Monday, December 28, 2009

The work of Christmas begins

Last Saturday, when the return jet lag summoned me awake at 4:00 a.m.-ish, I worked on addressing Christmas cards and envelopes. That was a great way to use that pre-dawn time. I addressed about 90 cards between Saturday morning and Monday morning's early rising. But I realized how many of my friends did not have their "snail mail" address in my address book. In the interest of sending as many greetings as possible, I will copy my letter here for the blog-reading public.

December 19, 2009

Dear friends near and far,

This morning I landed in the United States for two weeks visiting friends and family! I decided to get right at the business of Christmas and get out some cards. Just the quick work of addressing envelopes helps me get back into the rhythms of life here in the United States and reflect on this third year teaching and working and living in Jordan.

This summer when I was doing some cleaning in my old bedroom at my parent’s house in Cincinnati, I discovered a stack of old magazines and newspaper clippings someone had stashed under my bed. Of course more time was spent investigating these new treasures (if you have ever visited our house on Montana Avenue you know we do a lot of saving and savoring of such old treasures!) than on the actual purging of ancient artifacts. But as I heaved a stack of 1970s issues of McCall’s and TAB—The American Baptist toward the trash can, a yellowed clipping slipped out onto the floor. The first thing I noticed about it was my mother’s handwriting, dating it from December, 1973. At the bottom of the poem was her charge to herself: “Remember!” The poem reads:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the king and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

I have seen the first half of the poem before, but not the second. I know why my mother loved this poem—she loved work! She loved the abstract thought of what the “work of Christmas” might mean, and she also loved making lists, setting goals, and rolling up her sleeves and doing hard, invigorating work. Of course finding the clipping makes me reflect on the “work” we all do. What is the “work” that consumes us? How does that work define us? Fulfill us? Exhaust us?

I am in my third year at King’s Academy in Jordan, and it is hard work. Fulfilling work. Exhausting work. If you are interested in reading more about my experiences there in the last 30 months, please check out the blog address at the top of the previous page. I will be publishing my 200th blog entry this week!One of the parents I most enjoy seeing at King’s Academy is Dr. Hamati. He relayed a story to me recently that I appreciated. He said that this woman he knew had never cooked a Christmas meal. And so she gathered her son and her husband into a room, and she told them this was the first Christmas meal she would prepare and she didn’t want any comment from them. She said that she was going to make the meal, and they were going to sit down and receive it, and if it wasn’t any good, then they would, without comment, put on their hats and coats and scarves and they would get up from the table, walk downtown to a fancy American chain hotel, and eat there. So her husband and her young son, without comment, nodded, and they left the room as she began to prepare the meal. Well, the time came to eat. And the young son and the husband walked into the room and waited. In came the proud mother, carrying her food, and as she looked up, she noticed that her husband and her young son were quietly at their seats, wearing their coats, hats, and scarves. Her son and her husband, they were expecting the worst. Indeed, many people in our world expect the worst. Have you read the headlines???

We teach a World Religions class at King’s Academy. Some time ago I started asking the various teachers, privately, for an uncomplicated explanation of their idea of the purpose and aim of a spiritual life (what a task!!). One of my favorite answers went, “All I want to say to you is, ‘You are the Beloved.’” He went on to say that “from the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.”

I think this is what Christmas is all about—receiving the gift of love that makes us know that we are the beloved, and from that place, we go about bringing that love to others. I think that is the point of a life of faith: not who lives most exemplarily in and unto themselves, but who lives most fully and effectively and selflessly for the sake of others. So to be about the work of Christmas is to bring this love we have received into our homes, our cities, our worlds, and especially to all those who have come to expect the worst. And in this pursuit, we unleash the full potential of the gift of Christmas—the potential for good, for joy, for peace, for healing, for reconciliation, for transformation, especially to those who have come to expect the worst.

In the footsteps of Christmas, when love comes into the world in the vulnerability of a child, when light pierces the darkness, and hope is born, when you think about it, as that poet wrote, the work of Christmas has only just begun. There is always that danger to sentimentalize the cuteness of the newborn child in that manger, rather than focus on the awesome mystery of the incarnation. When we look to the incarnation of God and the profound mystery of the birth of love into the world, then we can begin to change from expecting the worst to working toward something good. So from our kneeling place beside the manger, we slowly rise to our feet, and the miracle of this birth and the glow of this gift of love stay with us, lie within us, even as we slowly step back toward that cowshed door and out into the cold January air and to the world from which we came. We begin again in this new year with courage and joy and love to set about doing the work of Christmas in all the far away and forgotten places of our lives and in the world where people expect the worst.

Friday, December 25, 2009


It may be the most daunting announcement and mysterious promise of the entire Christmas story: those angels proclaiming peace.

We crave it, and yet it never seems to appear.

Two weeks ago today, on December 11, a particularly stressful day (even though Fridays are officially off days, I spent 8 hours with the hardest working people at KA—the class deans of the office of Student Life) doing work that a highly-paid administrator should have done (‘nuff said). At one point I walked over to the refrigerator for a Diet Coke in Sheena’s apartment and a magnet caught my eye. The black-and-white magnet read:


It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.
It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

--Unknown writer

I grabbed a post-it note and quickly wrote down this intriguing conceptualization of peace.

Later that night I googled this saying—having never heard it before, and on a website, someone shared the greater context of this definition. Here is the fable I found on the internet:

There once was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The king looked at all the pictures. But there were only two he really liked, and he had to choose between them.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace.

The other picture had mountains, too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all.

But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest - in perfect peace.

Which picture do you think won the prize? The king chose the second picture. Do you know why?

"Because," explained the king, "peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”

--- Author Unknown

This conceptualization of peace resonates with me as I find myself consumed by the pressures and challenges at KA. As a teacher and dorm parent, there are many times when there is noise, trouble, and hard work all at once! Yet, I do often find peace, knowing that this is part of the process of growth and transformation in this young school. Working in Jordan is generally far from an easy or trouble-free process, but as I take the long view of what we have accomplished in the last thirty months, and the students I have met, I find that mysterious peace. I am able to be at peace knowing that I am doing what I was meant to do, and that everyone involved will grow through the problems we are facing. Cultivating a confidence about my abilities to manage and overcome the obstacles allows me to feel at peace amidst the challenges that arise.

Of course, life wouldn’t be very interesting if everything was quiet, trouble-free, and effortless. We may wish at times that this were the case! However, our triumphs are gained through the more chaotic and difficult times. When noise, trouble, and hard work fall upon us, how we perceive it and react to it makes all the difference. The challenge is to learn how to be at peace inside ourselves, even when things around us are far from peaceful.

As I age, I realize even more clearly that life is a process and not an endpoint. We revise and revise and I keep in mind my dear 95-year old friend, educational philosopher Maxine Greene, who loves the phrase, I am what I am, not yet.

On this Christmas evening, with the chaos and noise and hard work of the holiday winding down, I am left with a marvelous calm, an understanding that I hardly have all the answers, but yet a serene peace that we are making a difference in a few people’s lives.

God bless us everyone…and Merry Christmas. Peace to you.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Seeking the “Holy Grail”

The device of the quest is one of the oldest and most durable in literature. Indeed the annals of fantasy and entertainment are replete with great examples of searching/seeking/craving the hopefully-not-unattainable. Everything from Camelot to Dan Brown, Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl, from Ross on Friends to the venerable Don Quixote have dreamed the impossible dream and set out to find whatever the holy grail is to them.

Yesterday did not start out to be a quest per se; yesterday was to be the 2nd annual Christmas Visit to Cincinnati by platinum friend Tracy. Obviously it is not as revered a tradition yet since it is only the second annual, but still, it was an exciting day on that, my second full day in Cincinnati for Christmas vacation. Last year Tracy drove the 150 miles and we attended Jack and Emma’s school Christmas concert, enjoyed lunch at the Art Museum, and then on a tip from Cincinnati magazine, tried a place downtown, “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul,” that promised heavenly pies and cobblers. Oh, oh, let me tell you. This is the Cobbler of Your Dreams. We ordered the peach cobbler, and since Flo’s had no seats in it, we decided to take the serving for four back to my house to share with my father. When we got in the car, I decided we should at least taste the cobbler, you know, make sure it was okay. You. Can’t. Believe. How. Good. That. Cobbler. Tasted! Sadly, only one or two bites remained for my father.

When this year’s newly christened annual rite was planned, we definitely sought a return trip to “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul” for the best peach cobbler I could remember.

Tracy arrived around 10:00 a.m. yesterday for some visits to a handful of my Cincinnati family and friends. We got caught up in the visiting, so when it was nearing 2:00 p.m. I steered her car toward the downtown Cincinnati area so that we might eat cobbler and lunch and cobbler and soon as possible. We didn’t remember the exact address, but we vaguely recalled seeing the courthouse out of one eye and a statue of President James Garfield out of the other eye.

The plan was to wolf down the cobbler/lunch/cobbler and head to some festive Christmas-y Cincinnati things, sights like Krohn Conservatory with the largest poinsettia display in the Midwest, the iconic train display downtown (another “largest in the Midwest” boast attached to the promotions), the Nativity scene at the dubious Creationism Museum, the Hilton Hotel gingerbread display (guess how The Cincinnati Enquirer trumpeted this one…wait for it…yes, “the largest in the Midwest” claim!).

