Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fifteen Seconds of Grace

In the last week, two people I know have lost their father: one of them, a young man in the 10th grade here at KA, and another, one of my friends of longest duration, my mate and one-time academic rival, Dawn. I never even met the father of our student, and Dawn’s father I saw intermittently over the 30 years she and I have been dear friends. But still…I have kept them close to my heart this week as I imagined their emotional unrest at their loss.

One summer day in 2006, just a short while after I lost my mother, I was walking in
Spring Grove Cemetery, and of course I noticed over and over on tombstones the familiar inscribed saying, “Rest in Peace.” I imagine most headstones in any cemetery bear these weighty words.

I had an unusual epiphany that day: those words cover a multitude of situations, don’t they? They signal release from a wasting disease, or escape from unresolved estrangements; they remind us of the simple wisdom that living well is both a gift—and an uphill battle. “Rest in peace”—the words stand as our final blessing on the dead.

But, I wondered, perhaps we misread our inscriptions. I prefer to think these aren’t words we speak to the dead; but rather they are words the dead speak to the living, and that “rest in peace” sums up their final counsel to those of us left behind. Imagine what these bones would say if they could speak: We have seen it all, and we know peace is the only worthwhile goal. Resist violence; reconcile with your enemies; love without measure. Those last words of the dead to the living challenge us to spend our days making peace.

But—it is hard to find peace—not just the larger “peace” between nations, or the abstraction “peace on earth,” but sometimes just peace of mind. I am reminded of a CD my sister gave me just a few weeks ago at Christmas, a CD by a New York performer named Victoria Clark, with the title, Fifteen Seconds of Grace. This title song is about the difficulties in living life, especially in finding peace. But—sometimes we experience these little gifts, moments that can be so short, maybe only fifteen seconds, that remind us that we are forgiven, or that we are loved, or that we are lovable—reminders that keep us humble, and pure, and whole. And bring us peace.

I can’t begin to comment on what these two fathers meant to their children, their wives, their colleagues, their neighbors. But I understand loss, and I understand healing. Often over the last 20 years I have found myself going back to Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, and his reminder that life demands grappling with Time. And Change. And Loss.

Naturally, the passing of time has loss and death woven into it: each new moment kills the moment before it, and its own death is implied by the moment that comes after. There is no way to exist in the world of change without accepting loss, if only the loss of a moment in time: the way the sky looks right now, the motion of the air, the number of snowflakes, or camels, outside your window, the temperature, the placement of your body, the position of the people in the street. It's inherent in the nature of having moments—you never get to have this exact one again.

And a good thing, too! Because all the things that give life joy and meaning—music, conversation, eating, dancing, playing with children, reading, thinking, traveling, all of it—are based on time passing, on change, and on the loss of an infinitude of moments passing through us and then behind us. Without loss and death, we don't get to have existence. We don't get to have Rembrandt, or Grey’s Anatomy, or five-spice chicken, without allowing their existence and our experience of them to come into being and then pass on. We don't get to listen to Louis Armstrong without letting the E-flat disappear and turn into a G. We don't get to watch Casablanca without letting each frame of it pass in front of us for a twenty-fourth of a second and then move on. We don't get to walk in the forest without walking by each tree and letting it pass behind us; we don't even get to stand still in the forest and gaze at one tree for hours without seeing the wind blow off a leaf, a bird break off a twig for its nest, the clouds moving behind it, each manifestation of the tree dying and a new one taking its place.

Imagine, for a moment, stepping away from time, the way you'd step back from a physical place, to get a better perspective on it. Imagine being outside of time, looking at all of it as a whole—history, the present, the future—the way the astronauts stepped back from Earth and saw it whole. The time that you live in will always exist, even after you've passed out of it, just like Paris exists before you visit it and Paris continues to exist after you leave. And the fact that people in the twenty-third century will probably never know you were alive…that doesn't make your life disappear, any more than Paris disappears if your Aunt Audrey never sees it. Your segment on the great historical timeline will always have been there. The fact of your death doesn't make the time that you were alive disappear. And it doesn't make it meaningless. Yes, stepping back and contemplating all of time and space is daunting, can make you feel tiny and trivial. And that perception isn't entirely inaccurate. It's true; the small slice of time that we have is no more important than the infinitude of time that came before we were born or the infinitude that will follow after we die.

As I attended the father’s funeral today, I wondered how, and when, we feel most alive. Perhaps we are most alive in those moments, perhaps those fifteen seconds, when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.

I remembered a card given to me last summer as I packed up and left my life in New York. It had the simplest sentiment, yet perhaps the most direct from which to derive some restful, some peaceful, thoughts:

You are with me in my heart.
The distance between us is just geography.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Study Break—Forever and Ever

I have always been enchanted by the concept of The Study Break. While I cannot remember a time I did not love to learn new things, I did find out early on that I completed work rather quickly, so I always welcomed the notion that one could take a break from work and study. I think back to how I loved to steal time away to read Cub Scout At Last! in the second grade (obviously timed by my mother right at the season I actually became a cub scout!) and then for the next two years I needed to break away from the rigors of elementary school life to gather any and all arcane knowledge about Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency. Next I had a book of historical plays (Hello? Destiny calling!) that needed direction and production. At Gamble Junior High I remember coveting time away from work to type up lists. Lists?! Oh my heavens—well, there was a book in the late 1970s called The Book of Lists, and I was consumed with making lists. Oh about anything. These lists ran the gamut from President’s Wives, to Oscar-Winning films, to National Historic Sites I needed to visit (and probably sought to run them if memory serves). In the 11th grade my best friend Kevin had yet another accident in his beloved Corvair (oh, he loved that car, christening her “Carly,” but he was a little accident-prone) necessitating a Study Break for me nightly so I could nobly take him home from work. I remember how exciting it was to get out of the house on those school nights, simply driving to pick Kevin up from the bowling alley (he and I reminisced at Christmas time about his chef’s outfit he got to wear!) driving him home, talking on and on about our friends Doris, Shelley, Celia, and the plays we were doing, and the plans we had.

