Friday, January 30, 2009

Were we sleeping?

E.B.White once wrote that, “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning difficult.”

Four weeks ago today I arrived back in Jordan ready for the excitement of 2009 at KA. Of course I came back in the new cloud of the crisis in Gaza. It has been difficult to ascertain exactly how far away Gaza is from our little mound of earth here in the biblical kingdom of Moab. I have asked how long it would take to drive to Gaza, but the answer is difficult because there are these border crossings and security issues, and while people understand the English phrase, “as the crow flies,” nobody can arrive at a consensus how far, how close, we have been to this tragedy.

While the situation has calmed in the last 10 days, it certainly provoked much consternation and despair, some anger, and creative fund-raising activities (each faculty and staff member voted to offer one day’s salary to send medical supplies to Gaza). I didn’t write about Gaza too much this month, but I watched and listened and read, weaving the context together to better understand the 60-year history of the Gaza strip. The best article I read, in terms of comprehensive background, but even more since it comes from an Israeli perspective, appeared in the Manchester Guardian by Avi Schlaim, entitled, “How Israel Brought Gaza to the Brink of Disaster.” Mr. Schlaim’s first line opens with: “The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context.” You betcha. Within the first 10 lines this man who identifies himself as “someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel” writes about “Israel’s vicious attack on the people of Gaza and the Bush administration’s complicity in this assault.” Obviously it is interesting to read Schlaim’s thoughts (he teaches at Oxford) and it is not just another extremist on any side.

Are there new meanings to be gleaned in these old battles? It is just plain difficult to figure things out since it is hard to untangle the groups (Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah) and the legitimacy and exact intentions of presidents and figure-heads. I would say that before I came to the Middle East, in 2007, my perception of power politics here was pretty clear: Israel is an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. But as I knew would happen, I have deepened, broadened, and complicated my understanding of the region.

On one of the nights when the students organized a vigil to commemorate/protest a renewed spate of Israeli violence, a group of us talked during Study Hall hours—several Americans and several Jordanians—about how each side views this mess. One guy explained how Israel has never promoted democracy for the Arabs in their borders. He spoke confidently about Israel’s long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. My students are well-versed in the history, reminding us that in 2006 (and other times) Israel refused to recognize local democratically elected governments, instead claiming any and all of these organizations to be terrorist organizations.

This other student quoted from the article by Mr. Schlaim, agreeing that a “surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.”

I guess that has been the hardest part to figure out—we like to name the groups, we like to be clear and identify who the oppressors versus who the oppressed are. From that three-week old war of 2009 it looked pretty simple from this vantage point. Israel fomented this war, and Israel has cleverly played the old game of divide and conquer, but the statistics of the lost are plain: 1300 people in Gaza died, and 13 Israelis died. Israel bombed 50 buildings run by United Nations relief. One day Israel bombed a hospital, killing nearly 500 in that attack. In that night-time conversation my students explained that the ratios tend to be pretty consistent. If 1 Israeli is killed, then 20 Palestinians must be killed. If the math ratio is correct or not, what a chilling fact for an adolescent to process and reflect upon. I know some of you, maybe many of you, think Israel bombed those extremists who had rocket-attacked Israel since they have the right to act in self-defense. Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. Mr. Schlaim goes on to write, “Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza.”

Does Israel count on apathy and impotence? President Bush put all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, issuing Israel a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza. As I have concluded several times in my time here, in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes.

Mr. Schlaim reminds his readers that Jewish settlers number about 8,000 in Gaza compared with 1.4 million Palestinians, but that the small number controls 40% of the arable land, and most of the scarce water sources. The majority of the local population live in abject poverty (49% remain unemployed) earning about $261 a year. This asymmetry of power leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim.

Let’s look at Hamas—like other radical movements, as it has grown in power it has moderated its political program. And to be sure, they are not a totally innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of their elected victory, and confronted with the difficulty of the Israeli government, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak—terror. Last spring Hamas extremists launched rocket attacks until a ceasefire in June. Now, what I have been told is that the damage caused by these rockets is minimal, but it prompted a desire to create a new fear screen and demand for heightened violence against not the militants, but the innocent population of Gaza.

Mr. Schlaim turns to the Bible and says that the familiar image of David and Goliath has been “inverted—a small and defenseless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless, and overbearing Israeli Goliath,” and then he goes on to end his assessment of the crisis Gaza branding Israel as “a rogue state” with “unscrupulous leaders.”

What is the goal? Is it peace? Is it military domination?

What do we do?

The Americans at that table that night wondered if forgiveness is possible. That launched a half-hour discussion about the nature, and quality of, forgiveness. Can you remember the last time you sat around with teen-age boys and discussed the concept of forgiveness?

As they should have been pondering their reading assignments for World History, hoping to get to their Biology lab report and Pre-Calculus problems, we discussed forgiveness. One boy thought these acts were “unforgivable.” What is unforgivable? How do you move past unforgivable-ness? We then discussed and compared how Islam views forgiveness and how Christianity views forgiveness. Do you need to be in a position of power to forgive? One boy thought so. We talked about unconditional forgiveness—we agreed that forgiveness may be the most difficult act in our human repertory. This boy said, “I know that in Christianity we are taught forgiveness is a mandate. We hope to be forgiven, so we must forgive others."

The conversation ended in a bit of stalemate—they always do—but we had discussed lies and mistakes about the past, governments and political expediency, peaceful co-existence, and the hope that forgiveness might triumph.

I thought of that conversation this week as I attended a performance of the play Waiting for Godot here on campus. I will be the first to say I did not look forward, should I joke and say, ‘to waiting’ for Godot to arrive on stage. I had not been a fan of the Beckett absurdist classic play. But Tristan, our young drama director, framed the play for the audience superbly before the performance. He observed: “Many people hate this play. I love it and I want to share it with you. I see this play as a simple play about relationships. We have friendships in life, and we have slave/master relationships. Isn’t this most of life?” All of a sudden this play took on a new life in my head: Which kind of relationship, the one of support and kindness, or the one of expropriation, will triumph? How can we work to make one thrive, and the other become a historic artifact? Can I do something about it?

