Keeping Bridges Open


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Happy TrioA few days ago my husband, a full-time Humanities teacher at a small, private high school in Honolulu and a full-time father (a far greater co-parent than I am in raising our young daughter) received this message from a professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa:

Thank YOU so much for the fascinating, informative, and entertaining lecture! We all enjoyed it very much. I was very impressed. It was great that your students were able to come to be with us.

My husband had given a presentation about Celtic languages, a passion that translated into his earning a Ph.D. from the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures from Harvard, and later working as an associate professor at two universities in Europe.

He also has taught elementary and middle school children and seniors.

And me. Every day for more than 15 years.

When I first met my husband, he was a young grad student at Harvard paying his rent by working in the best foreign language bookstore in the United States.

I took a great chance, standing in that bookstore, by starting a conversation with him.

It would be way too glib to write The Rest is History because that history is day-to-day building and rebuilding bridges that have fallen down that, still intact, have taken us to four different states and three different countries before we finally found a place that has felt right as a home for our family, to different jobs and communities, to having a child born with an extra chromosome and trying (unsuccessfully) to bring another child into our lives, to finding new friends, to hanging in there in our own relationship, to maintaining love and respect for each other in good times and lean times, to giving up, redefining and finding new dreams.

I know I’ve always been grateful that the bridge between my husband and me has never closed down even during seasons when we have felt the bridge sway a bit.

Last December, at a Fulbright Chapter gathering, I met the woman who wrote the lovely note to my husband that I included earlier in this post. She teaches and knows many people in the field of linguistics.

Since my husband gave up many of his own dreams for my dream of having a family and white picket fence, the least I can do is help him keep a few of his aspirations alive.

I have always felt my husband, not I, should have been the Fulbrighter. He is brilliant. I’m fine, but I’m not in his league.

I am a marathoner, though. I know how to hang in there, get through rough miles and savor the ones that come easily. I talk to people on the course, some of whom I meet for the first time and with whom I maintain friendships. I have encouraged many friends to train for their first marathon, including the gentleman who joined me to cheer my husband on a few days ago when he gave his presentation. The three of us are smiling in the picture in this post.

I can never thank my husband nor our friends enough helping me stay true to my dreams no matter what the distance. I feel I’m nearing the point where my time is better spent giving back to them as often as I can and now and then still enjoy a dream or two of my own!

And build a few more bridges.


Goals for Saint Patrick’s Day


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22!Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Today I began training for my 22nd marathon.

Pretty easy.

At this point, I know the gig. As a middle-aged guy who has played tennis and has run most of his life, I sure know my body. I don’t like hills. I love the freedom of running downhill, feeling like I’m in flight, escaping familiar and minor aches and pains not only in my legs but in my mind.

I know I can do the distance. I know how to pace myself, how to get through rough patches, how to last for five or more hours to complete the distance. I’ve learned to swallow my pride, knowing that I once strove to complete marathons in fewer than four hours. I’m fine with redefining goals.

So why do I struggle a bit to apply this sound logic to the rest of my life?

Because I want to do better at my job, even when I know I’m doing quite well, because more than anything I care about my family, because I have pride even though I’m a Quaker and the rest of my family are Buddhists.

I’m all too familiar with the minor stumbles of distance running, of my annoying car drivers who would prefer to have the road to themselves, of rejoicing when I find a soft trail of grass or dirt. I know I might get burned, no matter how much sunblock I have applied, that as I train more I will lose weight and then people will wonder if I am healthy as I am already pretty thin.

I have found peace with all this. I want to transfer this wisdom to other parts of my life, I want it to sink in!




Teaching Moments: Student Poetry


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MarathonDear Readers,

This thread began in early February when I described an assignment I had given my students in their poetry workshop in a small high school in Hawaii.

The theme of the assignment was alternate histories: imagining the What If questions of life — a tall order for high school students, but I have the privilege of teaching talented young poets!

The students heard, in light detail, how I’ve begun and finished different marathons in my life — fortunately for them, I did not recount the actual 21 marathons I’ve completed, but the many miles I’ve traveled to find the right home for my family and me. To land in Hawaii years after I first visited the islands in my early 20s, to navigate a career and marriage and parenthood, to even dream about reaching those milestones, I’ve had to be nimble and shake off more than a few stumbles!