At Denison—when I look back in those pre-internet, pre-phones-in-the-room days, life feels much quieter than I am sure it was. As a music minor, going downhill to practice the piano was often the Study Break. We had no bistro, no café, no real place open at night on campus, but there was a 20-something entrepreneurial guy nicknamed “The Hoagie Man,” who trolled around the dorms at night, hawking hoagies. He would enter a hallway and yell out, “Hoagie Man!” and the starved-for-activity-and-food students emerged from their cocoons.

As I got older, and became a teacher, there were often those weekends that required steady, intense work like college studying. It might be grading or preparing those comments that needed to be written for all your students. I still felt entitled to my Study Breaks, and when I moved to New York, they became much more glamorous. I would call my sister and announce, “this is the weekend for exam grading.” Elizabeth, the shrewd pragmatist that she is, would sigh and say, “Johnny, why don’t you do all your work first, and then reward yourself at the completion of the job?” It does sound smart, doesn’t it? However, I usually designed these elaborate Study Breaks, sometimes, well, often, taking place before any of the work had been approached. We had to write these comments, called “evidentials” at Hackley, several times a year, and they did require serious work and attention. There was my great friend Diana, math-whiz extraordinaire, who started her evidentials a couple weeks in advance, carefully planning to do 2-3 a night. Hmmmm…that is one way of tackling the job! I tended—tended? Nay, I rejoiced in waiting until the weekend before, and would plan how long each student’s comment would take, and then since I had done that work—I needed a Study Break! Fortunately, with New York City at my feet, that often involved catching a train and taking in an art exhibit, or a play—all in the name of the beautiful Study Break!

Well, it is time here at KA to grade exams, and write comments. Hmmmm…New York City is not at my feet any more, but wait…there might be fun things to do here for a Study Break!

On Friday, my new friend Tessa (new because she just joined us this month from her school in South Africa. She’s great! She had headed a school there for many years, has a wry sense of humor, and is one of those iconic, compassionate, educator-for-life types that blow you away. If any of you readers know my idols Mary Schneider or Anne Siviglia, imagine a South African version of those geniuses.) called up and said, “Right. [I love how the British accent types use the words, “right,” and “brilliant”!] Right. We need a Study Break. Why don’t we get a driver and go hiking at Mukawir?” Tessa said the magic words: Study Break!

Before long Tessa, Linda, Natalie and I were on our way to Mukawir, about a 45 minute drive away from KA. Mukawir was a place I had not yet visited, but it had an enticing glamour about it—biblical Herod’s summer palace! As we drove down the King’s Highway heading south from Madaba through quiet, picturesque farmland, I realized how exciting it was to be making new habits and rituals—oh yes, all in the name of getting those exams graded and comments executed.

The driver tackles these winding, winding roads expertly, views yawning in all directions, and we arrive at this majestic hill. It is a great hike (about an hour roundtrip—perfect for a Study Break!) up the isolated, conical hill topped by the ruins of Herod’s palace. I gotta tell you, it was another thrilling moment realizing I was visiting another place mentioned in the Bible. This was the palace where Herod (now, just so we are all clear, this Herod is the son of Herod the Great, the King of Judea who had had all the baby boys in Palestine killed after learning that a new baby boy King had been born.) had built a palace, a garrison, a viaduct, an aqueduct, and an assault ramp. According to the Roman historian Josephus, it was at this palace that Salome danced for Herod, and then urged Herod to present her with the head of John the Baptist on a platter. For a number of years I taught the Oscar Wilde play Salome in my 20th century history class, so I kept reviewing the scenes in my head from that freaky Freudian-esque drama. Christian tradition holds that John was buried where he died, in a cave near this hill.

So here we were—enjoying a great, sunny day and a Study Break hike up the hill. At the top we nosed around the ruins of rubble: columns and vestiges of rooms and cisterns. Soon after we got there, a busload of Korean tourists alighted, swiftly hiked up the hill, and engaged in a service of some kind with prayers, holding hands and some chanting. We stood off to the side, intrigued by their devotion in making this pilgrimage.

A pretty good Study Break.

I was back in my apartment grading not 30 minutes when KA friends Suzanne and John called and asked, “John, we thought we would take a Study Break tomorrow and drive to Karak. Wanna come along?” They’re playing my song…

So yesterday’s Study Break was a little longer away—about a 90 minute drive through the Rift Valley that bears a striking resemblance to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, to the town of Karak, famed for its millennium-old Crusader castle.

The hill on which Karak stands—with sheer cliffs on three sides and clear command over the neighboring deserts and canyons—is featured in both the Old Testament and Medieval lore. In my childhood, doing those history plays in the backyard I was always trying to recreate history—here I am sporting about in the castle walls of the real thing. Sorry—it still seems surreal sometimes!

In the 12th century the Christian conquerors built this castle on a famous site, famed for Nabatean warriors 1100 years before at that time. For a generation this castle kept out the Muslim interlopers trying to secure back their land. Saladin eventually overpowers the unctuous crusader Reynald of Chatillon and famously lops off his head (there is a great statue in town with Saladin posed mid-lop with his sword.) and recovers the castle and the environs, throwing out the hated French.

After trooping around the castle ruins for awhile and enjoying the Archaeological Museum, we availed ourselves of the buffet lunch in a newer part of the castle. Okay, time to get back to work—end of Study Break. By the way, I have taught the Crusades a number of times over the years in European history classes, but this week, yes, this coming week as I tackle them again, I have the benefit of just having visited for the first time a Crusader castle in the lands of the Crusades! I get excited about these things.