Much of the play is aimless wandering. The play is about what we do while we are waiting for life to unfold. But Tristan framed it in such a way that delighted the audience and opened it up in a profound way. The two leads—the friends—reveled in a kind of schtick like Vaudevillian veterans. Indeed, they even looked like Laurel and Hardy. And the master and slave had a subservient man named Lucky toiling for a ridiculously vapid woman. Toward the end of the play one of the friends turned to the other and wondered,
”Were we sleeping when others were suffering?”

Tristan created a simple set design, but it even looked a little like the scrabby land here in the Middle East. And I sat, trying to process the governmental policies and fears, and intentions, the despair and cries of the innocent, aghast that schools and hospitals are destroyed, wondering how to pick themselves up, and waiting for relief.

And that one line has resonated in my head ever since.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bail Out The Teachers!

Ten years ago I taught this guy Tom Scaramellino, who was scary smart. He loved History and Science. To be accurate, I should say he loved Science and History. I took him to a play called Copenhagen, a drama that dramatically explored the work that Niels Bohr did in inventing Quantum Theory. I asked Tom for some help in understanding Quantum Theory. As Tom endeavored to make the strange familiar to me, I said something like, “Quantum Theory is so unsettling.” I remember that Tom then quoted a Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman, to put me more at ease: “Quantum Theory appears peculiar and mysterious to everyone—both the novice and to the experienced physicist.” Thank you Tom for helping me deal with the iridescent bubble of Quantum Theory. Indeed, in the play Copenhagen (and by the way it was so staged in an exciting way—seriously—it was if the meeting of two physicists took place in limbo or purgatory, and some of the audience sat on the stage behind the action, “judging” the men. Guess where I was!! On the stage—I spent half the time learning, okay a third of the time posing for the audience, a third of the time processing what this Quantum Theory might be, and a third of the time staring at the audience—Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller in the front row!!) Niels Bohr’s character said, “If it does not boggle your mind [it, meaning, again, Quantum Theory], you understand nothing.”

Well. Good. It did boggle. It does boggle. And then you go deeper into it, what with that Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, of reality changing when we try to observe it, and of paradoxes where cats are neither alive nor dead till someone looks at them.

Quantum Strangeness. I don’t claim to be the author of that phrase. Just another way people look at it and try and make sense of it. I even remember seeing in bookstores such titles like “Quantum Telepathy,” “Quantum ESP,” and thanks to Deepak Chopra, “Quantum Healing.”

What in the world am I getting at?

Well, as I catch up on some current events reading from December, since I was enjoying my American flight of fancy, I am still stuck on all those articles about how the US federal government took dramatic new steps to halt the collapse of the financial system, pledging hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue Citigroup and others, and hundreds of billions to purchase toxic debts and pump cash into frozen credit markets.

The plan just reminded me of Quantum Theory. Rumors and paradoxes and moves peculiar and mysterious. And Boggling. And Strange. And hopefully Healing. This rescue, in case you missed all this news, marks the biggest federal bail-out ever. But we were cautioned that we couldn’t let Citigroup fail—it could take the entire financial system with it.

It got me to thinking of all the people who won’t be benefiting from this bail-out. Oh yes, we are all a part of the whole, and all that, but really, I got a little tickled (almost—a sober tickle) at the stories I have seen about financial analysts giving up a 4th car, or letting a maid go, or terminating a time-share in the Hamptons. We were awash in how we had to tighten our belts.

You are talking to a teacher—we know from belt-tightening. It isn’t just a function of the downturn in 2008. We know belt-tightening. It’s really what we know best about careers and economics.

Surely you have heard a classic conversation between a teacher and a non-teacher:
Oh, you teach. I thought of teaching. But, I wanted to make money instead.
I was told I was too smart to be a teacher.

The bail-out of financial institutions and the automotive industries has reminded me that there has long been (always been?) a national problem of respect where being a teacher has become so widely associated with mediocrity that we are the stuff of common jokes.

My friends, (as the nation’s most famous “loser,” John McCain, likes to begin his appeals—I am not trying to bring up red-state/blue-state tensions, simply reminding us that the butt of economic jokes has kinda always been the teacher) in these times of plummeting consumer confidence and evaporating labor markets, it is time to address the problem head on. We must now go boldly forward. I suggest that we do something daring, and appropriate, and bail out the teachers.

What would such a bail-out consist of? I have been working on this. There has been much talk comparing President Obama’s first Hundred Days with the first Hundred Days of President Franklin Roosevelt. (By the way I am reading a great book about these very days, a book that was reputedly on President-Elect Obama’s nightstand during November and December—Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope).

In the 1930s FDR created his Federal Writers’ Project and Federal Theater project. These projects put money into the hands of creative types whose work had dried up during the Depression. They had to produce something, actually they were directed to “capture the American scene.” But I am actually thinking of another of Roosevelt’s legacy for the teacher bail-out. What about the AAA—Agricultural Adjustment Administration? This entity recognized that an overcapacity of farms and farm produce was driving down crop prices, and that elimination of that overcapacity was needed.

Hmmm…teachers start at somewhere between $23,000-$37,000 a year. I now make just about what my best friend in college in made his first year as a law school graduate—back in 1989. I learned recently that A-Rod will make approximately $42,000 every time he steps up to bat this season. Wow.

So, let’s get down to business. What should this bail-out look like? What would I need to take care of me? (And I promise not to fly to Washington on a chartered plane to hold my cup for the bail-out.)

I would like $400,000. That would give me enough to throw myself an AIG-style party to celebrate.

How many teachers are there in the US? I spent some time on the internet—I was on hallway duty in the dorm, so it didn’t really take time away from the heavy lifting. I discovered the approximate number of teachers in the US of public and private schools, and $400,000 is about what an average teacher makes in 10 years. If we multiply the $400,000 times the number of teachers—we get a total bail-out cost of less than $800 billion. That’s not far from what the government will pay for the financial and insurance institutions. If this number is still too big to swallow, let me ask point blank: whom would you rather bail out, a teacher or an insurance executive?

