Wednesday, April 30, 2008

simply put—a perfect day

On Sunday, back in Cincinnati now as I pack in as much to my spring vacation as possible, I enjoyed a sunny afternoon tour of historic homes with my good friend Sylvia. That the tour took place in Westwood, my family’s home for a million years, is quite exciting—Westwood was once a showplace community, and now more (dis)regarded as a gasping-for-air ‘burb. Sylvia and I traipsed in and out of 9 historic homes enjoying the decorator’s touches, the rookwood fireplaces, the transformations of butlers’ pantries, and the historic staircases. We started with a home just down the street from my elementary school (seeing the mother of a long-lost high school friend as the volunteer “captain” in the home was a bonus) that dates back to the late 1860s and the beginnings of Westwood. On the dining room table was a vase with the most perfect calla lilies. I commented to Sylvia: “those perfect flowers remind me of my spring vacation—each stem perfect and delightful, and a whole collection of them put together at which to marvel. Each day has just been perfect.” I think Sylvia just thinks those comparisons are weird. Oh well. She puts up with my metaphorical flights of fancy!

But it’s true. Each of those creamy calla lilies seemed perfect, and mirrored how each day of my vacation in the United States has seemed as lovely as those gorgeous flowers. Case in point—as I left the invigorating Denison Singers reunion in Winston-Salem, sweet Stephanie drove me to Gastonia so I could get a plane from Charlotte the following morning. This inspired decision actually came out of all kinds of angst on how to end up in New York on this trip. Stephanie passed me off in Gastonia to Mary, one of the all-time great friends in my life. I got to spend the entire evening with Mary jabbering on and on about the trials and tribulations of my nine months in Jordan. She invited over family who had a son-in-law from Amman, Jordan. Like two cousins separated at birth, he and I talked on and on about the wonders of Jordan, modestly impressing him with my entertaining use of Arabic. Mary invited over dear friends Jane and Caroline and sister Bee and we laughed on into the night. Whenever I leave a Denison Singers reunion I experience what fellow tenor Bill called a “Singers Hangover” as we assimilate back to our real worlds. Here, I got to place another of the gorgeous calla lilies in my vacation vase—those few hours flew by as I reconnected with those Gastonia friends, the friends who have seen me through each chapter of my life in the last 20 years.

But I thought for this blog entry I would focus on just one day—a marvelous day last Wednesday. This calla lily of a day just blossomed as sweetly as a day might.

I was staying with Christy in the city, since everyone else I knew worked real jobs and couldn’t just take off and play with me during the day. Christy, a professor in New York, was on spring break too, and we could indulge in all of the things we loved from our “salad days” in New York. This visit with Christy turned out to be of great importance, as we healed a damaged relationship. To carry on with the plant metaphor—it was time for a little fertilizer and love lest we lose an otherwise good, meaningful plant. We started the day reading the New York Times cover-to-cover. Yes, I can read the paper on-line in Jordan, but there is something relaxing and provocative and challenging about holding that venerable paper in your hand as you canvass the stories of that day.

We then walked across Central Park, drinking in the incredible beauty of the blossom-bursting cherry, apple, dogwood, pear, and magnolia trees. The weather couldn’t have been more spring-perfect, inhaling the scents as we worked our way over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I miss the Met. When I lived in the New York vicinity I often went there once a week, and I miss the grandeur, the exhibits, the gallery talks—and the thrill of thousands of years of art history laid out before you. We went to the exhibit on Gustave Courbet—and like other countless times at the Met, I came away with a deeper appreciation of an artist and an era. Let’s face it—I lap up the learning there.

We set out for our favorite place for a great burger—where in a little nook of the Parker Meridien hotel, without fanfare or signage, is The Burger Joint. We get there at the height of the lunch rush—our goal actually—and sink our teeth into a great burger. The shakes are so good we know we are drinking in the calories.

While in New York I hoped to see some shows. I had three shows at the top of my list: Sunday in the Park With George, Gypsy, or South Pacific. All are revivals of great musical theater pieces, and I hoped that the theater gods would smile on me so I could get half-price ticket seats to any of these shows.

As the perfect day continued, I was at the head of the cancellation line, and scored two tickets in the 5th row center when someone failed to come see Sunday in the Park With George. Ahhhhhh…I hummed the lines of the closing song, “Down by the Blue Purple Yellow Red Water” as we took our seats. Even after all these years of good fortune to enjoy Broadway shows, I was mightily excited.

“Look!” says the man for whom seeing is everything, in a voice that both commands and beseeches. “Look!” This directive is issued by the 19th century painter Georges Seurat, in the glorious revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. How could we not look at the rhapsody of images that keeps unfolding before us? But in Sunday in the Park With George, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985, looking involves much more than registering what’s pretty, what’s shocking, what’s new. The great gift of this production is its quiet insistence that looking is the art by which all people shape their lives.