I’ve wanted to impart to my students that life is full of possibilities even if the beginning of a marathon seems insurmountable when you are a teenager.

And they rose to the challenge!

To conclude the Teaching Moments thread of this blog (but not this blog itself!),  I’ve saved the best for last: two additional student poems for today’s post. For their privacy, I’m not revealing the students’ last names.

Eastern Europe
by Lisa (student) 

If I’d stayed in Eastern Europe, life wouldn’t be quite the same.
I would not have crossed the globe. I would have a different name.
Gone would be my Chinese tongue of my heritage.
Come age ten, my thoughts would be in Deutsch or Magyar instead.

Tonal vowels would make way for songs of a different kind,
Melodies in europäische Sprachen would light this story of mine.
What would boarding school be like if could go?
Would I visit Russia, finally see snow?
Perhaps I’d choose to play tennis over the grand piano,
Or be a pastry chef’s apprentice, and lose the spice I know.

Maybe my heart and mind would feel a different type of love.
Maybe I’d never see the glimmering teal ocean,
Hike a mountain, or catch fish flickering in a cove.
In spite of everything, my soul rests where I have been taken.
To my dear Budapest, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna,
Auf Wiedersehen, bis später!

An Alternate Place
by Sage (student)

If I lived in an alternate place,
I would not have to worry.
I would never know what was homemade curry.
It would rain all the time.
I would not be able to use dimes.
I would be having tea
And talking about Americans besides me.
Oh what it would be like to be overseas!


Teaching Moments: Philanthropy and Poetry


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Ruckmann-by Kubota!So having finally resolved the cliffhanger that started with my growing up in a small sheltered town and high school on the edge of Appalachia before I moved onto a college I didn’t choose that was known as much for its parties and athletics as its academics, then to New York City, a village in Austria, later Vienna, Baltimore, a small city in New Hampshire, Bonn (Germany), a Quaker boarding school in the middle of the plains in Iowa, and finally to Honolulu, I can focus on who inspired the Teaching Moments thread in my blog that began over a month ago: my students.

I’m actually an administrator at a small high school in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Recently, I attended a conference with my peers where we were described as “professionals who facilitate philanthropy.” Most of us smiled when we heard that!

Many of the attendees have worked in our field for quite a while. To be in it, it helps a great deal to enjoy the excitement and adrenaline of reaching financial goals for an organization you believe in. To last in the field, it’s also good to know that even when you present your best self to the public day after day and year after year, it’s hard and not even possible to always reach goals and please everyone. Having a thick skin is an asset.

Guess what? I have a very sensitive side of me but I’ve lasted in my professional field for 20 years!

And fortunately, in searching the world for the right place for me and later for my family, I now work in a school that may not be perfect, but is sure one I wished I had gone to as a teenager and where I hope my daughter will be a student some day.

And where, when I’m not facilitating philanthropy, I can be a kind of life coach and teach subjects where I can tap into my sensitive side: German and poetry.

This year, in addition to German, I’ve led a workshop with a small group of devoted poets. They have recited classical and modern poetry, analyzed rhyme schemes, meter, and, most courageously, composed their own poems to share and discuss with each other and me, and even submit for publication. If I ask them to take on an assignment, they also know I’m right there with them.

Recently, we explored alternate histories and imagining the What If questions of life. The students heard a bit about my navigation of life and the places it took me. I was pretty stunned they had the patience to hear a few details — that I tried to keep on the light side — and to imagine what their lives might be like decades from now.

They also agreed to let me publish their poems in this blog and in our school newsletter. Today’s post is already longer than I intended, so I will publish one student poem and my own and save two additional student poems for Wednesday’s post. For their privacy, I’m not revealing their last names. Enjoy!

Lived Somewhere
by Blake (student)
Written in March 2018

I sometimes wonder
If I lived somewhere colder
Or hotter or wetter
Would it be better?

I Left my Heart in Reykjavík
by Rüdiger (me)
Written in March 2018

I left my heart in Reykjavík
long after the midnight sun
hid below the mountains
and the crowds in the streets
still walked past the towering church
named after a pastor and poet,
to the city pond and beyond
and finally to the sea,
tasting night which was still day,
the cafés still open
on this island far away
from the rest of the world
where people are protected
by elves and gnomes,
where the brave are warmed
by sweet thermal springs in winter.