Of course putting this kind of money on the table would require the strictest of oversight.

Hey, that’s what teachers do anyway—strict oversight of the young. NFL player Curtis Martin once said of his third-grade teacher: “She was really hard on me. At first I thought she was mean. Then I realized she cared. That made me care.”

Most of what teachers do appears to be a technical exercise—but, of course, it is all about discovering things about yourself. It is peculiar, and mysterious, and the borders boggle the mind. I feel a little Quantum Theory coming back in with all the paradoxes and thrills and hopes and new frontiers.

There is a musical called The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and one of the teachers sang, “If you want to be an ever-lovin’ teacher, you gotta be out of your ever-lovin’ mind.”

I don’t mean to make too lightly about safeguarding our financial system. I also just want to remind us that in the words of Sir William Osler, “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”

I am sure the check is in the mail.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“I just want to see it.”

I have to write this quickly—I have two dishes of roasted potatoes and carrots to take out of the oven in 40 minutes to go and join my pot luck dinner of 9 colleagues as we feast on an American dinner of fried chicken and watch the Inauguration festivities in under two hours.

I had wondered if I would miss America especially today—January 20th is always exciting for political and history junkies—but oddly enough, today I don’t have an especial longing for America. Indeed, in the last two days I have been steeped in Americana—political and historical glories so much in the last two days.

Yesterday I headed a panel of four adults and two students to select a delegation to participate in the Harvard Model Congress in about four weeks in Boston. When the two students made the announcement originally that there would be a trip to the United States, and work with Harvard students, there was intense interest in the Model Congress. I mean—missing a week of school to play in Boston (they don’t get exactly what that might mean weather-wise for Boston Februaries!) and visit Harvard (Holy Grail!) was intoxicating.

Then I announced how we would select the delegation of 15 students. There was work involved. Since the Harvard Model Congress is a simulation of governmental procedures where about 1600 high-school students role play governmental officials, I figured we should have a mini-version of that so as to screen and select the best possible students. I handed each interested student a slip of paper with a name of a member of the U.S. Congress. They had one week to research the official, craft a speech that might be given in January, 2009 to a group of supporters, and then would stand to be grilled by the panel, and need to continue the role play with an extemporaneous Q&A. I figured we would lose most of the students with that kind of work involved, pressure, and necessity for public speaking.

During the week, a handful of students asked for advice, clarification on party ideologies, and many asked if I could be bribed. Sadly, few ever try and see how many scruples I may or may not have…

In the last two weeks two donors have come forward to underwrite the trip for all of us flying to Boston, staying in the hotel, food and expenses. One is a graduate of Harvard, but the other said to me, “I have not yet gotten to America. But if I can help some students go, that will be wonderful. American students need to see how great our Jordanian students are. But someday, I want to go to America. I just want to see it.”

So yesterday, at 4:00 I greet a group of 50+ students, eager to make their speeches and face our questioning squad. Good Heavens! We allowed each student 5 minutes for making their 2-minute speech, and answering questions. It was going to be a long session!

But over the course of the next four hours, there was no wasting of time, no necessary cajoling, no whining—it was as mature a gathering and execution of a plan that I have ever seen with teen-agers. I had volunteers to start, and we got in places, asked the students to be a respectful audience, and we began.

Each student did a credible job. Each student had striven to understand the point of view of his/her assigned official, trying to make that difficult way through policy statements, websites, and arcane political jargon. From the first student to the very last, it was a pleasure to listen to the speeches, a wonderful challenge to pick apart the language of the speech, challenge them on issues and problems, and watch these poised Jordanians echo the values Americans hold dear.

They may not really care about these issues of alternative energy sources, universal health care, homeland security, ‘No Child Left Behind’ statistics, automotive bail-outs, farm subsidies or investor confidence hyperbole, but our students rose to this challenge. Some of them have thicker Arab accents than others, and many would not be what some would think are “the real Americans,” but as I watched them trying to be selected so that they could visit Boston, that cauldron of independence and seat of learning, it was the most American of afternoons.

Once in awhile there were gaffes—a Texas Republican senator endorsing gay marriage, or another senator calling for donations from state governments to help the federal deficit, or another senator who, when questioned about the “great products from the great state of Iowa,” couldn’t think of any products. The Californian who believed home rentals would solve the foreclosure crisis, and a Louisiana senator who felt fluoride in the water was the greatest crisis his state faced. But you know, as I sat there hearing their sincere speeches, many peppered with the all-American salvo, “God bless America,” I was so impressed.

One 9th grader had his speech memorized, and answered questions as skillfully and correctly as the man himself—I should know, he played the representative of my family’s district in Ohio. Steve Chabot himself would have been moved by this Arab Omar’s wonderful delivery and handling of questions.

There was the student who is very frightened of public speaking—but there he was, doing what every teacher hopes to curry—taking a risk. There was the new student, dramatic and flamboyant, playing a lesbian Hispanic representative from California. There was another new student, playing a pro-Israel Senator, railing against Palestinians and sounding the way the Senator would in real life—even if the words were painful for an Arab to embrace. There was my buddy Hamzah playing Kentucky Senator McConnell, quoting native son Abraham Lincoln. And there was the talented 9th grader playing African-American James Clyburn and reminding everyone of the importance of a day dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.

53 students. 53 speeches. 53 Q&A sessions—long, without question, but rewarding, and moving to see my students investigate and explore the process and vagaries of American democracy. Would that we could take them all.

Today I visited a class taught by my former student Greg. He was brilliant. He has been student-teaching a United States history class, and while I have watched him before, he has grown in stature as a teacher in the last month. He commanded the class, eyeing the clock carefully so he could make the points he desired at the precise moment in the lesson he had designed. He taught about Abraham Lincoln’s steps toward the emancipation of slaves. It was never just a “tell ‘em the story” history class. It was a carefully constructed lesson about the words Lincoln said, when he said them, the rejections he made of emancipation, public opinion, and how it all culminated in 1863-65. How proud Greg made me watching this class—how involved these Jordanians were in a class about a history that is not their own.

