Saturday, February 28, 2009


As a non-Catholic, I have always been a little fuzzy on what Purgatory is—is it a place, a condition, a state, a process? I am not quite sure. But as a metaphor, I think I know what it is like: chaperoning school trips.

My speculation about purgatory is that it is when one’s soul waits upon word or approval about the destination of Heaven or Hell. It is a state of waiting, I imagine, and one’s soul just never knows. Things might be going just great—and then Purgatory, and you wait and see.

Such is the state of chaperoning a school trip. You may take wonderful students, but until you return those precious ones to their families from the point of embarkation, you just never know. And take it from someone who has chaperoned more than three dozen school trips—I can assure you of this: there will be waiting.

Last week in Boston, on Saturday and Sunday, our congressional delegates had to be in committee sessions at 9:00 a.m. Well, on that first day of such an early call, I passed by each door of our KA students’ rooms, knocking and offering morning cheeriness. One room I must have knocked on the door 10 times, then went back to my room and called Room 1763 three separate times. Can you imagine not hearing knocking or phone calls? Eventually they got up, got dressed, and performed their congressional duties. I implored the mock congressional representatives to be a little more responsible on Sunday morning.

On Sunday afternoon I organized a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts. I gave them one hour to go up in the hotel elevators and change their clothes to more casual fare. Nearly thirty minutes after that deadline we finally had a quorum and could go…waiting…hurry up and wait…the mantra of group travel. Either because I am the chaperone, or because I am German, I am always punctual (maybe because I am both I have a double-whammy sense of time…) and I always have to wait.

The tour of the museum was quite nice, however. Very few of the students had ever been to an art museum before. There really aren’t encyclopediac art collections like the Boston’s famed Museum of Fine Arts in Jordan, and I wanted them to have a taste of how one can see an art museum—going for just one hour. I showed the students some pieces from the Egyptian wing, some of the wonderful pieces of the colonial art section (the sumptuous Copley portraits among them) and a few pieces of 19th century European art. Who doesn’t love a Monet?? On the way back a number of the students thanked me for the trip and they enjoyed their time. One student asked why Jordanians don’t like history as much as Bostonians. Ahhhh….see, from this moment of purgatory one would feel a tug toward Heaven and that state of grace.

On Monday I fought for a study hall so the students could work on school work (some acted like they had never heard of school before!) before their final little gasp of shopping and American food. I arm-wrestled thank-you notes out of them for our sponsors as well. As they merrily made off for the many malls of central Boston, I reminded them our vans arrived at the Sheraton that afternoon at 3:30 sharp to take us to the airport in Boston.

When I returned to the hotel about 3:10 a handful of students were already there. Good—we are making progress! The vans arrived on time, with nice drivers Bob and Jose making cheery small talk. 14 of our group was exactly on time—but a contingent of 7 boys did not arrive.

Purgatory. What students don’t know, of course, is that arriving on time is not just about being a good little boy or girl and following instructions. When someone on a trip is late, especially at such an important time as leaving for the airport, any chaperone would worry. A chaperone has to think up a Plan B or a Plan C to deal with whatever emergency has arisen. You have to imagine what to do with the rest of your group, how you will solve the problem, find the body, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

These young men arrived 30 minutes late. I had heard they were in the Cheesecake Factory restaurant enjoying yet another lunch. That was a 5-minute walk away from the hotel, and yet no one ran over to simply say they were running late. No one took advantage of my US cell phone to call and give me a heads up (several of them had US cell phones, and all were turned off in those moments). Bob and Jose were getting antsy—they had other pick-ups they reminded me.

None of the seven young men offered an apology either. What I have gleaned from my time in the Arab world, and had confirmed by other teen-agers here, is that when they think they have disappointed you, they are so ashamed, too ashamed, to offer an apology. Okay. Interesting.

We made it to the airport, but it was just another example of the purgatory of chaperoning.

I wrote an email to the young men the following day, just to explain why I had been mad at them. First of all, since they were late, there was no time for a group photo, and no chance to have a final word with the group and offer compliments for their fine work in Boston. Their appalling lateness was the final image of our trip. And of course I hoped to remind them we have the choice and the responsibility to be punctual and considerate. Since we were in Boston, I even called on the words of native son, John F. Kennedy (why not have a history lesson too??). When JFK explained why the United States was working to send a man into outer space he said, “We choose to go to the moon, and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The United States responded by doing the hard thing. “My challenge to you young men is to choose to act unselfishly and in a considerate manner, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. And right to do so,” I wrote in my email, trying to banish the ghosts of that purgatory.

This week I was thinking about the metaphor of purgatory, and waiting, and realized that February always seems to be a time, a season, of waiting. In the academic world of prep schools, it is when teachers are waiting to hear about jobs. In the last few weeks, I have had several dear friends eagerly awaiting the news about new positions and new chapters in their lives.

Waiting often feels biblical, like when Noah and Sarah and Jacob had to wait in the Old Testament times. In one of my favorite plays, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the character of Irena says to Raja: “Waiting days are long days, Raja.”