Iceland, I’m calling to you from Hawaii,
like you on your own in the ocean
with legends and volcanoes.
I chose your close cousin
but left my tracks on your streets,
and in the Atlantic sands,
my heart still craving you and never distant.


Teaching Moments: From Vienna to Hawaii


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MarathonThe other night, to be a good sport and to help my boss, I participated in an Aikido demonstration. We were invited by a gentleman who has been a key figure in the future of our school.

One of the many reasons I love living in Hawaii is the possibility of experiencing the vast blend of cultures in the only U.S. state composed entirely of islands, a sparkling jewel in the vast Pacific.

Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art. My husband drove me to a Buddhist temple in Honolulu, I offered other participants my true calling in life — comic relief — and after the demonstration, in true Hawaiian tradition, talked story over heavy pupus (appetizers).

The gentleman who had invited me to the event is a third-generation American of Japanese heritage. He introduced me to the master teacher, like me a white middle-aged man from the Mainland, then to a master elder teacher from India, other participants whose parents or grandparents came from countries thousands of miles away to settle in Hawaii, and finally, to my pupus companion, a second-generation older man whose parents left the Philippines to work on a plantation on the Big Island before moving to Honolulu.

He had a soft voice, melancholic eyes, and a gentle manner that instantly made me feel very comfortable engaging in Talk Story. He told me he had taken up Aikido to cope with his PTSD from the Vietnam War, how he started practicing after raising his two children, how this Aikido community that meets in a building owned by a Buddhist temple on a busy street next to a highway in Honolulu has become his second home.

Then he asked how I came to Hawaii.

I told him I moved here from a Quaker boarding school in Iowa with my family, that I had three job interviews over the phone, was made an offer, and accepted.

“Boy, you got lucky,” he said. “You found a job without moving here first.”

He was right.

It’s time, Dear Readers, to resolve the Vienna – Hawaii Cliffhanger that I’ve promised in my Teaching Moment posts these past few weeks.

Here’s the short version: I was a terrified kid in my very early 20s who was offered a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in two schools about 40 miles south of Vienna, Austria. One of the schools was in a monastery.

I was fleeing the difficulty of growing up gay in the ’70s and ’80s, Ronald Reagan, and the unknown, terrifying, and dark mystery that back then was AIDS. Teaching and living in a monastery on a village hillside in Austria with a lovely farm and quiet monks, staying celibate, and praying a lot seemed safe.

I’ll post about the monastic experience soon. But I need to finally finish the cliffhanger.

I left the monastery after visiting the Mother Church in Vienna and seeing the big city with wide open eyes. The Fulbright people were good to me and extended my assistantship to two years. I studied translating at the University of Vienna and worked as a roof gardener. Then I found a job as a speechwriter at the Japanese Embassy in Vienna.

After a few years, I was given the opportunity to fly around the world if I were chaperone to a teenager just five years younger than I. Everything would be paid for.

I have a tremendous fear of flying. I avoid airplanes. I don’t read about them. If I see them on television, I usually leave the room. But I knew back then this would be the opportunity of a lifetime.

My bosses at the Embassy let me take all my vacation for the year for this flight that included stops in the Seychelles, Sinagpore, Japan, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Toronto, Amsterdam, and back to Vienna — all in 30 days. The stop in Hawaii was for a third of the trip.

The teenager and I stayed at the YMCA in Honolulu the entire time for $12 a night. I entered a small tennis tournament. To my astonishment, two young adults from Germany came up and started speaking German to me. I’ll never forget it. I said to them, in German, “You’ve never met me before. We’re in Hawaii and I’m speaking English to my friend. How did you know I spoke or even understood German?”

“We just knew,” they said.

But to keep a long story short: I never forgot Hawaii. A few decades, coming out of the closet, one divorce with a woman, a new marriage to a man, a young child, and several jobs in different cities later, I had a conversation with a friend at a Quaker boarding school in Iowa where my family and I lived and worked.

He remembered my telling him how much I loved Hawaii. He told me there was a job available. I told him the chances of my being offered the job and moving to Hawaii with my family were slim to none.

I was wrong.

