness or humor instead of for being cute or nice or good.
  • Asking permission to attend events or do things, instead of assuming you get a choice in the matter.
  • Biting your tongue while your child's friend chastises him/her for behavior you've been trying to change for years.
  • Letting your child be really, really angry at you.
  • Wrapping your head around your 15.5 year old spending a month in China ...
  • Not reading your child's college essay
  • Watching your daughter independently make her way through the dark night to the bus that will carry her and her 7th grade classmates away from you for the next week.
  • Telling your child, "I'd like you to think more about whether you are exercising good judgment," instead of yelling, telling him/her that s/he is wrong, or punishing him/her.
  • Learning to recognize the subtle indications that you're doing a good job, such as when your teenage child wants you to know the good things that happen to him/her; when your child is in trouble and wants to talk to you first; when your child initiates a discussion with you about sex or drugs; when you overhear your kids describing you as "strict, but fair." (I have not experienced all these, but for those I've not experienced, I've heard from other parents and frequently pointed out that these are the things that tell them they are doing a great job.)
  • Letting your children make their own decisions rather than deciding what's best for them.
  • Savoring each and every hug, while accepting the fact that the next one might be a long time away.
  • Realizing that it is your existence as a parent, not your existence as a person, that your children despise.
  • Watching the clock as your "baby" flies to a foreign country without you, waiting somewhat impatiently for the first pictures letting you know that she's OK.
  • Honoring the request that you not read your child's personal statement, no matter how much you want to read it nor how much you think you can read it and pretend not to have.
  • Praising the hard work that went into accomplishing something, not the external award acknowledging it.
  • Paying enough attention to your child's friends' accomplishments and behavior so that when parents congratulate you for your child's behavior or accomplishments, you can sincerely return the compliment.
  • Accepting that your children have adult friends you don't know and acknowledging that this is a good thing.
  • Trusting your child when s/he says, "I'll take care of it."
  • Telling the people who care for, teach, and love your children just how grateful you are.
  • Collecting your own friends as your children make their way through a series of daycare centers and schools.
  • Facilitating your child's transition to managing his/her own medical care.
  • Treating your offspring's significant other as an independent adult, not just an extension of your child. 
  • Dealing with the sheer terror when you hand over the car keys for the first, second, or Nth time.
  • Recognizing that once your children leave home, you are allowed to have a life, even if the particular choices make your children sad. Then being willing to talk about those choices and try to make their reality work for everyone.
  • Truly wrapping your head around the fact that your child is now officially an adult.
  • Letting those you care most about in the world, those for whom you would, without a thought, lay down your life, fly free and grow up.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reflections on Healing

I genuinely hope that none of you ever need to refer back to this blog post. However, if you are a University administrator, a faculty member, or perhaps any member of an academic community, read this. Heck, if you're a member of any community, read it. But, if you do, remember that this is my experience; your mileage may vary; but still, I am guessing there are some parts here that can be useful to others.

It's been just over three months since Alex died. Alex was an undergraduate, a senior, who had been part of my research group since the beginning of last summer. Alex was a math and philosophy concentrator (major), who loved computer science, took all our most challenging courses, and loved nothing more than sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with those around him. He was a teaching fellow for several of our courses, two of which I taught. He also took operating systems from me. He was, most definitely, one of my students.

It was Sunday evening. I was reading email. An astute colleague had seen an article in our school paper, the Harvard Crimson, and noticed that it was about a student who had TF'd a course I taught. He sent a link to the article. I saw the words "heartbreaking loss" and the name "Alex Patel," and fearing the worst, started crying out, "No! No! No!" But indeed, it was yes, yes, yes; Alex was gone.

So, what do you do? You've lost someone you cared about, someone for whom you felt responsible. Someone you just saw on Friday and had asked how things were going. You saw he was somewhat subdued, but he assured you he was doing well; his thesis was going well; he smiled; he laughed. And now he's gone. And you know. You know that as much as you want to run and hide, there is a research group -- your group -- your students, and they are already suffering or will be suffering as much as you are. What do you do?

As you read the rest of this, know that we're doing OK. None of us got much research done the end of last semester. I'm sure some grades suffered. But that's not important; what is important is that we're all still standing. We are closer than ever before. We try to do more fun/social things together. We have a special relationship with Alex's family. We have a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations in the lab -- it was one of Alex's favorite. I stop down in the lab more often. We are all perhaps a bit kinder and gentler. And we are all a lot older. These things just age you in ways nothing else can. We are changed, but by and large, I think that we have all healed or at least, are well on our way through the healing process. And that's what the rest of this is about -- how we got from devastation to healed. What worked and what didn't. What people did that was amazing and wonderful. What people might have done that might have helped. But mostly, it's about the journey from October 22 to January 31.

