Monday, March 30, 2009

Blind Spots

No, I don’t always think about God or world peace. There are bad days. Yesterday was one of them. In fact, it was a coupla bum days in a row.

It may be that miasma that gets into a place just before spring break lets loose—you know the reminder that you need a real break from the gerbil wheel of school, and just go somewhere else. But it wasn’t just a wish for the cessation of activities and duties and preparation and writing and helping and hoping—it was a wish for my old life.

I come from a long line of good cope-rs—we are a hardy stock who know it doesn’t pay to indulge in too much wallowing, but over the weekend I just missed that life in the United States, that life in New York and Westchester County, the proximity to family in Cincinnati and a circle of friends who has known me for longer than a few turns of the gerbil wheel.

As KA employees have gotten cars, there has been a fragmentation, a frenzy to “get outta Dodge” on weekends, and a forgetfulness of those who don’t have cars. (You may remember, I had a car for a few weeks six months ago until someone wrecked it and, well, I guess, insurance action is slow in Jordan.) And so this was a weekend with lots of empty spaces, and time to notice some cracks in the parking lot by the gym.

There wasn’t anything particularly awful, no precise snub, just a wistfulness for that old life—frenzied during the week in peaceful Westchester, and peaceful on the weekends in frenzied Manhattan—it was a good balance for 11 years.

I miss book stores. Yes, there is one in Amman called “The Good Bookstore,” but really, I think it was stocked by people with a sense of the fantastic about what a good book might be. I miss when going to brunch was not a major production involving shuttle busses or taxis, and there was plenty of bacon. I miss the Sunday routine of leaving Tarrytown on the train, sitting and grading in the coffee shop across the street from Advent Lutheran, the thoughtful sermons by Pastor Brown, the quick stop into Subway before walking across glorious Central Park, trolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a spell, then heading over to NYSC (New York Sports Club) to work-out and relax in the steam room, finally walking the 40 blocks up to the train station and a return to Westchester and another spin on that Hackley gerbil wheel.

Oh, by the way, the comment about working out—I really did that too sometimes, but I came across a funny page the other day on my Page-A-Day-Calendar from my sister Elizabeth. She gave me one at Christmas from the scripts of the TV show, The Office. It was a line from Stanley, and he said, “Oh, yes, I will work out today. I will work out a way to avoid running for a stupid cause.”

Anyway, I digress.

But the template of my regular Sunday routine wasn’t what I really have been missing sorely in the last few days. It’s the friend element. As I would walk up Lexington Avenue to the train station I would often call my friend Sylvia as she came home from her Sunday gig at Price Hill Chili and we would catch up and laugh for a bit. Or I would call my dear Kess wherever she loved at the moment, or I would find Harrison in his dorm room, or I would laugh with Mare as she prepped for her upcoming classes at Charlotte Latin, or I would catch radiant Sue as she got Nate to do his homework, or marvelous Anne would call and invite me to dinner. I am missing these friends, these people who mean so much—the friends like the Enszers and the Khosrowshahis and the Celentanos and…somehow it all just seemed more poignant last weekend.

Of course I can talk on the phone here, but the time difference is annoying, and I can never call the 9-5 crowd since by the time they are home I am in bed, and I never seem to get to call Doris or Aunt Dot.

I guess it is the texture of that old life I led—the variety of foods and activities and a day that seemed to come to an end.

So this weekend I brooded a little, let a little moodiness creep in—under two weeks until I board that plane to the United States!—and remembered the gratification of bumping into old students in Manhattan, the wondrous Kate, the provocative Noah, the peripatetic Lyde, the energetic Fareeda.

It can be tiring—all the hoping and helping here, struggling to cajole and instruct and compel students to read and write effectively, to go to bed at night, to treat each other respectfully and kindly. It can be tiring always wondering if I will ever master Arabic or assimilate or just remain a respectful observer.

In any epic adventure there must be cracks. So instead of turning from them, and whirring around, I just sat and looked at the cracks. Wondered about the cracks in the experience, looking at the good and the weak. Will we live up to the ideals of the mission statement? How will we turn some lightweight academics into scholarly amazons? Can we?

So no Dead Sea massage treatments. No exciting new exploration of a Crusader castle or a Biblical cave or Umayyad mosaic or Roman catacomb—just a longing look at friends and family I miss. How great to be traveling at Easter time—that annual observation of renewal and joy.

On Saturday I looked forward to my one sure off-campus jaunt: going to church with a school driver and a couple of other people. I arrive at the admin building exactly at 5:15 for the car and driver. Well, I waited about 15 minutes, and wondered if they left early. It turns out they did leave early—probably the only time ever, and without me. A perfect spice for my little stew I had cooked for myself. I walked home, and thought, bully, a couple more hours to get work done.

Yesterday, in the full glory of my funk over the cracks in my life, I am walking to school meeting to start the day. All of a sudden, the heavens open up and a March-goes-out-like-a-lion-rainstorm tumbled down. Jordan doesn’t get many of these, and yeah, I am grateful for the water table and all, but it couldn’t get more cinematic! Here I am in my beautiful grey suit, sopping wet, the weather totally competing with my mood for which could turn the darkest the fastest.

So as I am arriving at the auditorium, a little less than dapper in the wet cold that feels like a northeastern February curse, all of a sudden I remember a few lines from a poem/anthem by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.


I look up at the sky and scowl. Hmmmm….yeah, right. No light.

Within the hour the skies brightened and the rest of the day couldn’t have looked lighter and brighter.

At dinner last night I met with a book club—not everyone had read, so we decided not to discuss (the day continues to spiral downwards!), I see Khalil across the dining hall. Khalil is my old Arabic teacher (have I mentioned that I abandoned Arabic six months ago? It was just too hard with the gerbil wheel schedule…guess that mastery of Arabic I mentioned won’t be coming anytime soon.). I often dodge Khalil since he wants to speak in Arabic (imagine that?!) and chide me for not coming to class. Khalil is eating alone so I decide to go and join him. As we talk, this very nice man wants to talk about changes in his life he hopes to make. He wants a fresh start. He wants to move away—to New York actually, and look for work as a teacher and instructor and translator. He has come to a place in his life—we didn’t use the word impasse, but that word works—and he just misses true friendship and hopes to find it in a new place.

I turn to Khalil and say, “So you’re missing something in your life right now. You’re missing some good friendships.”

I ask Khalil if he knows the movie Casablanca, and how at the end Rick turns to Louie and says, “You know this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

“New World Order”

The last few blog entries have certainly been rather heavy, I know, but Jerusalem is a “heavy” place. Let’s come back to things doin’ at KA and what the students are up to. Let’s tackle a subject a little less heavy—how about world peace?!

Last week all three of my AP World History classes joined together for a project I had done twice at Hackley—a simulation of the peace conference talks that led to the tectonic-shifting 1919 Treaty of Versailles following The Great War. It is a fine chance to work on public speaking, logical thinking, cultivating empathy about a point of view, and earning a small measure of wisdom about how crafting peace is so monstrously difficult.

Now, if you were like me, when I took history in high school, even with the iconic Jean Michaels, we never spent too much time on these treaty negotiations. The textbooks always spoke how “The Big Four” took charge (that would be the United States, France, Great Britain, and Italy) and brokered the treaty. You really don’t get a good feel from that about what all went on and what a madhouse it must have been in Paris.

It turns out that 32 national groups (!!) sent delegations to the conference hosted in France. Yes, the Big Four talked the most, and steered the conference, but 32 groups were invited, and a few notable powers not invited (Bolshevik Russia, the Decimated Ottoman Turks and Defeated “See Ya” Germany). And then other people clamored for attention, trying in vain to gain access to the Conference (just a coupla names you may know, a young Chou En-Lai and Ho Chi Minh tried valiantly to meet up with President Wilson).

I informed my young scholars that our job was to simulate an experience of what it felt like as delegates from over 30 national groups met to discuss what the world should be like after this most frightening war in human history. President Wilson spoke glowingly of this opportunity to create a “new world order” and and also enthusiastically of a national self-determination. Ahhhhhhhh…this was the chance to set the world in order.

Our simulation did not re-create all the national groups, but I had the students get in small groups and become delegations from these nineteen groups: from the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Arabs, Zionists, Korea, Japan, China, the Pan-African Congress, Ireland, India, Mexico, Armenians, Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Slavs, Kurds and the Vietnamese.