As I took in this gorgeous show (I know it practically for memory anyway courtesy of the PBS production of it from the mid-1980s) I realized how much like this 19th century artist Georges Seurat I felt. I have been in a new (for me) country for nine months, looking, celebrating the bountiful chaos of life and finding new humanity and clarity in the world. And like Georges Seurat, I struggle to connect the “dots” he makes with his paint. When you take a step back from a pointillist work, you find new balance and harmony in life. The show ends as the first act does, in a ravishing epiphany of artistic harmony—a loving benediction to the struggle to connect the dots. Every member of those audiences, whether consciously or not, is struggling for such harmony in dealing with the mess of daily reality. How generous of this production — and it is the generosity of all great art — that it allows you, for a breathless few moments, to achieve that exquisite, elusive balance.

After the show I rushed to the half-price ticket line, and yes, I got two tickets for the evening performance of Gypsy. I spent the hours in-between that exquisite matinee and the dynamic evening production in the company of three former students. It felt like we just sat down and started visiting when I looked at my watch and saw it was 7:45—time to rush to the theater. Two hours can fly by when you are surrounded by such intelligent, joyous, remarkable people. Kate, Adam and Fareeda are tops—if you know them, steal as much time away with them as you can. We talked about old times, new times, and times yet to come. They are indeed a part of my perfect day.

That evening I basked in the laser-like focus of performer Patti Lupone. In a wallop-packing performance, Patti incinerates the obsessed character of Mama Rose. But there was more than just a musical cult goddess performing here. I remember the travails of Patti Lupone over the years. In 1995 mega-composer Andrew Lloyd Webber fired diva Patti from Sunset Boulevard and she endured a very public airing of how he thought she was past her prime and didn’t have the goods anymore. In this performance, it is more than just the survival of Mama Rose at stake—it is the performer Patti.

The show ends up being about the world of the striptease, but in Gypsy the most transfixing stripteases are characters peeling down, by seductive degrees, to their most primal selves. There is very little sentimental mist in this show. As one character sings, “you either got it or you ain’t.” Patti’s Rose begins as a busy, energetic, excited woman, and you can’t help being infected by her liveliness. You understand why the character Herbie would be smitten with her, and for once, his description of her as looking “like a pioneer woman without a frontier” fits perfectly. But every so often a darker, creepier willpower erupts, as involuntary as a hiccup. In Rose’s two great curtain numbers, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” the darkness takes over so completely that you feel that you’re watching a woman who has been peeled down to her unadorned id. This production makes us painfully aware of the toll exacted by repeatedly missed connections.

Missed Connections. Connecting Dots. I never have thought of these two shows together, but last Wednesday it was obvious how important it is to see these two shows, one of creation, one of survival, and revel in the beauty of both actions. Georges Seurat implored us to look at the beauties around us, and Patti Lupone reminds that for any of us who have been counted out as “finished,” there are moments for redemptions, more opportunities to make connections.

Simply put—a perfect day. Last Wednesday was just perfect.

But I have a feeling I am not finished with my vase of calla lilies on the vacation. I am having dinner with life-long high school friends tonight, I will play hide-and-go-seek tomorrow with Jack and Emma, I will go to breakfast with my dad on Friday, I will call Mr. Justice, my old English teacher, I will make plans with Mrs. Schneider…I will go…

Monday, April 28, 2008

Remembrance Of Things Past

For the last 10 days I have been luxuriating on Spring Vacation—but not in the exotica of camels or pyramids or desert resorts. No, I have been luxuriating in the remembrance of things past.

The beginning of my spring break serendipitously coincided with a reunion of the Denison Singers, invited to perform as “Guest Artists” for an arts festival (“With Hearts and Hands and Voices”) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Denison University, my alma mater, is not anywhere near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but our conductor, William Osborne, retired to that lovely town in 2003 to lead a chamber choral group. I leapt at the chance to fit all of my spring break plans around this gathering of alumni of the Denison Singers. It was not easy—I wanted to spend time with my New York friends and my Cincinnati family during the break, and making it all work inexpensively was tricky (and if you saw the Visa charges to airlines for these two weeks you would probably deem the ‘inexpensive’ hope a failure!). But I wanted to make it work. These Denison Singers reunions are too important to pass up.

William Osborne, never do we call him Professor Osborne, or invoke his real name at all—he has been forever dubbed “WO” after the way he signed his legendarily profuse memos in college. WO came to Denison in 1961 as a young, hotshot music professor, and promptly started a madrigal group. WO retired in 2003, each year of those 42 years having led a group of 16 singers (guess what they called themselves??) through rigorous, challenging, provocative music. For many of us, this tenure in the Denison Singers remains the singular experience from our Denison years.