Tonight our students are waiting for snow. Snow in the kingdom will mean a delay tomorrow of the beginning of final exams for the second term. The mood of waiting is permeating all through the dorm. And of course February is when we are waiting for winter to slide into spring, and waiting for the refreshment of that spring.

I looked up “purgatory” on Wikipedia, and while I know it is a dubious source, it had some interesting thoughts about the nature of this “institution.” According to the Catholic scholar who authored the citation, purgatory is a “process of purification.”

I like that much more. Instead of a kind of torment, purgatory purifies us, as we wait.

So chaperoning a trip purifies the soul? Hmmmmm…

Monday, February 23, 2009

“That’s Why We Came Here, Sir”

An early morning in Boston, it is, preparing for the final day on the U.S. trip, and nearing the time to awaken the students, or as I like to call them now, the “U.S. economic stimulus package.”

We arrived last Wednesday to participate in the 2009 Harvard Model Congress. Several months ago Zahi and Fawaz, two KA juniors, had approached me about chaperoning this trip. I thought it was a curious idea since it is all about the workings, frustrations, and triumphs of the federal government in the United States. They thought it would be good for the Jordanian students to see how this system worked.

And it would be a trip to Boston, and a week away from school!

So 53 applicants, one disastrous trip to the U.S. Embassy, several nail-biting days of awaiting for visas, grateful hearts and hands accepting the $50,000 in donations from generous sponsors later—we arrive at the Boston Sheraton for five nights, many hours of congressional sessions, and trips to any and all retail places in the environs (hence the label that my delegation of 20 students has acted as a genuine economic stimulus package!).

In the Opening Ceremonies we stood at the back of the Grand Ballroom with about 200 other students who did not get to sit down either in the fancy ballroom. A representative from Minnesota had been tapped for the keynote address for the Opening Ceremonies, and he droned on, quoting Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy just a little much (couldn’t he think of anything original to say?). At one point I would swear he read the same page of his speech a second time—but it was warm and crowded in the Peanut Gallery at the back of the ballroom, but I know he used some of the same phrases…

Anyway, he gets to the second exhortation of his “Ask not what your country can do…” recitation when he warns these young scholars from across the United States that the “gravest threat to America is Arab Islamic extremists.”

This was interesting to me for two reasons—one, if we were to evaluate our threats, what would our criteria be for determining the “gravest threat,” and would we agree it is “Arab Islamic extremists” (many might, although one could argue that currently our gravest threat appears to have been corporate greed, a ridiculous failure to check on bank and home loans, and a lack of curiosity as to how to solve the economic woes)? Of course, beyond that intellectual exercise, I have just traveled thousands of miles for a weekend of peaceful mingling with my Arab Islamic students and these religiously pluralistic American students. In fact, as we scanned the program of participating schools (about 1500 students), only two schools journeyed from beyond the shores of the US of A: our school from Jordan, and a school from the United Arab Emirates. Ouch. It just felt, I don’t know, a little insensitive to skewer in particular the two schools (well, of course the region, not the schools) who felt it was exciting, and important, to work with American students.

My students looked at me for confirmation—I whispered, “well he did have the word ‘extremist’ in there, and you aren’t extremists…but it felt like a bit of an apologia for the speaker. These were the Opening Ceremonies—what exactly would be opening? A Pandora’s box?

One of my students, Mohammad, joined the line of students eager to ask questions to our keynote speaker. He turned to me and said, “Mr. John, I need to go and say something to him.” I simply asked him to be polite. When his turn in line came, he had decided to say, “Mr. Representative, I appreciate the care in your speech to outline the threats to the American people. As a visitor to the United States this week, and as an Arab Muslim, I hope to show my peers, these hundreds of teen-agers who came here, that they do not need to fear every Arab Muslim. That’s why we came here, Sir.” Point well made.

So, of course, it is interesting to consider why we 22 came on this trip. Sure, the Model Congress sounded interesting, or maybe a week away from school enticed, or the legendary siren song of the name of ‘Harvard’ called out. This group has been such a textbook example of group trips: oh, the old, “Please be on time and do not make everyone wait for you,” and “Yes, it is early, but it is time to get up. You have thirty minutes to get showered, dressed, and be in the congressional session!” Oh, the song is the same whether with kids from Gastonia, Charlotte, New York, or Jordan!

------by the way…I have had a steady stream of students in an out for an hour, as I have tried to write the next paragraph! They are trying to get everything accomplished on the check-list to depart so they can go and attack the mall one more time…I think I can recover the train of thought…but even still, that derailment of the train of thought is such the stuff of group travel! (As is perhaps the question posed by one student 10 times during the flight the other night, “Mr. John, Do you think I am sexy?” I told the 14-year old freshman the whole plane indeed concurred with his sexy idea… Oh my…

It was an eye-opening experience for the students—in the first day they kept exclaiming how boring it was—everybody talking, angling for positions to talk, and just so much talk! I guess they have never tuned into C-Span and the real sessions of Congress! Several of them told of some poor initial contacts with their American peers, comments about Arabs, can’t trust them, shocked at the pronunciation of their names, et cetera. We just kept echoing Mohammad’s comment about why we had come.