Oh no—this morning there was a glitch in the Study Break plans. Today was supposed to be the field trip to the Dead Sea, but it is foggy and rainy out. Hmmmm… Zeina, our intrepid driver, decides we should not venture down the windy roads, and if it isn’t a pretty day, what’s the point? We re-group. I will grade for awhile, then we will meet at the Mall, and watch a movie. Disaster averted. There is still a Study Break planned!

We take in the movie Enchanted, one of the most clever, delightful rom-coms I have ever seen! It is a twist, an homage, a parody, a gentle re-telling of every Disney romantic cartoon ever made. It begins as a cartoon actually, the feel of a 1950s Sleeping Beauty, but then one character ends up in Times Square, and all the cartoon characters are in our real life. Giselle is a young girl trying to get back to her Prince Charming, and actress Amy Adams could not have been more delightful as the Shirley-Temple-all-grown-up-and-sincerely-darling Giselle. Once she finds her Prince Charming she will enjoy happily ever afters forever and ever. There are obstacles along the way, and she meets the actor who plays Grey’s Anatomy's “McDreamy,” and in the clever telling of this confabulation of all Disney tales, it is utterly, utterly wonderful—with New York as a Wonderland.

The moment was not lost on me—here I am tipping off Study Breaks in a new land, with new sights to behold, new historical insights to savor, and I end up in a Study Break with my New York as a Fantasy. Pretty great.

Okay—there are 2 sections on 15 exams left to grade, and time is running out. Study Breaks completed. Work to get done. Pronto. See Elizabeth—I can take the breaks, and get the work done on time!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Posh Life

“This is livin', this is style, this is elegance by the mile

Oh the posh, posh traveling life, the traveling life for me…”

If you are scratching your head wondering what those lines are in reference to, I invite you to screen, or re-screen, the late 1960s classic movie Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang to refresh your memory! I have not seen that movie in ages, but as a child I adored the movie, loved the name of Truly Scrumptious, the heroine, wanted to be the chief taster in the candy factory, and got my first sight of breathtaking alpine scenery with the grand shots of Neuschwanstein Castle (stepping in for the castle of the country of “Vulgaria” in the movie). But those words above come from a song from Grandpa Potts—he got to sing that rollicking song about traveling the world in posh style! One of my adopted theme songs in my life I suppose. Again, if there could be a soundtrack of my life, this song would have a track on the album. Did I just say album? My 1970s childhood just came screaming out loud to everyone: he is over 40!!

Anyway, back to thinking about the posh life. Last week was exam week at Hackley School, and I always contended, nay, almost swore, that exam week was the most humane week of the school year on the hilltop. While the rest of the school year careened at a non-stop, consuming, intense pace (tut, tut, I am not saying that’s a bad thing!) exam week at Hackley allowed teachers time to create exams, grade exams, and even sneak away and get rejuvenated for the second semester. I recall last year during exam week luxuriating at a smart bistro in midtown Manhattan with dear friends Kate Lamper and Adam Gordon. My poor friends had to return to their respective “salt mines” after lunch—but, since it was exam week, I went from a fabulous lunch to an afternoon massage…ahhh…yes, the posh life exam week allowed! You crossed your fingers that in the exam rotation your exam was either first or last—then you could actually break away for a trip somewhere! There was the year during exam week when I jetted down to Florida to visit my great friend Chuck (and actually talk him into coming to work with me at Hackley—he just didn’t know that was the plan when I made the reservations). How decadent—just a couple weeks after Christmas break to enjoy another break somewhere! Yes, the posh life. (Don’t burst my bubble and remind me that a teacher has to turn an otherwise Herculean task of creating/typing/Xeroxing/correcting exams as a means to posh-ness—gimme a little break.)

At KA, exam week is not so posh! I had expected a similar week to Hackley with long stretches of time to get caught up on emails, read a book, meet with my department, maybe have a drive to Damascus, go to the Turkish Bath, try a new restaurant (and more prosaic things like buy soap, and stock up on diet Pepsi). But, hmmm…not that posh leisure time here! Instead, they loaded faculty with many proctoring assignments every day (they don’t call them “proctors” here; someone decided to invoke what I guess is a British-ism, and you are called an “invigilator.” I should check on the derivation of that strange title!), and then every committee on campus decided there was sooooo much empty time, so meetings crowded meetings into the schedule, and duties seemed to multiply, and I found myself practically trying to catch some air to even write the exam.

But the purpose of the entry is not to whine about no free time…indeed, while my normal exam week posh life has vanished, I did get a glimpse of posh life last weekend that was a kick.

Last Friday and Saturday I had my first opportunities to be in rich people’s homes in Jordan. I wish I knew an Arabic phrase for oooo-la-la, but anyway, it was fun. So I got my first glimpse at the Jordanian Posh life!

On Friday a group of about 15 were invited over to the home of the man who had supervised the entire building project of KA from 2002-06. He had wanted to celebrate with faculty the opening of the school, and spend some time with people who worked in the spaces he had helped create.

We arrived at his home in Abdoun, a section of Amman that is equivalent to Scarsdale in the NYC area. Swanky. Everybody knows it. Everybody seeks it out. Everybody wants a friend who lives in Abdoun. We arrive and the staff greets us warmly. Oh—a staff. Yeah, in my next life, in my not-an-educator life, I want to have a staff. So I can treat them kindly, of course. We are told this is a Christian home (by the way, that is code for there-will-be alcohol-served) and ushered in to warm our hands by the fire. As we come into what would be called a Great Room in anyone’s terminology, you notice the ceilings in the rooms. This is a builder who obviously enjoys crafting a room. Each ceiling has a distinct “look” or feel, and our host, Gaby, the engineer, has used interesting woods in each room to set a tone.