This is not the first time WO has invited Denison Singers back together—indeed, I was just remembering that we have had reunions since the mid-1980s, I think I can get it right, that invitations came in 1984, 1986, 1991, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and now 2008. I have attended some of all of them except when I was in China in 2001.

What is the appeal of these Denison Singers reunions? Reunions are tricky things—they can be dreadful or life-affirming. We have all been to reunions, I am sure, that are sparsely attended, nervous organizers wondering why no one cared to make the effort, or paunchy, balding people reliving weak memories and dazily spurting fight songs. Or the grand dinner dances where no one really talks, but you end up having a nice time in a 1959 ersatz prom kind of way. Or they might be marvelous experiences because of a charismatic, beloved figure who catalyzes a group in some kinetic way.

The Denison Singers reunions steer a different course. At the center of all of these reunions, usually about four days in length, is music. As the alumni from the classes of 1961 to 2003 gather—an astounding 42 year spread of collegians—we rehearse every day to put on a real concert at the climax of the reunion. None of us have much in common—the experience of college years in 1961 is hardly like that of the swinging years of the 1980s and bears little resemblance to the security and cell phone years of the 21st century. But we all have one thing in common—we like to make music, and we all made music under the tutelage of WO, a gifted eccentric.

But there is more than that that attracts several dozen Singers to stop life in the afternoon of our years and meet hundreds or thousands of miles away from our home bases. As WO mentioned to us, Denison Singers gathered from 17 states, and from England and Jordan for this festival not even in our college town (yes, I got the prize for having come the furthest for the reunion!! During the concert WO gave a shout-out to the two of us who came from across oceans to come and sing in Winston-Salem). The Singers of the 1980s were well-represented: each of the 3 seniors my freshman year were in attendance (they now live in Ohio, North Carolina, and Arizona, respectively) and 3 of the four of my senior class were there (Jeff—couldn’t you have torn yourself away from the academic work for a weekend??? I came from Jordan!) and I sat by Ken and Rick, my favorite tenors in the world, near younger Singers from the 1980s (Elizabeth, she of the creamy soprano whose recital program I found in my jacket a month or so ago; Scott, who met and married Marnie after their time in the Singers; and Stephanie, the Singers friend with whom I have been happily reacquainted in the last year, she drove from Atlanta to rekindle our relationship.)

As I lay in my hotel room the other night thinking about the enduring appeal of these reunions, it struck me how much like the Thornton Wilder play, Our Town, I find these gatherings to be. As my friend Peter Siviglia calls Our Town—it is a “plotless wonder,” but of course the play is really about the big issues of life—births, marriages, deaths. At these reunions there is a core group of usual suspects—there are always some from the beginning of WO’s time, and there are always some of the “babies,” i.e. the ones from the 21st century in WO’s experience—and as we meet together every few years, we observe and record the passage of time. In fact, it is almost like we have a Stage Manager in Our Town, who at the beginning of Act III announces: “This time nine years have gone by, friends, summer, 1913. Gradual changes in Grover’s Corners.” In 2004 when we first met in Winston-Salem to sing at this arts festival, and to sing for the wedding of WO’s niece, one of the members of the class of 1970 was talking with me and dear friend Elizabeth, from the class of 1987. Bob said, “You know we will keep on meeting like this forever I hope, I can’t imagine not getting together with the Singers. I imagine we will grow old together.” At these Singers reunions I always try and spend time with some of those folks about 16 years older than I, like the wacky Donna, the witty Susan, or the outrageous Mickey, and I make a beeline to see my friend Jeff, a guy 16 years younger, but one who finds these reunions as miraculous as I do. We stay up late catching up and laughing more than what ought to be allowed by hotel security.

If you have known me for very long, you know how very much I like Our Town—I have directed the play three times over the years, and I always gravitate to one of the speeches made by the Stage Manager in Act III. As he traverses over the pretend hills of the graveyard, he intones: “Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . .everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”

It’s funny—as much fun as it is to reminisce about our Europe trip 25 years ago (!!) or to mock WO’s bow or his love of arcane language, these reunions are not wallowings in the past. It is remarkable, actually, how they touch on the past, the present and the future. Of course, it is fun to look at the photo albums of the 1980s and comment on the hair styles, glasses frames, or just the insistence of our youth, but we gather together also to take stock, communally, of our present. Where we are right now in the journey is always a major part of these gatherings—and these are accomplished, exciting people to be sure. And since we have a history of gathering every few years, there is a calmness and a joy that Bob-from-the-class-of-1970 and his words will come to pass, the future is certain in that we will continue to meet and refresh our memories and take hold of where we are. In these Denison Singers reunions we come as close as we are able to touch that eternal something—but not to simply touch the college you, but to help put things in marvelous perspective—where have we been, where are we now, where are we headed. This might be just as eternal as a full head of hair on a shockingly in-shape young man, or it might be the afterglow of the Stage Manager’s hope, “Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out clear?” Somehow these gatherings help us, or at least certainly me, to look down that path and see “the eternal” with a little more clarity, and a little more love.