But on the second day several discovered the fun and thrill of working in a model congress: Moutasem proudly told me how he had drafted a bill with a kid from Connecticut, and Zahi told me that he and Fawaz won a case against the Supreme Court. Raya noted that she talked in session! Thaer said that several people asked to learn some Arabic words, like “hello,” and “I love you.” One boy was quite excited with the exchange of email addresses with some girls. My former students from Hackley were very interested to meet their Jordanian counterparts. There was much more energy as they dealt with the 3 hour sessions and stretched their attention spans. And of course, the meal breaks continued to fascinate—so much to buy!

In the little bit of free time the girls discovered a shop that just sold those Ugg boot things (ugg is an apt title, in my book)—how many boxes of Uggs are allowed in international travel??!! And then the miracle of Best Buy—the cameras, laptops, ipods and phones! Again, I will expect a thank-you note from the Treasury Department!

As the days wore on, they discovered many of the joys of coming on these kinds of trips: managing time, living with roommates, working and compromising in government simulations and learning and walking on the streets, and listening to many people.

For me, one of the main reasons I came on the trip was so simple—it was a return to Boston. Somehow five years exactly had passed (I sound like the Stage Manager narrator in Our Town!) since I had been in Boston at another Harvard Model Congress. I had always loved the trip here most importantly as a chance to re-connect with a contingent from the legendary Denison clique.

It is hard to fathom that it had been since 2004 since I came up to Beantown, but when this trip was in the works, I let the Boston contingent of the clique know, and plans were made. Sue, the dynamic wonder from Wadsworth, even planned to fly into Boston for the weekend to visit.

So Friday night was a reunion. We met in a Tapas restaurant, (the same from 2004!) a hop and a skip from the Sheraton (so I could check in with the students) and enjoyed an entire evening with Sue and Susan and Jill.

Some people, I suppose, look a lifetime for friends like these. I am trying to figure out how to describe the warmth and sustenance of this friendship—I guess I need a food metaphor. I think my Denison friends (Boston contingent and the other “branches” as well) are like my Comfort Food Friends.

That might sound a little un-important (I can hear a couple saying, “What?? I’m like macaroni and cheese??) but it is meant as a loving compliment. Just as we have food dishes that delight us, and over the decades that food happiness comes to mean more and more, and always have the power to revive us, these friends are like those dishes. We have known each other for 25 years, been separated as a group for over 20 years, yet, every time we are in the presence of each other, it couldn’t be happier, more fulfilling, more important. When I sink my teeth into a 5-way at Skyline’s in about 50 days, there will be a lifetime of love and happiness in that dish. When I hugged Susan and Jill the other night, after five years of such deprivation, it was a reminder of the supreme kind of friendship happiness. As callow youths something called out in us to each other, bonds were forged, trust earned, and love exchanged. All these years later, through the travails of shattered hopes and expectations in life, these friendships not only provide laughter, but provide nurturing and healing.

Nurturing and healing—not bad for a week’s trip. Mohammad was right: “That’s Why We Came Here, Sir.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Constantly Evolving

The other day, February 12th to be exact, my good friend Natalie commented on the blog that I had overlooked the bicentennial of another world-famous thinker (the same day I trumpeted the birth of Abraham Lincoln) from the same day, a not-exactly-obscure Charles Darwin.

Thank you Natalie—I hadn’t forgotten exactly, and for a moment or two actually I had mused about writing about both men born on that day, but you know, they each deserve some special praise on their own.

While I may have chosen the route of humanities over science (do you know me at all??) for the celebration of the Lincoln-Darwin bicentennial, there is another major event to celebrate, and today we will do just that.

This month marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As a bit of an aside, I know the word sesquicentennial—150 years—because of my mother. When I was about 11 our family’s church denomination, American Baptist, celebrated its sesquicentennial, and my mother traveled around our state American Baptist churches making speeches about the work and ministries of the American Baptists (now that I think about it, it might have been the sesquicentennial of the Ohio Baptist Convention—I was 11, and all I really know is that there was a sesquicentennial and it involved Baptists). I tagged along with my mother for many of those speeches—I just loved to watch her engage in public speaking, and I loved the sonority of how she pronounced the word, ‘sesquicentennial.’ It just sounded so monumental…

So back to the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s book—this is the book in which Darwin presented his 20+ years of research and evolutionary theory that rests on two pillars: the ideas of descent with modification, and the idea of natural selection.

Darwin believed that present-day organisms are descendants of much simpler ancestors: they are the products of unbroken lines of heredity that stretch back to the origin of life. Today, we have a mass of evidence, ranging from a study of ancient fossils to the latest discoveries of molecular biology, supporting this theory.

But, as we all know, the waters are hardly calm over this 150 year old theory! This morning as I scanned the complimentary copy of USA Today at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston (I am here for the Harvard Model Congress—more about that in another entry) the letters to the editor still railed on this subject.