What you know and what you don't know

Having read the article in the Crimson, I knew that some of my students, the undergrads, would probably already know. However, the graduate students, who are not as closely tied into the community probably didn't. That's not a good thing. So, you compose email to your group. Rest assured, nothing in your professional career has prepared you for writing this email; in fact, nothing absolutely nothing has prepared you for any aspect of this experience. You are on your own.

I used the subject line "Devastating News" to prepare the reader for what was inside. The note itself was short and to the point:

I hate to deliver bad news via email, but the following has hit the Crimson and if I can do anything at all to ease the shock, i wish to do so. 

I am simply devastated beyond words to report that Alex, as in our own Alex, died this weekend. 

I have absolutely no details at this point. 

I will be in shortly after 8:00 tomorrow and expect to make the 9:00 provenance meeting short. Anyone who wants to hang out together and just be with our group should come up to my office. 

Hold your friends just a bit closer this evening. 

- Margo 

Tips for administrators or the people who deal with these situations:
By the time I found out, it was too late for me to attend the memorial that was being held at the house (dorm) with which he was affiliated. So, I missed an opportunity to begin my own grieving and healing and spend time with others doing the same. Historically, the faculty are notified at the same time the students are, but this time, the students were notified and the faculty weren't. In my opinion, this was an enormous mistake. No administrator can possibly know which students will be affected and therefore, which faculty may have affected students in his/her class the next morning. The faculty absolutely need to know.

Next, I entered information gathering mode. The Crimson article was written by a reporter I knew. I sought her out to find out if there was any other information she had. She didn't.

I had met Alex's father once, and wanted to reach out to him. So, I ended up in an email exchange with the Resident Dean (Adam) of the house (dorm) with which Alex was affiliated. Adam was quite helpful -- I indicated that I would like to reach out to the family, but more importantly, I indicated that I needed to have professional resources on the ground in Maxwell Dworkin to support my group. Adam put me in touch with the right people. I knew enough to know that this was bigger than me and that I needed help to support my people; not everyone would have known this.

Tips for the mental health professionals called in:
There are a group of people who need you and may not know they need you. In general, telling highly self-sufficient people who are typically in authority to "reach out if they need help," doesn't really do much. Gentle outreach that offers condolences, tells the right people who you are, what you can do, how to contact you, etc is probably a good idea. I know they did this quite well for the family, for which I remain eternally grateful. But there is family within the University community as well, and it's important to reach out to them.

Then there were many phone calls Sunday evening. I don't think I can even remember them all now, but I appreciated each of them -- the colleague who let me cry; the member of my group who checked in to tell me that he and others had been with Alex the prior evening. The human connection, even if it ended up in silence over the phone was really important.

Then came Monday -- I tried to spend time in our lab -- I figured it was either going to become a barren wasteland or a hub, and I wanted it to become a hub. It did. It's where I greeted most of the group in the morning with a hug. Even my students who don't tend to hang out there, came by so we could all be together.

Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Be thoughtful about the places and physical reminders that might be trigger points. Don't let things "just happen," plan for them.

By this time, I'd been in touch with mental health services and had requested that someone come and join my group for our weekly meeting on Friday. I figured that way we wouldn't disrupt our schedules, we knew everyone would be able to attend, and we'd all have started processing, so that we could make the use of the services. That said, I'd exchanged email with these folks enough that when one of my group was showing signs of guilt, e.g., "I should have seen this coming," I was able (with permission) to get an almost immediate appointment for him/her.

Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Know the limits of your own expertise. I can say things like, "This is not your fault," but I am not a trained professional and I know that. It would be nice if we didn't need to ask for help, but this is one of those times to put ego aside and call on the professionals.