So on this epic pilgrimage of 2008 we sang a concert of German, Latin, and English pieces (the usual mix of the Teutonic, the Church formal, and the King’s English) with a glorious brass choir and a stupendous organ. I missed the Thursday night rehearsal (it does take awhile to fly from Jordan remember!), but I was there for 10 hours of rehearsal between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon prior to the concert. WO chose music as he always does—a few pieces easy to pick up and practically sightread, and then a piece or two that needed work, the real work of checking on rhythms and pitches and blend. This is another of his gifts to us—there is always a piece you think you don’t like at first, this time the “Credo for Peace” by Henry Brant. But with patience and determination you discover there are some hidden glories in it. This credo is performed with a trumpet soloist and a speaker, and is dense, and needed attention, and not just casual work in between the meals and laughter of the reunion. By Saturday I turned to Rick and said, “this is one of the WO pieces where he makes us work, where he makes us discover the beauty.” We are on to his tricks now. Not every beauty is apparent at first glance.

As per usual, I teared up during the concert. After the concerts of every reunion people scatter to the wind, returning to their usual treads and grooves. And the Denison Singers become like the classic Broadway show Brigadoon, a town that comes alive only once in awhile. But there is something so magical and joyous about that finity of experience.

I love the music. I love seeing people who knew me in my youth. And I love pondering and celebrating things that do last. These reunions are brief. Many of these friendships should not have lasted this long. But something has lasted between us…some bond which we forged long ago has lasted in some way. So while concerts do not last, school days fade away, and whatever ephemeral situation brought us together recedes in my mind, what the heart remembers, the mind can never displace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


If I had the money and attention span to be a great collector, I know what I would like to amass: kaleidoscopes. I remember hearing a dean at Denison University in 1986 give a lecture about the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the transience, beauty, and inevitability of life and I have never ceased to be amazed by this great invention. Of course, the kaleidoscope is a tube of mirrors containing small colored objects; as the tube is rotated, the tumbling of the colored objects presents the viewer with varying colors and patterns. Any arbitrary pattern of objects shows up as a beautiful symmetric pattern because of the reflections in the mirrors. Known to the ancient Greeks, it was reinvented in the 19th century and popularized as an indispensable toy in the era of the newfangled horseless carriage and wireless radio. When I taught a course on the 20th century at Hackley, I discovered the “re-invention” of the kaleidoscope at the turn of that promising new century and I used it in conjunction with the novel Ragtime as a metaphor to understand the changes, the music, the new patterns of life at the dawn of the 20th century. Certainly every week, often every day, and even every hour the slight turning of the KA kaleidoscope has made this year in Jordan wondrous and beautiful.

I haven’t written for a while about the progress of my gang in the state of “Poke,” as Adam designated it a month ago. They are doing well. Recently a young man, a new intern here at KA from Scotland, visited my class, and afterward said, “I couldn’t believe their excitement in class. There was one moment in particular when I just felt sucha rush.” Matthew referred to a day when we moved from the Enlightenment, a time of revolutions in thought, to the Industrial Revolution, a transformation in technology. I showed a slide of a brand-new, gorgeous machine (from sometime circa 1840) and I asked the class, “Which Enlightenment philosopher do you think would love this machine the most? Which philosopher…?” Hands ranged in the air, and many started shouting out names. I asked, “Make sure you can explain why your choice would love this machine with such devotion.” Matthew told me later, “I couldn’t believe they were saying all these philosophes from the days of the Enlightenment. They really knew the big names.” As we went through names like Isaac Newton and John Locke and Montesquieu, several students shook their heads in disapproval at those names. I forget which student first offered the name of Condorcet, but I remember how swiftly Rashed’s hand shot into the air, “Mr. John, it has to be Condorcet. He’s the man who kept saying that mankind is perfectible and he would say this machine is perfect and leads us to a perfect society.” Matthew couldn’t believe how sharp their evaluative skills had become. Yes, they had named the right names, but many went beyond just rehearsing the Enlightenment hall-of-famers. They were trying to take something so odd as this machine and connect it to the words and thoughts and hopes of these writers. It was one of those moments when you realize how beautiful the patterns of the changing kaleidoscope had become.

Another turning came on April 6 when we hosted a group of 20 or so from a school in Indianapolis, Indiana, a scant 100 miles from my hometown. A wonderful teacher, Margo, had set this trip up last summer so that our students could meet her students, and simply let our teenagers spend the day together and see what happened. They attended classes with a paired-KA student, attended co-curriculars, and in the evening we met and discussed world events and social issues before turning to Arab music and dance. First of all, Margo endeared herself to me by bringing me my two favorite kinds of girl scout cookies—hard not to be overjoyed when your mouth is stuffed with the Tagalongs!

