Can I possibly be turning 50? Yes – time to face the music (and dance!)

I will be 50 years old on October 30 (go Scorpio!) and I recently started acknowledging the fact that I’m getting old when I noticed that my feet had grown a half size, I need glasses for reading and distance, and my hormones were acting up so badly I had to buy a new facial wash. Apparently I’m not the only woman dealing with this issue, Neutrogena has a face wash that deals with pimples and wrinkles. So I decided that I would celebrate my birthday for the entire month of October, I have been posting old pictures of myself on Facebook, and we are taking a trip to Seattle this weekend to celebrate with my family (dancing will most definitely be involved) and see a Seahawks game. I haven’t been to the new stadium and I’m excited to see my team in person, even though we had to pay an arm and a leg for nosebleed seats. It’s all about the atmosphere.

The Givens Family -- All 9 of us!
The Givens Family — All 9 of us! I’m the cute baby in Mom’s arms.

So posting all those old photos got me reminiscing about the past. I actually contacted my old high school principal, to let him know how successful I’ve been and the impact he had on my life (as noted in this column for Inside Higher Ed: It’s a good time to reflect on how far I have come in life. I know I have many years ahead of me, but I never could have imagined how life would play out for me. I have been a successful academic, which is a huge accomplishment in this day and age of higher ed under fire. Given where I come from (see this blog post, it’s amazing that I beat the odds in so many different ways.

My son Andrew (just turned 14) recently asked me a very interesting question “do you ever have any free time” — he was asking because he is already thinking about what he wants to do as a job. My response was that I’m usually working or spending time with him and his brother, but I love my work, so that’s why I don’t mind it. I told him I appreciate the fact that my job is flexible so I can take time during the day to pick him up from school, or go to his sporting events, and then work in the evenings. I’ve certainly been busy with all the writing I have been doing lately (one example is in Politico Magazine) as well as interviews on TV and radio. It still hurts that I can’t call my parents on the phone to tell them about my latest exploits, but as I age, I also am gaining more perspective on the rhythms of life. Nobody gets out of here alive, and this is the prime of my life, when I’m supposed to be out there sharing my gifts. As my mother always told me, “don’t keep your light under a bushel!”

So turning 50 is not so bad, I’m still in great physical shape (except for my sore achilles tendons), I have a beautiful family, a great job, and there’s so much more to look forward to…including the Seahawks making it to the Superbowl again! I’ll have more thoughts on turning 50 in the coming weeks, consider this just another step in the journey…



The hole in my heart…that provides comfort in the storm

I’m sitting on my parent’s couch that they purchased 13 years ago – it barely shows any sign of wear.  My father passed away in June of 2001, just a few months after they had redecorated their home in a retirement community in Mesa, Arizona.  My mother had a stroke 4 years later and had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility until she passed away in May of 2010. I’ve written before about losing my mother, but there are days when it hits harder than others.

After my mother passed away, I was able to take most of her living room furniture and use it in our lake house near Austin.  It’s a bit formal for a lake house, but it’s a link to the life that my parents had made for themselves in retirement, and I’m sure they are glad that I’m able to use it. It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since my father passed away and 4 years since my mother passed away. There are still times when I want to pick up the phone and tell them how their grandsons are growing, or about the latest book I published.

As I sit on my mother’s couch, I think about the dreams they must have had for us.  As I look at turning 50 in October, I reflect on a life that has been blessed with a close-knit family, good friends and a world that is looking crazy at the moment, but that can’t even come close to the uncertainty that my parents had to live with, growing up during the depression, World War II, the Jim Crow South, and an America that considered them less than human. It’s during times like these that I have to kick myself in the rear and remember that my parents sacrificed so that their children would have amazing opportunities like I have been able to take advantage of in my life (and for a nice profile, see my friend Anne Boyd’s blog).

The passing of my parents and others close to me, including my niece Melissa, has left a hole in my heart, but as I sit here on my mother’s couch, I know that they are here with me, enjoying the evening with a laugh and a smile. Although they have passed from this world, their love lives on, in those they left behind and it helps to fill in some of the emptiness that is that hole in my heart — it won’t ever go away, but as my boys grow it will be filled with their achievements and most of all, their love. ♥



Belize: CAVES! Barton Creek Cave, Cave Tubing & ATM

We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize.  Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves.  They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them.  I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves.  We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from.  When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.

We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.

IMG_2050 IMG_2083They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites.  There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:

IMG_2091 IMG_2068 IMG_2058 IMG_2051After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:IMG_2103 IMG_2107 IMG_2108 IMG_2112 IMG_2125

There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits!IMG_2142 IMG_2137 IMG_2136The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first:IMG_2150 IMG_2147After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:

IMG_2167 IMG_2177 IMG_2174The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld.  Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:

IMG_2179 IMG_2185 IMG_2184That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.