As people settled down on the overstuffed couches with the symbols-of-the-Christian household, I take a look around. It is always nice when the way to the bathroom allows for peeks here and there. The kitchen! Wow—this is a kitchen that can accommodate parties of 15-30 people. It is like a great galley on a ship—everything is that sleek grey steely look that stands for, of course, posh.

The bathroom has an attendant outside to help you with an individual towel. Oh, yes.

Dinner is marvelous, with maybe 10 entrees—and how would it look if I did not sample all of them? The roasted lamb is exquisite, and well, there wasn’t a bad bite in the bunch. Desserts were both Arabic and American, and our hosts proffered toasts all around to the faculty who are making his physical buildings come to life.

The “poshness” of the house reminded me of some homes I visited while teaching in Charlotte, especially the homes of the Iranian doctor immigrant families I knew: lots of gold touches, and a very Louis XVI-feel to the décor. As I said, the ceilings were just magical, looks from a Roman home in one room, and wooden arabesque designs in the dining room.

Of course, a posh home is only thrilling if the hosts welcome you capably, and Gaby and Hania were excellent hosts. A fun first posh home to visit!

How odd is it that less than 12 hours later I was on my way to my second posh Jordanian home! The senior echelon at KA had been “invited” to a retreat for 10 hours at a board member’s country home, high in the hills over Amman, to discuss goals, and all the things one hopes to embrace at a retreat.

This home couldn’t be more different at first glance. Instead of a French style, this home had opted for a “rustic” look—in fact, it reminded me of the pictures of homes in an old Bible Storybook—the kind of home you always saw for Lazarus with sisters Mary and Martha.

Okay, imagine the view this home boasts: high in the hills that overlook the Jordan Valley, with groves of olive trees clinging to the slopes, and down below is the Dead Sea resort area (in fact the design of the pool out back is one of those infinity pools, the kind that seems to drop off the edge, and here in the pool the view drops off down to the Dead Sea. Heaven!) Right there at my feet was that fabled Promised Land, and supposedly on a slightly clearer day one could see Jerusalem.

The country house is a villa. I mean. Let me tell you. But it felt so comfy, so homey—maybe my home? And yes, the trustee member loaned us his staff for the day. The indoor pool was exquisite to look at with the stones and the waterfall. The picture windows in every room were spotless and showcased the breathtaking views. The home theater had a larger movie screen that half the movie theaters in Manhattan. Each room had a kind of relax-in-New-Mexico-New-Age-serenity. Oh yes, this posh life was, yes.

The retreat was good. The food was spectacular (I tried to eat enough for the next three days—alas, one’s stomach lining can only expand so much). I enjoyed this glimpse of the posh life.

Anyway, I had the Posh song running through my mind, so I decided to do a little research on the derivation of the term “posh.” Herein lies the beauty of the internet! I share now an entry from Wikipedia: “The much-repeated tale is that 'Posh' derives from the 'port out, starboard home' legend supposedly printed on tickets of passengers on P&O (Peninsula and Orient) passenger vessels that traveled between UK and India in the days of the Raj. Britain and India are both in the northern hemisphere so the port (left-hand side) berths were mostly in the shade when traveling out (easterly) and the starboard ones when coming back. So the best and most expensive berths were POSH, hence the term.”

Of course the internet also yielded the words to the song from Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang:

This is livin', this is style, this is elegance by the mile
Oh the posh, posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain's table regal company
Whenever I'm bored I travel abroad but ever so properly
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh
The hands that hold the scepters, every head that holds a crown
They'll always give their all for me they'll never let me down
I'm on my way to far away tah tah and toodle-oo
And fare thee well, and Bon Voyage arrivederci too

O the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain's table regal company
Pardon the dust of the upper crust--fetch us a cup of tea
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh
In every foreign strand I land the royal trumpets toot me
The royal welcome mat is outThey 21 gun salute me
But monarchies are constantly commanding me to call
Last month I miffed (missed) the (a) Mufti but you can't oblige them all
Oh the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
Oh rumpetly tumpety didy didy dee dee dee dee dee
Oh the posh posh traveling life, the traveling life for me
First cabin and captain's table regal company
When I'm at the helm the world's my realm and I do it stylishly
Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-HP-O-S-H, P-O-S-H...

For those who keep up with the blog, you might remember I mentioned my friend Cristina’s Spicy Mexican Dip among my favorite comfort foods. Soon after the blog proclaimed my love for Cristina, and her Dip, she sent me the recipe for the Dip. For those who know the elegant Cristina, she certainly fits into a “posh” blog entry like a glove.

Here is Cristina's recipe:




Now, exams are finished, and this weekend I aim to hit up one of the posh resorts at the Dead Sea for the day. Haven’t been there since the end of my first week in Jordan—a fitting way to celebrate the end of my first six months on this adventure!

Do something posh today!

Friday, January 18, 2008

“Is it as bad as I hear?”

“Eating and talking.” That is how I described my two-week vacation in the United States to any who asked what I did with my time off from school. “Eating and talking.” In the last blog entry (admittedly the most self-indulgent of any of the 50 or so blog entries yet!) I waxed on and on about the eating part of the vacation—the comfort foods that re-connected me to loved ones. I could easily write several entries about the wonderful conversations I enjoyed while visiting Cincinnati and New York.

But in these two weeks after I left the United States to return to Jordan, there are two conversations that stand in high relief from all the great catch-ups and questions of my meeting points of eating and talking. One of the conversations was a fairly brief one in church a couple days after I landed in my hometown. Oh but first—one of our family’s dear friends at church had just asked that my dad and I stop by her house later that week so she could “ask every question under the sun! I want to know so many things about what you’re doing and what it’s like.” Moments after that invitation a woman I have known for over 30 years stopped me and asked, “So, how is it? Is it as bad as I hear??”