Frankly, this exercise can go almost any way and be deemed as successful. If they research well, come prepared, and speak eloquently, bully for them. If they speak politely it allows for the chance to reflect on what might have been the reality of the 7 months of these tense negotiations. If they do nothing, it opens a teachable moment to discuss how we need to take charge in the world and act responsibly and do our homework. If they yell at each for the whole time—well, don’t you think there was a little of that going on???

Saturday evening came—the night of the simulation—and I was a little nervous. I don’t know why—all I had to do was open the negotiations, sit back, watch and assess. But I did have some “wildcards” in the mix. As a brief aside, I should boast about how many of my students have improved from the first trimester to the second trimester. In December, I only had 1 student earn a true A. By March, 12 students crowded around that A designation. But I also saw a bifurcation in the grades. Six boys had fallen from grace from December to March from C averages to low D averages (ummm…you must do some work and study occasionally!). Three of those boys had united to be one group, the United States of America. Another boy glommed onto one of my top students, another convinced a good student that he would do some work, and the last of The Six found himself abandoned by any group because as one bold student said, “You don’t do anything and you will bring us down.” Would any of The Six actually show up even?

The three young men of the United States of America entered in suits like gangster suits, immediately identified themselves as actual names of the Foreign Service team in 1919, and took charge of the proceedings. These young men offered the hopeful words of Wilson with golden tongues, nodding in approval when others echoed the words of the Fourteen Points, offering lollipops to the national groups they regarded as silly and childish, and took order as groups got out-of-hand. Those boys were masterful in the simulation. I couldn’t have asked for more. They clearly enjoyed the drama and fun of it, but they also clearly had done their research.

The Pan-African Congress was a group organized by African-American W.E.B. DuBois who hoped that the Wilsonian self-determination would apply to colonized Africans, as well, and not just white groups, and that PAC delegation spoke with such passion about their group, and their plans to write constitutions and end colonial domination. One girl in particular spoke with an articulation and eloquence I had never seen from her. I complimented her afterwards, and she said, “Mr. John, I was so angry on behalf of the Africans, that it just took me over.” And that boy who flew solo? He did work, did his presentation, and acquitted himself well. How exciting when a little project in class can help someone move forward so commandingly.

The French banged the table a lot, and there were slurring comments about the shifty Italians (changing sides in the 1915 secret Treaty of London) and many nasty comments hurled at the pompous Brits—the Irish delegation came dressed in green and attempted Irish brogues, while the Indian delegation insisted that independence was their right after sending one million soldiers to join the British army. The Muslim Slavs had an outstanding—and surprising—argument. The Muslim Slavs compared themselves to the Zionists in how they were often persecuted, and since the Zionists had captured the right for Palestine by the British to form a Jewish state (1917 Balfour Declaration), wasn’t it only fair that they have an independent state as well? I knew the inclusion of Zionists could be a hot potato issue, but the students acted respectfully.

Two of the most brilliant students shouldered the burden as defeated Germany. They even learned some German phrases in their excellent research. But I don’t think even they were prepared for the acrimony hurled at them as they offered a speech claiming that they alone should not bear the guilt of the war.

There were so many little moments that revealed these junior historians had done their homework well and realized how hard peace is to achieve. As a group we noted how interesting it was that less than 48 hours later the entire school of KA would spend the day pondering world peace!

While I had planned my simulation a while ago, in the last couple of weeks a day was organized with speakers and group discussions sessions, capped by an address by His Majesty about the prospects of peace in the Middle East. The King has come before and taught the students, and how fortunate to have him once again explain how he views the on-going process of achieving peace in the Middle East.

King Abdullah II is an excellent teacher. Yes, he is a good speaker, but he is also an excellent teacher, distilling this complicated subject, never talking down to an audience, and outlining and offering paths and scenarios. While he continues to emphasize that the issue of a Palestinian state is the key to such a peace in the region, he explained how the tide is turning, or rather, the discussion, is turning now. The discussions in London are changing to how long of a future Israel has. The King spoke candidly that around the world many thoughtful people recognize that the future of Israel may be very limited—from a lifespan of 50 more years, to perhaps 25 years or fewer. He cites the dwindling population of Jews in Israel, along with the growth of Arabs within Israel. But even more than that—he wonders if Israel is sacrificing its tomorrow to secure a today? The King spoke of Lord Sterling, a British Jewis diplomat, who is supremely interested in creating a two-state solution so that Israel may have a longer future. The King reminded us that about one-third of the world’s nations do not recognize Israel. And there is tremendous pressure on Israel to move forward and create a plan that secures a brighter tomorrow. He said that when he meets with Israeli diplomats and asks them about the future of Israel they do not answer the question, “where do you see Israel in 10 years?” Instead they discuss security and only today.

He spoke commandingly about the position of Iran in all of this—how this “revolutionary government acts as the Policeman of the Gulf and will not be idle” at stirring up trouble.

The parallels of this discussion with our simulation of the proceedings in Paris were not lost on my students. They saw the connections, they saw the importance of moving past revenge, and how to envision a safer tomorrow.

His Majesty soberly explained that this process will not be without bloodshed. He said that “the minute peace negotiations begin, extremists will want to de-stabilize that. But the longer we wait, the more devastating the bloodshed will be. Do we become political cowards?”

In my assignment sheet to my students I wrote that the purpose of the treaty simulation allowed us “to explore what diplomacy is—how countries interact, put forward demands, and create a balance of power. This affects our world today—indeed, this is what His Majesty does all the time, what President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton do, and every power on earth undertakes. This war [World War I] acts as a turning point—the moment when the United States emerged as a superpower in the world.”

This week His Majesty said that he would work for the best deal—a realistic observation, “the best deal we can get” and take it to President Obama and he will broker the deal. “We must have a national referendum and create the peace we need for tomorrow.“

What an intersection of 1919 and 2009…

As I often do, I return to one of my favorite plays, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In the play the Stage Manager comments, “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”

One of our KA students made a poster for the Peace Day and her slogan was:

How will you be a dreamkeeper?


Woodrow Wilson hoped that the peace talks would yield a better world order. This true faith endures in the manner of how King Abdullah operates in peace talks. I don’t know if he knows Wilder’s play or not, but his true faith is echoed in that title—the key word is our and that collective our, the notion that a world order must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to claim.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Postcard from Jerusalem, IV

I remember that the very first book I read in college was perhaps the most difficult book I had ever read in my life up to those 18 years of living. At June Orientation, as I signed up for classes for that upcoming autumn, effervescent Heidi—a June Orientation volunteer, and soon to be an idol of mine—mandated that I take this course from Dr. Walter Eisenbeis, a well-known and beloved elder statesman professor at Denison. The course was called “Thinking, Believing, and Understanding,” and it would be one of those courses you remember forever. It made you think. (Duh! The first word of the course title alone screamed that!!)

So the first book in college was a slender volume under 200 pages entitled The Idea of the Holy. Eventually it struck sparks. At first, I didn’t know what was going on though. As I followed my assignment, this author, Rudolf Otto, spun out fancies about what the concept of ‘holy’ meant. I wasn’t sure what was going on. It had no real narrative, and as far as I could tell, it had no facts. It was obvious to the tender, callow college student that I was that this was not a casual or quick read. As we began discussing it in class (Umm, how do you take notes about a non-narrative, non-factual tour of the ineffable???) I started—just started—to get a grip that Otto was attempting to think about, wonder about, and understand what ‘holy’ meant. As 18 year-olds we were supposed to chew on this sinewy theology.

As that long week of discussions went by, I gathered that one was supposed to think, and devise, one’s own understanding of what ‘holy’ was. Good heavens! And then we had to write a paper about it? There was no beginning, middle or end really. Slowly it dawned on me that Otto embarked on a paradoxical task of describing the incomprehensible qualities of God. (Of course when had I ever had to wrestle with such thoughts before?) Rudolf Otto created the word “numinous” to stand for the sense of a divine presence that is hidden and operates beyond rational understanding. Otto also coined the term “mysterium tremendum” as he examined the emotional responses—the awe and the dread—of humans as we encounter God in his holiness. I remember that Otto didn't reject the rational, though. Without rationality, he says, we can’t have belief, only feelings. In his view of religion, the rational and non-rational interpenetrate each other like the warp and woof of a fabric, which can't be separated without destroying the very garment it makes. He points out several times that fully understanding the non-rational conception of god deepens our rational religious ideas.