Many of the things that followed are a bit of a blur, but some of the things I or others did that mattered were:

  • I connected with both of Alex's parents. We talked. I let them know that Alex had been loved, respected and admired, that there were people here who knew and cared about him. They both wanted to come to the lab and meet the group, be with the people who had formed this part of Alex's community.
  • I became an honorary member of the Philosophy department. Philosophy is a small department; they know their students, and they knew how much this was going to affect them. So, they scheduled a department memorial, and since they knew Alex had been in my lab, they invited me. In fact, three different people in the department personally reached out to invite me. This was a big deal. Although I was unable to attend their gathering, I felt I had another community with which to grieve.
  • Computer Science was a bit slower to respond -- after learning of the Philosophy gathering, CS did pull something together. It would have been nice if we'd had the forethought to do this without first having Philosophy do it. We scheduled it at a time that was convenient for the faculty, but I'm not sure that it was convenient for students; I think we could have done better here.  That said, it was a lovely gathering. Alex's family joined us. There were tears and there was laughter.
  • A couple of my colleagues made it a point to stop by my office regularly, just to say, "Hi." My son stopped by more than he otherwise might have. I appreciated these things a lot.
  • One colleague sent flowers to our lab; the CS faculty also sent flowers. They were much appreciated.
  • I had to go to London about ten days after Alex's death and a bunch of other not-so-good things were happening in my life. A colleague with whom I hadn't spent a lot of time previously spent a long walk through the streets of London talking with me - mostly about other things, but it was a warm conversation that was much needed. I don't think he had any idea how profoundly valuable that was (I got a chance to tell him so recently).
  • There are other things for which one is never prepared: how do you hand off Alex's work to another member of the team? Got me. Fortunately, one of my team stepped up -- I remain grateful.
What I learned (tips for many):
  • Different venues provided an opportunity for different people to break down and "let it out." For some, it was 1:1 meetings with me; for others, it was our group meeting with the mental health professional; for still others, it was the memorial. For me, it happened while sitting alone in my hotel room in London, listening via Skype to the Memorial Service taking place in Cambridge. I was so sad not to be there in person, but I have to say, the Skype connection was amazing and being able to weep in private had its benefits.
  • The small gestures people made to simply be present made huge differences: the stops by my office, the willingness to talk, the hugs -- they got me through this.
  • Many of us were able to avoid the guilt feelings that often follow a suicide. Personally, I know and knew at the time that Alex knew I cared for him. I can't begin to understand his decision making, but I do know that he knew there were people who cared for him. I believe many in my group knew that too -- Saturday night Alex had been with several members of my group working on a problem set. Their last interactions with him were hugs good night. While that's not the same as having been able to say, "Goodbye," it was a warm human connection that they shared, and my impression is that this provided solace, even though it also fostered those early feelings of disbelief.
  • It would have been nice if the folks from mental health services checked up on my group -- just knowing that they were paying attention to what was happening in the community would have been helpful. Instead, it felt like the onus was entirely on us -- so while "making help available" is useful, demonstrated caring from people who are supposed to know more about this than I do would have been good.
  • Administrative silence was painful. Other than the Dean of Harvard College, who sent mail  notifying students of the death, and only after I exclaimed that, "I have to tell my faculty," sent mail to the faculty, no administrator made any public statement. In an era when mental health crises are on the rise at Universities, they were silent. Administrators who speak out about how my students spend their Friday and Saturday evenings said nothing. There was no message to our community saying, "Help is available," or "If you see someone struggling, say something." Nothing. This was a disservice to me, to my group, to our students, and to the entire organization. In times like this, real leaders speak up.
  • Alex is always with me. I can now say his name without getting choked up. I miss him.
Thank you.

If you read this far, thank you.

To the members of margo-group, PRINCESS, and my CRCS staff, thank you for joining me in this journey; I couldn't have gotten through without you.

Thank you Eddie, Steve, David, Harry, Salil, Meg, Matt, Hannah, Ellie, Ned, Jenny, Julie, Marie, Nicole, Joe, Cathy, Virendra, Warren, for understanding what I was going through and being present.

Thank you to all the wonderful students, past and present, who reached out to me and/or made the trip to Cambridge for the memorial, Noah, Gray, Albert, Mehdi, Dan, Nikhil, Tez.

Thank you to my CRA colleagues and my Lincoln Labs colleagues, particularly Mark, who knew what my group was going through when we were supposed to be evaluated for Darpa's BRASS program. Alex had built our entire test infrastructure for the risk reduction release that was tested beginning October 23. You silently did what needed to be done and let us do what we needed to do.

Hugs and thanks to Hiren and Anna, to Jacqueline and Dev, for letting me be part of your process.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Tips for Online Interviews

It's that time of the year when my students are looking for summer and full-time jobs. It is becoming more popular now for companies to conduct live-coding online interviews (whether this is a good idea or not is fodder for a completely different discussion). Anyway, having now heard some horror stories, here is my facebooked collection of tips.