CNN is on in the other room as I speedily bring this to a close—and they keep saying how the crowd has a feeling of “idealism” and “hope” coupled with a “polite, serious and purposeful” mood. That is just like those students vying for a few spots to travel to America, see what it is all about, work at portraying government officials, with Arab accents and points of view, all because of their idealism and hope.

How magnificent to celebrate the very values I treasure in my home country, and how moving to see these values taking blooming in my students in faraway Jordan.

Tonight we will eat American-style food, breathlessly watch the transfer of power from one party to another, see Dr. King’s dream fulfilled, hear a monumental speech, and take it all in.

Yes, I would love to be in America today, just to see it, but I have a beautiful vantage point right here, thousands of miles away, as we debate and clarify, and stake our hopes on the future.

That was the timer. Any other thoughts will have to wait!

Enjoy this day, and ponder the beauties of the American promise.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Unexpected Piece of Mail

Nothing is so bad that a day at a Dead Sea resort, and a hot stone massage, cannot repair!

Yesterday Christy and I journeyed down the ancient road to the “lowest point on earth” and through the wonders of music, scent, money and massage, raised our spirits dramatically. At the end of this week there is certainly less of the dramatic “asphyxiation” of the last week. I solved some problems, the block on the new phone was lifted, we rented a car and ventured out, and I had a most wonderful, and unexpected piece of mail the other day.

Snail mail, as many call the old-fashioned letters of correspondence that actually require envelopes, stamps, time and patience, still happens. I get maybe one piece of snail mail, or as we think, real mail, once a month. That may be generous. But maybe on average one a month. I am not really whining about it—just setting the stage for the excitement that ensues when I spy a piece of mail in my box in Lubna’s office.

So the other day I did indeed spy a piece of mail. I looked at the bubble mailer in my hand, checked out the return address—who had actually mailed something to me? I didn’t recognize the name or address. Freeman in Crozet, Virginia? The name and place didn’t jive with a name and address I know in my internal rolodex. But the address was hand-written, so it did not appear to be computer-generated. This is exciting!

I open it up. Tumbling out of the rushed-rip were two star Christmas-tree ornaments. Wait. What is…could it be…I open the letters attached, and one starts, “Dear John D, My sister-in-law Patti was a big fan of yours…”

I sit down. Unexpected. Beautiful. Sad. Kind. Miraculous.

In the bubble mailer with the two ornaments were two letters, one from a sister-in-law, and one from a husband of a dear friend, a friend I called Patti Dazzle. Just in case you were not around Charlotte Latin School in the 1990s, let me copy a bit of a blog entry I wrote about 11 months ago concerning this friend filled with such light:

Stars That Dazzle

Today in my World History class we read a thrilling eyewitness account of an alarming vision that greeted Parisians on a summer’s eve back in August, 1348. As worshippers left evening vespers, Jean de Venette, a young French friar, wrote of the dazzling celestial visitor splashing across the sky: “to our amazement this big star broke into many different rays, and exploded, totally annihilated….Is this a prelude of disaster?” Our French friar (of course, there is a not-so-subtle pun here) spoke of the awe of this sign, and wondered if from now on, every night more stars might not explode and disappear. He fearfully asked if God was out to punish them in some way. The bubonic plague had already become an unwelcome visitor in France, and de Venette spoke of the despair darkening Paris: “He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave.”

As my classes imagined what it must have felt like to be overpowered by those intense stars and then stupefied by the black sky on that long ago August night, I heaved a sigh and reflected on some news I had received last night.

Mary Ray Massey, that friend on whom I have lavished praise from time to time in the blog, had called from North Carolina to deliver some alarming news: my wonderful friend Patti Bazzell Freeman had died.

I wrote about Patti in a blog entry just a few weeks ago, recalling the delight at receiving her annual Christmas package and expression of friendship. I wrote: “The mail came, and like December clockwork, there was a package from my treasured friend Patti Bazzell Freeman, with another star for my Christmas tree—same old, same old, and it couldn’t have been better.”

In the early 1990s Patti and I worked together at Charlotte Latin School. This was a work friendship deeper and more profound than most one will ever encounter in a work place.
Patti offered loyalty, honesty, warmth, and a radiant smile. I called her Patti Dazzle! In 1995-96, one of the most challenging years in my career, I started almost every day with a Patti Dazzle morning check-in, hug, and smile. Patti offered the kind of support that elevated your spirits and served as a fount of blessings.

That Christmas she gave me several Christmas tree ornaments—all stars—and said, “You John D (she always called me John D—her husband was named John also) turn our students into stars.” And every year since 1993 I would receive a couple new star Christmas tree ornaments.

So today it is hard to believe that this dear friend is not among us on earth. Mary did not know much about her death, and the obituary I found on-line did not yield much information, but its words certainly summed up this magnanimous, serene friend:

Patti Bazzell Freeman, of Charlotte, died peacefully on January 31, 2008 surrounded by a circle of love—the love she gave and the love she received. While hers was a textured life (aren't all the good ones like that?), she never failed to recognize the bountiful blessings she had received over the course of her 55 years. She would often say, 'If I should be taken today, I've had more than I deserved, and for that, I am eternally grateful.' And, she was. There will be no formal service or memorials, but if you should want to contribute to a cause close to Patti's heart; try a random and anonymous act of kindness. Just give a smile. Get a smile.

I looked up ”dazzle” in the dictionary this evening and discovered several definitions that filled me with joy:

to dim the vision of by intense light
to impress deeply; astonish with delight

to shine or reflect brilliantly
to excite admiration by brilliance

Did the writers of this dictionary have the occasion to know my friend Patti Dazzle??? From the looks of those definitions, surely they must have made her acquaintance!”