I haven’t re-read that book in the 25 years since I was that tender, callow freshman, but Dr. Eisenbeis’ entire course has never quite left me. I have said that it was the first course that really made me think, and it humbled me, before it allowed me to “conquer” it. The themes of Rudolf Otto’s book coursed through my brain during that trip to Jerusalem a few weeks ago. It was as if I finally understood what those phrases, “mysterium tremendum” and “numinous” might mean—and I had to create my own understanding. Here is a line I read from an Arab scholar—the line was on the wall of my hotel in East Jerusalem:

In you is my Paradise and my Hell;
And in you is my reward and my punishment.
And blessed is he who visits you!
Again, blessed is he who visits you!

--Al Fazari, early 14th century from
“The Book of Arousing Souls”

The ultimate Jerusalem walking tour is, of course, the Via Dolorosa, or “Way of Sorrows,” the route that is believed to trace Jesus Christ’s path as he carried his cross to his crucifixion. Over the many centuries, Christian pilgrims have journeyed past the “Fourteen Stations of the Cross” to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the golden socket that held Christ’s cross, the crypt where he was laid, the stone where his body was anointed, and the tomb from which he triumphed.

It is a walk that is easily done on one’s own, but it is much more interesting to follow a group of pilgrims, many of whom carry actual crosses, struggling to understand that holy journey. Each of the fourteen stops is marked by something that happened on Jesus’ walk (receiving the cross, or stopping to mop his brow, lean on the wall of a shop) and it is indeed interesting to walk behind a group and sense their desire to re-create this walk of sorrow. The last five of the stops are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

While the Dome of the Rock glistens and the Western Wall wails, the holiest Christian site in the Old City passes in quiet, somber-like reflection on the last hours of Jesus. For the past 16 centuries (again, thanks to Helen who identified so many of these holy sites) pilgrims have arrived at this spot from every corner of the globe, and while it may not look particularly regal, the pilgrims’ tears, laments and prayers have sanctified this spot.

It is a little strange since it is said that Jesus was crucified outside the city, but in the 2000 years since, Jerusalem has evolved, this once-empty plot known as the “place of the skull” was eventually incorporated into the city.

As a white-bread Protestant from the mid-west, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me inside this Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I saw plenty of people however—it was a United Nations-esque pilgrimage site. I saw Serbian orthodox monks and Ethiopian monks and a group from somewhere in Latin America and a group from Southeast Asia, et cetera. I made my way to a corner so I could take it all in and watch the reactions to this annointedly holy place.

The 10th station of the cross is at the rock where it is said that Jesus was stripped of his garments. The 11th station of the cross is at the place where it is said that Jesus was nailed to the cross. The 12th station of the cross is at the spot where it is said that Jesus died on the cross. The 13th station of the cross is on the rock where it is said that Jesus’ body was taken from the cross. And the 14th station of the cross is at the place where it is said that Jesus was laid in the Holy Sepulchre.

The pilgrim groups, attended by the many costumed nuns and monks and priests, seemed to feel the numinous quality that Rudolf Otto had described.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. I loved being in this place and taking in the worship and devotion. But as that self-declared white-bread Protestant from the mid-west, we don’t put the same stock into each cleft of a rock and supposed historic spot. In fact, one of the most marvelous insights I enjoyed during that long ago class with Dr. Eisenbeis was his challenge about bible stories. Do they need to be real in order for you to believe? What if they were myths? He didn’t pose those questions until we had a couple of those Otto-like books under our belts, but the questions soared like rockets in the classroom of Knapp Hall. Yeah, what do we? What if? Do the actual spots provide the basis for our faith? Do they enhance the faith?

It was clear that for these pilgrims they were on holy ground. It was a verifiable fact for them as they kissed the rock, spied the earth, touched the hollow, and felt the doorway. But this tour allowed me, traveling alone, to wonder about holy ground, and what made a place holy. It could be in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but maybe it could also be on the stage at Charlotte Latin School or Hackley, or in that classroom discussing a Vermeer or John Locke passage, or in the kitchen at 2460 as we four reminisced.

My trip to Jerusalem took me back—thousands of years to Abraham’s path, and also 25 years to Denison, and also home to that white house on the hill in Cincinnati—and points in between.

When I first encountered Jerusalem I dwelled on the tension I felt. But maybe ‘tension’ is too facile a word. I think what Jerusalem became for me was a sense of hunger.

There are as many different ways to be hungry as there are people reading blogs on the internet. There is a hunger for love, for acceptance, for more land, for more money, more trophies, hunger for a better job, for a better body. There’s that hunger for forgiveness, for acceptance, for finding a holy place.

But underneath them all, when you get down to the bottom of the hunger, when you get down to the bottom of Jerusalem, isn’t it always a hunger for God? A hunger to stand face to face with God, a hunger for God not to look away, a hunger to hear those words: “I love you! You are my delight. You are my beloved.” That is at the core of Jerusalem, as I understand it.

The sources of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem are deep and complex. The centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish life is reflected in the vow uttered by Jews on religious occasions: "Next year in Jerusalem.”


If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue stick to my palate
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
beyond all my delights.

--Psalm 137:5-6

Friday, March 20, 2009

Postcard from Jerusalem, III

Two weeks ago as of this writing, I had just arrived in the suburban Jerusalem hamlet of Bethlehem. Now, I spent the summer of 1999 at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so I had kinda gotten used to how quaint it sounds to say, “Yeah, I’m going to Bethlehem,” but that isn’t the same thing as arriving in the same town, around the same time of year (according to legends) as when those Magi found him, as the story goes, by looking up, reading the night sky, consulting charts of stars, by following a single, bright star all the way to Bethlehem…all the way from Persia to Bethlehem …traversing not merely mountains and plains as they progressed, but also cultures and countries, religions and races, customs and tongues.

As I stepped off the Jerusalem public bus #21, I guessed that I should walk up the hill of Pope Paul VI Avenue, and I would make my way to Manger Square—on a dusty, summery March Friday.

It goes without saying that one has the Nativity story reverberating in one’s head as you walk down the city streets of Bethlehem (Look! There’s Shepherd’s Street!). I am thinking of those Magi, in particular, as I trudge up the hill toward the Church of the Nativity.

Having found the child, those strangers bent their bodies to fit the cramped space until they were kneeling. I imagine Mary and Joseph, with heads tilted and ears cocked, must have listened as the strangers’ clothing—so thick and crisp and rich—rustled against the cool dirt floor. Then, opening a chest, the strangers presented the infant with gold that must have glittered by the light of the oil-lamp. They presented the exotic frankincense, and its aroma must have overwhelmed the small space, mixing with the smells of the animals. Finally, they presented a reddish, brown, sticky substance…raw myrrh—sharp, pleasant and somewhat bitter—and it mingled with the other scents.

As I entered the Church of the Nativity situated on Manger Square—haven’t we seen that site on the news every Christmas Eve forever?—the visit of the Magi stuck in my head. But not just their journey and their gifts, but the striking incongruity of their appearance. That is the magic word for me of this visit to Jerusalem! Incongruity! As I mentioned in the first postcard, I tried to convey the tension coursing through every street and artery (or so it seemed to me) in Jerusalem. But then in the second postcard I observed the fervent worship in the Old City. Incongruities.

The church in Bethlehem is built over the grotto where Helen, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, determined in the 4th century where Mary had given birth to Jesus. The visit of the Magi evokes paradox, freedom, compassion, contemplation, tolerance, mysticism, pilgrimage, and struggle for understanding (just like modern-day Jerusalem). The church that honors this visit is rather inelegant and fortress-like (hmmm…again, many parallels to modern-day Jerusalem). The church is presided over by armed forces representing the Palestinian Authority.

The Church itself is controlled jointly, by an uneasy agreement among three Christian traditions, each of which claims to be the true church: the Armenian church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church. For centuries this has been one of the most contested holy places in a contested Holy Land. It has been seized and defended by a succession of armies, including Persian, Muslim, and Crusader forces.

Here are a few tidbits I picked up eavesdropping on the various tour groups as they toured the Church of the Nativity:

• The main access to the church is by the very small Door of Humility, which visitors must enter by bending over awkwardly. The Door is said to have been made in the Ottoman era to prevent warriors entering on horseback and slaughtering worshippers

• In 1847, inside the church, Greek monks beat Roman Catholic priests with staves in an attempt to drive them from the holy site in Bethlehem

• In retaliation, the Roman Catholic church took possession of a tapestry which they said was theirs

• This was followed by the mysterious disappearance of the silver star in the Grotto of the Nativity, which marked the site of Jesus’ birth. The Latins accused the Greeks of stealing the star. Yes, and then a Greek bishop was wounded in a clash with the Latin clergy over this matter.

