Why we should be more German

reichstag

I love my country, but I have to admit I miss Germany. I lived there for six years. I’ve been back in California for six months, but all the sunshine and American friendliness didn’t quite make-up for Christmastime in Germany: drinking warm mulled wine outside, the smell of an open grill cooking real bratwurst—made from pork, not those bland, beef tubes we call hot dogs.

Lately, Germany has made it especially hard for me to enjoy being home. Mainly because Germany keeps showing up the U.S. The latest blow? U.S. News Word and Report ranked the country #1 in the world. The U.S. came in 4th.

That’s right, in a strange twist of history, Germany is now the nation to follow, not America. U.S. News even said most people thought Germany was better for entrepreneurship! What? That’s supposed to be our thing.

Here are several other ways Americans could be more German:

1. Vacation and work: the stereotype is that Germans work hard. They do. They also take five weeks of vacation a year. Everyone does from the CEOs down to the garbagemen. Yet somehow the country still functions. How many weeks do you get? Maybe we Americans can afford to take a few more weeks off.

2. Family support: Germany provides affordable childcare and after-school care on a sliding scale, according to income. Berlin, where I lived, recently made all early childcare/pre-school free for everyone (article here in German). Oh, and there’s three years of maternity and paternity leave, with partial pay! Yet, the German economy still functions. Clearly, we could add a few months of paid parental leave and a year or two of subsidized preschool without breaking America’s bank.

3. Immigration: Yes, there’s been some trouble in Germany over this, but still, the majority of Germans remain welcoming to refugees—nearly a million of whom arrived in 2015. America offered to take in 10,000 Syrians, and people are still screaming about it. According to NYT columnist Roger Cohen, Germany is the new “can-do” nation.

Just read what Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the Germany’s center-right party and Time’s person of the year, had to say about immigration earlier this year:

“There is no question that the influx of so many people will still demand more from us. It will take time, effort and money—especially when it comes to the very important task of integrating those who will be remaining here permanently.

Here we want to, and must, learn from the mistakes of the past. Our values, our traditions, our understanding of the law, our language, our rules and regulations — all of these things undergird our society and are the fundamental requirements for the positive and mutually respectful coexistence of all the people in our country. This applies to everyone who wants to live here. Successful immigration, however, benefits a country — economically as well as socially.” (translation from the New York Times)

Can you imagine a center-right politician in the U.S. saying such a thing? (Do we have a center-right politician?) America is a nation of immigrants, and it should act more like one–or in this case more like Germany.

4. National identity: Germans don’t wave the flag much, except when the World Cup is on (which, by the way, they won). Blind nationalism is viewed with suspicion, and check out what Merkel said about that: “It is important, not to follow those who, with coldness or even hate in their hearts, want to claim Germanness solely for themselves and exclude others.”

We should make the same argument about American-ness, especially because again we are a nation of immigrants. We would do well to learn more about our own history. Speaking of…

5. History: Germans have learned from theirs. They have many museums, years of school curriculum, art works, monuments, even “stumble stones” paved into the very sidewalks to remind them of the horrible mistakes of the World War II. Maybe the U.S. should think about some memorials to the Trail of Tears or slavery. The national mall would be a good place to remember such things just as the Holocaust and the abuses of the Stasi are remembered in the German capital of Berlin.

6. Freedom: The Germans raise their kids to be independent, free-thinking, and self-reliant. They let their elementary-age kids walk to school, play in parks, buy things in stores, all without constant adult supervision. They also give them more responsibility—not just in the ability to move around but intellectually.

We should really try this out. I’ve written about this key difference before here and here, and I’m working on a whole book about the topic, stay tuned for more…

America has got a lot going for it: a robust economy, a culture of openness–and one of strengths is that in the U.S., there is always an opportunity to remake yourself. I think we should take that opportunity on a culture-wide basis and become a little more German.

But we have to face it: Germany is doing many things better than us–not just the sausage. (Though I do have to say that it really is much, much better. Are you listening American butchers? Skip the beef, try smoked pork!)

christmas_market

Photos:

Bundestag courtesy of Herman on Flickr 

Christmas market bratwurst grill photo courtesy of Shrinkn Violet on Flickr

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Save the soil to save the Earth

A Q & A with Ronald Amundson

I recently had the privilege of interviewing soil scientist Ronald Amundson for Aeon magazine. Here’s a sample below. You can read the whole thing at this link.

dirtsm“Ronald Amundson is professor of environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, and dirt is his life’s work. He grew up on a farm in South Dakota and credits a great high‑school teacher for inspiring him to look at the more ‘intellectual aspects of soil’. Since then, Amundson has gone on to study the desert-like soils on Mars as well as the life-supporting soils on Earth. He was recently the lead author on a paper about the state of the world’s soils. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Aeon asked Amundson how we can address the current problems with our soil – or whether we should start looking at the desolate surface of Mars as our future.

Why should we be so worried about the state of our planet’s soil?

Amundson: We had 10,000 years when we could make mistakes that would ruin the soil, cause erosion or ecological degradation, and people could move on to new places. Now we’ve essentially filled up the globe. We’ve exploited about all of the soils left that are applicable to agriculture. So we are at a point where we can’t make mistakes any more.”

Read more….