I don’t plan to add much to that firestorm, but Darwin’s notion of “evolution” is a topic dear to the heart of any teacher or parent. Watching children evolve is certainly the most exciting thing about working with youth. There are hundreds of reasons not to work with youth (please, do we need to go over the lack of societal respect or fiduciary remuneration stuff??) but watching this evolution is thrilling. It seems magical, but if you know how to wire their brains, spark their imagination, stoke their curiosity and engage their interest, it is not magic at all, just hard work, and a thing of wondrous beauty.

Maxine Greene, one of the most wondrous people I know, is an educational philosopher who espouses the claim that, “I am what I am—not yet.” I first encountered Maxine when she had just turned 80, and still teaching full-time. I marveled at this dictum that we are not really ever finished, but always a fascinating, evolving work in progress.

Even Darwin’s theory, as monumental as it was in 1859, and still today, was not brand new even then. Darwin did not “invent” the idea of descent with modification. Fifty years earlier, scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had suggested that living things are products of a long historical process of transformation. Turns out that those ideas found little to no favor in the intellectual world 200 years ago…

As any of you who know me slightly, realize—I am not a scientist, but this concept of “evolving” just fascinates me, and this idea that natural selection in a particular direction, say, moving efficiently through the air, can give rise to complicated structures like wings and the coordinated processes of flying is breathtakingly exciting.

I have seen practically the same selection and transformation in students. We know that certain environmental stresses and insults can affect generations in flora and fauna, and it works that way in people too.

As I was thinking about Darwin, and the twin pillars of Darwinism, my brain whizzed back to Maxine Greene. I thought about the first paper I wrote for Maxine back in the fall of 1994, when I was in the Klingenstein Fellowship at Columbia. We had been reading about the philosophers of Romanticism, and how they felt compelled to embrace the concept of transformation. I wrote about the twin pillars of “hope and despair,” and how those dialectical forces transform us as educators. We are biological organisms, of course, and just as stresses and insults shape and affect adaptation, it is those forces of hope and despair that mold us and cause us to evolve.

Wow—the pillars of Darwinism and Maxine and education and pillars of hope and despair, all careening through my brain. And of course it is easy to cruise through the annals of the students I have known and marvel at the evolution of these exceptional young people to come my way.

Two weeks ago, during that speedy trip to New York (the trip of Job Fairs and Theater Mania) I had lunch with two extraordinary former students, Kate and Fareeda. We have been getting together every time now I come to New York, and each time I come away breathless in my admiration for them. They are both in the financial world and of course are witnessing what some may see as the apocalypse of New York finance. I taught them as seniors in high school, and while I certainly enjoyed them in my classroom, it is with such respect and joy that I greet them now as adults confronting the hope and despair of the real world. And I must say, they are adapting and evolving with such intelligence and elegance.

Indeed there is nothing better than seeing former students evolving into magnificent adults. Today I visited with Nicki, another Hackley superstar who is winding up a stellar career at Harvard. Nicki is like a Vermeer painting, an exquisite jewel that gets better with each visit. She is an art historian, specializing in American art, and she has evolved from a sensational high school student to a fascinating adult. Her interests, her boyfriend, her classes—everything is exciting in talking to her.

Nicki took me to a special club, the Signet Club, at Harvard, today for lunch. This is a club that meets on Thursdays and allows only arts-interested members. T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roosevelt, Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Rich, and e.e. cummings have all been members at one time or another. You meet and have lunch, preferably with members with whom you are not familiar, and discuss.

We sat with an octogenarian who was lively and peppered us with questions—a man who is very interested in “how people age and transform,” he said. Little did he know he would fit perfectly with my theme of evolution today! He was interested to hear about my experiences in Jordan, and commented, “You know you could have gone over there and fallen flat on your face. I like how you did it anyway.”

I don’t know if my endurance in Jordan is a sign of natural selection, but I certainly like that Darwinian challenge of adapting and finding new ways to succeed and thrive in this world.

This evening I will visit with Noah, another of the superstars from Hackley who have made their way to Harvard. This is a young man who always inspires awe and interest. Since I last saw him last year I am sure he has read something, changed something, imagined something that will make our world more provocative, more compelling.
Like Kate and Fareeda and Nicki, Noah is constantly evolving, constantly surprising, constantly gratifying to know.

I know that when Charles Darwin began studying those Galapagos turtles and those barnacles on those ships 170-some years ago, he had no idea the beauty he would unleash as we behold the evolution of those we love.

It’s time to go meet Noah—I wonder how our conversation tonight will evolve.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Summoning “the better angels of our nature”

Four score and 120 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born today.

Of course the story of Abraham Lincoln is a story of Dickensian proportions— born in poverty and rising to the highest office in the land, holding together the country during a great war that threatened its existence, issuing an order to free some slaves, the first American president assassinated.

This is the American around whom, and in whom, I cultivated my love of history.

As some of you may know, when I was in the 2nd grade I was hit by a car (walking across the street on a walk-light, he hastens to add!) and was in the hospital for about six weeks, then home in a body-cast for several months, and finally walking oh so tenderly on crutches. My mother was not about to have this out-of-school time become a mental miasma playtime, so she said I should write a biography (mind you, I had just begun to learn to write cursive!). I chose Abraham Lincoln as my subject. Over the next few weeks I read every book an 8 year-old could manage and then set out to write my own biography of the 16th president, the legendary “Honest Abe.” Since I had shown such interest in the six-foot-four-inch Abe I was delighted to discover upon my return to the family home that my bedroom had been festooned with every kind of Lincoln memorabilia possible: bedspread, portraits, busts, book-ends, pennants—my mother must have combed the Midwest to find Lincoln souvenirs.