• In 1984, during the annual Christmas cleanings of the church, 50 Armenian and Greek priests came to blows over the right to clean a disputed section of the church

• In 1985, in an effort to prevent a similar brawl, the two sects agreed to leave the disputed area unclean

• In 1989 Latins and Armenians protested Greek attempts to repair the leaky roof of the church. They both felt that the act of repairing the roof constituted an act to assert control over the roof. Eventually, in 1990, the Israeli government came in as a neutral third party and fixed the leaks.

The Church of the Nativity, like so much in the Holy Land, has had a strange, fraught, often violent past—so incongruous with the gentle story Christians choose to associate with this site.

Here is another interesting tidbit I picked up from a tour group leader—this is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land. Despite all that has happened around it, the church was spared destruction at least twice. Why? I learned it was because of the Magi. In both 614, and then again in 1099, invaders spared the church because of the depictions of the Magi on the walls of the church. It is said that the invaders both times entered this Christian church in full battle mode but then they encountered frescoes depicting men in Persian dress—men who looked like they looked! Seeing themselves so honored and so respectfully depicted, the invaders lowered their swords, retreated respectfully, and spared the ancient Christian church from harm and desecration.

I arrived in Jerusalem just weeks after recent fierce battles had faded—Israeli ground forces had entered Gaza on January 3, 2009. With the cities in this region controlled by armed guards, and massive walls and ghettoes very prominent, barbed wire and security check points commonplace, it felt as if the centuries had collapsed with jumbled images of Herod and Hamas, Gentiles and Gaza, Bethlehem and Ramallah, militants and Magi, swords and stars.

The obvious truth is that woven relentlessly into the narratives of Christians, Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem are braids of fear, political repression, bloodshed and territorial disputes. Jesus was born into a world as volatile and fraught as ours today. Jesus was born in a cold cave rather than at home in Nazareth because a hothead Roman emperor decided to dislocate the people of Judea for the sake of a headcount. After the Magi presented their gifts and departed, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with their baby through modern-day Gaza, escaping murderous Herod’s massacre of the innocents.

The Magi are men of peace, emissaries, curious and courteous. The legacy of the Magi live on, out of camera shot, away from microphones, in quiet, courageous, unheralded visits between Palestinians and Israelis bent on peace.

Those Magi—they stay on my mind, as I ponder how we can emulate the journey of the Magi. We can cultivate associations of Jews, Christians and Muslims, learn each other’s names, read each others’ books, study each other’s holy books, love each other’s children, worship in each others’ houses of worship, learn to drink each others’ coffees and eat each others’ sweets, offering to each other the gifts of friendship and respect.

Once upon a time, in a violent and brutal world, three exotic and quixotic figures traversed cultures and religions. They defied potentates, refused violence, risked life and limb—to kneel for a moment in a cramped space, and there pay homage to a child of another nation and faith.

Acts of kindness and friendship can be as real as the killings and the rockets and the occupations and the wars. It would certainly be a parallel universe, a universe alongside the violence, a somewhat invisible, but no less real universe—a universe committed to respect, knowledge, compassion and freedom. We can inhabit that universe visit by visit, conversation by conversation, book by book, cup of coffee by cup of coffee, until, looking at each other, we finally see and recognize ourselves.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Postcard from Jerusalem, II


So on my first full day in Jerusalem I board the #21 public bus for Bethlehem. (The particular ‘#21’ bus brought back such fond memories of childhood when I would hop on a bus headed for downtown Cincinnati with my cousin Doug from our suburban Westwood homes—it was also the #21 bus.) It is infinitely cheaper to take a public bus than a taxi, and certainly it offers local ‘color,’ but you run the risk of getting off at the wrong stop, not seeing/understanding signs, or you might not have enough of the correct local change, and of course, people might talk to you.

I was on the bus a few minutes when an older woman got on. She spoke Arabic phrases to people around her, but she spoke Arabic the way I speak Arabic: carefully chosen phrases and polite bonbons to act courteous. She turned to me, and asked in English: “Where are you from?” I said I lived in Jordan now but before that I had lived in New York. She gave me a look of utter disbelief. “Is there a problem?” I asked. She harrumphed and said, “If that’s the truth!” It seemed so odd to me, but I offered, “I wish I had a more concealed truth to confess to you!” She asked, “What brought you to Palestine?” and I said I was here as a tourist for a long weekend. She introduced herself as Margaret Johns, from Wales. I told her that a whole wing of my family had been from Wales, and we talked about Wales and my grandmother and life in Wales, and too many pubs and teen pregnancies in Wales. I recited for her the lines I remembered from the Welsh national anthem. We chatted on and on for some time as we rode to Bethlehem. I got back to where we started, and asked her, “So what brought you to Palestine?” She replied, “A relationship,” and after a pause finished her statement, “A relationship…with the living God.”

That exchange with Margaret Johns is perhaps the best summation of this trip to Jerusalem. There is an aura of disbelief and suspicion enveloping this place, but also a deep seeking, as Margaret said so earnestly, “a relationship with the living God,” lies at the core of understanding the heartbeat of Jerusalem.

The most striking portion of this trip was Friday afternoon and evening. I stumbled onto worship services for three different faiths, and I got to see first-hand, while a bit voyeuristically, what goes on in Jerusalem.

Let me do a quick overview of about 4,000 years of history of Jerusalem first. It will help make all of this even richer and denser. According to the biblical texts, about 4,000 years ago, Abraham came to Jerusalem with his son Isaac. He came to a place where God called him, to Mount Moriah. It is on this place where Abraham built a make-shift temple/altar and prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac as God had commanded. Whoosh! Jump about 1,000 years. David comes to this same place from Hebron, and God commanded him to reunite the kingdoms of the Jews. David’s son Solomon builds a temple on the reputed spot of Abraham and Isaac. Whoosh! Jump about 1,000 years. Jesus spends the last week of his life in Jerusalem, ending with his crucifixion on Golgotha. Whoosh! Jump about 1,000 years. The Roman Catholic Pope has declared a Crusade to reclaim this Holy City from the feral Muslims and in 1099 the pilgrim forces reclaim Jerusalem. Whoosh! Jump about 1,000 years. Here we are in 2009 and the Old City is divided into four quarters, with about 2,000 Armenians living in the Armenian Quarter, about 3,000 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter, about 4,500 Christians living in the Christian Quarter, and about 28,000 Muslims living in the Muslim Quarter.

Being in Jerusalem is a little surreal, what with all of these Bible names every few feet. I mean you walk by the “Mount of Olives Pharmacy,” and then the “Garden of Gethsemane Deli,” and then the “Holy Rock CafĂ©”…all real places by the way…

But on that Friday, as I roamed inside the Old City of Jerusalem, I inadvertently captured the pulse of this tense city. I ended up at three different worship services over the course of a few hours. I watched people of three different faiths pray. I saw so many different “costumes” but it is truly the similarities of all of these worship experiences that really struck me.

A walk up to the Temple Mount is a time-honored privilege, sanctified by the millions of pilgrims who have trod this same path before you. There are few patches of ground as holy, or as disputed, as this piece of earth. According to Jewish lore, this piece of earth was identified as the foundation stone of the world, and the Talmud states that it was here that God gathered the earth to form Adam. And as I previously said, this spot marks where an angel spared Isaac from the sacrifice of his father Abraham. No wonder Solomon would want to build a fabulous temple here with the beloved Ark of the Covenant. King Herod eventually improved the site, building a wall around a newly leveled plaza and secured mount. Those cantankerous Romans destroyed the whole thing around 70 of the Common Era. Fast forward to the 7th century where in Mecca the prophet Muhammad announced that in a single night he had prayed at the Temple Mount and ascended to heaven. In the late 7th century Muslim leaders constructed the beautiful and elegant gold-plated Dome of the Rock. After the Six Day War in 1967 Israeli leaders reluctantly handed over control of the Temple Mount to the city’s Muslim leaders.

I discover that I am unable to go into the Dome of the Rock. I have seen pictures of it, but the new security measures allow only Muslim men over the age of 50 to worship in the Dome of the Rock (as its name suggests, the dome covers the slab of stone sacred to both Muslim and Jewish faiths—the rock upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and also from where Mohammad launched himself heavenward). However, I can look across the plaza and see the bright confection of mosaics and Koranic verses scrolled on the exterior. It is one of the most photographed buildings in the world, and simply stunning in the afternoon sun.