We park the car near the courthouse, near where we remember the scene of great wolfing in the First Annual Christmas Visit to Cincinnati from Tracy. We find the storefront, and oh, okay, there is a sign in the window announcing that “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul” has moved two blocks away to Vine Street. We run down the street (umm, before we actually got the address, our craze for the cobbler so great I just saw the words ‘Vine Street’ and whisked Tracy down the street headed for the scent of perfect cobbler.

It was getting colder but we knew that the mouthwatering cobbler was near so we could fight the wind and cold. We turned onto Vine Street, walked a little ways, and didn’t see any sign brandishing the name of Flo. Where are you “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul”????

I realize that we walked away so fast from the sign announcing the move that we didn’t even check the street address on Vine Street—we just made an about-face and headed the two blocks away to Vine Street. After several blocks of wandering on Vine Street (by the way passing at least a dozen respectable places for lunch!) we headed back to that sign near the courthouse.

I add more money to the parking meter and we get the address as 915 Vine Street. Back down the street we go…

We get to the corner and start to go right instead of the left that had yielded no “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul.” We see that we are in the 1000 block of Vine Street. Wait…that should mean we passed “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul.” But…we didn’t see it. We retrace our footsteps back to the promised land of 915 Vine Street but it is not called “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul.” No matter. This must be the place of the Holy Grail of Cobblers. We go into the place called “Mayberry,” and it smells great. The menu up on the wall looks great and it seems to be a bohemian, gourmet sandwich kinda place. Hmmmm…

Flo of the “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul” was definitely not a “Mayberry” kind of denizen nor would she look right in a bohemian, upscale-y sandwich shop. (This place probably even added the –pe to up the ante in prestige and be a “shoppe” instead of just a shop.) I see some great lunch items, and by this time the little hand was firmly lodged on the 3. But Tracy said, “Johnny, I don’t see any desserts on that menu.” Tracy is a pretty fearless woman, but I detected a note of worry in her voice. Where was the cobbler? Did they rename the place and hide the cobbler? Where is that peach cobbler???

We asked the woman with the asymmetrical hairdo about the cobbler. She didn’t know from cobbler. I said, “The sign around the corner, near the courthouse, it said that ‘Flo’s Plate Full of Soul’ had relocated here.” I shot her a pleading look that certainly indicated a pressing need for the cobbler from Flo’s.

“Oh, right. Yeah. Well, they moved from here. We’ve been here for about two months.” Surely we would give up the quest and plop down for a fancy smoked or peppered something with roasted something on ciabatta. “Do you know where Flo’s moved?” I pressed for the information.

“I think they moved out on Reading Road or somewhere,” she answered, not understanding the gravity of this twist in our journey.

We hightailed it out of the I’m-sure-it’s-nice-Mayberry-café. Someone else would have to take the menus in her outstretched hand.

Tracy was right on it. She called Information in Cincinnati. There was no listing in the Cincinnati directory for “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul.” We fast-walked back to the car and she got ahold of her GPS and punched in the information we had about “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul.” Nothing matched the data.

What should we do?

I remembered that Flo had started out at the grand, old Findlay Market downtown a few years back. We maneuvered the car through the downtown streets racing over to the old market stand (the Findlay Market dates back to 1844 for you history-curious people out there). We almost collided with a mini-van in the parking lot, but I don’t think it was out of my mad dash for the cobbler—I think it really was the other’s guy fault.

We search throughout the Market (I do take a break to buy a couple of pounds of ground chuck—Tracy laughed at this—but hey, a bargain is a bargain, even when you searching for the Midwest Grail, you gotta be aware of the bargains around you) and there is no stand. Every trace of “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul” seems to have vanished. We give up the search. Reluctantly. But we are really hungry for lunch now.

I decide that we should treat ourselves to the delectable chicken salad croissants at Servattii Pastry Shop on the west side. This is a mini-quest, not as dramatic, crucial, or heavenly as The Cobbler, but it will be good.

Of course when we arrive at Servattii’s, as the clock yawns toward 4:00 the petulant child behind the cashier whines, “Look at the sign on the window. The deli stops serving at 2:00.” Enough! Enough! We need lunch. Tracy confesses she didn’t eat breakfast before she hit the road that morning for the 2nd annual Christmas Visit to Cincinnati. We race around the corner to perfectly fine, perfectly mundane Chipotle and finally eat lunch.

Instead of that long-awaited Cobbler we head over to Graeter’s—the best ice cream in the world for their Swiss Chocolate sundae. We exchange Christmas gifts and hugs. Each of us receives a cell phone call—at about the same exact time—about some pesky problem from the real world. Our bubble is burst that it is only about the Impossible Dream.

If any of you have any news about “Flo’s Plate Full of Soul,” please pass it along. The marriage of sugar and butter and peaches and flour has never been so good. I swear angels would sing over this cobbler.

I suppose there are many grails we seek in our world. Tickets and trips and promotions and titles and bling and little red-haired girls. Perhaps most of life is spent pursuing signs and scents and hopes and dreams.

Tonight I will be playing the piano for my sister as she sings a solo in our family’s church. We have been doing this rite for some 35 years ever since as little children we braved the congregation to go and sing on Christmas Eve. We will light candles at the end of the service and ponder the real people who longago chased after a strange thing announced by angels and stars. I don’t deign to presume that that cobbler is holy—but these quests, these mad journeys, remind us of other seekers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bring it on!

I know Christmas is coming soon because at the end of this week we have a break in the school calendar. But when you live outside of the United States, and especially in a predominantly Muslim country, there are just not many reminders of the approaching Christmas holidays. So any little glimmer of Christmas is noted, welcomed and appreciated.

The other day in the faculty lounge several of us commented how strange it was to be thick into December and not hear the ever-present soundtrack of carols in every store, see the advertisements suggesting how to show your loved ones how deeply you treasure them, or hear the strange, “it’s that time of year!!” mantra. We sighed as we thought about how when something is gone, you miss all the Christmas-y touches and hoopla even more. One colleague shared, “But three days after we’re back I’m sure all the commercialization and burden of Christmas will get to me.” I exclaimed, “Hey, Christmas overload!!! Bring it on!”

These colleagues actually turned and looked a little puzzled at me since such he-man comments as “bring it on” rarely pop out of my mouth. They looked so puzzled—had I just been morphing into a jock talking smack about some other team??? I laughed and said I was practicing my mock-coach talk, actually, since there was a inter-dorm soccer game scheduled for that afternoon to stoke the fires of competition and rivalry. I had conferred with Arthur and Julianne as to how to yell those, you know, barbed sports-like phrases at Meissa dorm so I could help rally my Nihal dorm to a he-man victory. They gave me a couple go-to phrases so I could, you know, sound like I knew what I was doing cheering on the sidelines of the game. (By the way, at one time there was talk of me being a substitute in the game as well!).

I stopped by my faculty box, and lo and behold, I spy a piece of real mail. You have to understand—I get maybe one piece of real mail a month. Don’t feel too bad for me—most days I average about 100 emails (a day!) on the school email server! But the mailman in Madaba brought me a Christmas card! And, especially since we had just been missing Christmas, the card brought me a great smile. It was from the Canterinos—one of those golden families from Hackley, and since it was likely to be the only Christmas card I get this month here, it was especially sweet. I taught their son Joseph a decade ago, but we have never lost touch, and their generosity and humor have always been a pleasure. Margie Canterino was always the first to get her Christmas cards in the mail—it almost always arrived exactly on December 1 when I lived in New York. Her wish was always that premier wish for a joyous season. Yesterday when I got her card, it made me feel what maybe we all feel the first time of the season when we hear a beloved carol or do something Christmas-y.

I realize that for many of you the Christmas season must be like playing in a real-live Survivor saga of who can run the gauntlet of parties and shopping sprees and holiday madness. But when those things are few and far between—again, I say, “bring it on!”

I have seen two Christmas trees this month—one in a Chinese restaurant last Thursday evening in Amman, and one in an administrator’s house on campus. Both trees looked a little like stand-ins for that tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. But since those are the only trees I have seen so far this season, I just fill in the blanks on what I miss. I remember details from our family Christmas trees—the ornaments that have survived from our family’s genesis in the 1960s the rigors and ravages of time. I smile at the strange, trendy ornaments we added to the motley collection in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the makeshift trees when my mother was in the hospital in Decembers past. I remember the oddest tree of all the year that I was in the body cast in childhood and I decorated the tree myself—putting the ornaments as high up as my little-boy arms could reach from the body cast on the avocado green living room carpet.

The dorm soccer show-down was great. I yelled and copped my best coach stance from the sidelines as I watched our dorms have the most inter-dorm fun I have seen here. One of our other teachers, Ryugi, has been great at cultivating the kind of dorm-love and dorm-obsession, and dorm-rivalries that define boarding schools. He was the brains behind this, and it was good fun.

I ran over from the game (by the way, my dorm dominated, I CAN’T HEAR YOU—DOMINATED the game until the last few seconds. Yeah, a penalty kick cost us the game at 3-2) to a Lessons and Carols job that some of the Christian students had helped put together. Again, when you don’t hear these songs as much, it is more fun than usual with the Santa songs and the familiar carols. Jordan is a very moderate, tolerant country, and Christians can worship easily—it’s just that we are small in number, only about 6% of the total population. As we came to the line in “Do You Hear What I Hear,” that goes, “He will bring us goodness and light,” I hadn’t quite gotten out of my sports persona, and I almost yelled out, “Bring it on!” However, I just sang along instead.