  1. Invest in a really high quality headset so that you don't find yourself in interviews where you cannot hear clearly.
  2. Tim Harris adds: "And practice using it, e.g., flipping mute on/off while speaking, being sure of how to control which input is active, etc."
  3. Jeff Honig adds: "And so we don't hear the pounding on the keyboard through the computer microphone during the coding section of the interview." Jeff goes on to explain that not all interviewers are obsessed with live coding, "For our group we want operational smarts. If we need you to do a sort we expect you to figure out the fastest method to do a sort, not write one."
  4. Peter Wayner adds: "And lighting. It helps to have a well-lighted space."

I then asked folks how students should deal with the thick-accented interviewer that makes it difficult for students to understand what is being asked.

  1. Peter Wayner says, "It's tough because some audio connections don't transmit all of the frequencies making it harder. This is why I try to get a high quality headset with two covered ears to get as much information as the channel will offer.  But accents can be very difficult."
  2. Brian Pawlowski adds: "Tough one. Some people are not self-aware about their comprehensibility and lack of visual cues (lips speaking) can make it tough. Boy. Ask for a call back or another time. Tough position for a student to be in."
  3. Sue Loverso says, "If there is a shared coding screen like coderpad or collabedit, ask if they could type the question there. If you're already at the awkward stage there's nothing to lose."
  4. Keith Smith adds, "Ask if you can use video for the interview? (FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, etc.) As Brian says visual cues can help with understanding. Of course, then the interviewer can see that you're still wearing pajamas at 3pm."
  5. Andrew Moore adds, "Entirely agree with Keith, I tend toward video as strong preference but have them provide at least one spare number (ideally two as I’ve often found cell coverage is dreadful/unpredictable enough to need a fall back)."
Some other handy tips:
  1. Tim Harris writes, "I probably take these things to extreme but I have something like this to use as a plain background https://www.wexphotovideo.com/lastolite-15mx18m.../... — I have the kit for photography really."
  2. Ross Rheingans-Yoo writes, "A corollary: As an interviewer, I use a headset, but sometimes I get the microphone positioned badly (but don't have a great way to figure this out on my own).

    Interviewers: How do you figure out / ask your interviewee if you're coming through clearly?

    Interviewees: If your interviewer sounds distant, quiet, or muffled by a technical issue, consider mentioning it early on, before it becomes more problematic (and more awkward)."
  3. Zehra Naz writes, "I would also like to point out the importance of having an wired, ethernet connection available (including an ethernet cable). I remember the horrendous time when I was interviewing and the Wi-Fi was so bad I ended up sitting on the floor next to a roommate's laundry in their room just so I could plug into the ethernet outlet with my short cable...It's my worst interviewing memory."

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

College 101

Things you should know when taking college courses

I see a lot of Freshman and I also have kids who attended a high school that has, as part of its program, placement into college level courses, typically in Junior year, but in my kids' cases, during Sophomore year. Having watched this process for many years, it seems that there are some basics about the difference bwteen high school and college courses, that we don't always explicitly tell students. So, here is my attempt to write some down. Feel free to send me others and I'll add them!

1. How do I find out what books I need for my classes?

This varies school to school. At Harvard, most faculty have a course web site and the required and recommended readings are there. At Harvard, MIT, Boston University and other places, you can go to the bookstore (i.e., Harvard/MIT Coop, Boston University Barnes and Noble) and look up the books that you need for any specific class. Beware, at BU and perhaps other schools, the books for different sections of a course are actually different (yes, this is the voice of experience; caused a late night emergency in our household).

Note that you can usually either buy or rent books and you can opt for new or used. Unlike in some highschool courses, the choice is entirely yours -- do what works best for you, however, if you are planning to take multiple years of a language, a nice copy of the suggested dictionary is probably a good investment.

2. How do I find out where my course meets?

Again, this varies by school. In general, any school will have something like these two examples.

At Boston University, visit the Student Link. You should see a list of all your BU classes, including the classroom and time at which your class meets. If you don't know where the building is, check out the campus map.

At Harvard, log in to my.harvard.edu. When you pull up the information for the course, it should include where the class meets.

3. What are office hours?

Office hours are time that your professor/instructor/section leader has set aside to be available to answer questions. In some courses, office hours turn into mini classes or help sections; in others, they are simply the professor/instructor sitting around waiting for somebody to come by with questions.