What is remarkable about this is that I had not forgotten at all about the ornaments I received every year from Patti. In fact, on Christmas morning a few weeks ago, I opened a small gift from my sister, and there was a crystal star ornament in the box. I looked a little bewildered, and she said, “I know you miss your friend Patti, and didn’t get an ornament from her this year, but I didn’t want to forget her tradition…” That is how thoughtful my sister Elizabeth is.

So I had reveled in the memories of this wonderfully radiant friend Patti. But then to get a letter from her family, saying that “she found great joy in building ornament collections for” loved ones. As the sister-in-law writes, “Not one to leave anything to the last minute Patti had selected a number of ornaments that she intended to send this year.” That is early shopping! Patti passed away almost a year ago, but she still had already set aside some gifts.

What a gift to receive these ornaments, and these letters, from out of the blue, about this angel Patti—a reminder of our friendship, her generosity, and her random acts of kindness. Her joy, brightness and appreciation for her blessings continue to inspire any who had the good fortune to know her.

Last week I mused about the parallels of my mundane inconveniences to George Bailey’s situation in It’s A Wonderful Life, so it may not surprise you that after I wiped away a few tears at the reminders of my friend Patti Dazzle, I realized another brilliant parallel. As I opened that bubble mailer, I felt quite peaceful and blessed, just as at the conclusion of Frank Capra’s film when George Bailey finds a copy of Huck Finn under his tree as a present from his angel-friend Clarence.

Frank Capra was derided occasionally for his “Capra-corny” movies. But it doesn’t happen just in the movies to have such a lovely, and unexpected reminder of the veritable joys of life and friendship. She still dazzles.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Over the Christmas holidays I remember reading an article about a writer my age who remembers when he first saw the classic film, and some say clichéd chestnut, It’s A Wonderful Life. This guy was a high school student at the time, so we were both in the 1980s (about the same exact time I first viewed this film), and his teacher made his English class watch this film by a real-live movie projector (ever feel like a stone-age Fred Flintstone??). Besides the setting in which this forty-something writer first viewed the film, I remember clearly a great way he described the film as a “terrifying, asphyxiating story.” Wow—what a poetic, and powerful way to describe Jimmy Stewart’s life in Bedford Falls. What I loved about this guy’s assessment of the film is that he steered clear of the much more clichéd reaction to the film as a sappy, happy, saccharine story. The guy summed up poor George Bailey’s life as asphyxiating. What a fantastic image!

In the last week I have had some George-Bailey moments of my own. No—I have not sauntered over to a bridge by the Dead Sea and thought of jumping in—no, but there have been so many mundane moments in my life in this last week that have made me feel smothered—asphyxiated—and about as angry as George. And it’s angry and asphyxiated by the stupid things, the things you depend on to go smoothly, so you can deal with the really “difficult things.”

Like—okay, when you teach adolescents, you prepare yourself for all the quirks and travails and the beautifully frustrating-evolving adolescents. Yes. And they are great. My students could hardly be more exciting and thrilling to teach. Classes are beyond fine. Dorm life is swingin’ and keeping me from being bored and lonely (as my family feared before I came in 2007).

But it’s the little things that are driving me crazy—and that writer really chose a great word—feeling asphyxiated! I am talking about cars, and phones, and printers, and wireless access, and schedules. Clarence had better stop me!

You regular blog readers will remember that I had a car here in Jordan—for three weeks. A young colleague wrecked the car. The car was brand new and fully insured. That was in October. It is now January. I don’t know anything about when a car is coming back in my life. And I have a guest in town, so we are hitching/begging rides, or just staying on campus. How can that be? Yes, a little, what? Not verklemt, but asphyxiated!

Then the telephones. Regular blog readers might also remember that my Jordanian cell phone was stolen on my way to a weekend jaunt to Egypt. That was on November 20. Last week I begged the office on campus in charge of phones that I required a cell phone since I was on duty with the boarders over the weekend. I really needed a phone in case of emergencies. A couple of hours before my duty began I got a phone. I quickly learned someone had forgotten to take the “block” off of my phone number so I could actually make outgoing calls or send texts. And those empowered people were gone for the weekend. I could receive incoming calls again! But in case of any emergencies, I could not call anyone! Okay, no problem—I will use our new landlines. And then I learn you can’t call cell phones from the landlines anymore. And you can’t make outgoing, i.e. off-campus calls from them either. Since I am the Senior-Officer-in Charge for the weekend, I devise a plan in case I need to call anyone—I will knock down a student and steal his or her phone. I tell you, it’s more than a little asphyxiating!

We have a new policy with wireless and printing—no non-KA laptops can access the wireless or print. Okay, fine, the school did give me a laptop. I keep it hidden in the closet because I happen to prefer the feel of my older keyboard. But really—am I a security risk? How can I print? Where can I print? I have IT reconfigure my school laptop with the necessary prompts to print in the History Department Office. I go to turn on that laptop to print a test. What do I see? A screen screaming, “SYSTEM ERROR—UNABLE TO CONNECT.” Sing with me everyone—I feel a wee bit asphyxiated!

Okay—you are getting the point. Actually there is another major story-line here, but I think it is worthy of its own blog entry, and I need to deal with the feelings of asphyxiation.

Just like everyone else—either seriously or mockingly, I am looking to President-Elect Barack Obama for some inspiration. Seriously. As a candidate, our next president earned the nickname, “No Drama Obama.” I must admit, with all this whining and a little yelling, I have not recently (if ever) been compared to the concept of “No Drama.” But that idea of keeping a cool head is worthy of emulation. And the combo of politics and theater is pretty rich.

Let’s put it back in perspective—let’s go back to how It’s A Wonderful Life is a calming agent. No wait—remember how mad and frustrated George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets?