Some of the seniors who are Christians read the passages from Luke, and it reminded me again of that Charlie Brown special when Linus reads the familiar text. He starts with “Lights, please,” and reads about Mary, and “in those days” and decrees and a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. Since it is the first Christmas since I actually have been to the town of Bethlehem, I felt strangely closer to the Christmas story. Last March I was in Jerusalem and took a public bus out to Manger Square and walked around processing the sights and thinking of the song my sister and I sang last Christmas Eve, “Not That Far From Bethlehem.” Interesting stuff going on in my head.

As Fadi and Ghassan and Lawrence and Tareq read about the angel visiting Mary, I thought about how startling it would be to have a run-in with an angel. No wonder the first thing an angel says is the predictable, “Fear, not!” Anyone who knows their Bible knows that 99 times out of a 100 when humans run into angels the first words out of the angel’s mouth are always, “Do not be afraid.”

This could reflect on angels, I guess, but maybe it just says something about the state in which angels typically find us: afraid. You could forgive angels for smelling out fear a mile away. After all, fear seems to be a constant companion for us. Our ancestors lived in fear about food and shelter. All these millennia later, despite the frozen meat section in your grocery store, we still live in a state of fear. These last 18 months or so we have been terrified about the global financial markets collapsing and empty retirement accounts. And before that, we were terrified by terror, and anthrax, and the Cold War. Some of our Americans are terrified of Barack Obama. Some are terrified of Sarah Palin.

But as Ghassan read the familiar passage of “Don’t be afraid” from the angel to Mary, an unmarried teen-ager, I thought…hmmm… I wonder if it ever crossed Mary’s mind to retort, “Easy for you to say!”

A student sang the song, “Born to Die,” which made my mind race to the Resurrection and the angel who greeted the women at the tomb with the same, “Don’t be afraid.” Of course those women had just a number of hours earlier witnessed the Resurrection, and they are asked not to be afraid?

How in the world do we manage all this fear? Our seniors are afraid about college acceptances. Some of us are afraid of the sustainability of this grand experiment in the desert, and the list really is almost endless. Of course the fears that plague all of us can hardly be overcome by the words of the angel who proposes to instruct us: “Don’t be afraid.”

But hearing the carols, seeing the card, remembering Christmases past without the tyranny of over-doing Christmas, it becomes quite an antidote to the fears as the promise of the season whispers to us to manage our fears. Indeed, ours is a faulty, fragile, fractious world, and these are disconcerting days and weeks.

In the absence of the Christmas onslaught you have to make Christmas for yourself. I take the one card, the two trees and the odd lot of carols, and look anew at the unexpected wisdom in the Christmas child—an infant who knocks at the doors of our heart.

Ahhhhh….Christmas! Yeah, baby—bring it on!

Saturday, December 12, 2009


A week ago at this time I was on a plane leaving the United States returning to Jordan for a little blip of time—just two weeks—before flying again over the thousands of miles that lie between Jordan and the United States. I spent my six days in New York doing what I do best—eating, visiting, and people-watching. I people-watched in one of the great people-watching capitals of the world (this spring I spent time in Jerusalem, another of the great people-watching capitals of the world). I rested from my eating and visiting and teaching and preaching. I was on a break. I people-watched on the Metro North train up to Irvington to see dear friends Anne and Peter. I people-watched as I cruised through the art exhibits at the Met, “American Stories,” and “Art of the Samurai.” I people-watched at the tourist-friendly revival of Ragtime, I people-watched at the no-tourists-at-this-play-without-a-star, Superior Donuts. I people-watched at the New York Philharmonic concert on Thursday, where I enjoyed the talents of young pianist star David Fray. And I people-watched on the long subway ride out to JFK airport to fly back to Jordan. Really no two crowds were alike. And each crowd was essentially a New York crowd of peacocks doing their thing. It is a joyous thing to take in the many flavors/colors/textures of New York.

It was a needed break—somewhere, anywhere. As you can guess from the blogisodes (sorry, Sue, it did take me awhile to steal the time to pen another entry) it was a stressful November here in our social experiment known as KA. Although, let’s be honest, if you are a faithful, curious or even casual reader of this blog, has it ever been an easy month?

It felt harder what with the tensions rising over deteriorating behavior, the stakes high over college applications, and certainly with the demands of the side-job as being a class dean with the office of student life. It has just been the most consuming school job I have ever encountered. Not that that is all a bad thing—I have been consumed by all my schools—Gaston Day, Charlotte Latin, and Hackley—and I am never bored here! But it has just been hard doing the job seven days a week. We are also in a school where we have grown so much, we have never gotten the chance to get it right yet. We jumped from 108 students the first year, and we almost started to get it right in June of 2008, to 270 students last year, and we came close to getting it right last June, and now we are at 400. I wish we could just hold tight and get it right!

Before this break for Eid (which dovetailed nicely with the American Thanksgiving) there were several episodes of students asked to withdraw themselves from the school. Each was justified in my mind, and some of us wish we could clean house even more. But each of these episodes causes a little tear in the delicate fabric that is this school, and some colleagues feel that we should never abandon a student, even one who has repeatedly broken rules and squandered opportunities.

The break came at a good time. We needed to breathe. And hit the reset button.

Julianne came back with a bundle of energy. She spoke to the seniors last Sunday in a beautiful, extemporaneous, honest tone about the difficulties in facing the challenges at the school. As a good historian she shared how so often this autumn she had thought of the gathering of 54 men over the course of the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. These men from the 13 disparate states—years after the victory against Britain—met to figure what in the world to do with their bundle of differences. Their two-year old government wasn’t working. What do you do? How do you scrap it? How do you save something? How do you hit the reset button? How do you move forward? Of course, eventually they would compromise and crank out what would be the United States Constitution, hoping to form that “more perfect union.” We too rarely look back on how scary, how tenuous it all looked then in 1787—all the goodwill and back-slapping excitement after the 1781 defeat of the Brits had evaporated—and we instead call it “The Miracle at Philadelphia.”

Julianne spoke movingly about joining the venture at KA, about how things were moving in a seemingly haphazard, herky-jerky way, and how she knew they didn’t like how she was trying to steer this ship in a different direction. She reminded them that Amman was, in ancient times, called, Philadelphia. She said, “And I already know the title of my book, when we make it work here at KA: The Second Miracle of Philadelphia. Reset button activated.

She offered to meet in groups of a dozen students, and go out to coffee, each school night for these two weeks, and get to know the seniors better. She encouraged the seniors to sign up, but didn’t force them to come along. By the following morning, 50 seniors had signed up, and after the first evening, her gaggle of senior boys came back with a renewed desire to make it work.

It has become too customary here to look at our glass as half empty—so many things are difficult not only in starting a school, but dealing with the meltdowns of adolescence, the powerlessness of ex-pats, the fears of the hosts, the vulnerabilities of the college process, and the erosion of economic confidence. We need that reset button. We need to take a break. Hit the button.

Julianne had a great week reinvigorating our seniors. I came back from my people-watching and surprise visit to Cincinnati with a renewed passion as well. One of my students said, “You always look younger when you come back from the United States!” Of course, one of my former colleagues at Hackley said to me just 10 days ago, “You look so much younger ever since you moved to Jordan.” Maybe we have all just forgotten there are other topics of conversation. Do I look that haggard on a daily basis??? Whoops. Maybe I better just run down to the Dead Sea and hit the reset button again.

Of course one of the problems with the class dean job is that so much of what I must face is the underbelly of the school—the issues of cutting and smoking and lying and cheating and disrespect—that I can forget how marvelous much of this experiment is. I just concluded 12 hours of meetings over our two “off” days, our Friday and Saturday, doing what other people at the school have not been doing in their jobs. You get a little cranky. You need to hit the reset button!

But maybe the best reset button came last night. A senior student asked me during lunch if I would be up at midnight. I didn’t know, I answered. He asked if he could come to my apartment and use my computer since he would find out at midnight exactly whether he had earned admission to Columbia University. The internet is cut off for students at that time, and he wanted to check, and he was nervous and wanted me there.

The student came by at 11:45 and we talked about the pros and cons of attending Columbia in New York City. He was prepared to face rejection and he also had several other schools he liked beside Columbia.

At midnight we went to log on. The dear guy started to hyperventilate, but we got the username and password punched in. Of course it was slow since thousands of other eager seniors around the world were logging in at the same time to check on this admission status. (Let’s be real—is there any stranger way to feel the passage of time??? Checking on line for whether you go into college? No stalking of the mailman or spying the size of the envelope or tearing it open??? It is so long past the 1980s!).

My friend, for whom I had written what I thought was a well-deserved enthusiastic letter of recommendation, was too nervous once we saw that the screen was unfolding with the answer. He looked away, hyperventilating. I saw something blocking the beginning of the email message, but I saw the words, “you will want to share the good news with your family…” at the bottom. I told him, “I think you have the news you want! Who would write that suggestion at the end of a tragic letter??!”

He checked and he had gained admission! This guy who lived on my hallway last year, whom I have known since the beginning of this experiment in Jordan, a guy who has not had an easy time, but last year triumphed in my AP World History class, earned a 5 on his AP exam, got the news he had hardly expected. He became our first student to be accepted to an Ivy League school.

Now, I will be the first to say that the ivy league hoopla is just a load of hoopla—but it is hoopla that has currency. This means something by the standards most people understand.

It was one of the most joyous experiences watching him shout, hug, pray, and cry over the next few minutes. This is a chance for him to hit a major reset button in his life. This was extraordinary.