Getting to know your professor/instructor is a good idea. You don't want to waste his/her time, but if you have a reasonable question about the course, it's worth stopping by. Your question could be about something you don't understand, or it could be something related to the course, but not covered. Chances are that your professor/instructor thinks that the subject s/he is teaching is quite interesting and s/he will be happy to talk about the material with you. Creating a relationship with the professor/instructor will make it much easier for you to approach him/her should something unusual happen -- you have to miss a class, you don't do well on an exam and would like advice on how to prepare better, etc.

Make it a point to visit office hours at least once during a semester; it's time well spent.

4. How do I know when my Professor/Instructor has office hours and where they are held?

Typically, this information will be given out on the first day of class, often on a syllabus. If not, there are a couple of strategies to employ before emailing the professor and asking where/when his/her office hours are. Check out the syllabus, look for the professor's home page, check a faculty directory, and only when all those fail, email the professor to ask when and where office hours are. In most cases, this information should be readily available.

5. What are sections?

Sections typically accompany large lecture courses, but sometimes, you will also have sections for smaller courses as well. Even if the syllabus says that sections are optional, you should treat them as mandatory.

In humanities courses, sections are frequently interactive discussions. You are expected to have done the reading for the week and have attended lectures and the discussion section will allow you to engage in classroom discussion.

In science/math courses, sections are often directed at problem solving. Sometimes you'll get practice working on the kinds of problems you will encounter on homeworks and exams; sometimes you'll get tips on approaching a problem set. Sections should also provide an opportunity to ask questions. You will get the most out of section if you prepare: read the assignment before coming to section. If possible, work on it enough to identify things you don't understand so you can leverage section time to be most useful to you.

6. How are college classes different from High School classes?

First there are logistic differences. Many courses will give you a syllabus that includes readings, assignments, and due dates. You are expected to use that to figure out what you have to do; the professor/instructor may never say anything about these things explicitly. Many courses will have a course web site -- you should check it regularly to see if there are new things of which you should be aware. If the course has online discussion groups, you may need to explicitly sign up for them -- be sure to do so.

Next, there are philosophical differences. There is an assumption implicit in every college course that you are responsible for learning what you need to learn. The professor/instructor's job is to facilitate your learning, but at the end of the day, you are responsible both for knowing what you need to learn and then learning it.

What exactly does this mean? It means that when reading is assigned, you are responsible for having done the reading, regardless of whether the material is covered in class. Beyond simply having read it, you are responsible for understanding it and figuring out how it relates to other things you've read and things that are covered in class.

Material accumulates remarkably rapidly, and you might not notice how much you have been expected to learn without having been explicitly told to so. It is frequently helpful to step back each week and examine what has been covered in each course. Ask yourself, "If I wanted to test someone to see if s/he understood the material, how would I do it?" or "How could I demonstrate that I really understand this material?" If you understand the material well, you will be able to answer those questions. If you cannot, then you probably could use some review. If you do the review each and every week, you will save yourself cramming for exams or finding yourself stymied by the next paper or problem set. Also, being proactive on this front provides good fodder for stopping by office hours, appearing diligent and prepared, rather than flustered and last minute (as happens if you try cramming).

There is a second, deeper aspect here as well. You are expected to be able to go beyond what is explicitly taught. This manifests differently in humanities and STEM courses. In humanities courses, it means that you can synthesize material from different areas to address issues that have not come up in the readings, discussions, or lectures. Ideally, your high school classes prepared you well to do this, but be aware that it's expected of you -- don't be surprised.

In STEM fields, this most frequently manifests as presenting problems that are unlike any you've seen before, but can be addressed using the techniques that have been taught. That is, you should find few exams are merely "plug and chug" -- you should find that you have to figure out what techniques you've learned that can be applied in a new situation. If you can get copies of exmas from previous years, they should provide some insight into what this might look like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Into Africa: Table Mountain

It's day T-1 (i.e., the day before we leave Africa) and the big item on the itinerary is to climb Table Mountain. We left the hotel early, and drove up to the cable car base station, where we took a short walk to the beginning of our trail. We already gained a fair bit of altitude, just driving up to the base.

We will be hiking the Platteklip Gorge trail. According to some, "The Platteklip Gorge route is the most direct route, although it's also arguably the most challenging one." It is something like one kilometer of vertical and three kilometers of distance -- in other words, it's steep!