IMG_2192The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last.  Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago.  It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto.  They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices.  We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like:

It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water.  To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area.  I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it.  I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.

Berlin Day 2: Connecting with history

Since my first trip to France in 1986, and in particular visiting the Normandy beaches at that time, I have had a sense of the often overwhelming presence of history when visiting cities like Berlin, Paris or London.  With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings being commemorated this weekend, the events of WWII are even more present. Germany has a particular history with the tragic and horrific discrimination which led to mass murder and genocide. It is something that can’t be avoided when walking through Berlin, but there is a much deeper history here which also needs to be understood as part of the broader context of this ever-changing city.

I started my second day in Berlin with a trip to the East…exiting the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz and into major construction.  It has been many years since reunification, but the city is still re/building some infrastructure and the U-5 U-Bahn line is a major project that will do a better job of connecting a once-divided city.



The skyline here is dominated by the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and also the cranes that indicate new construction.  However, I wanted to take a step into the past, and headed past the Berlin Rathaus (city hall)


and on to the Nikolaiviertel, which is an area that was badly damaged during WW II and rebuilt in the 1980s.  The area is full of quaint shops and cafes



The quarter is dominated by the St. Nicholas Church (Nicholaikirche) and I decided to do the tour of the interior for the first time. As I listened to the audio tour, I couldn’t help but be saddened, because the tour revealed more about what had been lost than anything else.  So many artifacts, were damaged and destroyed during the battle for Berlin, and although the restoration was admirable, it is a prime example of a historical legacy that can’t be replaced. I had a similar feeling visiting Dresden four years ago, where many of the historical buildings had only been replaced a few years earlier.


As I walked away from the area, I happened to pass by yet another protest.  This one turned out to be a group of refugees who have been taking refuge in a school in Kreuzberg and are hoping to get their papers and avoid deportation – since this woman spoke in English I include the video here:

They are part of a group called Refugee Strike Berlin.  I found it interesting and the blocking of a street in a tourist area in the middle of the day is clearly calling for attention.  I intend to do more research into what is happening with this group. They also had speakers from the Roma community.




















Next I walked towards the Berlin Cathedral, an imposing structure that will soon be joined by the Berlin Schoss (Castle) which is being built across the street – I had seen that this area was becoming a construction site and was interested to see the new development. My understanding is that there will be a new, large space for a German history museum.

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There was some interesting art along the way, as I walked near Humboldt University and back toward the West


I made a stop to enjoy a chai tea and look in a book shop – managed to leave with only one new book, but got lots of ideas of books I want to order when I get home, particularly on German history.  The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, another reminder of the city’s history of division:

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I was getting tired, but saw the sign that I wasn’t far from the Topography of Terror – an outdoor exhibition in an area where many on the Nazi administration had been housed, as well as a documentation center. The focus of much of the exhibit was the impact of groups that were initially discriminated against and ultimately targeted for extermination, including Jews, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. The history is frightening when you realize that normal people were pulled into the evil that the Nazis perpetuated, that went well beyond the war.

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Behind the exhibits is one of the last existing parts of the Berlin wall — the place is haunting in its simplicity and impact… I expect I will write more later as I reflect on this history…the situation of the refugees I described above leaves me wondering how Germans reconcile their past with their present…


Berlin Day 1: An ever changing city

I have been visiting Berlin since I started focusing on German politics in graduate school in the mid-1990s.  I have gotten used to watching the city change, when I first visited Germany, the capitol was still in Bonn and the Reichstag hadn’t yet been refurbished. Parts of the Berlin wall still stood in their original locations. Over the years, each visit would bring major changes as construction cranes took over the skyline. The original Checkpoint Charlie became a fashionable shopping avenue. The Reichstag gained a glass dome. Four years ago I had spent 3 weeks in Berlin with my family, conducting research at the Free University of Berlin. I made a quick visit a year and a half ago, but I went straight to a conference and didn’t spend any time touring the city. I was excited to see what four years had wrought in a city that was in the middle of so much change.

I arrived in Berlin the morning of June 2nd after an uneventful flight. After a nap, I headed out of my hotel to enjoy the ambiance of the Ku’damm – a major shopping area in the heart of the city. Compared to my trip to the Netherlands a year ago, when most of the stores seemed in distress and were having major price reductions, things seemed normal, maybe even more expensive than I was used to. My first meal was a chai latte from Starbucks to wake me up, and the traditional curry wurst and pommes from a nearby outdoor stand.


Currywurst with pommes (french fries)Image

Ku’damm on a sunny afternoon…


Wittenberg platz – this is the station we used all the time the last time we were in Berlin


The last time we were here they were raising funds to refurbish the Gedachtnis-Kirche – a reminder of the tragedy of the war. It is clearly being refurbished now. Also, most of the fountains weren’t running four years ago – it was nice to see them working, although I did notice many more homeless people, particularly young people, hanging around the square. This was the first time that I visited this area and felt a bit uneasy.