Yes, it is a difficult place and the hours are endless. I feel like a medical resident most of the time, on call for whomever and whenever there is a mess or a crisis.

But then we hit a reset button, and it all feels a little, well, re-set.

A week from right now I will be waking up in the United States for another chance to eat, visit, and people-watch. And enjoy the reset button.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Unexpected Song

Time was certainly of the essence the other day as Sylvia and I rushed back from the Cincinnati airport to surprise my family.

The ruse was simple--you need it simple so it does not seem illogical. Sylvia had invited my family, from patriarch Plop to 2nd grader Jack, over for dinner on Wednesday night. This does not strain credulity since gracious Sylvia often invites us/them over for dinner. But given my sister's schedule with the children--they RSVP'ed affirmatively--they had to arrive at 4:00 PM for dinner to accomodate karate, cub scouts, and gymnastics. My plane was due to land at 2:35 from Paris, so that is a lot to accomplish in under 90 miuntes!

I called Sylvia once I cleared immigration and passport control, got the bags, and was in her car about 3:10. Sylvia chose the ferry route over the highway thinking it would be faster. Well, we pull onto her street at 3:55. Uh-oh! My family is usually early for things so I crouch on the floor of her car as she pulls down her little street. We spy my father's car and then up pulls up my sister. Sylvia pulls in her driveway, I sneak out of the car, in through the basement, and head upstairs. At 4:00 on the dot Steve is there. As they come up to the door I savor the impending surprise. I throw open the door, and yell out, "Gobble, Gobble!" They look stunned. Obviously none of them had been expecting me. There is that look of stunned shock giving way to joyous smiles. Only Jack remained relatively nonchalant. He grabbed me and hugged me and said, "Hey, King--good to see you!" I had a "prop" to make my presence seem even more real and necessary. Two days before I flew my sister asked me on the phone to provide for her again the name of a book I had requested for Christmas. I had asked for this cultural history of the 1930s about which I had read a review in my favorite magazine, The Week. As Elizabeth looked at me with that look--but this visit wasn't on the schedule????--I thrust the clipped review at her and said, "You said you wanted the name of the book, so I brought it to you in person." We headed out to Skyline Chili to relax and enjoy the Thanksgiving surprise of my homecoming.

Thanksgiving Day included watching Emma and Jack and Steve participate in our ragtag west-side Thanksgiving Day parade, one turkey-and-ham dinner with Steve's family, and an evening turkey-and-ham dinner at Uncle Jack's house. All welcomed this unexpected guest with open arms. One of my brother-in-law's brothers-in-law (check out that correct punctuation!)couldn't get over that I had foregone the trip down the Nile to come back to Cincinnati. "But you could have gone anywhere," he reminded me. "Like Europe, or...or..." And with each of his suggestions I calmly said, "Been there. It's great. Sometimes home is the best destination."

Aunt Joy prepares a Thangsiving feast for over 30 people--she makes it looks soooo easy, and each dish is a tried-and-true success story that we have enjoyed over the years. She has multiple salads and vegetables and desserts and the best mountain of mashed potatoes you could imagine. And the warmth of the house was exactly what one wants as you count your blessings and offer thanks for our present state.

As is the tradition, Uncle Jack offered a stirring prayer just as we sat down with the different strands and threads of our family. Uncle Jack turned 80 a month ago--hard to believe that that generation is now reaching such a venerable stage. Uncle Jack reminded us all of the rich past that has brought us to this moment of thanks.

As I enjoyed the warm glow of Aunt Joy's triumphant Thanksgiving meal, I also realized we should send up thanks for the unexpected, for all the ways that life interrupts and renews itself without warning.

What would our lives look like if they held only what we had planned? Where would our wisdom or patience--or hope--come from?

I had not been at this table since the fall of 2006 when I had just recently found out about this school in Jordan and I spent a few weeks secretly looking at this possibility in my head and heart. That November, 2006 Thanksgiving was also our first without my mother, and indeed, even with the MS for decades, her death was unexpected and left us grateful we had been in the plans of her orbit and mighty talents.

In 2007 I spent Thanksgiving in Budapest with new friend Elizabeth and old friend Sharon. In 2008 I spent Thanksgiving on campus at KA with about two dozen colleagues as we faced the unexpected every day. The following day I jetted off for a weekend in Egypt. None of those jaunts was expected and on the safe planning sheet.

It will never cease to amaze me how the condition of being human means we cannot foretell with any accuracy what next Thanksgiving will bring. We can hope and imagine, and we can fear. Will I still be at KA in Jordan? Will I have made a move somewhere else? But when next Thansgiving comes around we will have to take account again of how the unexpected has shaped our lives. The unexpected enriches us and blesses us--with suffering sometimes, and sometimes with joy.

As I looked around at the cousins and aunt and uncle I have known my entire life, as I surveyed the groaning table and heaving satisfied bellies, I noted how we gather up the past and celebrate the present and open up to the unexpected future.

Of course, there are the short-term futures: will I have seconds? I did--on the mashed potatoes, stuffing, succotash, and broccoli salad. Will I have time to see Aunt Dot on this whirlwind surprise trip to Cincinnati? Will I get out of the house at 5:00 am the following day to shop with the diehards? The answer was a sad no, and an inscrutable yes to those questions.

I have arrived in New York now for a few days to surprise some more friends on this unexpected trip to the US for Thanksgiving. The unexpected--that time to blossom and ripen with new friends, new family, new love, new hope. It is our job to welcome it and give it meaning.

As we head into the holiday season, where most of us embrace our oldest traditions and rituals, let us look to the unexpected, that which we cannot know and could not have guessed, and see how the unexpected merges with our lives in Thanksgivings to come.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Faraway Places

I have a folder with all the clippings I save on travel ideas. I have enjoyed traveling abroad ever since that trip to England, Wales, France, and Switzerland back in the early 1980s with the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. By the time I was a freshman in college I had enjoyed not just one, but two, TWO choir tours to Europe—but even years before that I had dreamed of calling a travel agent and booking trips to exciting places. When I watch that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart is regaling Mr. Gower of the exotic climes he will visit, I guess I knew I had a kinship with George Bailey.

Then 10 years ago I began traveling with my treasured friend Anne, and the travel excitement kicked into high gear. We went on domestic trips down South or to California, or we chaperoned students to Asia and Europe, and we went with other simpatico friends on thrilling, momentous trips.

In my travel folder right now are articles extolling the beauties of Easter Island, and Greenland, Thailand’s northern capital, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the obscure Italian Bassano del Grappa. There is an article on another obscure Italian area, the “magical boot heel” as the article describes Ostuni. There are the articles on budget cruises and the article on how to rent a chateau in France on a budget.

When I went off to college my mother gave me a mini-poster from Hallmark to put somewhere in my dorm room. The sign read:
To faraway places it’s nice to roam,
but nothing in the world beats coming back home.

That is so much my mother! This is the same woman who packed away in my suitcase bound for college, unknown to me, the clipped apron strings from one of her aprons. She wanted me to feel that surge of independence, and wanted me to understand she cooperated in that liberation from childhood. In her own inimitable way, she made sure I was aware of my “roots” as well as my “wings.” Mary Martha was an original for sure.

It is interesting that for all the wanderlust my mother harbored for faraway places, she never left the shores of the USA. But she thrilled to my trips, and encouraged me to visit these faraway places, hoping that these visits would broaden my horizons and teach me skills and maturity that traveling affords. But of course as the Hallmark placard reminded me, nothing beats coming back home.

Starting tomorrow evening we have a break here at KA. The examinations marking the end of the first trimester wind up tomorrow, and in the Muslim world there is an Eid holiday. This Eid is two moons after the last Eid holiday, and this holiday serves at least two purposes. One purpose of the week-long holiday is to allow people to make arrangements for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca if this is the year one might make that pilgrimage, one of the requirements in Islam. But for those not journeying to Saudi Arabia, families are supposed to slaughter a sheep. If you drive around Amman you see all these cute little images of lambs (with a strange smile actually) in store windows welcoming the holiday. The slaughter of the sheep is to remind the faithful of sacrifices, and specifically the sacrifice Abraham was willing to offer through his son Isaac. When the family slaughters a sheep they are also encouraged to offer half of the sheep to a needy family as well. So there is a week-long break coming up.

So earlier this fall, I got out the travel folder and looked through it to decide where I might spend this holiday. I had narrowed my choices down to four locales, three brand-new, and one an old favorite seeing an old friend. Each one had great possibilities for adventure and excitement in a faraway place. I looked at Cyprus, a 90-minute flight away to enjoy the Greek ruins and quiet Cypriot charm. (One of my dearest students here is from Cyprus.) Another choice was Tunisia. The travel article spoke so highly of the beaches and the Roman ruins and the quiet, elegance of Tunisia. Then I had been hoping to do a cruise down the Nile, culminating in the fabled Valley of the Kings. An old friend, this quirky genius named Andrew, lives in Switzerland, and last year we had made some promises of spending Thanksgiving 2009 together. Each trip sounded magnificent.

Then about a month ago I started thinking about these faraway places.

I thought about the excitement in the promise of these faraway places, but they weren’t where I wanted to be. True to that old Hallmark sign, nothing beats coming back home.

I write this blogisode on Tuesday evening in Jordan, and in about a half hour I will be going to the airport for a flight to Paris, and then a connection from Paris to Cincinnati. I have cooked up a scheme with our great friend Sylvia where I will surprise my family for Thanksgiving. I will not publish this blog post until Wednesday evening because my brother-in-law Steve is an avid reader of the blog and I want him to be surprised as well.