One dark freezing evening a few months later, the phone rang as we were bundling up our baby daughter to join friends at a potluck dinner.

A month later I was setting up home in Hawaii. I’m still here and hope to be the rest of my life. All marathons, even those that last decades, are worth it.


Teaching Moments: Leaving High School


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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Thank you to all readers who have been following this blog the last few weeks.

About a month ago I began a thread called Teaching Moments that was inspired by my students to whom I teach poetry and German in a small high school in Hawaii. Although I am also a full-time administrator, our Head of School recognizes the value of life experiences all his staff can impart as teachers and coaches to teenagers. Like them, many years ago, I was finding my way.

Truth be told, I was a bit of an outcast. Moving through high school in my day as a young gay man, it was hard enough for me to accept myself let alone have most of my family or many classmates embrace who I was. Back then where I grew up we didn’t have support groups. When I once went to a counselor who suggested to my mother after the appointment that I might be gay, my mother cancelled any future appointments!

So I did what I had to do to survive: I played hours and hours of tennis on my own, hitting thousands of forehands and backhands against a backboard, pretending I was at Wimbledon when most of the time I was alone. I practiced the bassoon and joined youth orchestras. I wrote poetry nearly every day. I dreamt about living in Europe where I hoped I might fit in and could speak German.

Once in a while, I even tried dating. Looking back, those attempts were pretty laughable but they were sincere — and confused. Recently, one of those brave friends who let me take her out on a date and I became friends on Facebook. I loved reading about how she has prospered in life.

In fact, many people from my high school who avoided me or whom I avoided express joy and some relief that I met the love of my life 15 years ago with whom I share the highs and lows of parenthood, that I still play tennis, that I’ve run 21 marathons, that I continue to write poetry and love the bassoon. And I’ve realized how curious I’ve been, decades later, to see how they have navigated their lives, how thrilled I am that many have made it safely and quite successfully to middle age, how much easier it is for me now to forgive the slings and arrows I so acutely felt years ago that were sent my way from some of them while others just stood by or joined in — but, as I’ve also since learned — other former classmates and even some family members wish they had been more supportive during those confusing teenage years.

I guess we were all sorting ourselves out. Many of us still are!

But back then, without the perspective that years and life experience can bring, all I was focused on was one major goal: ESCAPE.

And that will bring me back to wrap up the cliffhanger of my landing in a small town south of Vienna that eventually led to Hawaii. Stay tuned!

Teaching Moments: My Husband


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MarathonTag!This is an imperfect post because I can never express adequately enough how grateful I am to my husband.

On his 45th birthday, I will try.

For taking a chance with a guy a bit older, my face showing traces of many hours baking in the sun playing tennis and training for yet another marathon; who wanted a white picket fence and a family; who dreamt of Hawaii and Iceland; who loves the German language and who has never succeeded at learning his husband’s specialty: Celtic languages and cultures; who is not his intellectual equal yet not for one second has been made to feel inadequate.

Most important: the best father I have ever known who still finds time and energy and patience to make me feel like I’m relevant to him.

Thank you for teaching me endurance, humor, humility, resilience, tenacity.

You and our daughter have been my best teachers ever.

Teaching Moments


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Ellen_Feb_2018_1000Dear Readers,

I’m taking a little detour from the biographical theme of this thread and skipping ahead a bit to … Parenting  which has given me my most rewarding and frustrating teaching moments.

Several times on weekends, when we spend the most time with our daughter, often during the same hour I feel truly blessed and also ready to pull out my hair. I’m lucky I still have a fair amount of it.

I’m grateful for the friends and communities in Hawaii who are rooting for our family, for my extremely patient husband, and for my daughter who is my best teacher.

I count my blessings.

Teaching Moments – Part 4: Red Threads that Run Through Life


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mary-neuOne of my favorite expressions in German is “Es zieht sich wie ein roter Faden durch das Leben” or “It’s a central theme of life” although the literal word-for-word translation is “It pulls like a red thread through life.”

Substitute possessive pronouns like “sein” or “ihr” or “mein” and you have his or her or my life. And then you have the groovy color element, Red, which is also the name of my all-time favorite movie (and referenced in my blog post a week ago on Valentine’s Day).