Later that spring, my grandmother took me on a trip with my sister and mother on the Lincoln Trail. We began in Hodgenville, Kentucky, seeing a facsimile of what might have been like a Lincoln birthplace cabin circa 1809 (and the uber-Lincoln Log home inside of a Parthenon-like building). We moved through boyhood times in Indiana, and on to Illinois, touring Springfield, Illinois. I could not have been happier—it was a junior historian’s dream come true. My sister, my dear Elizabeth, could not have been more unhappy. Poor thing—she even had this recurring nightmare that she would be left by this weird history-loving family at some battlefield.

For the next few years, as I expanded my love of history, Abraham Lincoln was at the centerpiece of my—there’s that word again—mania, for history. I remember in the 4th grade when my best friend Andy’s mom gave birth to a sister for Andy on February 12th, I thought, “Golly, she is so lucky—born on Lincoln’s birthday!”

In high school I let Lincoln go. I had discovered European History, and the quaint stories of Lincoln’s honesty and thrift just paled next to the sexy exploits of Catherine the Great, Teutonic madmen, and Reformation zealots.

It took until the mid-1990s, when I started teaching at Hackley, and “forced” to return to United States history, that I re-discovered Abraham Lincoln. He is even better as an adult. He is wonderfully complicated, and each season yields books that unravel more and more layers of this enigmatic statesman. I also enjoyed studying the historiography, or actually, hagiography of Lincoln, too—observing how each generation discovers Lincoln anew, seeing him through the prism of their own times. And then there is Lincoln’s writing. It was only as I became an adult that I became more able to ascend the heights of Lincoln’s rhetoric. I spent the summer of 2000 in Washington, D.C. working at Georgetown University, and I would spend some free time at the glorious Lincoln Memorial on our National Mall, re-reading his prose in astonishment. One can read Lincoln’s speeches and discover the wonder that virtually every sentence could be included in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

There may not be a finer paragraph than at the close of his First Inaugural Address. Just for kicks—it his birthday, after all, let’s read his words. First, let’s remind ourselves of the context on that cold day in March, 1861: the national upheaval of secession was a grim reality. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier. The former Illinois Congressman had arrived in Washington by a secret route to avoid danger, and his movements were guarded by General Winfield Scott’s soldiers. The inaugural speech ended with a message to the Secessionists whom Lincoln would soon oppose in the bloodiest war in America's history. Speaking to those who would divide the United States, Lincoln ended the speech with,

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What and who are the better angels of our nature? Lincoln was suggesting these were humaneness, compassion, goodwill, tolerance, and other good things. What lay ahead though was four years of savage war and 600,000+ deaths before those positive values could be invoked again by Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, asking these better angels to bear “malice towards none, with charity for all . . .” Again…a lofty challenge for us to summon those “better angels” eschewing hate and embracing friendship.

The bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth is marked by the first African-American in the White House. Many perceive we are in a time of crisis. It may be mere coincidence that Obama is, like Lincoln, an Illinoisan with a relatively short resume of electoral service. Lincoln had served only one two-year term in the House of Representatives before a resounding defeat. Lincoln was also derided by some as just a good writer (lest we forget his brilliant “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand” speech)—he wouldn’t have any mettle, and there was no substance there, said some from his own party! Besides the Illinois bond, though, it is interesting to note some major differences between Lincoln and Obama. Lincoln came into office with some of the lowest expectations for an elected official. This man—a scant five years older than Obama is now—hardly engendered any hope at all.

By contrast, the expectations for Obama are incredibly high—approaching awe from many. As has been asked by so many commentators, how long will this euphoria last? Oh he has been chastised for a carefully crafted ambiguity, and one columnist I read said he must “establish a consistent philosophical vision.” You know what is funny—all the New York columnists said the same thing about Lincoln’s ambiguity and philosophical vision! We are reminded of the essential message of American politics from a speech Lincoln gave on the campaign trail: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew and then we shall save our country.”

Over the course of the Civil War, Lincoln transformed what that war was about—it began as a “state’s rights” issue, and he let people think it was about saving the union. But—dig a little into the history—Lincoln rejected a compromise plan (a big ole band-aid was what it was) called the Crittenden Compromise in late 1860 that would have, according to the bi-partisan committee, save the union. Lincoln rejected it. What was his vision? I think he was hoping Americans would summon those better angels, end slavery, and manage hope better than it had been before.

As we work through President Obama’s first 100 Days, it is right to speak of hope—a hope that America’s Democrats, Independents and Republicans will again embrace the notion of politics in the highest sense. Many of us still believe that this great nation can and should be what Lincoln imagined: “the last best hope of Earth.”