That evening I facilitated the discussion with my dear colleague Fatina—another example of the American-Jordanian pairing. Instead of just having them in one big group, we started the evening with just the pairs discussing. Then we enlarged the groups to 4, to 8, 16, and finally, all 36 of the American and Jordanian students. They enjoyed spirited conversation, and of course, as we watched them, we enjoyed watching how many of the personality issues akin to teen-agers overlapped the nationality borders. Here are the questions that the American students brought eager to discuss with our students:

Questions from Park Tudor School students:
Are there any conflicts between different religions at King’s Academy?
As you become more educated at King’s Academy are there conflicts at home?
How do others view you for going to King’s Academy?
What do you think of the rules at King’s Academy?
More and more American youth are questioning religion or their parents’ religion. Are there atheists in Jordan? Do people feel comfortable challenging religion?
How many girls wear headscarves at King’s Academy?
What do you think about the rules for women in Saudi Arabia compared to a country like Jordan?
Why do men dress in tight jeans in the Arab world yet some women wear the hijab? Why isn’t the men’s dress haram?
What do you like about western culture and what do you dislike?
Do you like the westernization of Jordan—do you see it as a good thing or a bad thing?
Are people in the Middle East concerned about global warming and/or environmental issues?
Because of the war in Iraq, do you have a negative preconception of “me”?
Are Americans disliked because of their presence in the Middle East or because of specific values they hold?
Are you following the U.S. presidential race and primaries?
Are Jordanians sympathetic to Osama bin Laden? Why or why not?
What solutions do you see to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
How do you feel about parental involvement in your personal life? Would you accept parental involvement in your marriage? Are you allowed to date?
What difference can young people make in the world?
What is family life like in Jordan?
What is the difference between culture and religion?
How can one believe and practice their faith but still be tolerant of others?
What role should religion play in society?
What is your understanding of freedom?
How are young people in the U.S. and Jordan similar? How are they different?

In the last two nights there were more delightful turnings of the kaleidoscope—not major moments of groups coming together, but simply individuals coming together.

On Tuesday night I was leaving my apartment bound for the gym. Abdullah, Raja, and Adel stopped to ask some questions about a presentation they were preparing for class the following day. We sat down to go over the fine points of what they hoped to accomplish, and we just started talking about history courses and AP tests and being a student in general. About an hour later we moved inside and finished some left-overs from a “mixed grill” at Haret Jdoudna the night before. It wasn’t anything major, but another slight turning of the kaleidoscope, another moment of symmetry, another moment of unexpected beauty. I don’t think we solved any problems of the world, but we spent about 90 minutes just enjoying each other’s company and humor.

Last night I had been invited to an unusual dinner—the man Mr. Ziad, he of the famous carpet store in Madaba, invited six of us who have bought carpets from him in the last few months, invited us to his house for a feast. We met his family, met the groaning table laden with the Arabic feast, and spent the entire evening making merry and making music. It was unheard of to me to go to an entrepreneur’s house, and maybe he just wants us to visit the showroom again, but it was all just a magic turning of the cosmic kaleidoscope. Each day another turning.

The turning of the kaleidoscope is a little rushed this morning. In an hour I am headed to the airport, all set to jet over the thousands of miles back to the heartland of the US of A for Spring Break.

The colors of the particles will no doubt change, the arrangement of patterns, but the joy, and the pleasure of the simple turning of the kaleidoscope will no doubt delight. I will check in with you stateside.

Friday, April 11, 2008

“O, Captain, My, Captain”

A couple of weeks ago, during Anne and Martha’s visit from the United States, we had a wonderful opportunity one Tuesday evening at KA. We would be treated to a special screening of a movie, Captain Abu Raed, that had been flying on exceptional buzz around here in Jordan. The buzz went, “this is the first Jordanian feature film in 50 years!” I couldn’t figure out if that were true or not—some said 30 years—but I won’t quibble with a little hyperbole. The point was—this was a movie about Jordan, made by Jordanians, and it had been a long time a-comin’.

I might have written about the movie sooner on the blog, but I wanted to see how long the afterglow from this exceptional movie lingered—was it just a fun heartwarming, movie, or was there more to it? Did the movie haunt me—in all the ways a great film might—for days and days??

Since I had the rental car during Anne and Martha’s stay, we eschewed joining in the bus brigade as all 112 students and assorted faculty came to Amman to the Cinema at City Mall (just a hop and a skip from another mall with the I-swear-it’s-true-name of Mecca Mall) for the screening. I sit down with A&M on one side of me, and my friend Elizabeth on the other side. (By the way—I have a perfect digression: yesterday in Arabic class we learned the phrase khalil el culp, which means “friend of the heart.” That is a phrase I have treasured since reading Lillian Rubin’s book, Just Friends, 20 years ago about the kind of to-die-for-friend we all seek to find. FYI—Elizabeth is one of those lifelong khalil el culp people indeed.)