So Sylvia has invited my family over to her house for dinner tomorrow. Sylvia will have picked me up from the airport in the afternoon and when my family arrives, Surprise!!!

Since I plan things in my Teutonic fashion, I rarely actually surprise anyone, but this fall, as I wanly put aside the travel articles and instead looked toward the beauties of going home to Cincinnati—and yes, I will be there again just a couple weeks later for Christmas, I got so excited about the Price Hill Thanksgiving Parade. Hey—I know two of the marchers in the parade—Emma and Jack will both be in different groups marching down Glenway Avenue Thursday morning. We will end the day at Uncle Jack’s enjoying Aunt Joy’s sumptuous Thanksgiving feast. I will visit our neighborhood YMCA, I will eat ice cream at Graeter’s, have a BLT at the Imperial Diner, and then spend a few days in New York, seeing and doing familiar things.

Yes, the sights of Luxor sound spectacular—but the people I want to see and embrace are not in those distant climes and faraway places. The people I want to see are those friends and family who are the true essence of my Thanksgiving, and I want to spend my money to see them.

Faraway places are magical, yes, but right now, as I look toward the next 20 hours of traveling to faraway Ohio, nothing is gonna beat that trip back home.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I had three titles in mind as I sat down to reflect on the crowded events of the last week. I will probably share all three eventually, but the chosen title of the entry, the word, retreat, is such a delicious word. Oh, the many implications of this word retreat! As I like to do, I checked with as to how that website defines the word. Here is what they offered:

re⋅treat –noun
1. the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy, or the withdrawing of a naval force from action.
2. The act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.
3. a place of refuge, seclusion, or privacy: The library was his retreat.
4. an asylum, as for the insane.
5. a retirement or a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation.
6. Military.
a. a flag-lowering ceremony held at sunset on a military post.
b. the bugle call or drumbeat played at this ceremony.

7. The recession of a surface, as a wall or panel, from another surface beside it.
–verb (used without object)
8. to withdraw, retire, or draw back, esp. for shelter or seclusion.
9. to make a retreat: The army retreated.
10. to slope backward; recede: a retreating chin.
11. to draw or lead back.
12. beat a retreat, to withdraw or retreat, esp. hurriedly or in disgrace.

So which of the definitions best fits the last week? If you know any of the events of the last week, appeals to the disciplinary committee and headmaster about a ruling made 10 days ago by the disciplinary committee (I sit on that committee), as well as a new problem/crisis from a team on an away game. (Remember that here “away games” do not mean Brooklyn, for example, but Beirut, Lebanon!). There was a colleague who was, as they say, on the verge. And new issues with…well…let’s just say it was a week crowded with events.

Which of the understandings of ‘retreat’ is it?

If you know me, you probably know my employment of ‘retreat’ can’t be anything with withdrawing—it’s just not what I do. But…oh, did you see choice #4 with the “asylum, as for the insane”?? That’s a good one! Perhaps a bit apt.

No, I chose the word because of the interpretation as a “refuge” or even for the “religious exercises” or “meditation.”

Last week at this time the History Department was packing up after a weekend retreat at Tala Bay. Back in August I had asked the department to carve out some time away from the campus, away from the issues of attendance and behavior and writing and sit-down meals and study hall, so we could enjoy a refuge from the world-at-large, and relax in a place of retreat. The Royal Court makes available for our use at school a big, rambling beach house condo if any groups care to make their way down the Desert Highway, four hours south, just past the port of Aqaba to the sleepy, quiet cove of Tala Bay. The bay is a retreat, a seclusion from the Red Sea. Pretty snazzy place for a department retreat, eh?

We piled on a KA bus on Thursday late afternoon, made a quick stop at Chili Ways in Madaba (it wasn’t even my idea!) and laughed our way down the spine of the kingdom to the comfy quarters of the beachhouse.

In all my years of leading history departments, I had always wanted to schedule a retreat where we could relax, have meetings, engage in collegiality and fellowship and discussion, and of course, it is never the right time, or well, not always does one have a Royal Court to provide the lodgings free of charge!

I have been to Tala Bay once before (check out a blog entry from late last May) so I knew to expect the banks of computer screens in the media room, the many, many flat screen TVs and the 15 or so bedrooms. Each of us could have a retreat-within-the-retreat, if need be. The plan was to work on our term exams, proof read a Mission Statement I had crafted for our department, and discuss how to be more effective teachers. And to cook together have some fun.

The refrigerators are well-stocked with bottled water and soda and there are mountains of candy bars around the compound as well. And there is the beautiful pool and patio area and just a three-minute walk around the pool area is the bay itself. An early morning walk provides just the retreat from the world can restore the soul.

We started in immediately on the fun. We played a game called “Apples to Apples” with which you may be familiar. It was a hilarious start to the weekend with the whole gang crowded around a big table. We would crowd around that table for several meals during our weekend stay, and each time it felt more and more bonded as a group.

One of the department members did not come on the trip, but otherwise, we were full force and on Friday morning people either started in on exam-writing or took a quick dip in the pool. I didn’t schedule the department meetings until the afternoon, so we could enjoy the balm that is the beach for a few hours. The AP teachers among us tended to put the nose to the grindstone immediately, but even when your environs are so splashy, it’s still a retreat from your usual surroundings.

In the afternoon I asked the department how we know when a comedian is effective. It’s actually pretty easy, isn’t it? When you hear an audience laugh—you know the comedian is effective. What about with teachers? Not so easy…how do we know?

We had a great discussion, sharing teaching joys and teaching terrors, committing ourselves to the Mission Statement, not just hoping these statements might come alive, but plotting how we can these hopes into effective practices of teaching. It was a stimulating discussion about goals and statements and aims and practices. After that, more shared dinners and games and laughter.

As we got on the bus a week ago about now to return—the opposite of withdrawing, I might add—my colleague Yasser announced that the weekend retreat had been one of two highlights for him so far in his tenure at KA. Delightful to hear after I “took away” their weekend, but good to know we had enjoyed that seclusion from everything else.

I was back about an hour when I got a call about the violators on the school trip abroad. Since our headmaster is away, Julianne would have to be in charge of the school and removed from the direct proceedings, and so she placed me in charge of the investigations and disciplinary committee hearings.

That little retreat had worked some magic, but now we were back into it. This disciplinary committee would consume large chunks of the next few days, resulting in about 11 hours of hearings. It was exhausting. Again, students violated trust and lied. Persistently! We met in many stages, and eventually recommended that more students withdraw from the school. That is never simple. One wishes we could retreat from such decisions.

On Thursday evening Julianne decided it was time for a dinner party. She asked me to make dessert for 13 and so Thursday afternoon I happily slaved over an Apple Crumble that tasted like autumn in the Midwest. We had a long evening enjoying the food and fellowship, enjoying a makeshift retreat from the difficult work around us, but reveling in this break. Her call had started the week, but the sweet apples, toasted oats, butter and sugar had provided the punctuation mark on the week. So, my runner-up for the title of the week was “Apple Crumble.”

During the week I decided I needed to indulge in some guilty-pleasure-escapist-fare television so I started in on the DVDs of last season’s heart-pounder 24. I have loved this show for years, but have missed it since coming to Jordan. I decided that since Jack Bauer’s days were always more crowded and nerve jangling than mine, it would be good for me to watch and escape into Jack’s earnest work to save the world. In one of the scenes when Jack meets the President, played by one of my favorite Broadway actresses, Cherry Jones, she questions whether or not he is truthful. She says, “How can I be sure where your loyalties actually lie??” Kiefer Sutherland, indispensable as all-mighty Jack Bauer looked her in the eye, and softly replied, “With all due respect, Madame President, ask around.”

I loved it! Ask around was my third potential title for the week. When I told Julianne I was spending my non-DC time and non-classroom, and non-Dean, and non-department Head time steeped in Jack Bauer’s difficult work, she looked me in the eye and reminded me, “Yeah, but he’s fictional! We’re in it for real!”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Afflicted, Not Crushed

They were great questions posed to me last week by a new colleague:

“How did you keep going in the first months of the school?”

“How do you keep on doing it now? I feel it’s so hard.”

Obviously since the first query is about the past, that one is easier. I talked with her about some of the “tricks” I came up with to cope with a new country, a new home, a new course, a new school, a new kind of student, a new kind of educational experience. I told her I drank a lot of Diet Coke—somehow it reminded me of home. And I took my new portable DVD player (compliments of my treasured sister) to the gym and watched episodes of “The Golden Girls” while on the treadmill. Somehow that mixture of the Coke elixir and the stamina of the old gals on the sitcom gave me a lift.

But I said the real support came from thinking back through my life to my own (non-fictional!) role models and imagining how they had endured trials and tribulations. I would think about great teachers and family members who had emerged from life as survivors and champions to me, and imagined what they had done to find peace and solace. As I thought about my two grandmothers, heroic, yet gracious; fierce, yet elegant ladies if there ever were, the inspiration was easy. These women of faith looked to biblical sources for sustenance. I would think about biblical passages that each had cherished, and somehow channeling their own struggles and desires to stay afloat, I found the will and resolve to make it while ev-e-ry-thing was new to me here. I remember walking one day to the gym, DVD player and Diet Coke in hand, and I paused in front of the gym—I heard my father’s mother’s favorite psalm in my head, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord.” As I repeated that mantra I noticed where my own eyes actually landed—on the other side of the very same hills on which David had uttered that petition millennia ago. Very powerful stuff.