So on Lincoln’s birthday, we need to summon the strong and righteous angels of wisdom, humility, compassion, and tough love now in our current struggles—personally, domestically and internationally. We need to reject the weak and evil angels of pride, hate, arrogance, intolerance, racism, and the belief that force is the answer to all problems—or, indeed, that we in the United States have answers to all problems.

We must also listen for the stirring of the wings of the angels of our better nature.

Monday, February 9, 2009

It’s just a mania, I guess…

It’s just a mania, I guess…

One of my favorite websites to check on a few times a week is called “”—it is a site that keeps me up-to-date on theater in New York, with news and reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway. By the way—it is not a gossipy site, it is full of (crucial) information for theater-o-philes like myself. My favorite feature on the website is a column written three times a week by a Peter Filichia, a former English teacher turned theater maven and journalist. Every so often Mr. Filichia solicits input or responses from his audience, and I write occasionally about first impressions in the theater, or dream days when I caught two sensational matinees, or other topics in his column. I met this man on my trip to New York in December, and I learned that in his work he sees about 360 plays a year. Wow! What a busy life in the theater! (And just for the record a really nice man and interesting to talk to—he loves to pepper you with questions: “What is your favorite obscure musical?” and then “What performances from the past do you wish you had seen?” were just two of the questions in our hour-long meeting in an 8th Avenue diner.) From the responses he gets, there must be other people like me that get enthused about theater.

Sometimes—just sometimes—I wonder if my enthusiasm borders on something a little beyond normal. I wonder if I suffer from more than just a casual desire to go to and think that I may actually have a case of mania about the
theater. I took advantage of just now to take a look as to what the dictionary writers say about mania. The first definition reads of mania: an excessive excitement or enthusiasm; a craze. Hmmm…that doesn’t sound too weird. The second definition reads that mania is a violent derangement; madness; insane passion affecting one or many people; lunacy; delirium; aberration. Oh dear.

I am pondering this mania as I look back at my recent whirlwind trip to New York. Perhaps I will not self-diagnose, and let you all weigh in about the level of my “mania.”

Okay. On Wednesday, I landed at JFK about 6:00 a.m. and by 7:30 a.m. I am already safely delivered to my friend Christy’s house on the Upper upper West Side (when realtors describe her area they sometimes call it SoHa—south of Harlem—anyway, that’s just agent lingo). While I have just come off of a 12-hour flight, and the main purpose of this trip is business—attending a Job Fair at Teachers College at Columbia on Thursday—one of the first things Christy and I do is rush to her computer and check on What’s up? What’s up? Now we are not trying to be all hip with a variation on the ghetto-cool wazzup? but rather we want to go to her gold card account and see what plays and shows are available for that evening on Theatermania. Years ago we discovered the beauties of services like Audience Extras, Play-By-Play, and Theatermania that allow you to pay a subscription fee (like an incredibly low $100 a year) and then you have access to discounted theater offerings, cabarets and concerts. And I mean discounted—not like the fools who stand in the half-price ticket line—I am talking shows for $4. Way.

One of the saddest parts of moving away from New York was when I called those organizations and told them I needed to terminate my memberships. I asked if they had a sister organization in Amman, Jordan. Sadly, the answer was no.

You can see how someone with a mild enthusiasm or excitement could stoke that into a mania if you can attend productions at only $4 a pop—I know—first-run movies cost so much more! Who wouldn’t want to see real people doing something creative instead of a movie! So I often saw 2-3 productions a week during those New York days.

So like little theatermania addicts we scroll down to see what is available that night. Christy had to teach all afternoon so we didn’t consider matinees. And there were a couple of good offerings. While we debated a few possibilities for the evening, we lost a couple of shows. Gotta act fast! Can’t lose a good one! So as we debated, and while the pickins’ were slim, we decided on seeing a play called Southern Gothic Novel in a small theater in an industrial part of town. In the ad it mentioned that it had had a favorable review in the New York Times. We clicked the button and scored two tickets. All that before 10:00 a.m.!

After Christy went to go teach, and I was left to go through the 90 resumes of the participants in the Job Fair, I realized I might have acted hastily. I was a little tired. Why in the world hadn’t we thought I might be a little jet-lagged after traveling all night from the Middle East? It didn’t even enter my mind to have a quiet evening! Nope, the old theater mania just settled in.

I left around 7:00 p.m. to get to the theater, shivering in the bitter cold (you never think it is really as cold as they say, and again, the day before it had been about 68 degrees in sunny Madaba). How long is this play going to be? As I walked down seedy 37th St. heading west, I hoped this would be a wonderful surprise. The thing with these ticket services is that you never know the quality of the show. We had a continuum in our discussions of these theater offerings. On the high end of the scale was a show entitled, Dinah Was that was just divine, and at the other end were clunkers called Andrew My Dearest One and Looking at Love. Those last two could turn theater maniacs into bitter, snarky, theater-phobes.