Oh, in the history lesson, I lost track of the worship experiences. I peeked into the plaza of the neighboring mosque, the Al-Aqsa mosque. (I learn I cannot go inside there because of rules since 1969 when it seems a deranged Australian Christian started a fire in the mosque). I am observing the mosque and plaza at the time of afternoon prayers, and in the next 10 minutes, there must be at least 5,000 Muslims who come to the plaza to pray. Beside the muzzein calling the worshippers, there is virtually no noise. I see the worshippers prostrate themselves on the ground and kiss the ground. Many of the worshippers are rocking as they hear the prayers from the loudspeaker in the minaret. This spot is undoubtedly a holy place for these worshippers, and it is a privilege to observe them.

I realized it must be about the time for the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat and walk around to see if I can observe that worship service. It is hardly a five-minute walk down a lane and around a corner and back down a parallel lane to enter the Jewish Quarter. And I find myself almost back where I started as I entered the security system to go to the Western Wall, also known as the Western Wall.

The builders of the Western wall could hardly have imagined that their modest creation of a retaining wall for the Jewish Temple would one day become the most important religious shrine for Jewish people. It served the purpose of a retaining wall for the Temple Mount upon which stood the second temple. After the Jewish Diaspora, and then as Jews returned to this hometown, they avoided the Temple Mount, fearing they might step on the “Holy of Holies,” the inner sanctum of the former temple. Instead Jews began praying at the exposed outer wall, where, according to religious texts, there is always a divine presence. The Wall grew in mythical stature as a place to mourn and lament. Indeed, it is often called “The Wailing Wall” due to the emotional responses to the Western wall. Today it is an open-air synagogue.

When I arrived near sunset, there were already at least 5,000 worshippers congregating. The men go to a large plaza, and the women congregate somewhere else. I do not mean to be irreverent, but as I looked onto that sea of worshippers, it looked like a thousand road companies of Fiddler on the Roof had descended on the plaza for a convention. It was overwhelming seeing the different costumes, the headgear, the elaborate hair and visual emblems of ancient Jewish worship, Sephardic and Ashkenazi and other groups. And as I watched them, there was a rocking backwards and forwards on their heels, and much kissing of the wall. This scene looked so much like the Muslim faithful I had seen just a half-hour before. I stayed at the plaza for about two hours watching the families and the waves of Jewish worshippers. Again, this spot is undoubtedly a holy place for these worshippers, and it is a privilege to observe them.

On my way out of the Old City, I peeked into a Russian Orthodox church in the Christian Quarter. It was the first Friday of Lent (in the Orthodox world it is a different calendar than the Latin-western calendar) and a service was underway. I stepped in and watched the somber faithful praying, and, true to the last few hours of my observations, fervent swaying and praying marked the service. I had glimpsed into three worship services in as many hours, and I was struck by the similarities—fervent prayer and swaying movement and kissing of stones. The three “people of the book” have so much more in common than we realize.

I see that this will have to be a tri-part postcard from Jerusalem. I am hardly surprised. It is not easy to sum up thousands of years and thousands of prayers in just a few pages.

Join me again soon as I sum up the trip to Jerusalem.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Postcard from Jerusalem


It shouldn’t be so hard to get to Jerusalem.

Likewise, it shouldn’t be so hard to write about going to Jerusalem.

Still, on both counts, it took more time and focus and energy than I imagined.

Weekend before last I made the journey to Jerusalem for the first time.

Again, it shouldn’t have been so hard. For those of us who understand New York and New Jersey geography, the travel time from KA to Jerusalem, should be similar to if one drove from Tarrytown, across the Tappan Zee bridge and ended up at the airport in Newark, New Jersey.

So while the miles aren’t that great—as the proverbial crow flies—it wasn’t as simple a bridge to cross and trip to make.

This trip was planned several months ago. Lilli, one of my lovely colleagues at KA, has a sister in Jerusalem, and last year took some of our colleagues on a trip (I think two) to Jerusalem, showing them around, and introducing them to her family in Jerusalem. Lilli mentioned at one point she would love to take me too. Then, as happens, it got a little lost in the shuffle. In January Lilli remembered the invitation and suggested March was a great time to take me “to Palestine” to see her sister.

That comment should have given me a little indication that everything dealing with a trip to Jerusalem is a little tough. I thought it was Israel? The semantics of “Palestine,” or “Israel” depends on your politics. Either way—Jerusalem—is certainly one of the world’s oldest travel destinations! I had been waiting to go for the 18 months I had been in Jordan. I had decided it would be easiest if I went with someone very familiar with the city, and it would lend such a personal touch to have my own travel planner and guide. So we decided to go over this long weekend in March (we had two days off of school, one to mark the end of the second trimester, and one to commemorate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad). Lilli was so excited to visit her sister and also to show me the places she loved in Palestine. She booked a hotel for me and I was going to be a privileged guest.

The day before we left I learned the travel plans weren’t simple. While there is a bridge that goes from Jordan to Israel (signs of the treaty agreements and friendship between the two nations) one just doesn’t drive across the bridge. It isn’t as simple as sashaying across the Tappan Zee bridge in the lovely Hudson River Valley. To cross this bridge of the Jordan River Valley, you have to be dropped off on the Jordan side, go through customs and stuff and take a special bus and arrange for transport across the bridge and then into Jerusalem. I had to take a taxi to Amman and then Lilli’s brother would drive Lilli (and her delightful young boys) and me down to the King Hussein bridge.

As we get out of the car to go through the customs I learn there are more fees involved than expected. There is an exit fee, the baggage handling fee, the bus fee, and the anticipation of more fees on the Israeli side.

Again, if we had jumped in my Toyota Camry in Tarrytown, crossed the TZ bridge, entered New Jersey and ended at the airport in Newark, we would have traveled about 50 miles and made the trip in about an hour. Not as simple getting to J-Town.

First of all, the entire trip changed when Lilli was refused entry. She had warned me that Palestinians had enormous troubles making this trip (stories of 2-4-6 hour waits, and answering many questions are common) and that I should prepare to wait for her. Americans have it much easier, but Lilli had prepped me anyway for the questioning by the Israeli guards. But Lilli’s passport was due to expire in about 10(she also has a Canadian passport), and she was refused the border crossing since there was no guarantee she would return to Jordan to renew her passport.

This was hardly a Casablanca-esque moment of separation, but Lilli fought back some tears and said, “You go on to Jerusalem. I’ll tell my sister you are coming and she will show you around. I’ll just miss spending time with my family. I’m sorry for the boys, too.” Go on to Jerusalem? Oh. I hadn’t prepared to go on my own. The ‘German’ in me knew I had no map, no guide book, no itinerary—yikes, and the Hebrew/Arabic language choices. Good grief! But Lilli insisted I make the trip, and so I began the waiting process.

There is waiting to pay the $7.50 exit fee from Jordan, waiting and wondering when the bus will leave, waiting and wondering when you will pass through the guards, waiting and wondering when the van will take you into Jerusalem, and whether I will recognize the name of the school where I am supposed to alight in Jerusalem.

In short, lots of waiting and wondering. I left KA at 11:00 am bound for Jerusalem, and finally got off the van at 4:30. It shouldn’t be so difficult!

Lilli’s incredibly gracious sister Lamees picked me up—I had never met her nor spoken to her—and she dropped me off at the hotel with the promise to meet me and show me around that evening for a little while. She apologized that she couldn’t act exactly as a tour guide—she teaches music full-time, has a husband and two sons ages 2 and 3—she is a little busy!

From the beginning of this trip it is obvious that this is not like other fairly frivolous weekend trips, to Budapest, Istanbul, or the Dead Sea. There is a tension surrounding Jerusalem, suffusing it like a miasma. Just after getting off the bus over the bridge, I went through five—count ‘em, five—separate security checkpoints. I mean, this weekend trip perplexed a few (maybe more than a few) friends and family given the city’s reputation for terror and warfare (although Lilli had pointed out months ago that traffic fatalities in my home towns in the US are more frequent than terror attacks in Jerusalem) and the stigma of having an Israeli stamp on your passport adds to the tension. (The “stamp stigma” hovers over the infamous Israeli stamp and how it bars your entry from, among other places, neighbors Syria and Lebanon.)

So Lamees picks me up after I get off the van from the bridge. I am right there—by the gates of the Old City, by the Damascus Gate, and in the late afternoon with the golden light bleaching the ancient stone buildings, the sound of church bells clanging and the muzzeins calling for the Islamic call to prayer, the smell of spices wafting out of the bazaars, even with the distinct tension in the air, it was also a thrill. The Old City of Jerusalem is a feast for the senses.