Telling the colleague about the fall of 2007 was pretty easy. Probing my sense of stability right now, processing the current challenges and crises, well that seemed a little more difficult. I eagerly responded that my students in my classes provide me with a real sense of joy and purpose and accomplishment. But beyond that classroom door, well, life has been rather enervating. What is sustaining me???

I thought back to my role models, and something came up rather interestingly about the nature of education and how we make it through tough times. As this teacher was talking to me, I noted that working in education, and I guess, the faith in education is really a hand-me-down thing. I mean, here we were, discussing strategies of coping, and I was handing-down my tried-and-true-for-me methods. This teacher/mentor thing is a communicable thing. We receive these words, at first, by relying upon reliable people, those whose life experiences we trust, whose words are believable because they are believable.

When Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if there was an easy water route to the Pacific, he chose his old friend and neighbor, a man he knew, whose word he trusted, whose integrity was unquestioned: Meriwether Lewis. Lewis, in turn, reached out to an experienced frontiersman with a solid reputation, William Clark.

Lewis and Clark plunged into the unknown. They could have reported back anything. They could have made it all up. Or they could have mucked it all up by being lazy, imprecise, unethical, inept—any number of things. Lewis’ and Clark’s maps and notes were believable because they were believable. They were deemed to be trustworthy, worth investing in, worth gambling on.

I thought about the “interviews” I enjoyed in the late 1980s with my best teachers, asking these trustworthy people about managing teaching. I thought about how I went to Brown for graduate school because of the reports of my friend David, as he plunged into the graduate school unknown, reporting what he saw and experienced.

So as I was talking with this colleague I thought about what I had just been teaching this week—the art of the Early Christian church. This had always been a rather lackluster unit at Hackley since they just weren’t interested in the growth of this former mystery cult! But the unit on spiritual art has been dynamic and exciting here—these people understand spiritual devotion in a palpable way, and they are fascinated as to how it links to what they know about religious dogma and theology. I thought about how I had taught about Paul that day, and what Paul had meant in the transformation of the church—kind of publicizing and advertising this church.

Paul had been another source of inspiration for my family heroes. I recalled how in his letter to the Corinthians Paul had reported back on his explorations abroad. He told them that he had made it out there, beyond “the Rockies.” (okay, just follow the analogy!) He told them that the journey had been hard, but he had been made whole. He was loved.

But Paul does not begin with the easy part. He begins with the struggle—the same difficult, daily emotional experiences where those Corinthians were. He began his story knowing their stories, their lives, what ailed them, what frightened them, what caused them despair. Indeed, Paul writes in that letter in plain language: “We are afflicted…we are perplexed…we are struck down…”

As my brain went over those words, I could have addressed the faculty here and said the same words, these raw and spare words, and probably watched them nod knowingly.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that we humans are earthly vessels, and we are brittle things, fragile and breakable.

But Paul is writing to them not merely to confirm what they know, but to report back, as a reliable source, what they do not know…on the new territory he has explored.

I thought how those words are incomplete of the passage. “We are afflicted…we are perplexed…we are struck down…” is just the part that the bone-weary might hear. Let’s restore the rest of that passage:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”

All of this came out to the colleague, and I rushed to point out that the important word, the operative word, the pivot word in that directive turns and depends on but!

So this Thursday afternoon, as we look back on a trying week, a trying season, We are afflicted, I admit, but not crushed. We are perplexed, I confess, but not driven to despair. We are struck down, I can report, but not destroyed.

Because Paul was believable 2000 years ago, this faith was passed on. Because my grandmothers were believable this faith was passed on. Time to hand it down.

Monday, November 9, 2009

History In The Making

Oh, I know I said in my last blog entry that I would answer those questions that are hanging over our heads…but did you check the date? I can’t let this date go by without spending time on this date…the beauty and importance of that important-as-July-4th-date of November 9.

Those who witnessed this night 20 years ago of the events that unfolded in Berlin will never forget what happened—the night the wall came down. On the evening of November 9, 1989, I was watching TV. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and I was flabbergasted.

I was a graduate student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and I lived on the third floor of a house on Lloyd Avenue. There was a great deal I did not like about graduate school at Brown, but I really liked a course I was taking on the history of Eastern Europe with a man awaiting confirmation to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Poland. The course filled in so many blanks about my knowledge of Europe, since every course I had ever had was a western Europe focus. I was watching the news with delight but also with a deeper knowledge since this course from Tom Simons.

From my mid-20-year-old perspective, that Wall had always been there, and I had no reason to doubt that it would remain there forever. I had been to the wall in the summer of 1988 with my great friend Tony. In the summer of 1988 that wall seemed as permanent as what I hoped for my friendship with Tony. (Fortunately, my friendship with Tony is more permanent than that wall—it has lasted and stood the test of time.) During my only visit to the divided Berlin, in 1988, I had experienced the city in all its terrifying absurdity. I vividly recall the “ghost stations” of the subway: some Western subway lines passed through Eastern territory, resulting in a surreal glimpse of that life. So the news of the wall coming down was like somebody telling me that the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates had reversed course overnight, and everything we thought we knew and accepted about the cold war had vanished, or crumbled, like the wall.

I looked in wonder at the pictures of people dancing on the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I stared agape as Peter Jennings provided commentary about the millions out in the streets of Berlin, complete strangers falling into one another’s arms, smiling and weeping at the same time. The images could not have been more emotional, and since this history course was in the front of my brain it did not impact me as just an abstract event. This was history in the making. I felt almost as joyous as the woman from East Berlin in her pajamas and robe who didn’t even take time to change. She felt so compelled to go immediately out into the night and taste the freedom of crossing into West Berlin.

History in the making is all too often tragic. We see that all too often with shootings, the most recent the tragic shooting on the grounds of Fort Hood in Texas. History in the making usually leaves many with a gnawing sense of fear since those plate-shifting moments involve such change that can almost paralyze us. Only rarely is history in the making capable of irony. November 9, 1989, was one of those rare moments when irony reigned, because East Germany’s bureaucratic socialism died as it had lived—with a bureaucratic snafu. As we learned later in the night, as the revelers surmounted that famous wall and danced, the speaker of the politburo had simply misunderstood that body’s decision and by releasing incorrect information about the lifting of travel restrictions, triggered the fall of the Wall! That scene must have been just like a scene from the TV show M*A*S*H—Groucho Marx couldn’t have scripted a more ludicrous moment! It was Germany’s happiest hour. Germany, with a history so full of iron-fisted terror, war and wanton violence, had finally experienced a revolution without a single bullet being fired.

We can better view the sweep of that night now. Never has liberation come to so many people all at once — to Eastern Europe’s millions, released from decades of bondage; to the world, freed from the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; and to the democratic West, victorious after a century of ideological struggle. Never has so great a revolution been accomplished so swiftly and so peacefully, by ordinary men and women rather than utopians with guns.

I heard a commentator on CNN say earlier today that even twenty years later, we still haven’t come to terms with “the scope of our deliverance.” He cited Francis Fukuyama who famously described the post-Communist era as “the end of history.” By this, he didn’t mean the end of events — wars and famines, financial panics and terrorist bombings. He meant the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Twenty years later many revolutionary consequences of that night lie behind us. The Soviet Union and its empire and international order quietly disappeared. Germany was reunited. The peripheral Soviet satellites won independence. Numerous civil wars around the war ended. Apartheid in South Africa ended. A disintegrating Yugoslavia degenerated into war and ethnic cleansing. The great European Union enlargement came about in 2004. And in the wake of the euphoria of 1989, Palestinians and Israelis came closer to peace than at any time since.

As the victorious heir to the collapsed cold war order, the United States stood alone, undisputed, at the peak of its global power. Twenty years later, have we squandered that special status? We have to look beyond the irony and the euphoria to deal with the remnants of that night twenty years ago.

I remember the following day in class with Professor Simons—seriously one of the most momentous days in my education—how would we fold in the events of the night before? Would we simply dance and frolic like the Berliners on television? Would we continue analyzing Joseph Rothshild’s book like the day before? Professor Simons was a career diplomat having spent years in the eastern bloc. How would he react? Well, he strode up to the lectern in the room, held aloft his notes for class, and ripped them up. He said, “everything we knew, everything we thought we knew, changed last night. I’m not quite sure what kind of world we are going to be in.” But he had the biggest smile on his face.

In our own way we at KA are in the stew pot of history in the making. The vision of the school is to create a kind of school that has never existed in this region. The making of history, the birthing of something new, is often excruciating. We have had disciplinary incidences recently that seem to suggest that our history in the making is too hard, which would be tragic.

But then last night I remembered the night I met Eric, our headmaster, at a fancy restaurant in New York, just after New Years’ in 2007. We were talking about the birthing of the school, and one of his comments has stayed with me. He mentioned that he knew the school would be on its way, and its course steady, when he heard students making music at the school.

Last evening, following an update on a four-hour disciplinary committee hearing from the night before, I attended a student chamber music concert. It was a modest concert. In the last week a wonderfully talented American chamber music quartet had been in residence at KA and the few who attended their concerts had been enraptured. Our students wanted to show off their own skills. Few of our students had ever played an instrument before coming to KA. I sat with a devoted audience and enjoyed their efforts. It took me back to Eric’s 2007 comments about his hopes for this plate-shifting school. Some days we seem to be in crisis—focusing on that 20% or so of bottom feeders who can drag down our spirits.

But I remembered Eric’s words that when he would finally hear students making music he would know that our course was steady.