I arrive at—can’t call it a theater—but it’s an industrial building, find a buzzer for 5A—and walk in, up the elevator and down a loooong hallway (how will Christy find this place? she is a little direction-challenged) and enter what the woman is calling a lobby. Ummm…isn’t this just a room in your apartment? “The house is open,” she says with a broad smile and sweeping gesture. She giggles and says, “we’ve sold out for tonight!” Well, I walk into the theater, “house” in drama-speak, and it is, well, I guess her living room with a stage the size of my bed, with 25 chairs arranged in front. Well, she is excited about the sold-out crowd. I just can’t ask about the rave Times review. Did everyone pay just $4 or did anyone pay the advertised $25??

There are cell phone calls to Christy so that she can find the place, and when the producer announces that the play is one hour long, we look at each other in relief. Why relief? Why did we choose to go out on such a cold night if we are going to have relief over a short play??? Ahhhh…the touch of mania.

It is a one-man play. Oh my. There have been good one-person plays in the history of theater. But there are many self-indulgent, or therapy-like plays involving just one actor. You better be really good if you are just one actor! This nice man takes the stage and opens his—guess what is in his hand—his southern gothic novel, and proceeds to read aloud from chapter one. Then he puts the book down and his play is an enactment of the entire story, and he plays all 17 characters.

Now I know from southerners. And they make great story-tellers. My friend Mary could easily charge $25 a head for her great story-telling skill. And this nice man was okay, but it was exhausting to listen to him and watch him tell this story of some sex-slave incident in Mississippi. And since the audience was so small you felt a need to rally for this actor putting himself through these paces.

After a few minutes I couldn’t take it—we’ll blame it on jet-lag, but it was too tiring to actually watch. Christy elbowed me a couple of times when I guess my heavy breathing was taking away from the audience hearing of the next chapter in the misadventures of Viola and June and Mrs. Wong, the owner of a Chinese restaurant. I just hoped my head wouldn’t fall into the man in front of me.

Finally it ended. We clapped. We smiled. We high-tailed it out of the living room cum theater to get fresh air. Outside we just laughed at our choice—why had we insisted on seeing something theatrical??! Why couldn’t we just stay in the warmth by the metaphorical hearth?? We decided to be much more conscious about our theater choices in the future and only make smart decisions from now on.

Okay. Saturday afternoon we planned to go join the fools in the line for half-price tickets. We had decided that we really did want to see Music in the Air (check the last blog entry) and would pay top dollar—half price to see this 1930s musical confection. And I had actually read a rave review in the Times that morning.

We join the throngs Saturday morning (fortified with a great diner breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon!) and wait for 45 minutes for our tickets. We get up to the front of the queue, and we have decided that we will pay up to $60 for these seats—but we are making a responsible, sensible decision about theater. No more mindless mania for us!

We ask the man about the seats for Music in the Air, and he says they are in the rear mezzanine. Christy and I look at each other and exclaim, “those are terrible seats! No thank you!”

Before we know it, we have responsibled-decisioned ourselves and ejected ourselves from the line. We didn’t even check to see if that meant rear balcony, or where the rear mezz was or what the cost was…what had we done?? We had just spent 45 minutes in the cold and foolishly walked away.

We laughed at ourselves, wondering if we had cured our mania, or just settled into very odd decision-making habits.

We decided to save all that money and went to see an 11:00 matinee of Slumdog Millionaire for $6. It was great.

Maybe there is hope for us. Maybe maniacs don’t actually know they suffer from mania. We at least know we have a problem!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Music In The Air

Don’t stop reading the blog entry just because of the seemingly trite entry title!

It has been a week with music in the air—alternately cacophonous and sweet, with an undertow of the theme from Jaws occasionally.

But at the end of the entry you will see why it had to be that title.

If you have been with the blog for awhile, you might remember my unsuccessful attempts at reaching the location for a singing group in Amman. During those oh-so-short-three-weeks when I had a car (no bitterness—PSYCHE) I attempted to find this YWCA in Amman. Tried three times. Failed each time. Anyway—I went to the concert of the group in December and it was glorious. Shireen, the conductor, is head of the Performing Arts Department here at KA, and she is one talented director.

Last night—another attempt to join the group. This time Shireen secured the services of a KA driver so I could get there. Wouldn’t you know—he got lost too! Round and round the neighborhood of Schmeisani he drove. Fortunately, we left almost a half-hour earlier than we should have, and I arrived to the location just in the nick of time. But there I was—ready for my first rehearsal with the group known as Dozan wa Awtar.

And I got to sing! Two hours of new music, new people, and returning to one of my great loves—choral singing. The group has about 40 voices, all adults, and like many things in Amman, people from all walks of life. It was sensational to focus on the warm-ups, get a new score, and wonder how the process will evolve over the next 10 weeks. Shireen picked an eclectic batch of pieces, too. Although no one in the world picks more eclectic pieces than Dr. Osborne, affectionately called WO, from Denison. We Denison Singers still quote verbatim some of the odd lyrics to odd pieces with which he challenged us.

So in the first two-hour rehearsal, we made a stab at sight reading this new clutch of music. We started with an Ave Maria by a guy named Franz Biebl. The tenor next to me asked me if I had sung the piece before. I admitted I hadn’t even heard of the composer. He smiled (non-condescendingly, I think) and said, “Oh, he’s a contemporary of Mozart.” Now, I might have rattled off Mozart’s dates (1756-1791—and no, I did not look that up, don’t have to!) to save face. Nah, I thanked him for the historical time period and made a mental note to learn about this Biebl.