Lamees has promised to get together a few times—she keeps apologizing! She has a music concert over which she must preside that evening, and I am invited to the concert, and then, she promises a quick driving tour. I am staying in East Jerusalem, the Arab section of town, and she immediately apologizes that it is not easy staying in the Arab section. But she promises I will get a good sense of the multi-faceted-ness of daily life.

My hotel reminds me of the pensiones I frequented in my youth traveling through Italy. The building has seen better days. The room is, and I am being kind, shabby. But I learn that this hotel holds a special place in the hearts of the Arabs in town—after 1948 and the creation of Israel, it was the only hotel where Arabs could stay and congregate in Jerusalem. I quickly get a sense of what my education will be this weekend.

As an overview of the weekend, I attend the concert on Thursday night, followed by a drive around town (a quick dinner of a sub sandwich from a place called the “Che Guevara Deli”—go figure…). On Friday I take a public bus to Bethlehem, and then spend the evening wandering around within the Old City. On Saturday I find a tour of the Old City, and then Lamees takes me to Ramallah and we spend a few hours there in the afternoon. That evening I roam again in the Old City. On Sunday, I decide to go back a day early—I had grades and comments to finish, but also felt I had gotten enough for this first visit to Jerusalem.

I think this will have to be a two-entry postcard about this trip. While the tension, and my lack of preparation provide the contours of the visit, there is more to explore and analyze about any trip to Jerusalem. It is a bi-polar trip, with one pole reverberating around the tension of checkpoints, the walls of the settlements, the frustrations, and the border crossings (again, the trip to Bethlehem should be like a trip from my dad’s house to my sister’s house—15 minutes-ish—but it becomes an hour journey with guards and guns and inconvenience).

But the other pole is very interesting and necessary to study as well. While the Old City is spectacular to see, and tense to behold, the Old City of Jerusalem is above all, a holy place, containing some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s also a living city, where families live and work and worship—which takes us back to why it is tense. And spectacular. I will send the next postcard very soon.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Purple Prose

In my junior year of college I did two programs away from Denison, one in Salzburg, Austria, and the other doing a really great proto-graduate school program at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I worked on a thesis in Chicago about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and I loved doing the work about these two Italian immigrant anarchists. Anyway, my thesis advisor, a sensitive, excellent academic named Louise Musser, would read drafts of my opus and say things like, “John, have you ever encountered the phrase ‘purple prose’? Your writing is a bit…um…more ‘purple’ than I would like to see.” Purple prose is a phrase, usually on the derogatory side, about how dramatic, or melodramatic writing can get. Louise suggested that academics want to avoid prose that is deemed purple and curb that impulse.

As I came to the end of my 75 page paper I told Louise that I had an exciting title for my work. I announced that the title would be, “The Crash of Symbols: the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial and the ‘Lost Generation.’” Gently Louise reminded me of the desire to leave behind one’s tendency to indulge in purple prose. Well, in my head I still loved the title. Get it? The pun on cymbal and symbol? Dear Louise, ever-sighing, thought it a bit too over-the-top. We settled on this title, “Re-Uniting the Lost Generation: How the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial Galvanized the Intellectual Community.” It’s okay, and since it had a colon in the title, you know it had to get an A in the college world.

I was reminded of that phrase ‘purple prose’ this weekend as I spent 48 glorious hours at the Queen of the Dead Sea resorts, the Kempinksy hotel. As I entered the room (with the coolest infra-red light kind of key system, so kicky and 21st century!) the television screen was lit up, welcoming me by printed name on the screen, and these words: “Surely there is no region on earth where nature and history have more wonderfully conspired, where so exciting a drama has obtained so beautiful a theatre. Amid scenes of exquisiteness and peace, the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea gives you the opportunity to enjoy its riches - where Marc Anthony, Queen of Sheba, Aristotle and even Cleopatra once strived to unravel mystery.”

How Louise would have sighed over this copy writer’s propensity for the purply prose!!

After the safe but draining student trip to Boston, and the didacticism of Jerusalem, it was a welcome relaxing weekend to come to the Dead Sea and indulge in the luxuries of the Kempinsky.

A couple of months ago Lubna, our “Girl Friday” of the Faculty Center and dear friend, said, “John, I just found a great corporate rate at the Kempinsky. Let’s call Rehema and book it and go!” Within a half-hour the dates were chosen, the booking made, and the anticipation begun. Both Lubna and Rehema had been to the Kempinsky numerous times. Poor-white-trash Johnny had never been—one reason: they do not accept Day Guests. Wow. They must be special if they don’t need the $40 Day Guest fee and the riffraff that comes in as Day Guests (that would be me!). So Friday the 13th and the Ides of March are chosen—we will ward off all that bad luck and superstition in high style at the Kempinsky.

It is just under an hour’s drive down to the Dead Sea, but without a car, it still feels hard to get here. I suppose in the over 18 months in Jordan this is only the 5th time I have come here. I just think about it frequently!

The design of this complex is stunning. One of my students’ mothers is a friend of the architect, an Iraqi designer. He designed the complex to resemble the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the original ancient Seven Wonders of the World. Indeed from the towering and impressive Lobby complex, the series of villas and restaurants and pools create a terraced wonderland. From the moment you step inside, outstanding service is the rule. You are a greeted with a cool towel that is lemon-scented and heavenly. They welcome you to the Ishtar complex (Ishtar is an ancient Sumerian goddess, the goddess of carnal desire. That’s some suggestion for the Middle East to offer!).

They ask what extra services we may require (DVD player, laptop, reservations, Playstation) and what newspapers we may like, and they remind you that the snacks and drinks in the refrigerator/mini-bar are complimentary. They are singing my tune!! And they will be replenished tomorrow! And it’s my favorite tune…

The villas are designed so that you think you are the only guest in this large resort. The villas stand independent of each other, and are on these gorgeous walk-ways and your terrace/balcony/back porch all have a sense of privacy. You are surrounded by olive trees but have exceptional views to your semi-private pool. (Semi-private? I love how they caress that word for you so you know it is only for your series of villas, and you can enjoy it anytime you want.)

I never cease to be amazed at the incredible design and optical illusions of the infinity pool concept. I don’t remember if I saw infinity pools before coming to Jordan, but they are certainly the rage in the hotel complexes and the wealthy people’s homes. As I turn to my right, right now, I look out into our semi-private pool and the infinity illusion is that the pool drops off into the Dead Sea and it allows me to have that even greater sense of proximity to the Dead Sea, the lights of Jerusalem, and the hills of which David sang in the psalms.

I took a tour of the spa (“Sir, this is the largest spa in the Middle East, with the largest jacuzzi and the most expansive wet areas.”) and again, the design is simply striking. The whole resort is decorated with a soothing Minimalist touch. Now, if you have ever seen my living quarters at any time in my whole life, you know I have never attempted a Minimalist aesthetic. But when I would go to my dear friend Diana Kaplan’s house, I always relaxed and enjoyed how gorgeous a Minimalist approach can be. So here at the Kempinsky, instead of the over-stuffed look of Arabic mosaics and busy patterns, it is very sleek, with very silvery tones and angled hallways and stairways, and a command to sit and breathe!

I love the design of the teapots, and the elevator, and the shower stalls in the rooms (cylindrical cones with gorgeous stones) and the formidable granite slabs everywhere. The covers on the light fixtures act like theatrical gobo lights and throw patterns on the wall. And…by the way…we are emptying the mini-bar of snacks and drinks…

So what do we do? What does anyone do for a quick getaway from the gerbil wheel of regular life? You enjoy some nice meals, you lounge by the pool, you read a little, you try out the gym (by the way, free fruit there) and visit the Wet Area in the spa (the biggest in the Middle East, don’t forget!). I make a little routine in the Wet Area: I start in the pool that is a simulation of the Dead Sea (I find this a little amusing—the designers created a simulation of the minerals and salts of the actual Dead Sea, but in case you are lazy, you don’t have to trek down to the actual beachfront area outside, just go to the faux Dead Sea in the spa and float away!!); and then I go to the largest jacuzzi in the Middle East, where they have individual compartments to rumble away your composure with the rushing water; then I decompress in the Steam Room, have a freshwater shower, sit in the Sauna, and end the cycle with a relaxing turn on the thermal beach chair where you dry out and get heated from the stones. Rinse and repeat. Not a bad little cycle.

We meet up with one of our students and his parents who are also weekending at the Kempinsky. The father is often out-of-town since he is an official in the Iraqi government and has a security detail and all that stuff. We sit outside just past sunset and visit.

There is a pillow menu in the room so you choose just the right pillow for your sensibilities. I would hate for my sensibilities to be ruffled by the wrong pillow. There is a little room service on the balcony, a little reading, a little napping, a little stretching and a little sighing. Just what you want in a weekend.