I mean as George relinquishes his dreams, he doesn’t just tweak Clarence on the cheek, or wink up to him (don’t skip to the end yet—we need to feel his pain!) as a bell dings. George is forced to live trapped with small-minded people, and he becomes so filled with rage that George verbally abuses his children, their teacher and his perfect wife. (As a sidenote, I wonder if more people are watching the film this year because of its prescience on the perils of trusting bankers. Hmmmm…) Remember George’s actions? First he smashes a model bridge he has built. Then, like any parent who loses his temper with his children, he seems genuinely embarrassed. He’s ashamed. He apologizes. And then ... slowly ... he starts getting angry all over again. That writer hit the nail on the head—It’s a Wonderful Life is a terrifying, asphyxiating story.

I don’t have time to relive my life right now, but I decided I would take that combo of politics and theater, yes, and slow down, and remind myself of my favorite moments from the last year in politics and theater, and un-smother myself from my mundane asphyxiation.

It is easy to look back to election night, November 4, 2008, as a memorable evening as an American. There were two speeches, from two genuine American heroes that will long linger in my mind and stir up pride. As John McCain graciously conceded the election, he said humbly, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say, no association has ever meant more to me than that.” That is a classy, moving line.

And then, within the hour, we heard from our new President-Elect: ”If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Another exhilarating moment.

The most exhilarating moment I had in the theater in the last year was seeing the new Broadway show, Billy Elliot. Strangely, it struck me in many ways as had those two simple, and profound speeches on election night. Indeed, the purity of feeling in Billy Elliot surprised me. It possesses an honesty few Broadway shows can match. It pays more attention to the complicated reality of people’s lives—those moments when we feel the tug of asphyxiation—than the escapist fantasies that can be spun from them. Billy Elliot is the son of a coal miner and chances upon ballet one day at the gym where he is being taught (not too willingly) to box. An awakening stirs in his heart when he stretches out a leg and lifts an arm just so, under the tutelage of a curt, chain-smoking, tacky-outfit-wearing ballet teacher. In secret BE returns to ballet class, and the promise of his talent inspires his teacher to seek an audition at the Royal Ballet School in London. A new vision of life’s possibilities takes hold in Billy’s imagination. A new vision!!!! (Could it be from the angel Clarence??) As Billy learns to dance, he opens his eyes to an enthralling future. It revels in the childhood need to dream yourself into a happier place; it revels in the exhilaration of self-discovery and self-determination; it revels in the scary excitement of the moment when you learn to listen to the truth your heart speaks, even if it is not the truth your parents (or you) necessarily are ready to hear.

All of these mundane inconveniences of the last week take me back to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey’s rage, rage building as it does throughout the film, perfectly calibrated—and perfectly believable, but when I take in the drama of election night, and the promise of the future for a talented coal miner’s son, I am able to deal with my asphyxiations, and calmly nod. It is indeed—SPOILER ALERT—a wonderful life.

Friday, January 9, 2009

[title of blog entry]

This has been one of those frenetically-paced weeks where I had hoped to sit and peck out a blog entry much earlier than now. So many little wisps of things, and threads, reminders, and run this way, and oh, yeah, don’t forget this, and can I have a meeting at 2:15 before the 2:30 meeting, and I-know-you-have-company-but-don’t-forget-dorm-duty weeks. On one of the days on what just felt like a looooong week, I thought, “this must be how my dear sister Elizabeth feels.” Sigh.

But it has been a memorable week—so many emotions, and quick checks on CNN, and so many glorious reminders of how good it is to be back in the classroom with my AP World History students—but as you can see from the pace and zigzag of this narrative, a pretty breathless and exhilarating/challenging week.

One of the most endearing stage shows I have seen in the last few years is about a group of thirtysomethings who try and write a musical for a competition and decide that the meta-thinking and meta-events of the process of working on a musical is fodder enough for a musical. “Should this be in the show,” they ask, and immediately that becomes a part of the musical they are creating. Eventually they have to mail in the script and score and wait to see how it all turns out after their emotional roller-coaster. One of the last things they work on is the title of the show. “Uh-oh,” after all this emotional outpouring it is hard for the group to choose a title. On the form for the competition is a blank and in the blank it says, “[title of show].” They decide—why not! How about that is their title, the empty brackets and all the possibility for what it means: [title of show]. As I was hoping to get a chance to write something this week, I had all these starts and emotional jags that would make for interesting (as far as I see fit!) reading. I actually like the challenge of coming up with the blog entry titles—it should be kinda provocative, kinda concise, and kinda sum up my current mood. But this was a tough week—so many emotional detours, I thought…

I will do an homage to that musical and call it—ahem—[title of blog entry]. It can be so many things to so many people this way.

One of the things that make this a topsy-turvy week is that I have a guest here at KA. My friend Christy, this one-of-a-kind-high-maintenance pal, has come for three weeks to visit me, and visit classrooms and schools throughout Jordan. She is a genius at understanding education and pedagogy, and we have long been soul mates at digging into the whole school process. We have been connected, on-and-off, for nearly 15 years, since I enjoyed my “Cinderella” year with the Klingenstein foundation in New York in 1994. It is fun having a guest, and it can be a little overwhelming with all the responsibilities of regular life (of course, I say this having just been a guest somewhere for the last month!).

Sunday dawned quite cold back in Jordan—luckily, I brought back my camelhair coat I like so much—the one that looked like the $800 dollar one in Lord&Taylor’s but that I got on the street and had a tailor clean up, all for a total of $150. Yeah, just to show off the bargain…

I had never had a month-long break from teaching before in over 20 years of teaching, so I wondered what the “splash-down” back into the “earth’s atmosphere” would be like. I planned to teach about a painting by Giorgione, from about 1500, called Three Philosophers as our re-entry into the world’s history.

There was a little difference in the three sections I teach—five students who had failed the exam in December had wisely decided to drop the course. There was then a palpable change in the vibe of the classes. Of the 42 students now in AP World History there was such an excitement, a veritable thrill to be back in the classroom, and we filled the entire class exploring this painting from the Venetian Renaissance and how it helps us understand the forces at work in the early modern period. (One student confessed that a friend of his had left the class, but he was so relieved since he could now really enjoy the class and not pretend to hate doing work!). It was probably the most exciting day in classes this school year. What a start to 2009!