Ummm…I smiled and muttered, “It depends on what you hear.” I didn’t really know how to answer her. Just after that promise from the irrepressible Billie Sue that she wanted to “ask every question under the sun” (and by the way she would—I believe the “interview” was an engaging 90 minutes before we got to dessert! My dad said, “I learned so much coming with you tonight.”) this other church woman stopped me in my tracks. “So, how is it? Is it as bad as I hear? Are you going back?” Oh my. Obviously she hasn’t found my blog yet.

She was being polite and friendly to the man who had come back from the Middle East. I know that. She wanted to welcome me home, and she wasn’t quite sure how to ask or what to ask. So her default question was the scary thought, “Is it as bad as I hear??” I just smiled and gave her that kind of oh, how nice to see you this Sunday before Christmas-hug! But her query has stuck in my mind through all the important eating and talking I tackled during my vacation. So many friends and family asked provocative, meaningful questions, but this woman’s wonderment has not left me.

It depends on what you hear. It depends on what you read. It depends on what you imagine it to be. It depends on whom you know, trust, or meet.

As a historian this visit from the Middle East back to my home turf in the United States reminds me how hard it is to be a historian—and how fun—what with contradictory reports, and an understanding that it all depends on what you have heard.

Surveying the scene at the end of my first six months in the Middle East, I am struck by two contradictory trends: yes, the prevalence of severe violence by a small group of actors—mostly governments, and their security forces and a few terrorists—alongside the vast majority of citizens in this region who live peaceful lives, and daily practice non-violent political, cultural, religious and social accommodation and tolerance in their villages and neighborhoods.

The decency and humanity of the ordinary Jordanian (or even more broadly, Middle Eastern) citizens are routinely overshadowed by the more spectacular drama of the organized violence of a very small band of violators. But given our media coverage, we hardly know what to make of it, and how to distinguish among the variety of conflicts. It is very hard to know more than what our images show us, and in the light of 60-second stories on the news, very hard to hear anything clear rising out of the cacophony.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Kenya all mirror different local and regional dynamics. Some of their brutality is the consequence of local warlords and incoherent statehood, whereby armed elements seize power in the absence of a credible, efficient government or state. Other cases are the direct consequence of invading foreign armies practicing a form of neocolonialism. So it is not surprising these days to witness, simultaneously, American troops killing Iraqis in Iraq, Israeli troops killing Palestinians in Palestine, someone or other killing many Lebanese in Lebanon, Osama bin Laden and his types killing all nationalities, all over the world, and assorted Sudanese, Somalis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Algerians killing each other. The nature and culprits of political violence in the Arab-Asian world are very diverse, not monolithic.

So maybe she is not so far off—“Is it as bad as I hear??” It is January yet, and the world over, people raise a billion prayers for the New Year. The start of a new calendar year
will not change the ways of the bombers, killers and generals who orchestrate the violence that defiles our societies, whether they are holed up in a mountain cave in central Asia or a local military base, comfortable in an Arab presidential palace or an American-European capital, or strutting around a ministry of defense. We can, however, start a fresh year by deciding to analyze and understand the cycle of violence more comprehensively and accurately.

Ending or reducing rampant violence requires understanding its full cause-and-effect cycle, especially its root causes, so that they can be addressed with all legitimate political, military, judicial, social and economic means. Sermons and double standards and double speak and bravado are not the answer: they are among the core of the problems.

The overwhelming majority of the one billion people—mostly Muslims—in the Arab-Asian world did not bomb a restaurant, assassinate a politician, or attack an army post in 2007. As I have witnessed, most Arabs congratulated their neighbors for the religious feasts of the day, shared a greeting and kiss, and probably a celebratory meal, tea, or sweet, sent their children to school, and prayed hard. They especially continue to pray for sensible leaders, in their own capitals and abroad, who would summon elusive wisdom and humility.

President George W. Bush has just ended an historic 8-day trip to the Middle East. Obviously, I paid more attention to it than I might have years before. In one of his first speeches in the region, he noted how deeply he hopes to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and even used the words that Palestine is “Occupied Territory.” You wouldn’t believe the rush of hope and excitement that washed over my Arab neighbors. People said, “Did you hear the words he used? He actually called Palestine, Occupied.” As I read the text of his speech, it was as if President Bush had attended the lesson in diplomacy His Majesty had offered at KA back in November. Our headmaster said the other day, “Bush is now talking the talk.” President Bush was not likely to have been remembered as the savior of the Middle East—but this last week several people at school called President Bush “Mr. Palestine.” Certainly President Bush cannot bring an independent Palestine into being at a stroke or through a speech, but it creates a beginning of hope for 2008. It reminded me of what it must have felt like in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson, so angered at the violence in Selma, Alabama, that he promised on national television, “we shall overcome.” It is amazing how a few words can inspire or defeat.

A day or two before I left the United States, my friend and host Anne had contracted a computer specialist to come to her house and help her with some of the woes that the over-12 year-olds need to understand the technological revolutions going on. I wasn’t in on the tutorial, but when I came back in the room, her specialist, an older Korean-American man named Mr. Lee, shook my hand vigorously, and said, “Anne was just telling me what you are doing in Jordan. Please know, please know, from the bottom of my heart, you are doing terribly important work there. I hope you know that.” He felt compelled to tell me some of his story, as an immigrant in the 1950s, of his love for the American way of life and Dream, and of his disillusionment in the last few years with how the world views the United States. “You are not just teaching them history. You are showing them a face. You are showing the possibilities of what America and Americans can do. You are giving us hope of getting along in this world.” And he re-iterated several more times as he shook my hand, “Please know, you are doing terribly important work there.”