As we hike up the trail, the city shrinks and the top of the mountain draws (deceptively) closer.

The views grow increasingly breathtaking

We finally all make it to the top for views, photos, and lunch (hauled up in the cable car).

Return to Main Page

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Into Africa: Robben Island

It is our last day in Capetown and therefore our last day in South Africa. We load the bus in the morning, enjoy one last breakfast at the Cape Heritage Hotel. and head out for one of the highlights of the trip: Robben Island. Although it has a long, rich history, Robben Island is best known as the location of the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 (the majority of his time in prison) years.

You get to Robben Island via a Ferry departing from the Robben Island Museum at the Waterfront.

As the ferry approaches the island, I am overwhelmed by the realization that I am now ready to visit one of the concentration camps in Germany -- it's something about confronting the reality and history of the struggle in South Africa that makes me finally ready to confront the reality and history of my own past. But that trip must wait for now.

Most of us had, unconsciously, assumed that Robben Island would be similar to Alcatraz, so we were all a bit surprised to arrive at a rather pretty little island. We get off the ferry facing the message of our tour: "Freedom Cannot be Manacled," and we board busses for a tour of the island.

Among other things, we see the Robert Sobukwe house, where Sobukwe (an ANC Youth League leader and founder of the Pan-African Congress) was held in isolation, disallowed from speaking to anyone for four years (he was there longer than the four years; the four years was the time of total isolation).

Next up is the limestone quarry where Mandela and others worked for 13 years.

As we drive around I am struck again by the contradictions: the beauty of the island and its surroundings in contrast to the brutality of what took place here.

Finally, we come to the place for which we've been waiting: the maximum security prison, home to many of the political prisoners who together gave up hundreds of years of freedom to bring democracy to South Africa. Our tour guide is himself a former political prisoner (1984-1991) and most of us are awed by his capacity to forgive and look forward.

He asks about everyone on the tour and his eyes light up when he learns that our middle school group from America has spent time in Kliptown -- close to his home of Rockville, also in Soweto, quite close to Kliptown.

He speaks clearly and passionately, making the struggle come alive, answering all questions from, "Why were you imprisoned?" to "Are you satisfied with where we are today?"

He explains that reconciliation is a process that takes time.
The tour wraps up with a discussion in the courtyard where Mandela planted his garden, practiced his shadow boxing, and played tennis for most of the 18 years on the island.

We then a walk down the long, silent hallway past the cell that was his home for 18 years.

And while there was shopping and travel that happened, this seems like the right place to end my blogging of the trip.

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Into Africa: Soweto

After a good night's sleep, we hopped on our trusty bus and headed to the township of Soweto, where we would be shown around by Tulani, one of the founders of the Kliptown Youth Program.

Tulani grew up in Kliptown and is one several impressive men we met on this trip who have made it their mission to give back to the community and provide the children of the townships and poor communities opportunities. Thando, one of his co-founders of KYP is another such man as is Tumi, who we'll meet during the Safari portion of this trip.

Soweto is a township of approximately 2.5 million people, almost entirely black (more than 98% according to Wikipedia). While I was prepared for the economic disparity between white and black South Africa, I was not prepared for the disparity within the townships, but Soweto is like any other large city -- it has areas of enormous wealth and then across a major road you'll find areas of extreme poverty, where the fortunate have government constructed small homes and the less fortunate have tiny homes of corrugated metal.

We began our tour at the Chris Hana medical center, the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, providing service to 1.5 million people. As so many people commute to the area, across the street is a large collection of taxi stands, merchants, street vendors, etc. It's most definitely a happening place.

Then we headed to Walter Sisulu Square, in the heart of Kliptown, site of the adoption of the Freedom Charter. The charter, adopted in 1955 at the Congress of Kliptown, laid out ten essential freedoms, each of which is represented in the square by a tall pillar, with a statue on top and the freedom engraved on the side. The charter also served as the foundation for the Constitution of South Africa.

 I really liked the pillar arrangement quite a bit, so I'm going to walk through the ten pillars here. (You can zoom in on the pillars to read the engraving.)

The People Shall Govern All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth
The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It All Shall be Equal before the Law All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights
There Shall be Work and Security The Doors of Learning and of Culture Shall be Opened There Shall be Houses, Security, and Comfort
There Shall be Peace and Friendship

In addition to the pillars, there is a conical structure in the square that is a monument to the freedom charter itself. And then a collection of silhouette people, representing all the people of South Africa.

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