I watched Faisal’s steady bow on his violin, George’s steady bow on his cello, Anna Rose’s confidence with her flute and Leen’s steady accompaniment on piano, and I felt wonderfully calmer about our own history in the making.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

He Makes My Day

The “trickster” from last week was at it again this week. “Must be done immediately” screamed an email and telephone call. That continued lack of civility has been a little soul-crushing as of late, but then Wednesday afternoon I was grading papers and I came across this weekly assignment of the Journal Sheet for AP Art History. This assignment is just a way for students to look over the previous week and choose from their own file of insights and reflections in order to make sense of the art and history we studied that week. The following is from a student I have known since the first week of the school—a young man whose enthusiasm, commitment, and decency never falters. This isn’t even the best thing he has ever done, it is just an example of what I get to read every week from a young man whose prowess with the English language has grown stratospherically (is that a word? I like the image!) since those early days in August, 2007. I feel like a young pop with snapshots, but here are his thoughts:

AP Art History.
Journal Sheet.

My Masterpiece of the week:
My masterpiece of the week is The Arch of Constantine circa 315. This arch which would be a sign or an indicator of triumph for Romans is indeed a triumphal arch, however, with one exception. Instead of being related to war, physical contact and physical victory, it’s about a victory of the soul, a victory of the essence and of a religion, Christianity; it’s about an invisible victory that is translated into art. Being such a sponsor of Christianity, Constantine could have the credit for enabling Christianity to spread and become legal instead of being “Superstitio.” In this arch, Constantine celebrates his heavenly victory by providing strong propaganda for the new religion by taking something old and recycling it into something powerful but with special and distinctive ideals and goals. By doing so, Constantine became an indirect Sacerdotal Intermediary that is connected both to God and to his people. It’s smart because it takes something usual and loved by the people to reach them but with different morals to teach, in fact, a completely different subject, not art, not Greece but Christianity. This will become the standard of the church in dealing with the people. The church will later reach the people in a smooth way using old morals but with some twisting and changes, thus, it becomes efficient.

Best textual example from the week and why:“For several centuries, mosaic, in the service of Christian theology, was the medium of some of the supreme masterpieces of medieval art.” This quotation from our textbook reveals to us as historians the strategy the church used to convey its ideas, the church used art, and in fact, various kinds of art. This shows us that the church was interacting with the people through something they all knew and recognized, art in its various forms. It explains the strong propaganda that was intended by producing such art works. But For us as art historians, we wonder whether these art works were done for the sake of art or for the sake of religion for it makes a difference even it was a slight difference. Was it intended to be unique to express themselves or was it because they followed Christianity that they felt they had to represent it? We don’t know. However, such issues show to us that many motivations and morals could encourage the people to produce art, that religion which is one of the most important motivations plays a huge role not only in shaping the people’s minds but also their lives and their art. For example, after Christianity, Romans didn’t have nudes, “Khalas,”
[that is an Arabic word for “okay, enough!] no more nudity; it’s time to be polite and mature. Again, here we see the power of art and its influence.

Best insight from a peer this week:
Faris said that building the church of Sainte Peter on the site where Sainte Peter and other Christians died is the same as when Augustus Caesar built the Ara Pacis (altar of peace) at the field of mars where wars would start. I think that this insight was smart and connecting the dots. It connected two different things but in a way that explains both of them better. This insight assures that Constantine who is the voice of Christianity at his time behaved like Caesar; he wanted people to recognize that Christianity didn’t have victory until these people sacrificed themselves who are Sainte Peter and others. It’s the same with Caesar; he built the altar on a place where Romans and soldiers sacrificed themselves for the benefit of Rome. So now, the Pietas, the devotion, of Christians is not to Rome, but to the church and the Pope.

Best insight from Mr. John this week:
One of Mr. John’s great insights was when he said that by bringing statues and panels form old Roman temples and buildings and putting them on the arch made Constantine a Summative Emperor. By saying so, Mr. John justified and explained why Constantine would do such a thing. This was very helpful for me because it inspired me with some ideas. One of them is that Constantine is continuing something but at the same time transforming it, meaning that he is everything good and thought to be great and possessed it which would indicate that he is even better than those prior to him. What Constantine is doing is the same as what Rome and the church did. They something and make it better and thus they become better and greater. It also triggered the idea that Christianity and its victory made Constantine a great emperor which shows how religion could affect people and their social status especially if someone is a Sacerdotal Intermediary like Constantine.

Best vocabulary word or phrase form the week:“Superstitio” is a Latin word that means witchcraft and evil and it was used by the Romans to describe Jesus and his new religion. The Romans used this word specifically to warn people for that evil, that new idea, that new life, that new way of living and that new power (According to what they thought of it). It’s interesting to look at this and then look at it after the Edict of Milan. The thing that was evil became good and legal. The usage of this word shows us how proud and thoughtful the Romans were of who they were. They were so satisfied by themselves to the extent that they would not hear any other thing but Rome, Glorious Rome. They want to be in charge, to be powerful, to be dominant and to control everything. They want to control in the name of Rome, conquer in the name of Rome and live in the name of the civilization their “Pietas” belongs to. It explains a great deal about how the Roman leader and their people had the same ideals and goals, bring glory to Rome.

I suppose reading some unknown-to-you student’s homework is akin to looking at another family’s photo album of that “great trip out west!!!” or going to the school play of students you don’t really know. It may be lovely, but…you know…okay, I understand.

If you are not a long-time reader of the blog, then go back to November 19, 2007 and find the entry about this student. Hamzeh has long been one of the most exciting and rewarding features of this sojourn to the Holy Land (I am remembering the Thoreau essay about when HDT imagined traveling to this region and encountering the holy sites) and I have the good fortune to teach Hamzeh again in his junior year. He came to us with gifts of energy and desire but a weak background in English. He had attended a government school that did not provide adequate English instruction and people worried in the fall of 2007 if he could handle the rigors of our education. Look at that homework. When he refers to us “as historians,” it just busts my buttons with pride at knowing how hard he has worked to become a skilled academic. None of his work above is from the textbook, save the quotation, and each of those insights represents his own thoughts—not summary from class or quick descriptions from our syllabus.

When I stand in front of the class every day and we look at art works, I hope my pedagogical choices enable a student to do several things: acquire knowledge from the mass of trivial data and facts; make meaning of that knowledge, and empower the student to transfer that knowledge and answer any question that comes along.

Tricksters are everywhere. They come in every size, every language, every administration and organization. But knowing a young man like Hamzeh, and enjoying the thrill of watching him do this every week, well, it may be another family’s photo album or trite school play to some, but for me, it encapsulates why you keep on keeping on.

Last week I was asked by a new colleague, “how did you keep going in the first months of the school?” followed by, “how do you keep on doing it now? I feel it’s so hard.”

The next blog entry will contain my answers…

Oh, again, I feel like the old days of the 60s show Batman with the suspense!

I’ll see you again.

Same Bat Time!
Same Bat Channel!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

And so it goes…

Hopefully the last of the trick-or-treaters have gone away for the time being.

I don’t really mean the hungry, costumed youngsters that are the trick-or-treaters, but I’ll tell ya, this past week has been a real trick-or-treat kinda week. I got home from Athens last week about this time and then the week just became this veritable roller-coaster ride, this volatile week of trick-or-treat relations.

And oh yeah, over the weekend we did have the conventional trick-or-treaters as well!

Remember that this blog is a public venue, and anyone can access all my blog entries. I say that not from any delusions of grandeur about the high number of hits on the website, just from the fact that these blogisodes are never “full disclosure,” i.e. I am not here to vent or tell embarrassing tales about colleagues and/or students. I am simply chronicling my life here in Jordan in as diplomatic a way as possible.

How is that for a caveat?!

But the volatility of this last week seemed especially sharp since I had just come back from a conference in which the participants seemed to re-affirm and re-commit themselves to putting “Learning” at the center of the School Enterprise. So the “tricks” of the week, to be a bit more specific, the nasty behavior on the part of some colleagues seemed to disappoint more than usual.

On Wednesday I had a nasty encounter with a colleague—commandments from on high as this person always demands. Frankly, the situation with this colleague is always tense. The person is notorious for chilly, rude, and downright nasty behavior to the ex-pats. When I fulfilled the latest imperious demand I said, “All right, how high do you want me to jump?? How high?” The way the tale got spun was that I was acting too high-falutin’ and I was a-yellin’ and a-screamin’. Funny thing, if I could explain more to you, it would not strain credulity that I should have been offered an apology. To choose the best clichéd phrase possible—I won’t hold my breath. (I used the word “nasty” three times in five lines!)

But then a couple hours later (after a couple more tricks from administrators) I had a lovely treat. I went out to a quickie dinner in Madaba at Chili Ways with a dozen seniors who had answered an appeal from me to help curb the chronic attendance issues here at our school. I had met with the senior class on Monday and compared myself to Dr. House on television. I wanted to solve the “poison” of the attendance problem, and I sought a team of extraordinary cohorts who would help me figure out and solve this problem. I had over a dozen students email me and the baker’s dozen of us went for some coney islands and chicken wings to discuss the problem.

What a treat of our 90 minutes discussion! It was not just a lame attempt to get off-campus for some fast food. We discussed the situation well, everyone contributing, and we agreed that we should meet every other week and tackle more problems. They liked calling themselves the “Dr. House Team.” Maybe we can crack some problems.