I thanked Mr. Lee, a man I had known for about 30 minutes, and filed this remarkable conversation in my brain with all the other moments to relish from two weeks in my homeland. I take out now the questions from the lady at church, the gratitude from Mr. Lee, the hopes of my Jordanian colleagues, and the photo-ops of President Bush in the Middle East, and I ask again for that elusive wisdom and humility, for a Change. Instead of only aggravating the global maelstrom, maybe we can coax out some of the good things, the soulful things, the transformative things that can heal us.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Trip Down Comfort Food Lane

My sister is a Czarina of Tradition and Ritual. I remember about 20 years ago she chastised me after a Thanksgiving dinner about the choices I had made for the gargantuan repast. I had combed Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, cobbling together the most unusual Thanksgiving feast for our family’s enjoyment. At that time I cooked the Thanksgiving meal for our immediate family, the grandparents, and Aunt Audrey and Uncle Russell. I don’t think I yet knew who Martha Stewart was, but with my eclectic menu, I was certainly treading on what would become that Grande Dame’s turf.

Sister Elizabeth, the Czarina I mentioned above, collared me and said, “Listen—we aren’t interested in the fancy stuffings, the fancy soups and sauces. I don’t want cream of anything soup served from a carved-out pumpkin, I don’t want chunks of this and that unknown stuff in the stuffing, and I want my cranberry sauce out of the can [you know with the visible ridges of the tin holding the gelatinous cranberries all together]. It’s what we know. It’s what I want!”
At the time I just assumed she wasn’t interested in trying new things. That wasn’t her point. Thanksgiving, to her, was supposed to be about comfort food, in her mind, food to soothe your soul, and reconnect you to other years of celebrating food and family.

Elizabeth, that dear Czarina of remembering our traditions and reactivating our rituals, was right. There are times when gastronomic adventures are exciting and fulfilling, and there are times when all you want is a trip down Comfort Food Lane. On the plane ride back to Amman last Saturday I realized that my whole trip to the United States had been arranged to see old friends—both the human ones and the gastronomic ones. In my 16 days of vacation (I can’t call it relaxing in the usual sense since I moved at a breakneck pace trying to see everyone I could possibly see to enjoy hugs and love!) I did not try a single new food thing. It was about reveling in that wonderful stability of same old, same old land. That same old, same old food is a familiar reward for having navigated the rough waves of our world, and maybe it is even emotional security. It is certainly perceived as a sense of continuity—same old, same old. On that plane ride back, I thought about the comfort foods in which I had indulged during that two-week stay, enjoying the pleasant associations of childhood, camaraderie, and wanderlust of nostalgia.

Why do we cherish our comfort foods so much? Why do we rely on them and need them so? Science attempts to explain our need for comfort food as a chemical reaction in the brain. The brain releases certain “feel good” hormones into the body to compensate for all the different negative feelings that overwhelm us in every day life, like fatigue, stress, illness or, my favorite, the “ickies.” But, I think there is a deeper connection to feelings and people’s need for comfort foods. After all, if it was just hormonally induced then we would all agree upon what is a comfort food and what is not. One person's comfort food is another person's dieting nemesis.

Selection and choice of comfort food is obviously a very personal thing, clearly more behavioral and cultural then chemical. Comfort foods are tied to positive times and places in our memories that remind of us safety, joy, warmth and well, the obvious—comfort. I made a list of the comfort foods I enjoyed during my whirlwind Cincinnati and New York tour, food which grounds me in my sense of self, and regales me of memories that summon images of love and safety and promise. I can tie each of these foods to many great memories in my life that caused them to become my comfort foods as well as the times in my life when I turned to them when I thought the world was not being kind to me. When I eat these foods they don't necessarily remind me of the events that allowed them to be come my precious comfort foods, but they do make my life a little easier and get me back to my sense of self. These feelings that control our lives are managed by the complex hormones in our brains. So maybe science does have a point with their theories.

Here is my trip down Comfort Food Lane:

Graeter’s Ice Cream—I have sampled ice creams on every trip I have ever enjoyed, and nowhere else in the world is the ice cream as magnificent as Cincinnati’s own Graeter’s. It might be that the butterfat content is especially high—yum—but it is also associated with celebrations for as long as I can remember. As a child, we only went there for the really big moments of life—like after a piano recital. In high school it became the ultimate place in which to skip school for a period or two (yes, I got caught once when Celia and I sneaked back to school, and had to go to detention that afternoon). My favorite flavor is the Mint Chocolate Chip, and if you have sampled Graeter’s, you know of their irregular-shaped flecks and chips and chunks and hunks of bittersweet chocolate in the velevety, minty landscape. When I turned 40, my sister tried to think of a super-special gift for me, and so she sprung for the shipment of containers of Graeter’s to me in New York—immediately I got how special of a gift and remembrance this was! This visit I enjoyed Graeter’s on more than one occasion— with all of my high school friends I saw—Sylvia, Doris, Shelley, and Kevin—all made sure we made a pilgrimage to Graeter’s. Time melts away, and it hardly feels like 25 years since we sneaked down Ferguson Road to gorge on the best ice cream in the world.

Skyline Chili—on more than one occasion, as I have landed at the Greater Cincinnati Airport, I have headed straight to Skyline Chili! This is the domain of the three-way! Get your mind out of the gutter—we are talking a layer of spaghetti, steaming Cincinnati-style chili, and a halo of cheddar cheese on top. In the 1940s a Macedonian immigrant family opened a chili parlor in Cincinnati, and Cincinnatians have been mad about this dish ever since. The chili is not about spicy heat like great Texas chili—it is about the engagement of spices like cumin and cinnamon and nutmeg that create a chili that is as addictive as it is marvelous. Everywhere I have lived I have searched in vain for replications of this chili, and along with my family and friends, this glorious dish brings me back to Cincinnati as often as possible.