I was looking in the big hotel guide for the pricelist of massages (way out of my range! I will wait a little longer!) and I come across some more writing about the hotel: “The sunset touching distant hills with ribbons of fire across the waters of the Dead Sea bring a sense of perfection to culminate your day here. As its name evokes, the Dead Sea is devoid of life due to an extremely high content of salts and minerals which gives its waters the renowned curative powers, therapeutic qualities, and its buoyancy, recognized since the days of Herod the Great, more than 2000 years ago.”

Ahh, Louise, a little purple prose now and then is a good touch.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Glad Tidings

So several of you have emailed me asking about how the students did on the big, bad AP World History exam about which I wrote in the last blog, especially the four young men who came and asked to have new essays for their exam.

(For those of you really on the ball, look up at the title of this blog entry…)

Let me prolong the suspense a little bit more (!) describing the grading process of these exams. I spread the grading of these exams over five days, spending about three hours a day on the exams, using the College Board’s criteria so that the exams not only looked like, sounded like, felt like, (I don’t believe there are any parallels to the sensory experiences of smell and taste here) but were also graded like the actual AP tests.

The College Board awards a single-digit number as the final grade on the test. Here is the actual terminology the College Board employs, publishes and disseminates:

5 demonstrates superiority
4 demonstrates competence
3 suggests competence
2 suggests incompetence
1 demonstrates incompetence

Ouch! I always laugh at the semantics about suggesting incompetence and competence…Good Heavens! But to keep it all in perspective, it is also regarded that a 3 (considered “passing”) is the equivalent of earning a B on a college exam…Okay…let’s keep the story moving—don’t want to lose all the readers here…

I checked the multiple choice answers first—since, well, that is the easiest always anyways. If you remember, there were 70 multiple choice questions, and this score accounts for half of the total AP score. The best score was George, who missed only 11 out of 70. Now keep in mind how hard these multiple choice questions are, so don’t go getting all holier-than-thou about George’s score. In fact—by using the College Board’s computational tables (I am sounding so actuary-like, right??) George’s multiple choice is considered so high that if he had actually skipped the essays entirely, George would have still earned a 3! That gives you a sense of his achievement.

Right behind George was Dana, another student, like George, who began the year as more of a ‘B’ student but in the last two months have catapulted themselves into the A range intelligentsia. Many of the students were in the -24-ish range, but then we did have students going below 40 missed, and, gulp, there were two students marooned on the island of -46. For a good score, their essays would have to be stupendous.

Once the busy busy work of quick-checking the multiple choice was out of the way I looked at the pile of 126 essays from this exam which must be graded. Each student had written three major essays, and on one side of the table was the pile of essays, and on the other side the severe guidelines/criteria for scoring the essays according to AP standards. I dug in and began to grade those essays, just doing one essay topic at a time hoping that consistency might rule the day.

The first possible point to win is the “acceptable thesis” point. I stress this night and day in class about the importance of crafting complex thesis statements that pose an argument, or problem, and suggest the roadmap for the entire essay. But as I began to grade the essays, I noticed a paucity of credible, gulp, acceptable, thesis statements. “There were some changes in the Indian Ocean world and some things that stayed the same” just…doesn’t…cut it, now does it?? So I began to tally when a student earned that first point. Okay—126 essays, right? Of that number only 23 actually earned that point for a strong thesis statement. My work is not yet done!

Okay, okay—let’s keep it in perspective still, people. The College Board provides lots of data, so it is easy to find that most every year the average score on an AP essay is 2 or 3 out of 9 points. That’s it! That is the average from high school students taking this exam. One of my first essays to read, Dana’s in fact, earned a 7…an impressive score, obviously next to the average! But the numbers were all over the place…then there came an essay when after re-reading it twice and staring at the standards, I realized that this was an essay for which I could award no points at all—zero points. In the two pages of writing there wasn’t a single thing that earned the student a point (okay, I know you got the point but it still is kinda dramatic). By the end of the stack of all three essays, there would be 18 essays out of the 126 that won zero points.

Finally, after five days of piecemeal work, it was time to compute the final scores. It is hard to tell how a final score might be with all the numbers lying around you. And since the College Board is nothing if not elaborate and baroque (and that is me saying it) in all their presentations, the computation is an arithmetic fantasy sequence. Okay, 120 points are possible for an AP score. Sixty of those points are for the multiple choice section and 60 points for the three essays. For the MC part, oh, yeah, there are 70 questions, so you have to shove that number into a 60 (kinda reminds me of the time Dolly Parton won a Country Music Award only to have her dress burst open and she quipped, “My daddy always said never put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound bag!”). So you take the number they earned out of 70 (in George’s case a 59) and you multiply it by 0.8571. Then you add up the points the historian earned for the essays (9 per essay so a total of 27) and you have to stretch that number out to be 60…so you take the number of actually awarded points and multiply it by 2.22222222. Then, you take the two “raw” numbers and add them up, see what that final score is, and go to the computational tables and see which of the final numbers is the magic score. Just a little work involved!

So how did they do? One more moment of suspense…thank you…

Here are the average percentages for the AP World History from students who take the exam in the United States:

5 demonstrates superiority=10%
4 demonstrates competence=18%
3 suggests competence=29%
2 suggests incompetence=25%
1 demonstrates incompetence=18%


Keeping in mind that this is the first AP course these young scholars whose second language is English have taken, they acquitted themselves well.

The statistics for my class are as follows:

5 demonstrates superiority=21%
4 demonstrates competence=14%
3 suggests competence=41%
2 suggests incompetence=20%
1 demonstrates incompetence=5%

Not a bad showing…

How about those four young men who requested new essay topics so they could come at this exam without any advantages? How did they do? Should they have gone all honest and upright, or should they just have taken advantage of the edge they enjoyed knowing the essay topics?

Those young men earned 1 of the 4s and 3 of the 5s. These are sophomores, and according to what this means, they earned either the equivalence of an A- or an A on a college exam. And they earned these grades legitimately and authentically.

The story ends as nicely as possible. The tidings are indeed glad.

Now the more famous story of glad tidings (“of great joy which shall be to all people”) is kind of linked to this story. Last weekend I graded these exams while visiting Jerusalem. On Saturday I visited Bethlehem, and somehow the voice of Linus from the “Peanuts” 1965 Christmas special was in my head as I roamed around Manger Square pondering the discovery and celebration of those “glad tidings.”

In the next couple of days I will send you a postcard from the Jerusalem trip.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Sisyphean Task

Preparing my students for their AP World History exam (in 66 days, no less) has occasionally felt as if we are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to push the huge boulder of grief left by humankind up the hill. It also feels Sisyphean just in terms of getting the students ready to read and write at the level which these tests demand.

Last week was the end of the second term (we opted for a trimester system this year, eschewing the semester system with exams in January and June) and I decided that my students needed to endure the experience of what the AP test really feels like 10 weeks ahead of time so we could see how we are doing on this marathon.

So I took out old AP exams and work from test prep books and just cut up old tests for the multiple choice section and combed through the essay topics to choose three essays for them to explore. At this point in the course we are up to the dawn of the twentieth century (wait for applause…there…thank you…). We have covered from the Neolithic Revolution all the way up to the 20th century! Just one century to go in six weeks of class before review for the Big Day on May 14th.

But it isn’t just the scope of the exam that is mind-boggling (again…wait for the applause…there it is…) for the nearly 10,000 years of history the students must command. It is a long exam. It begins with 70 multiple choice (and these are the devilish kind—not the recognition kind—I mean they want you zooming through time and comparing Aztecs and Vikings and Chinese and Romans and Arabs and Japanese…whoa). After the 55 minutes of multiple choice comes the Document-Based-Question, for my money the best part of the exam. The DBQ, or when I am thinking about food (and when am I not??), as I call it the BBQ, offers 10 passages from different documents (and they could be prose or tables or photographs or graphs or maps) and asks for the students to synthesize the documents in a cogent essay—and: wait for this—all of this in 50 minutes.

Then they get a 5 minute break!

Finally, after the break come two essays, 40 minutes in length, to ponder, brainstorm, plan and write. Each of these two essays is the same format every year, just changing the time and place. The first of these is the “change over time but also continuities” essay. The student is asked to explain how a phenomenon (let’s say women’s rights) changes over a period of time, but also what stays the same. Hmmm….interesting. The other essay topic is always a compare/contrast in which the student must analyze relevant and direct comparisons among or between societies (let’s say the Spanish and the Ottomans).

