I spent the weekend (without Internet, telephone, radio or TV!) in Wuppertal taking a lay speaker basic course at the Bethesda Guest House. This is a seminar house run by a group of Methodist nuns. Yes, you read that right. They are called deaconesses, not nuns, because they do not take a vow. But they dedicate their lives to Christ, live communally and work in areas such as nursing, geriatric homes, with children, and such.

There used to be 600 members of their order, they are now down to only about 80, most of them officially retired and living in the Mother Home, but of course still going strong. They wear a habit that consists of plain, practical clothes, a starched collar, a cross, and a wimple that resembles the kind of hat that married women wore at the time their order was founded. They are considered to be married to Christ and his works.

The weekend course is jam-packed: 6 introductory courses, a ton of reading material (I am up to 9 books now, I think) that we are to read over the coming year. And a practice sermonette that prepared in groups of three for the Sunday worship. Our group had this really difficult passage (I thought), because I didn't understand a word of it. After a lot of discussion we wrung some meaning from it and took it to the pastor teaching the course. No, she said, you are reading this too literally. (Of course! I'm a computer science, I compile everything literally!). We have to "feel" what is being said, and then she launches in to what she read in the passage. I don't think I would ever have come up with that. I think I have a lot of reading and discussing to do in the future!

The group is quite interesting - 6 people from international churches in Germany and 6 people from the Ghana Methodist congregations that we have in Germany. There are 4 larger congregations and one smallish group. Boy, do they ever have different problems and discussions than we do! For them, speaking in tongues and interpreting dreams is a vital part of their worship. They have lots of discussions about what is right, and a lot of conflict over questions such as drinking and smoking and homosexuality. And their services are much different than ours are.

It has been very interesting, getting to know them. And really fascinating to be discussing theological questions with these very intelligent men who speak four or five languages (their tribal dialect, Ewe, English, German, and sometimes French) and ask themselves very deep questions - and who work as truck drivers and warehousemen and bakers. Five out of the six have jobs - I don't think you can find many groups of refugee men who have this high a quota of people in work.

After a last morning session of instruction (and some burning theological questions such as the validity of the Apocrypha) we had our "examination" in the form of a church service that we had prepared and conducted. It was a bit heavy on the preaching side - four sermons, because we had four groups. And because we can now assist at communion upon the instruction of a preacher, we gave each other the bread and wine.

We now all have our little lapel pins showing that we are lay speakers. Our certificates will be sent to the superintendents of our respective charge conferences, so that they know where to find us when they need a lay speaker. It will be interesting to see how often we are called. This first year we are only certified to speak in our own local church. But after our advanced training next year (after we have read and understood all of the books we got) we will be certified to speak in the conference.

Wuppertal itself is a drab, dirty, town that looks like it was frozen in time somewhere in the 60s. It is also, for a large part, for rent. The attraction is the Schwebebahn, a train that runs along the river Wupper on stilts. I admit that I didn't get to see more of the town than than the train station and the bus ride up to the guest house. But the shabby, dirty train station is not inviting, and all the frowning people give one pause to think that maybe this is not the play you want to visit unless you have to.


How about attending class?

I was waiting for my (late) colleagues to assemble for a meeting today when a student saw me sitting in the room. He approached and asked if he could speak with me because I won't have office hours this week.

I sighed and he started in. He should be attending my programming 2 course, but "the system threw him off". Okay, let's see - I'm associate dean, I have a password to look into the system. No trace of him here, disappeared without a trace. Well, he'll have to register for starters.

Then - he has already failed the course twice. We only allow students three tries, so this semester is rather important. Since I only remember seeing him once all semester (we are in the fourth week of twice weekly classes), I suggest him coming to class.

Oh, he understands the material, and my class is in conflict with other classes he is taking. He was just sick, that's why he failed. So he doesn't have to come to classes. But does he have to do the exercises? Well, yes. If you check the syllabus, that makes up about half the points for the course.

I note that as an adult he has a choice of how to set his priorities. I would certainly put a high priority on a class I have to pass to continue in the program, but that is his decision. He whines on that he really needs to pass but has other things to do this semester. What on earth do these guys think? That I will break down and give them a good grade just because they complain enough?

Luckily, the colleagues showed up and we could get on with the meeting.


Gridlock day

I don't know whether it was the lovely Indian Summer or the start of school fall vacation (German kids only have about 6 weeks or so of school before their teachers need a break). But driving was very trying today.

There were lots of construction sites. My "favorite" was the one cheerfully announced on the radio as "new today" two minutes after I turned off onto that road. The construction people had thoughtfully blocked off all alternative escape route, so you just had to be patient.