Shireen is that kind of director/conductor who spends time on music a cappella so that she can control and shape the music. Just like the iconic Mary Schneider in my high school years, she knows that control and blended tone is the hallmark of a great choir.

We then moved on to an Arabic piece. Shireen did a nice overview of this piece—a piece of Christian music from Arab Christians with references to Christians in Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem. She offered that kind of background knowledge that stimulates interest and whets the appetite. And oh, the words are all in Arabic.

Then we moved on to Psalm set to music by a Brazilian calypso artist! The rhythms and the words—where did she find this piece?! Then we spent some time on a mass by a Spanish composer. It had a flamenco flavor with the words of the traditional catholic mass. And we ended with a piece by Harry Belafonte, another calypso number, but with the secular theme of how to “Turn The World Around.”

Just like every other time I have joined a singing group, the sacrifice of evening time was well-worth it. It was exciting to be around adults, eager to dig in and work on challenging pieces, gratifying to take instructions from a talented colleague, and glorious not to be in charge of the event. I could just bask in the music in the air.

Much of the music in the air this week, however, has been reminiscent of the stalking, ominous theme from Jaws. And all about silly stuff!

I am shepherding a group of students to the United States two weeks from tonight to the Harvard Model Congress, and while two boys enthusiastically offered to do the lion’s share of the prep work and planning, they are still teen-agers, and prone to errors. There was the disaster over the financial payments and transfer of money that almost went down a memory hole. Then there was the failure of students going to the U.S. Embassy to get visas (I had abdicated any role in this since I didn’t know anything about the visa application process) without adult supervision, and, as it turned out, no appointments at the Embassy. Listen to that sawing bass sound as the shark approaches! We can’t blame the teen-agers, but someone must take the fall! Oh! Nasty fall! And the music almost gobbled me up!

But then I am in tune with an exciting music in the air tonight—I am getting on a plane headed to New York for an oh-so-brief few days to visit a Job Fair with the Klingenstein Fellowship Foundation to interview prospective candidates to teach here at KA. I will be there for only a couple days, but one thing I notice, whenever I fly, there is a kind of music to the atmosphere. Flying to the United States has a kind of music, and flying back to the Middle East also has a music to it.

And while I am not interviewing candidates, what I will be doing? (Yes, probably eating some bacon…) I will be enjoying some musical treats. Dear Anne and I are going to the much-lauded Lincoln Center production of South Pacific and then on Friday night a return to the Lincoln Center complex for a ravishing concert by the New York Philharmonic. What a week of music!! The abstract kind, the concrete kind, the pulsing, exciting, life-renewing feel of music.

This weekend in New York is a rare treat for we musical theater lovers. The organization known as Encores! (started in 1994) has as its mission to produce semi-staged productions of musicals that will likely never get a commercial production again. The purpose is for audiences to see and hear musical scores from yesteryear that might be lost to the winds of time otherwise. And in the 8 performances of these shows, you hear the musical score with a lush, full orchestra. Oh, man!

This weekend Encores! is presenting an operetta (who would ever raise millions for an operetta anymore!!) from 1932, by giants Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, entitled, Music In The Air. See—not as trite as you thought.

The lead critic for the New York Times, the venerable Bosley Crowther, reviewed the musical in 1932 with the pronouncement, “No precision dancing troupes; no knockabout comics; no flamboyant song numbers; no grandiose scenic play.” He meant that as a grand compliment actually.

I know very little about this show—don’t know a single piece of music from it, but I hope to add it to the roster to see, working around all the job interviews. The show opened on Election Day, 1932, as the U.S. of A. swept Franklin Roosevelt into office that night. The show has not been heard in New York since 1952.

What intrigues me about the show has actually nothing to do with the plot, or even the music. It is how this musical fit into the history of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s trajectory. Most people are familiar with Oscar—after all, he and Jerome Kern had revolutionized the musical theater world five years earlier with the groundbreaking Showboat, and in 1943, Oscar (was he ever called Hammy? Or do I just miss pork?) embarked on one of the legendary collaborations with Richard Rodgers (you have heard of Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, I am sure…)

But I remember reading in a biography of Stephen Sondheim (who was a neighbor to Oscar in the summer house pre-Hamptons world of the Poconos) that after this hit show in 1932 Hammerstein would endure nothing but flops for the next 11 years.

Maybe it is all this time in the desert, thinking of Moses and others tramping around for years. Or maybe it is that I have endured my own deserts of down years, but this just makes me so curious. Hammerstein, one of the musical theater legends produced show after show in the 1930s, without a success. He didn’t know Dick Rodgers would ditch Lorenz Hart and form a partnership in 1943. He didn’t know for certain that gold-plated success was in the cards. He endured.

I just find this a nice little devotion that in spite of the failures, and what would have to be the accompanying derision, he still sought out the music in the air.

As I take off in the jet in a couple hours I will be savoring the music of this week, and anticipating the music of the next few days.