My work Tuesday here in a high school in Honolulu began with a poetry workshop. I’m actually an administrator, but my boss, the Head of School, has allowed me to teach two subjects near and dear to my heart: German and poetry that have been constant friends most of my life.

For that matter, so have tennis, distance running, being gay, the bassoon, and Hawaii and Iceland. I’ve had a few ups and downs with all these friends, but we’re pretty loyal to each other.

Never did I imagine I would some day end up in Honolulu, married to a man, and the proud co-parent of a seven-year-old daughter.

But here we are.

So this morning, after a holiday weekend, I expected my students to be tired and not ready to discuss the assignment I gave them last week: write a poem imagining an alternate history in your life — either a part of your history you have already lived or that which is ahead of you.

I had shared with them some of my own history: wanting to be a writer for Sports Illustrated, earning a degree in journalism, applying for all kinds of writing and editing positions, but then working instead at a small law office for an attorney for the German Consulate.

I told them how that led to receiving a Fulbright teaching assistantship, then staying in Austria and working for the Japanese Consulate during which time I saved all my vacation and flew around the world with one of the stops being Hawaii, how I never forgot what I considered to be the most beautiful place on earth, how one bitter cold day many years later in Iowa, I received a call offering me this job at a school in Honolulu where I am now a fundraiser and teach students poetry.

Guess what?

My students and I wrote poems this holiday weekend with a What If theme! They came ready to go!

After I ask their permission later this week, I will share the poems.

And I will get back to my cliffhangers for Teaching Moments posts and tie the red threads together.

I told my students I was proud of them and excited to have shared Tuesday morning with them.

And this was all before 9 a.m!

Teaching Moments – Part 3


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Ruckmann-by Kubota!Hi Readers,

After a Valentine’s Day interlude, I’m resuming the cliffhanger. I realized that these Teaching Moments posts are pretty autobiographical. I hope they are inspiring because when I look at my past, I wonder how I had so much courage when many people told me “You’ll never do this” or “You’ll never have this.”

My message: believe in yourself, follow and hold true to your own path in spite of the naysayers and the stones and stumbles and even loneliness along the way.

Where I left off: I was living in New York City, barely in my 20s, and a candidate for a Fulbright Scholarship, improbable for a small town kid growing up gay in the ’70s and ’80s who wasn’t considered the best in his class.

Even though it was a long time ago, I still remember how it all happened. When I was invited during the Fulbright application process to continue with next steps, I took an early morning train from New York City for a day trip to my college in upstate New York and approached a few professors for letters of recommendation. I was surprised they remembered me, and I will be forever grateful for their taking time out during spring break to write the letters. I noted in my previous post the interview with the very kind Germans from the Goethe-Institut in New York City, including a woman who had visited my alma mater while I was a student and remembered me.

To this day, I still wonder how they did. I was academically a pretty good student, but not the best. Even when I took German in high school, the misguided teacher had a habit of classifying students out loud — to the students and their parents! In today’s world, she probably would have received a reprimand or worse for doing so. Suffice it to say, she did not place me in the top tier. I’ll never forget her mocking my accent in front of the other students. Embarrassed, I told her my German was influenced by my grandfather. She asked the other students not to imitate it as my grandfather came from a farmer’s family.

I think teaching moments like that have made me determined to be as open-minded and non-judgmental as possible when I teach, coach, or encourage young people. I probably favor the underdog! And I sure hope my daughter, very bright, and born with an extra chromosome, will be lucky (as she often but not always has been so far) to be guided by teachers who celebrate her strengths and magic qualities of which she has plenty.

But back to my cliffhanger: I received a Fulbright teaching assistantship to work and study in Austria. When I opened the letter in the small German law office in New York City, I called my mother who was teaching in a small high school, one of the rare times I ever interrupted her at work. She forgave me! I didn’t have close friends in New York at the time, so I celebrated on my own by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, something I always wanted to do.

In the next few weeks, I planned for my move to Europe. I wanted to make sure I had a month to travel before I began teaching and studying because I always wanted to see Wimbledon and Scandinavia. I was all of 21 years old, and by no means wealthy, but I had no fear. I remember thinking at the time, “Do this now so that I don’t wake up one day when I’m older wishing I had.”

One of my teaching placements was in a monastic school south of Vienna.

To be continued … !