But every crossing, it seemed, was filled with cars that drove into the crossing and then could not clear before the lights went red. And then the next group drove up, honking and cursing at each other. Some accidents occurred. And you just generally needed lots of extra time to get from A to B.

So I might as well take the train.....


Hello Beautiful!

As I was walking across campus this morning after my early class, a woman came towards me and was greeted by a guy coming up behind me with "Good morning, beautiful woman!" (Guten Morgen, hübsche Frau to get the nastiness in German).

I was irritated, and since the guy was waiting for an elevator I inquired of him: were you the person greeting that woman as "beautiful woman"? Yes he was, what business was it of mine?

Well, I was wondering why he chose this particular salutation that focused on her sex and not on her as a person or an engineer or a mathematician or whatever.

"She's a friend of mine and I can call her anything I want!" No, people who call me particular names will no longer be considered friends. "And it is sort of ironic." Oh, so you were being ironic? "No, not that, but it's just a joke."

Well, many woman don't really like being seen just as sexual objects. "Well, she likes it and what business is it of yours?" Oh, this was just scientific interest in the question of why a man would say something so stupid. He harumpfed, we got to his floor, and he stormed out.

He probably thinks that feminists are the most stupid busy-bodies in the universe, but what is wrong with saying "Hello Sally!" when you meet a friend?


Burn after Reading

The Odeon (a movie theater in Berlin that shows first-run films in English and serves proper, salted, popcorn) was showing "Burn after Reading" this week. They had George Clooney and Brad Pitt on the marquee, so we collected up the usual suspects + visiting family members aged 12 or above and went Friday night.

One should note that the film is rated R in the US, not PG-13, and I do think that the Germans Americans are correct in their rating. Too much swearing, too many sex scenes (the dildo-chair is rather confusing even for 16-year-olds), too much gratuitous violence.

To summarize the movie in a word: fuck. I was asked by one of our group what the exact translation for that would be in German, because Germans don't use the literal translation as every third word in normal conversation. Brad Pitt's character also used "shit" two or three times per sentence.

Have Americans so lost their vocabulary that they can only speak with these expletives?

There was no message, nothing to think about, but it was a way to spend 2 hours. And it made me *so* glad that I don't live in the States anymore with these terrible people!


Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

I don't normally walk out on films, but when they had a break in this 150 minute film, I got on my coat and left. It is the story of the Baader-Meinhof group and the Red Army Faction, stories that began 40 years ago.

The film is very complex and stuffed full of details - and not all of them are true, as it is docu-fiction. I don't care for this: either I want documentary, or fiction. The things that I know were false so irritated me, that I was continually asking: well, is this true or not?

The portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof is brilliant. She was an extremely intelligent woman and an excellent writer. But what exactly made her choose the revolution over her family? There are glimpses here and there in her interactions with Gudrun Ensslin. But the film takes on so many perspectives and tries to cram so much in, that I just gave up.

The portrayal of Andreas Baader is disgusting. Yes, he was a horrible person, in the RAF just to be the boss and to enjoy the violence. But his portrayal in the film is very attractive to young people, who will get a kick out of him "showing the system" that he has no respect for the rules. I felt so violently ill at this that I just could not continue to watch the film.

I must say that even though 30-40 years have passed, we still don't know what really happened. All sides played with (mis-)information. Perhaps it is still too early to put this in a film properly.

There is an interesting discussion about the film online in the Guardian.


Creatures of the Other Kind

We've just moved our program - a computer science program - to a new campus. The only part of the school that was at this new part of the university before was the design school. The design school consists of about 75% women amongst the students (the other way around with the teachers, of course), and since one if the programs is clothing design, there are quite a number of fashionistas running around.

Our program is about 75% guys. And the guys wear T-Shirts and jeans. Usually scruffy ones.

Today was the first full day of classes in the new location, and we were having lunch in the tiny cafeteria. I sat with a crowd of the guys and was very amused to watch what was going on.

The fashionistas strutted into the room, looking for a coffee and an apple, maybe, for breakfast. They did a double-take when they saw all these men (although I am not sure if it was the T-Shirts or the fact that they were men). They kept looking out of the corner of their eyes at the table, not sure what to make of this sight.

The guys were moaning about the quantity and the quality of the food. ("Bah. The noodles are so overcooked, I need a straw to eat them.") And their eyes were popping out, getting an eyeful of the women. And having a second look. And a third. And then punching each other in the shoulder.

I think they will all be eating in the cafeteria this semester, despite the quality :)