But besides the giddiness in class, and generally around campus, there was a heaviness in the air as well. Last Sunday was the 10th day since the situation in Gaza had heightened, and this was the first day since Israeli ground troops had stormed across the border wreaking havoc. We had a school meeting to tell students that each day the school would keep everyone informed of the latest events. Our headmaster asked if anyone had something personal to say. A teacher I do not know very well, a lovely Jordanian science teacher named Muna, walked forward and confided, “I do not do well in public speaking, but for my heart’s sake, I must say some words.” She reminded everyone of the proximity of the killings in Gaza, but moreover, reminded us that “these are our sisters, our cousins, our aunts, our children, our neighbors, our brethren. They are like us. We must work today not to be guilty of our happiness of being in this wonderful school, pursuing the dreams of peace and harmony. But we must cherish the deep realization that it is a privilege for us to be in a school, back at our normal routines, working and growing and loving.” Muna spoke so passionately, and I wished I had had a pen to jot more of it down. Later, I went and thanked her for her moving words, and asked if I could make sure I got some of the main points I enjoyed the most. As we spoke she said, “There is some anti-American feeling right now, but most of us know that it is simply the American policy, and not the American people who would want innocent Palestinians to die. We know you rarely hear the other side of the story in the United States, but it breaks our hearts that Palestinians are always considered as terrorists.” Today as I turned on CNN and noticed that there was a new United Nations resolution urging Israel for a cease-fire and I saw that the Security Council voted 14-0 in favor of the resolution—with an abstention from the United States. I was a little ashamed that my home country could not come out more forcefully urging that Israel embrace a cease-fire.

As the week wore on, Jet Lag became such a menacing force. On the first night back I had four hours of sleep, then the next night two hours. The night after that—just one hour of sleep—yikes—what was happening! It strains the nerves and provokes—well, it is difficult with that. Rehema provided me with a little help in the form of a real sleeping pill so I could get some real sleep. Others, though, said it was the worst time for jet lag.

This week I have also enjoyed a trip-down-memory lane as Denison Singers friend-for-life Tracy emails me each day with the itinerary and memories of our Denison Singers’ European tour from January of my freshman year. So as I deal with the escalating violence in Gaza, the Renaissance in history class, dorm duty, guest duty, food committee duty, et cetera, I have the fun of reading Tracy’s emails and remembering our fun from many years ago on our European tour.

My brilliant friend Tessa knows how to galvanize our students and tap into their empathy and sympathy. She started a fund drive for the victims in Gaza, and figured out how to use the money in the best way possible. Aramex, the Arab world version of FedEx, has offered to ship medical supplies for free and take them to needy families in Gaza. All they need is the money for the supplies. Each morning Tala, one of our junior girls, would relay what her grandmother in Gaza had told her on the phone the night before of the travails of the citizens of Gaza. We never lost touch all week, and our boys wrapped boxes in the familiar black-and-white scarves that symbolize Palestinian heritage. You know, it is the same kind of scarf that Rachael Ray, the cooking show maven in the US, was forced to remove in an ad for Dunkin’ Donuts—some people thought that even wearing the checked scarf marked you as a terrorist. Of course perky Ray complied, but these are the same scarves that our students who proudly, and non-violently, claim Palestinian heritage wear each cold day. Students and faculty dropped money into these scarf-encased boxes, and after just two days, Tessa and her army of volunteers had raised hundreds and hundreds of dollars to send medical supplies to the desperate people in Gaza. It is hard for me as I watch the images on CNN or hear the reports not to feel like the people suffering in Gaza seem so much like the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. And so much of the sadness reminds me of the play I have done more than any play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the harrowing tale of how children suffered during the Holocaust. A heavy heart indeed.

A student came up the other day and proudly said he had watched Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the first time. Yousef was so excited and wondered what I thought of it. Of course I wanted to teach him a few new word or two, and wondered if he knew what a ‘curmudgeon’ was—of course, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the central character is everyone’s favorite curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge. I told Yousef that as a little boy I saw so many variations on this irascible man (think about the range: from Mister Magoo to Bill Murray and George C. Scott, but most people agree that the 1950s version with Alistair Sim portrayed this guy at his most heartless and miserly core) but I love thinking about his great name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Later that day, as I sighed onto the couch, wondering if I had to start grading yet, or should I write those report-card comments, I came back to that great name, Ebenezer Scrooge. I realized that years of imbibing the steady diet of Ebenezer Scrooges have spoiled the true meaning of that character’s name—Ebenezer. The original meaning of this name, and a lovely dollop of Dickensian irony, actually comes from the Old Testament when the Israelites erected a stele as a reminder of God’s help in battle. They named the stone pillar “Ebenezer,” which means “Stone of Help” to remind people of how God rescued them from the travails of life.

Of course by the end of the story Mr. Scrooge has transformed into a beneficent, humbled, self-aware man. I pondered the profound Charles Dickens and the emotional roller-coaster week, and fixated on the teachable moment of that name ‘Ebenezer’ and the promise of the beautiful help coming from the Lord, and it reminded me that we must erect our own Ebenezer in 2009 to help us in the travails of life.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


As I visited our neighborhood YMCA on December 31 for the last time to exercise in 2008, a vibrant sign caught my eye by the Fitness Center: “Feel Divine in 2009.”

Oh, yes. The New Year. It is here. (Look guys at the Y—I can rhyme too!). Every year I find it interesting how the sound of the new year coming in sounds almost exotic. Well, maybe not exotic, but it takes getting used to—maybe getting accustomed to the sound of the incoming year is like breaking in a new pair of shoes.

It may be clichéd, but everyone loves to use the ebbing of the old year, and the welcoming of the new, to take it all in—what has happened since we last exchanged partners in the dance of the new years. In the blogosphere, and in every other media outlet, it is certainly de rigeur, to look backward, and smile in the face of forward. I will join the legions in the next few days as I muse about 2008 and 2009.