White Castle Hamburgers—when I was a little boy, I had piano lessons on Saturday morning, and on the way home, my mother would stop at the White Castle to grab a sack of the cheap hamburgers. Not everyone loves them—that high school friend Celia called them “Death Burgers”(!) but when I stop at the drive-through to get a couple of them now (just one dollar for two) I sink my teeth into the steamed burgers with the sautéed onions and pickle, and remember those long-ago Saturdays of family lunches, and also remember the numerous times stopping at White Castle in the middle of high-school night explorations.

LaRosa’s Pizza
—the story my mother told me was that she and my father stopped at Buddy LaRosa’s pizza joint the night of their wedding and he wished them well, and offered all the pizza they wanted in their first year of marriage. That story has never been substantiated, but maybe it was supposed to be some justification for the decades-long association we have had with this pizza place. As a 10th grader, falling in love with all things at Western Hills High School, the play cast just had to eat there every evening, just to solidify all the work we had done that afternoon on the play. I don’t know if the pizza is really great or not—hard to tell, since when I am there I think of the hundreds of meals enjoyed there, and the realization I was back at our pizza joint. The Czarina of Tradition and Ritual makes sure we eat there every week after church. This visit I called Mrs. Schneider, that music-maker and star-maker teacher in high school, to go out to eat and meet, and we decided on—where else, but La Rosa’s!

Sylvia’s Sauer Braten—In my childhood my favorite dish at our then-regular Sunday Dinner haunt was sauerbraten, a German dish, at Habig’s. A few years ago Habig’s closed, after about 70 years of business. I missed the tang of this marinated beef dish, and so my dear friend Sylvia set out to re-create the dish. Sylvia got a recipe from a fireman friend of my dad’s and created a miraculous facsimile of Habig’s dish, although she sweetly, and diplomatically, relayed that she couldn’t stand the way it made her house smell! How kind and wonderful of Sylvia during this vacation to make this dish again, as a Christmas gift to me, in spite of the vinegar, spices, and lemon smell that lingered in her home!

Aunt Dot’s Sweet Potatoes—About a dozen years ago Aunt Dot began inviting our family to Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, right around the time my sister married, and had another family’s meals to attend. Although we were often just a table of 5 or so, Aunt Dot created a memorable and tasty feast every visit. Over the years, I found that as soon as Aunt Dot would proffer the invitation for T’giving or Christmas, I began thinking how great her sweet potatoes were, and how important these family visits were. These were not perhaps the fanciest sweet potatoes, but fabulous, solid, and real—exactly the qualities in Aunt Dot I treasure so much.

Tony and Indian food—I have a friend Tony, and going on 25 years now, we get together twice a year. In between, the travails of life don’t allow for really much communication, but twice a year now he drives 100 miles to see me in Cincinnati, and we always go out for Indian food. He knows that my tradition-bound family doesn’t allow for much foreign food, and I don’t think his wife particularly enjoys the Indian grub, but when I think of Indian food in general, I think of those hours, semi-annually, when Tony and I put aside everything else and concentrate on what has bound us together for a quarter century. Pass the samosas please…

Cristina’s Spicy Cheese Dip—One of the nearest and dearest friends of mine in New York is Cristina, the Brazilian wonder who teaches Spanish at Hackley. An invitation to her home is always the most magical of times. Cristina offered to host a party for faculty friends from New York, so we could get together and relax in her new home. Cristina makes a dip, oh my, this wonderful hot, spicy cheesy dip, that she makes for nearly every party she hosts. Scooping up the decadent dip took me back to her other parties, other scenes of laughter and conviviality I have enjoyed in her two previous homes over the last 10 years. Cristina and her husband Luis are divine hosts—pampering the guests, and making you feel like prized royalty.

Rib-Eye Steak at the Ardsley Country Club—In 2005 I went through a rough patch of life, and friends Anne and Peter took me out to dinner every night for about 10 nights in a row. Their thought was that good food could always rouse your spirits, and trump the demons. Over the years, I enjoyed many fine meals at their club, and a symbol of their generosity was Anne or Peter saying, “I think you need a good steak.” Last week Anne and I enjoyed a lunch at the club, with two of the greatest former students we know, and I sunk my teeth into my first steak in six months. The room, the friends, the ambiance, the steak, all took me back to a time when caring friends helped me weather a storm.

So what new food memories do I have at KA? Well, my favorite meal here is the lasagna. That is the newest star in my gastronomic galaxy. We have it once in awhile, and the first time was that long-ago night on August 1, when the faculty all first met, and ate in a courtyard under the stars. It is like the Greek lasagna with a béchamel sauce, and it has all the makings of what we seek in memorable comfort food.

At Christmas every year, the dear Czarina of T&R gives me jars and cans and boxes of all the comfort foods I miss when away from Cincinnati. This year I decided to put them in my carry-on bag to New York. Okay—I forgot that even though they are not toiletries, they are still suspect to FAA regulations about liquids and such. Fortunately my father watched to see if I got through security satisfactorily, and took home the confiscated comfort foods. Of course I wasn’t happy about losing all those foods to bring back to Amman this January. But they will all be waiting for me when I make my food tour, home again, in April.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Same Old, Same Old

Happy New Year! (That goes double for the 2008 New Year, and also the Islamic New Year of 1429 that is celebrated tomorrow!) Blessings and peace to you for good health, fulfillment, and epiphanies throughout the new year.