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, but from the opening scenes, meeting a tired, old airport janitor named Abu Raed, I was entranced. This guy, with a grizzled face of the likes of a Spencer Tracy or a Morgan Freeman, was a seeming n’er-do-well. In the trash bin on the job he discovers a discarded pilot’s hat and takes it home. The children in his poor neighborhood assume he is a pilot—a captain! Abu Raed insists he is not a captain, but they don’t believe him. The children beg him to share his stories of the world outside of Amman, Jordan. Each day he gathers up these children and spins his tales. Through the magical tales friendships form and they transcend their grim realities. I don’t want to tell you more of the plot. I want you to see this film! I want you to demand your local indie movie theater get this film. I will sum up in a vague-ish way the rest of the movie: Abu Raed takes it upon himself to make a difference in people’s lives.

As we watched the movie (in Arabic with English subtitles) Elizabeth, my khalil el culp, and I would turn and gasp at the Arabic—we know those words! We know those phrases! And on the other side A&M poked at me as the cinematographer took us around Amman—we were just there yesterday!—Anne whispered excitedly. I couldn’t believe how excited I was just to be seeing a movie stamped, “Made in Jordan.”

But there was more to this film. Scene after scene, the world of Abu Raed unfolded, revealing an obvious labor of love, and monumental effort, by a Jordanian writer-director and cast and crew. Elizabeth and I realized that we were seeing the film through kind-of Jordanian eyes. We not only recognized the settings, but we recognized the hard-hitting socio-economic struggles we ourselves saw working so near Amman and at KA. For the Jordanians in the audience, they loved seeing their people on the silver screen. There were the rich folks in Abdoun, where many of our students live, and there were these children’s faces from the hardscrabble parts of downtown Amman. The film felt Jordanian, and it confronts Jordanians with some of the issues of their time: the gap between rich and poor, social conformity, domestic violence, and child labor without sugar-coating. At the end of the film there is a scene of the Jordanian flag flying over the ancient Roman citadel high above downtown Amman and the audience burst into exuberant applause!

But it was so much more than just a kick to see sights around town. It is more than just a love letter to Amman. A&M thrilled to the story as well, caught up in the magic of this old man loving these children and opening up worlds to them. Is it trite to say the film must then be universal? All I know is that it was beautiful film-making, reminding me a little of Cinema Paradiso, a film I loved from 1990.

After the film we enjoyed a post-screening discussion with the producers and some of the actors in the film. We learned that the movie had been making the rounds of some of the international film festivals and our wizened and wise Captain had won Best Actor honors at the Dubai Film Festival, and the film itself won the “Audience Award” at Sundance. Wow. Sundance! We all know the cachet of that Robert-Redford labor of love.

During the discussion after the movie we learned that the writer-director and producers had used children, true stars in the movie, cast from local orphanages and from Amman’s refugee camps. Their faces have haunted me in these days since we screened the movie. Their performances felt so real—from their sense of wonder, sadness, loss of hope and anger, it added to the beauty and magic of the film.

As we left the film, Anne made a beeline for the producer to bend her ear about a film center in New York that she bets would love to show the film. As Anne talked with her, I spoke with another of the producers, and she asked me how they might work it so that some of the actors might be able to apply to KA as students. “They don’t have any advantages in life, and they have such a desire to learn, and the writer has kept in touch with them, hoping to help change their directions in life.”

This conversation has stayed with me for days as well. As beautiful as the film was, as reassuring as the message of the film is that we must work do good in the world, it wasn’t just a pat message for these filmmakers. They were living the message they just artistically created. They earnestly want to change the lives of the children they encountered in making this film. The glow of the Captain film just lingers on and on in a stirring way. I will keep you posted about if we have the chance to bring these students to our school.

We the saw this film on the evening that I had received some sad news. That morning, as I checked emails, I had a message from Denison friend Rick who wrote late the night before. He relayed that he had been watching ESPN (or something like it) and a sports commentator announced that he had just learned his favorite teacher in his life had died. Rick reported that the teacher had been from Hackley, and had changed this commentator’s life. Rick just wanted me to know that Walter Schneller had died, and since we were both from Hackley, I must have known him.

Indeed I knew Walter Schneller. He had hired me to teach at Hackley in the spring of 1996, and had been one of those kinds of legendary teachers about whom people will speak for decades. When I interviewed with Walter in his cluttered-with-a-lifetime-of-files-and-posters-and-books office it took me a little bit of time to get over his Venerable (with a capital V) air. from the looks of him I thought he might be caught up in the past of his career. But as I peered more closely at the piles of books, I noticed so many recent tomes about history, and saw so many posters for current art exhibits. I asked him what class had been his favorite over his 40 years at Hackley. He responded, “Well, John, isn’t it always your current class?” and his eyes twinkled. Over the course of that afternoon we talked of the glories of teaching. I told the new Upper School Head in our interview that I aimed to grow up to be like Walter Schneller.