Floating back on campus, that treat counter-acted the tricks earlier in the day. But before bedtime the tension and anxiety of a tense and anxious October would overwhelm another colleague and yet one more trick awaited me that evening.

On Thursday we celebrated Halloween. The students were encouraged to dress up in costume. Halloween is a fairly new phenomenon/event in Jordan and we promised a costume competition, a pumpkin-carving contest, an Orange Meal for dinner, trick-or-treating at faculty apartments, and finally a “Thriller” dance.

One of the faculty—I think it was my friend Arthur—decided that we as a faculty should dress up as KA students complete with the hideous dress code violations we see everyday from a sizable group of our young scholars. I loved the idea. I borrowed a blazer from the lost-and-found room so I had an authentic crested blazer. I used my master key (shhhh…don’t tell…) to sneak into a student’s room to purloin a school tie. (I have since returned the tie, don’t worry!). I decided to sleep in my white shirt so that it had the greatest possible wrinkly appearance and I danced on my khaki pants trying to get the crease out of the pants as well as the sophomore boys must do.

Come the morning I worked hard to emulate the appearance of some of our boys. I made sure I was as crinkled and crumpled as possible. I made sure my pants fell down as low as I dared with colored underwear hanging out. The tie was a grotesque mess. I didn’t shave or comb my hair. And I thought—what other details will make this a thoughtfully executed costume. Ahhh…yes, gum to chomp! And a can of Pringles to nestle in the crook of my arm!

At lunch I discovered that I had won the Best Costume for Faculty. Now, granted, I was dressed like 90% of the faculty, but I like to think it was my extreme sloppiness, attention to detail, and surly attitude that put me over the top…always nice to win contests!

The whole day was a treat! Faculty laughed more than usual and the students looked rather appalled at how we dressed and high-fived and texted all day. The weather cooperated and there was even a chill in the air. It might have hit about 58 degrees---which counts as winter here.

That night a mellow dinner with the treats of colleagues. No more tricks in store for the weekend. A dinner party in my apartment. Singing with a guitar. A Turkish Bath in Madaba. Meeting a younger colleague’s new boyfriend. Attending church. Organizing. Cleaning. Solitude. And my dear sister’s birthday…a treat of a weekend after the tricks and twists during the week.

So here we are on November 1. As has been my custom on the previous two November firsts I have been in Jordan, I will share the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s reflective song, ”And when October goes”:

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go
I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go

Hopefully the last of the trick-or-treaters have gone away for the time being.

Oh, and today in Art History class, Rome fell.

And so it goes…

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Postcard from Athens—the Museum Edition

Say “Athens,” and people will say, “The Acropolis.”

So during my stay in Athens last week at the conference, there must be a visit to the famed high point of the city of Athens. I have been there before, in 2005, but it was especially exciting to re-visit the dramatic site since the brand-new Acropolis Museum opened just a few months ago in June.

One of the locals explained how the design of this new museum had created such tension throughout the city of Athens: Who wants a modern design of a museum sticking out of our famous walk up the hill to the Acropolis? It looked positively ugly in design! What about the ruins underneath the site? Indeed, it was another example of the visual shock that museums and monuments often cultivate in the angry debates of how art should look in our modern world.

I was very interested to see how the museum looked and felt—I have become fascinated in the last 10 years or so with how the design of a museum can transform the learning experience (and dare I even sound so pretentious as to say the “spiritual” experience???) of a museum-goer. I remember in 2000 in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis being blown away by the sheer design of how they shaped your reaction to the history of the civil rights movement. And I have watched how my beloved Metropolitan Museum in NYC has transformed wings of the museum to heighten and deepen the experience. And, of course, controversy is always fun if you are not one of the screamers on the sidelines!

Some of our contingent from KA decided not to go on the guided tour of the Acropolis. Seriously? You are in Athens, you have never been up to the Acropolis, and shoe shopping wins out? As one of my colleagues sniffed, “It’s just not my style.” Okay…

Julianne was the most excited—I can’t believe I get to go to the Parthenon with you!!—she squealed. As she said, if you have ever taught history, read about history, or just have been aware of history, you need to go to the Parthenon. It’s like the Great Wall in China, and the Pyramids (all places I have visited in the last few years) it is important just to be there.

Okay, so we start the walk up to the Acropolis. We pass by the theater—the theater where Greeks say Drama was born. We pass by the spot where Pericles delivered one of the most famous speeches in world history, his “Funeral Oration.” You know it started out as an angry mob of mothers deriding the elected leader Pericles for the disastrous results in a war, and he scooped them up Ronald-Reagan style (or perhaps Ronnie just simply channeled Pericles all the time) and offered this speech about how their sons had not died in vain, but for the cause of Athens, and the women left quite aware and moved by the heroic sacrifice their sons had made.

So we come to the museum—a stunningly jagged design with reflective glass on the outside. What does it reflect? Ahhhh….what is behind us, the Parthenon! And we realize we are now walking on a clear sidewalk so that we can see the ruins of ancient Athens below us as we walk into the super-modern museum. So as you approach this new structure you are aware of the past both under you and behind you, and quite struck by the modern and beautiful need to preserve that past and reflect ancient glories.

I remember the old Acropolis Museum. It sat up near the Parthenon—great view outside, but positively shabby inside. It looked like a warehouse in New Jersey—apologies to anyone from the Garden State—not really like the reliquary of the statuary though from a Golden Age.

Truth be told, there are not many pieces on the Varsity Team of Classical Greek art in this museum—most of the A-list is somewhere else in the world, like Rome, Paris, London, or New York—but what Athens has, is showcased in the most beautiful fashion. There are some stars here—the Archaic Calf-Bearer, some lovely Kore statues, and the Kritios Boy, and the gorgeous carytids from the Erechteion—but you want to drink it all in because of the showcasing. The wall text is compelling and they make each pottery fragment significant in the telling of the story of Greek life and art.

This is certainly a teaching museum. Unlike the stuffy, cramped Cairo Museum (although that place looks like Indiana Jones is about to run around a corner in that place!) with the stacks of Egyptian art, this museum has sought the best place and light for each piece. Each pediment has been explained in a marvelous teacherly fashion. Our guide is obviously caught up in the new museum (by the way, they want to make sure the tourists get the idea that it is new, and they officially call themselves, “The New Acropolis Museum”) and she promises to let us go wander, but she just can’t help herself to point out one more stele or statue.

Julianne and I walk around by ourselves for awhile, and then we ascend to the 3rd floor. This floor is an especially important floor. They recreate the Parthenon on this floor, bringing down almost to our level the beauties of the sculptural program designed by Phidias. As you walk around the gargantuan floor, seeing how the stories of Athena’s birth or Athena’s contest with Poseidon play out, it is an obvious plea to the British Museum for the return the “real” statuary.

About two hundred years ago the British removed most of the statuary from the Parthenon and took it back to London for safe-keeping. It is on display in an exceptionally beautiful wing of the British Museum. At times over the years the debate has become quite heated about whether or not Athens could have back its own Parthenon sculptures. The British always said that more people would see them in London than Athens, and that they take better care of art.

The New Acropolis Museum has created a whole reproduction of the Parthenon, and where possible, they put original fragments, and then for most of it, they have made plaster reproductions. The place is ready for the original sculptures should the British decide to return the sculptures.

It was a sumptuous museum and prepared us for the thrill of surmounting the Acropolis, seeing the harbor of Athens (site of a crucial naval battle, and the heart of the maritime trade bonanza for the Athenians) seeing the rocks where Paul declared the message of Christianity when he came to the home of great educators, seeing the 1896 Olympic Stadium, and the rest of Athens. A glorious afternoon.

Julianne and I hoped to steal a little time to visit an Islamic Art museum in Athens as well. We decided we could skip a speaker on the last day to find the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. Mr. Benaki was an uber-wealthy cotton merchant a century ago, and he left money and his art collection to the Greek government. There are now 3 Benaki museums and we weren’t sure which one was which. We headed toward the one we had past the other night going out for dinner. It was about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, and that museum is housed in the old Benaki family mansion. The clock is ticking on our trip to Athens and we had about 90 minutes before we had to head back to pack and leave.

Curses! That wasn’t the Benaki museum of Islamic Art—okay, the woman shows us a map and we jump in a taxi. The taxi ride is long and going through a couple of sketchy neighborhoods. He lets us out in a very industrial part of town. Hmmmmm…we walk around the block and every sign is in Greek (insert it’s all Greek to me! Joke here). We peek inside the as-not-yet-open museum and decide this is the Benaki Modern. We look for a cab and some help…remember the clock is ticking…I should add that Julianne picks up the cab fare since she knows I like paying for cabs about as much as I like lobotomies.

He speeds us to the great 19th century townhouse that contains the Islamic art treasures. We have one hour—perfect. The museum covers 13 centuries but is the kind of museum that can be enjoyed in one hour and you feel as if you just had a great tutorial. The museum focuses on the role of Islam in the Mediterranean world and its links with Greco-Roman traditions. There are lustrous ceramics, inscribed textiles from Egypt, and superb inlaid metalware. The showstopper is an inlaid marble floor from a 17th century Cairo mansion.

We were rewarded at the café on the rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of the Acropolis above us and the ancient agora below.

Mad dash back to the hotel to pack and check out and head back to the work that awaits us at KA.

First-time visitors to Athens seem torn between the remnants of the ancient world and the innovations of the new, between the gods and the shops of Plaka, between ruins of buildings and the green-covered terraces of Kolanaki. Ah, but returning visitors know to enjoy all of both worlds, as do the Athenians themselves.