Right now I am writing this on New Year’s evening—January 1—in one of the international terminals in JFK airport. This afternoon I left my dear friend Sylvia’s New Year’s Day party (and by the way, Sylvia sure is swell—I asked her months ago if she would start her party an hour earlier just so I could spend 90 minutes at her party! That’s a friend for you…and I reveled in her annual tradition of pulled pork…) and left Cincinnati bound for the return to Jordan and KA.

This terminal has been outfitted with a great place to sit and plop a laptop and actually feel comfortable typing away, at a desk, waiting for a plane. In front of me stares the blank screen, and off to my left I keep watching the baggage handlers doing their Herculean tasks (careful guys, those are Christmas gifts from my family in there…).

One of the staples of the “look backward” every December is the survey of who we lost in that particular year. I do not plan to run-down every celebrity I will miss (although wasn’t Suzanne Pleshette just divine in “The Bob Newhart Show”?) but in the closing days of December I did think about a handful of people that swelled my heart with a bittersweet feeling of loss. I suppose as I shuttle between my “homes” in New York and Cincinnati and Jordan I am reminded of the issues of transience and permanence anyway.

I am reminded of the death in July of college professor Randy Pausch. He died in his 40s. You most likely heard of this man—his “Last Lecture” became a best-selling book and a YouTube sensation. I remember learning of his death while attending a conference in San Diego. I had never met this man, but as Diane Sawyer relayed the announcement of his death, I cried. As you imbibe his passion for life and following dreams, you know he left us far too early. I remember reading a quotation from him in the Brown Alumni Monthly: “Achieving childhood dreams is not always easy. But brick walls are not there to stop us,” he said, “they’re there to make us prove how hard we want something.”

Remember, not much earlier in the summer political analyst Tim Russert died—an untimely death at 58, a newsman who obviously cultivated deep respect and love in his peers. I loved when Tom Brokaw, his friend and colleague, reminisced that Russert always marveled, “And we get paid for doing the stuff we love to do!” That should be our goal, finding a job that allows us such gratitude and delight.

In early August we learned that Alexander Solzhenitsyn died. Solzhenitsyn was a landmark of the 20th century, an 89-year old titan who decided to use his horrible memories of Stalinist life to speak, as they say, truth to power. His book about his travails in the gulag is a testament of courage—as he bravely told the world about Soviet barbarity and warned us to speak out against barbarity.

More than just movie fans mourned the death of Paul Newman, he of the legendary baby blues. If you have read anything about his foundation, and his brand name Newman’s Own, you know of the power of celebrity and his transcending power of philanthropy.

And there are the less famous people whose untimely passings (let’s be honest, is it ever really timely?) broke my heart. In August my family learned of the death of a grand-daughter of our family friend Edna, this grand-daughter a 41-year old artist and singer who succumbed to cancer and left her husband and three children. And earlier in the year my dazzling friend Patti Bazzle who also succumbed to cancer, leaving all she knew bereft. It is, in a word, bittersweet.

I roll that word around in my mind now as I sit in JFK airport, on the way back to my middle eastern home, fresh from the beauties of a long vacation in the United States. I wage war with the word ‘bittersweet’ the way those guys outside the window in Terminal 4 wage war with the mountains of suitcases of the travelers. When they temporarily beat back the enemy, they look with satisfaction, declaring victory—“There. Done.”—and then they smile at their own arrogance as another truckload of suitcases arrive.

We just came back from Walt Disney World two days ago and my sister exerts Herculean efforts (not unlike those baggage handlers outside my window) to plan and execute the perfect family vacation. She takes pictures to lock our six-year old and 10-year old in time. We click the picture, check its perfect capturing of a perfect moment and say, “There. Done.” As if it were ever done.

Bittersweet is a great word. Let me quickly take advantage of the wireless here and look it up on Of course we know that it means, yes, there it is: “Producing or expressing a mixture of pain and pleasure: tinged with sadness.” But as I scroll down, past all the references to bittersweet plants and roots, one definition gave me pause, and provides that New Years’ silver lining for which we all long—this definition reads: “A sensation that is at first sweet, then bitter, then sweet.”

Yawn. Now it is the early morning hours of January 4th. Jet lag is playing tricks on me, robbing me of sleep for the second day in a row. I think I was interrupted on New Year’s Day by a phone call—one more chance to speak on the same continent.

So I have returned to Jordan. I had the best sleep I have ever had on a plane—almost 8 solid hours as I stretched across three seats. So now Jet Lag wags a fickle finger at me.

A small group of us arrived a day early in Jordan, hugging and catching up. Walking around campus and picking up in conversations from last month felt like that familiar, well-worn pair of slippers easing onto your feet.

But last night, as many of the boarders roared back into the dorm, word quickly spread that Israel had sent ground troops into Gaza. During the vacation at Disney World I had caught snatches of the news reports of last week’s air strikes into Gaza and the devastation to civilians. As it came time for bedtime a few hours ago, we allowed the boys to continue watching the news reports for awhile.

Please know that I am not in harm’s way—the fighting is a couple hundred miles away, but this cause of the “ghettoization” of Palestinians and the undying hope of a two-state solution to the real estate fracas is near to the hearts of our boys and our families. International experts will be spinning scenarios all week, as we shuffle off our backward looks at 2008 and look full in the realities of 2009. As the New York Times reports right now: “The strikes — and the Arab anger over scenes of death and destruction — have highlighted divisions in the Middle East that can prevent Arab nations from working with Israel.”

Could that medieval definition of bittersweet come into play? It would certainly be our prayer.

When I think of that swing of bittersweet, of my December returning to my wonderful friends and family in the United States, the January tinges of sadness at leaving, I am reminded of this day, January 4th, and that is the second anniversary of when I first met Eric, the headmaster of KA, and the wheels set in motion to bring me to Jordan.

And back to sweet…

As we process the grave news, I am reminded of a great comment from radio commentator Paul Harvey:

"In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these."