After a bit of shopping for some World Cup gear for my boys (and a few cute items for myself from Desigual), I took a break. Later I headed off in the direction of the Tiergarten and eventually hoping to go into the Reichstag where the German legislature sits (the Reichstag fire led to Hitler and the Nazi’s taking control of the German Government, so it is a potent symbol). For the first time since i have been visiting Berlin the Siegessäule (victory column) was open – here are a few photos of that monument:


The view towards the Brandenburg gate.


I know Andrew, my military history buff, will be interested in the frescoes on the sides of the monument.

As I walked towards the Brandenburg gate, I noticed that the TIergarten gets it’s name for a reason – actually, a few years ago I was running through the park and saw a fox with a rabbit in it’s mouth, so these guys do have natural predators out there…



Germans are almost as much into cycling as the Dutch, so I was dodging a lot of bikes on my way to the Brandenburg Gate.

To my surprise, I ran into a peace protest which mainly seemed focused on the ills of capitalism, avoiding war in Ukraine and pushing for peace in general.


The protesters have been meeting regularly on Mondays and draw on themes from the Monday protests before the fall of the Berlin Wall – this is the first protest of this type I have seen in Berlin


Here’s a link to some video from the protest:

The next surprise for me was the new security at the Reichstag. Four years ago you could just walk up and get in if they were open – now there’s a registration process and security barriers. I guess I won’t be seeing the inside on this trip, luckily I’ve been inside before. Here’s a few pictures from around the Reichstag:


This is a memorial to legislators murdered by the Nazis.


These bricks mark where the Berlin wall was located.


These crosses are for people who died trying to cross from East to West Berlin during the Cold War.Image

a chalk tribute to currywurst


The Reichstag with newer, modern government buildings in the background.

Another new memorial is one to the Roma and Sinti who were part of the genocide during WWII

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As I walked back to the Brandenburg gate, I had to take a picture of the US Embassy, which sits in a very prime location. The UK Embassy is around the next corner, both require a lot of security.


Looking East, you an see the Fernsehturm (TV tower) which was a symbol for East Berlin

Image I saw another group gather down the street and went to take a look. This time it was a group of Spanish protestor, who were calling for an end to the monarchy in Spain, the Spanish King abdicated the throne to his son today.


This sign is referring to the large numbers of Spaniards who have migrated to Germany to find work.Image

The last set of pictures are just some interesting shots from the rest of my day, I’m sure I’ll have more tomorrow, and I’ll be talking about some of the political issues in my Europe blog – 





Giving thanks…

I have been on a bit of a hiatus from my blog, and on the occasion of Thanksgiving, I want to spend a little time focusing on some of the things I’m grateful for in this life. I was so happy to hear from my Aunt Lucille Thursday morning – she and my and Aunt Selina, who I talked to later that morning, are the last two living members of my mom’s side of the family. It put a smile on my face to hear those familiar tones in my Aunts’ voices, bringing back fond memories of my mother on this holiday. As I was cooking during the day, I couldn’t help but remember learning how to cook in our kitchen in Spokane. A friend and I were posting on Facebook the other day about our mothers’ cookware that we still use, much of it more than 50 or 60 years old. I’m still using the cast iron skillet that I used more than 40 years ago…and the broth made from the giblets cooked slowly in my mother’s crockpot. I used the techniques my mother taught me to make my apple pie. We had an apple tree in our backyard that was grafted to produce three different types of apples. I grew up making lots of apple pies, apple sauce, and I learned to use our first microwave to make baked apples.

I’m thankful that I had a mother who taught me how to cook and passed on her wonderful cookware (they don’t make them like they used to). I’m glad I can pass on to my boys all the things I learned and I hope they will some day pass them on to their children

Food is so central to our lives. It is not just a way to nourish ourselves, it is a means of passing on family and cultural traditions. As I share these traditions with friends, I smile as they rave about my mom’s mashed sweet potatoes (with the marshmallows on top!), and the pan gravy made from the giblets. I’ve had to add to the traditions as I learn how to make gluten-free cornbread dressing and pie crust.

I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season and leave you with one of my favorite photos from this past summer – I give thanks for our wonderful national parks!

Rocky Mountain evening
A beautiful evening along a hiking trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Mike and the boys at the beach in San Francisco

Mike and the boys at the beach in San Francisco

Spending quality time with my boys on New Year’s Eve – also Mike’s birthday. Wishing all a very Happy New Year — May the new year bring new challenges, goals achieved and an appreciation of those little moments that make life complete.

Martin Luther King, Jr – on faith:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.