Two years later, in 1998, Walter had an “anointing ceremony” in which he invested me with the sacred duty to run the History Department at Hackley. It had all the mock Venerable aura I had mistaken earlier as arrogance, cynicism and running on empty. Walter retired from teaching that year to write the history of Hackley School, and we saw him occasionally over the next few years. I wouldn’t say we were “friends of the heart,” but my admiration for a man who had inspired and compelled and worked on teaching as a labor of love for decades remains impregnable. That Fall when I took my place at the podium to announce the members of the History Department I quipped, “For the first time since the Eisenhower administration a new History department head introduces new faculty.” It took a few moments for the faculty to grasp the enormity, the legacy, the tenure of this historian.

As I watched Captain Abu Raed I couldn’t help but see the giant Walter Schneller as he worked his magic, piquing the curiosity of the young, imploring them to weather the storms and improve themselves, and remember the elegy from Walt Whitman, the ode to “O, Captain, My, Captain.” I exult in knowing both luminous captains.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

“Bring us safe through Jordan”

Holidays are such family memory factories: we re-create and re-vivify latent habits, rituals and practices all the while designing pages in our family scrapbooks. When one is 6,000+ miles away from home, those pages turn all the more effortlessly in your mind, and new experiences juxtapose themselves to the stalwart traditions. As I have found all year, doing and remembering in Jordan often renders my old habits and memories even sharper and more precious. Two weeks ago, as the commemoration of Easter approached in the western church, I thumbed through some of those Easter memories of yore.

Like most families, holidays follow a similar annual groove and rhythm. In our family a typical Easter began before Dawn, up earlier than any day in the year, readying ourselves for the Sunrise Service. In our new Easter clothes, Easter flowers pinned on my mother and sister, we drove over to Mount Echo, a site with a commanding view above the Ohio River, and soaring panorama of Cincinnati. Our parents’ Sunday School class was in charge of the service, a time meant to remind everyone of the first moments when several women discovered the empty tomb of Jesus near Golgotha. After the Sunrise Service everyone headed to our church Fellowship Hall for a bountiful breakfast, organized year after year by our family friend Charlie, a man my father acknowledged (conceded?) as one of the best eaters he ever knew. Breakfast was the time to compare people’s Easter outfits (and for my mother to cast silent, scornful looks on those who skipped the Mt. Echo service and headed straight for the feast) and look forward to our musical performances that morning in the big church service. Easter Sunday was such a big day that our modest size church needed two services to accommodate the regulars and the visitors. That meant we got to perform twice in the same morning!

The sanctuary overflowed with Easter lilies and tulips and worshippers, and once in awhile our church choir attempted something ambitious like Handel’s “Hallelujah.” While I saw my mother’s mother every Sunday in church anyway, on special days like Easter, it did have a have a special energy sitting with my grandmother. If we had thought ahead, we had reservations at an especially nice place for lunch, but sometimes we had to settle for a place not so crowded with customers with foresight. And then after lunch, we went to my father’s mother’s house for the Easter Basket hunt. After the baskets had all been discovered (one year it took my sister Elizabeth an especially long time—her basket had been hidden in a great place, in the old falcon out back in which she “drove” my grandmother every week during our Sunday visits. She never thought to look in the falcon! Oh, it must have been hard being the youngest grandchild on both sides of the family, and being just a tiny bit slower in those youthful, quasi-competitive activities) we sat down as our grandmother cut pieces from the coconut lamb cake she had made. It was a tradition dating back to the early 1930s, as she used the same cake-mold pan I think, making a Lamb Cake every Easter, and hiding a dime in the batter. Obviously, whoever got the dime in his or her piece of cake was the winner! Even into the 1980s, the dime was much sought-after. Our family hews to tradition.