I didn’t receive all that many Christmas cards in the mail this year—I’m not necessarily whining, I mean, where do you send a card to a guy in the desert when he’s not even there for Christmas. I am not leveling a criticism, just observing…but as I was checking through the cards and reading the newsletters I did get, I noticed something. I do read friends’ newsletters by the way (maybe because I send one and hope someone reads them?) and I always marvel at these cheery chronicles of the past year’s events (where, also I have noticed, seldom is heard a discouraging word) trying to catch everybody up on what is new in their lives. Well, two different friends, friends whom I am sure have never met, summed up their past year wielding that trusty idiom, same old, same old. One of the letters seemed a little melancholy, “as with the job, the kids, and the house, it’s the same old, same old.” The other letter assessed 2007 with this poetry: “There’s not much to say, the same old story, same old, same old.” That almost borders on Ebenezer Scrooge! But I have to admit I was a little jealous actually. I don’t think either newsletter correspondent aimed to spark any envy, but you see, for me, in the last 12 months, I don’t think I ever got to opine about the same old, same old. Nothing for me in 2007 was the same old, same old—from the first week in January when I met with the head of this soon-to-open school in Jordan, to tearing myself away from 11 years at Hackley and Manhattan, displacing my self, my psyche, my books, my ties, and turning everything upside down in my personal and professional life.

If you have read the blog entries, you know I have done exciting things, but one thing I haven’t gotten to do is indulge in the luxury of the tried-and-true, the same old, same old. That’s right—there’s a luxury in the same old, same old. I don’t believe either of my friends realized their luxury. Too often when we do the same thing over and over, the shopworn becomes prosaic and dull, but there is of course a great stability and continuity in that same old same old. Between the three-goat feasts, weekend trips to Cairo, Dubai and Riyadh, making sounds in Arabic that make German seem easy, re-imagining courses and bank accounts, figuring out how to keep up with American TV and American friends, hoping to understand the metric system, and wondering if I will any new friends in my new life, I could stand for a little same old same old!

So three weeks ago today when I set off for the United States, and my Christmas vacation, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Would it feel weird to be back in Ohio, to tramp through the streets of Manhattan? Would it feel surreal to have a glimpse at my old life? In the kaleidoscope of 2007, every movement shifted my sights and the scenes around me. What would it be like to be in the universe of same old, same old?

Guess what?! It was the same old, same old. And it was brilliant. And lovely. And comforting. And marvelous. My dad picked me up at the airport and we immediately went to the diner he visits 5 times a week, or as he calls it, “The Institution of Higher Learning.” I saw sassy Pam, the best waitress this side of hashed-brown heaven, and within minutes, it was like every other visit there. Hours later I went to pick up niece Emma and nephew Jack at school, and it was the beautiful same old, same old. The mail came, and like December clockwork, there was a package from my treasured friend Patti Bazzell Freeman, with another star for my Christmas tree—same old, same old, and it couldn’t have been better.

Over the next 16 days, the whole of my vacation, I don’t think I did anything “new” and I couldn’t have been happier. Every meal, every conversation was a jewel with old friends. And the beauty of same old, same old had never been sharper or more lustrous. Christmas Eve at our church was a study in tradition; sister Elizabeth and I performed, as we have every year since 1974. Same old, same old. I went to a play with Christy in New York—just like we had done hundreds of times from 1994-2006—same old, same old. The applause in the theater couldn’t match the applause in my head as I revisited my favorite haunts in New York. Throughout this vacation I was reminded of a quotation by Bertrand Russell: “It’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

While in New York I spent time with two Hackley families on two separate nights, the Ungers and the Khosrowshahis. I might have worried that since our common bond of Hackley was gone, these visits might have been just merely pleasant, but our eating and talking was just like old times, a burnished, and precious same old, same old. These are not just friends of the road, but friends of the heart. These families are some of God’s finest masterpieces—models of faith, hope and love. In fact, I joked with my class the other day that the whole break was really just talking and eating, talking and eating, from Aunt Dot’s house, to Sylvia’s house, to the Cohens and on and on. Nothin’ new, just a perfect same old, same old.

In fact the eating component of my vacation was so fun, I think I’ll write about that in a separate entry in a day or two: a trip down Comfort Food Lane. Watch for that posting as I recount my best meals from the vacation!

When I left the Khosrowshahi house last Friday, it was time for my wondrous friend Anne to take me to the airport, where in an 11 hour direct flight, I would be whisked back to Jordan. Hmmm..what would that be like? After a season of almost blinding newness, how do you adjust again?

I come back, dragging my 140 pounds of suitcases across the Jordanian pavement, to the strains of “Welcome Home!” from the housekeeper for the headmaster. Hmmm…home. Yeah, I guess it is. The Jordanian Residency Card in my wallet suggests that certainly. Over the course of the next day, there was Zeina greeting me, “Hello Sunshine!” and Rehema laughing and Hamzah smiling and hugging me—wait, this was, wait, this was what I had come to love here. This was my new same old, same old!

Dragona, a math teacher friend, had a little party Sunday morning in the Math office—she had missed us so much she said, and she baked, and a group of us sat there, catching up. But it wasn’t that slightly nervous, here-we-go-into-the-brink-of-something-new laughter, it was the ease and comfort of friends you have known for a while—not forever, but enough to know you had missed them. Does it sound trite to want to call all of these nice patterns of life a same new, same new??

I go to get mail, and there is another of my favorite same old, same old signs—a Christmas card from the Canterino family. Margie Canterino’s card was always the first card I received every year. Before I left in December it hadn’t arrived yet—maybe she had forgotten me in the desert! But I see she mailed it on November 24—it’s just the mail in Jordan…takes awhile…but what a great reminder of a decade-old same old, same old. I went to lunch, and guess what the menu was? Lamb and Rice!! Say it together everyone: same old, same old!!!!!

By the end of Sunday I had slipped back into the comfy-as-a-slipper routine of life here at KA— I was off to the gym, and as I started to lock my door, the sight out my window arrested my attention. Ahhhh, yes, that glorious sunset over Madaba. So horizontal. So stunning. So biblical. So powerful.

It caught me off-guard, and I remembered. Oh yeah, here in Jordan, it’s just the same old, same old.