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Germans extend tech help to refugees

If you are looking for good news about the refugee crisis, you can’t do much better than a story about ordinary people using their skills to help others.  I particularly enjoyed working on this article for ZDNet.com and talking to the people involved in the Refugee Hackathon and at Refugees Online. If you’d like to help, please visit their sites to find out more.

 

As more refugees reach Germany, here’s how its tech community has responded

by Sara Zaske on ZDNet.com, 11/20/15

refugeesmIn the fallout from the Paris attacks, the longer-running controversy over refugees has taken on a new significance. But the fact remains that this summer, Germans surprised the world by opening their borders to a wave of asylum seekers.

Now, with more than 800,000 having already arrived, the country’s IT community is getting down to the practical issues of devising ways to help refugees through technology… (Read full story on ZDNet.com)

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The non-pushy parent: how to be a German mum

I wrote another piece about my experiences as an American parent in Berlin. It appeared in The Times newspaper in the U.K. Here’s a short sample. (Sorry you have to go to The Times site to read the whole thing).

 

The non-pushy parent: how to be a German mum

When Sara Zaske moved to Berlin with her family, she was shocked at how much freedom German children were allowed

In her school notebook, my daughter Sophia has set two goals: to write better letters and to walk home alone. Unfortunately, she’s probably not going to reach that second goal — because I won’t let her.

My daughter is only eight, and I’m an American mother. Despite living in Germany for the past six years, I have a deep and slightly irrational fear that some kidnapper will pluck her off the streets of Berlin during the 500m walk between her school and our apartment.

I realise the irony. The US is supposedly “the land of the free”, but we Americans tend to treat our children like little prisoners, monitoring their every move in public and restricting what they can be taught in school.

In contrast, German parents are much more relaxed . . .  Read more

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How to Parent Like a German

Here’s a recent article I wrote for Time.com: (Also, check out the new article section on the site!)

TIME

The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden4 dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Achtung! Nein!” I cried in my bad German. Both kids and parents ignored me.

Contrary to stereotypes, most German parents I’ve met are the opposite of strict. They place a high value on independence and responsibility. Those parents at the park weren’t ignoring their children; they were trusting them. Berlin doesn’t need a “free range parenting” movement because free range is the norm.

Here are a few surprising things Berlin parents do:

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my…

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Four great books for writers

In honor of my return to the blog, I’m putting a post for my fellow writers. Because that’s why I’ve been away. I’ve been writing the whole time, working on a new novel. I swear.

Writers must read. It’s the first requirement. We should all read widely in genre and out, and this includes so-called “craft books.” Some writers balk at this advice. There’s an old belief that writing is somehow innate: either know how to do it or you don’t.

Truth is, none of us were born knowing how to write. If it’s a talent, it’s a learned one. And here are a few great books to help you keep learning:

writing_breakoutWriting the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. Maas is an agent and a writer. (He has a pseudonym. If anyone knows it—send me an email. I hate not knowing things.) Anyway, Maas spent some time analyzing the novels that break out of the pack and take off. The result: excellent, not-so-obvious observations that can help tip your novel in the right direction.

 

on_writingOn Writing by Steven King. I would read this just for the awesome storytelling. King tells the story of how he became a writer, which is really entertaining—and he gives some solid practical advice. Like kill your adverbs. Really Kill them dead.

 

 

save_the_catSave the Cat by Blake Snyder. This is a screenwriters book, but the patterns Snyder identifies are pretty universal to storytelling. The book has been criticized for over-emphasizing formulas–and I am not an advocate formula fiction (snore). Still, every writer should be aware of readers’ expectations in story lines, and Snyder lays that framework bare, so you can learn how to set it up yourself—then you can twist it, subvert or tear it all down if you want to.

 

birdbybird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Has any writer not read this one yet? If you haven’t go out and get it, Lamott knows the writer’s mind. She has great ideas to help you get past all those hangups and get writing!

 

 

What are your favorite writing craft books?

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A believable dystopia: review of Feed

feed_novel

Feed by M.T. Anderson

If you found the Hunger Games and Divergent far-fetched (and they are), Feed shows a dystopian novel that seems possible. In Feed, everyone is hooked up to a network that tracks their interests and purchases. It also allows them to chat and keep tabs on trends and memes. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The only difference from our current internet hookups (be it smartphone, tablet, or PC) is that this “feed” is hardwired directly into people’s brains. Talk about data mining.

The world of Feed is a logical extension of what’s already happening with smartphones tracking your every keystroke and transforming it in to data to be sold to marketers (or given to a spy agency.) Sure, the part about hooking into your cerebral cortex is a bit over the top. But that’s what really good dystopian fiction does, it takes something that’s already present and pushes it to the extreme.

At the start of the novel, Titus and a group of friends are going to the moon to party. And the guys are being. . . well pretty typical dumb teenage guys. Titus is trying to have fun even though he’s actually bored until he sees a girl who is different than anyone he’s met before. Violet hasn’t had the feed as long, and she’s a resister to the current system in some ways. Then, the group’s feed is hacked, and they are disconnected from the feed for a while, and then Violet’s feed starts to malfunction.

My biggest criticism of Feed is that the story between Titus and Violet is a bit simple even predictable, and I left the book feeling that a chance a true greatness had been missed. Still, I highly recommend Feed. I would read this novel for Anderson’s imagined world alone. The premise is fantastic and disturbing, and it’s incredible that he thought of it about ten years ago—and yet it’s still relevant and very disturbing today, perhaps even more so.

4_stars

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