Thus was the traditional scenario of Easter for my family for at least 20 years. There is one Easter that stands out in even greater relief, however, maybe from around 1977 or 1978. That particular Easter might remain so memorable because if I saw the pictures I would gasp at my horrendous white and powder blue polyester leisure suit, the kind of heinous outfit that perpetrated themselves on American society in the late 1970s. But I remember it more sharply because of the Sunrise Service. As I said, my parents’ Sunday School class, the Co-Weds, a group of what had once been young marrieds in the early 1960s, organized the service. This particular year they presented a play about Jesus’ followers and their reactions on Easter morn. But it wasn’t a typical play that had that certain “presentational” style. As families gathered in the chilly pre-dawn air in the makeshift outdoor chapel at Mt. Echo, the play just seemed to unfold. It caught us off-guard actually. My mother hadn’t told us there was a play, and as we arrived and sat down, the actions and reactions began so organically. There was my mother, all of a sudden crying and wondering what happened to her Lord. Another family friend, Earl, trying to make sense of her sadness, comforting her, looking for answers. It did take a minute or so to realize that this was a purposeful presentation, and the honesty of it, the lack of stage-y drama added to the power of seeing these real people reacting to the empty tomb, and slowly realizing the majesty and triumph of the Resurrection. I knew my mother had acted in college (essaying the roles of Emily in Our Town and Linda in Death of a Salesman), and certainly every day of her life she infused with drama, but this performance on this Easter morning is so magically etched in my brain as the most heartfelt recreation of the original Easter. I can’t shake the memory of it.

I also can’t shake the memory of the next Easter or so—but for totally different reasons.
Since the Sunrise Service required that our family get up so early on Easter, my mother figured that we young ones needed a good night’s sleep. By the teen-age years one did not willingly go off to bed at 8:00 p.m. the night before Easter. So by the end of the 1970s, when I was a bit more stained with teen-age defiance, I refused to go to bed when my mother requested. I had a movie to watch! I would go to bed when the movie was over, and she would just have to live with that. I have no idea what movie was so important, but I remember vividly what I saw when I went to bed that night…at the time I had chosen. Pinned to my pillow was a note that read, “Here sleeps a disobedient son.” Yup. She made sure I understood the magnitude of my actions. In a fit of I’ll-show-her-she-can’t-accuse-me-of-that, I slept on the floor that night.

Anyway, two weeks ago, as Easter approached I knew it would be a different pattern this year. For one thing, in a 94% Muslim country, I am now in the minority of Christian worshippers; and in Jordan, Christians celebrate Easter by the Orthodox calendar, so in April this year, during the time I will be in the US for Spring Break in a couple weeks. Originally I had hoped to go to Jerusalem on the date of western Easter, walking along the very paths of that real Easter. But, but, but it was a school day, so there would be no historical recreation in Jerusalem. However, since western Easter fell during the time of the important G20 conference at KA of important heads of school from around the world, Tessa decided we needed to have some sort of Easter service here on campus.

We have a Spiritual Center on campus, in honor of His Majesty, and up until Easter I don’t think I had been inside of it. It is a beautiful building, its ambiguous design hoping to be non-descript enough to fill anyone’s needs as a quiet place of worship and reflection. Inside the unusually shaped building sits a burbling fountain, prayer rugs, and a nice open space for gatherings. Tessa had invited a priest from Madaba to hold a service for any interested in joining an Easter service. She hired a flutist to provide music, and as we entered the space, the calm sound provided an excellent preparation for a sermon and communion.

The service was low-key, to be sure, but still quite touching—especially as I compared these new sensations to old, treasured memories. We sang “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today,” one of the hymns you look forward to every year, but I missed our friend Howard’s trumpet stylings that I have enjoyed so many Easters. As the service drew to a close we sang a hymn, “Thine is the Glory,” that had a vague familiarity to it. The words had that stirring Easter majesty: “Thine is the Glory, Risen conqu’ring Son, Endless is the vict’ry, Thou o’er death hast won.” When we got to the last line of the hymn, we sang “Bring us safe through Jordan to Thy home above.” I looked over to my friends there for this first-time-for-us-Easter-in-Jordan, and Tessa and Rehema and Elizabeth and I all smiled to each other. We were actually in this area of the hymn, the prayer of the lyricist our constant prayer.

My mother always made sure we understood that Easter was far more than chocolate and Peeps. In her inimitable way, she reminded us that Easter is about transformation, blessings, and triumph. We needed to look around us for what blessings we enjoyed, and we should always seek to transform ourselves.

Easter week was also when my guests Anne and Martha were in town, along with many other guests enjoying spring breaks in the United States. One of my dearest friends here, Rehema, had a BFF visiting from medical school in New York, and they joined us for some of the famed dinners with Anne and Martha. Last week, after his departure from Jordan, her friend Chris wrote me an email, thanking all of us for our hospitality, but also reminding me how very blessed we are to have this group of friends at KA. “You all clearly have a very special bond that no doubt transcends all of the ups and downs of this dynamic experience that you all are having,” Chris wrote. It is wonderful to be reminded of these blessings.

Later that week, a day or two after Easter, a father of one of our students came by to see Eric, our headmaster. Eric told the faculty the story this week, that the father knocked politely at his office door, and asked to come in, and notified Eric that he would like to make a gift to the school. He wanted to give the school a million dollars. The father said to Eric that he is so moved by how his son has been “transformed” at KA, he felt compelled to make this gift.

Not exactly a dime in a piece of Lamb cake, but certainly another variation on the theme of transformation, blessings, and triumph.