Of course these are not simple tasks. They are monitored to parallel the work done in college, and so it is hard for high-school students to attack these assignments. They have to be so smart—and speedy! They cannot offer trite high-school-ish essays with cartoon villains, simplistic linear thinking and black-and-white student bluster. They are meant to be multi-dimensional, nuanced, precise and with relevant historical examples!

And they have to do all of this so quickly!

These essays are graded on a 9-point scale that, like the style of essay topics, has a uniform pattern. The first point one can earn is for an acceptable thesis. If you do not get that first point, you also cannot get points 8 or 9—a true argument of a thesis is the key to that golden door of extra points. And on the DBQ, if you do not use all the documents, you do not get that point. The points are fairly easy to understand: you must have a thesis, address all parts of the question, substantiate the thesis with four pieces of relevant historical evidence, make at least two relevant, direct comparisons, provide appropriate historical context, explain the process of change, show balance of changes and continuities…wow…so we have the tyranny of the coverage of the material in the course as well as sharpening and honing writing skills.

You can see it is not terribly over-dramatic (some yes, but remember the writer here!) to call this struggle Sisyphean!

So last week the nearly four dozen AP World History students sat down to write these exams. As you might expect, they had never taken a 190-minute exam. When last we took a comprehensive exam, in December, it was a 2-hour exam with 2 major essays. Now it was over three hours with three major essays. We are working at pushing that rock up the hill!

Since you are dying to know, I am sure, I will divulge the essay topics the students faced. The DBQ asked, “Based on the following documents, analyze imperialism as a positive and a negative force in the 19th century world.” Granted, we had explored this topic in the last few weeks, so they should have been primed for this. However, they had seen only one of the ten documents. So it was still important historical ground through which to plow. One of the requirements for success on the DBQ is to somehow “group” the documents into manageable units, but the students have to imagine what those groups should be. One way of dividing these documents would be by citizens of imperialist powers, and those documents written by subject peoples. But it is like the Iron Chef competition for historians going into a DBQ.

The changes/continuities essay asked for the students to “Analyze the changes and continuities in the Indian Ocean region from 650 to 1750.” This is work the students explored during our December break, but that is a long time ago! Hopefully they will mention historian Lynda Shaffer and her important essay on “Southernization,” in which she argues that the spotlight on the Indian Ocean (at that time) paved the way for Westernization to happen in the 19th-20th centuries…we discussed this historian (ad nauseum) so maybe her name will come up.

And the last essay asked “Compare and contrast the political and economic effects of Mongol rule on TWO of the following regions: China, Middle East, Russia.” I hoped that the residue of the 10th grade Middle Eastern history course might still be strong enough for this one, and the fact that we had explored in class how the Mongols were enjoying a bit of a revitalization in the History world these days…

Anyway, those are the essay topics.

I had thought I would discuss the exams in the blog, but I wondered if I was going to have an interesting angle on them (I feel a bit like Jimmy Olson on the Daily Planet!).

Through the genius of a schedule-planner my sophomores and juniors were scheduled to take their AP World History exams 48 hours apart. Oh well. Not smart, but what can do? This same phenomenon happened in December, with the sophomores going first. As I kept my ear to the ground, I learned, with relief that the sophomores wouldn’t budge in telling the juniors what was on the exam. I figured pay back time from the juniors to the sophomores.

Well, last week, at about 10:15 pm the night before the sophomores’ early morning exam, I had a knock at my door. There were four sheepish-looking sophomores asking to have a talk. They had “that look” that normally suggests remorse, or so-sincere-because-I-got-caught, with a hint of Let’s Make a Deal. These four guys explained that even though they hadn’t asked, a number of the juniors kept telling them the essay topics for tomorrow’s exams. They didn’t want to tell me the names of the chatty-Cathy juniors.

These four guys wanted to ask if I would come up with new essay topics.

Say what?

These four guys didn’t want the advantage of knowing the topics ahead of time. They wanted to see how good they really were going into our exam unawares—as if it were the big test in May.

I felt pretty stunned. Now, these four young men, the honorable Thaer, Abdullah, Raja and Robert, are great students anyway, but this was an unexpected bonus. They wanted to see if they were any good at this history game, and were not just worried (read: consumed) about getting an A. They hoped I didn’t mind coming up with some new topics, even though their exam was about 10 hours away.

Sure, it was some effort to look for balanced, challenging topics that simulated the breadth of the whole test, and I needed to type them up and get them copied. And sleep. But it was work of the easiest kind.

I told our headmaster the following day about this night-time visit, and I said, this may be the best story yet, academically, to come out of our school. Here are four young men, so interested in the learning process, and integrity, that they requested the rougher road of inquiry. What more could a teacher want? They wanted to embrace the unknown and tackle a subject for the esoteric struggle that it represents.

In that whole Sisyphean struggle of education, that boulder just took a leap up the hill.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

“Do the Hokey-Pokey”

For over thirty years, no childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, was complete without a visit to the “Uncle Al Show.” This locally produced live television show was such a high, such a seminal moment in children’s lives across what we call the “Tri-State Area” in our corner of southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and southeastern Indiana.

Earlier this week, while talking to my sister and my father, on our weekly conference call, Elizabeth said, “A Cincinnati icon has died,” and my dad chimed in, “And I’m looking for your picture!” Okay. A puzzle to solve. Which Cincinnati icon? And what did my father mean as he said he was looking for my picture? I pondered… hmmm… Rosemary Clooney has already passed on, and I don’t know what my dad would mean about my “picture” with the likes of Doris Day or Andy Williams…wait…”Did Uncle Al die?” I asked. I had guessed it.

When you went to Uncle Al’s show, every child on the show that day got a group picture of the whole gang on the show, and so when this legendary broadcaster died the other day in his mid-80s, they must have been showing scores of group pictures on the local WCPO station—home for 40 years to Uncle Al.

This was not just a “kiddie show” in that unctuous, pejorative way we use that term to denote some seedy guy and kids and balloons. Uncle Al’s show was among the most magical memories of a Cincinnati childhood. So in the last couple of days I have been trying to remember what made it so special.

Hello! You got to be on television! For any hammy child, that had to be the most exciting thing.

Okay, let’s do some background for those of you not from Cincinnati…

Al Lewis was a jack-of-all-trades kinda guy hired by a local TV station around 1949 (all this from is from my memory bank when he retired 20 years ago and the tributes poured forth from around the Tri-State). He played the accordion and a banjo and had been to art school. Since they had so many hours to fill in those early days of television, executives probably racked their brains trying to guess how to fill the time. Lewis was hired to play for a polka show. Legend has it that one day a bunch of kids wandered onto the set (what kind of TV station is this, and why is there a bunch of kinds hanging around, who let them on the set, I don’t know—maybe I am forgetting a key piece of this story, maybe they were the children of the polka-lovers, I am just recounting the legend…) and Al Lewis entertained them, mesmerized them, and they left happy. The TV station thought, maybe a kids show might be an entertaining way to fill a couple of hours of TV. So in 1950 Lewis started doing a children’s show in Cincinnati.

In the next few years the TV show took shape and it had a winning formula, and Lewis kept at it until 1985. He became “Uncle Al,” and his wife (Wanda) became “Captain Windy.” It was a whirlwind show—first two hours, and then as we all became more sophisticated, 90 minutes, and then again, a blast of sophistication, a 60-minute show—and the centerpieces of the show were exercises to release a child’s imagination. However, one of the most interesting things about this show was that it was not an old man, a fuddy-duddy kinda guy (a la “Captain Kangaroo”) doing kids things, or an urban-ghetto scene like “Sesame Street.” It just seemed better than any other children’s show I have ever seen.

Okay, let’s take a walk down memory lane. I am not sure how many times I went to see Uncle Al in person. I am confident I went at least twice, because I remember talking to some big people there as if I knew them. And my mother would have taken me once a week if I had been allowed to miss school more often. I think the optimum age to go to the Uncle Al show was around age 5. I have a vivid memory of going circa 1970. I went with Kenny, my best buddy from nursery school, who had moved across town. We went together and it was blissful. The way kids today (how old are you when you start saying phrases like, “kids today…”) think of Disney World—that’s we Cincinnati kids thought of going to see Uncle Al. (Jump ahead to third grade, when I had scatterbrained Mrs. Luken, and she had us each be in charge of a bulletin board, and we had to put pictures up that represented our best moments in our lives, and a color picture of K&J with Uncle Al went on the bulletin board—that’s what a big deal it was. I still remember as I took down my bulletin board, that beloved picture fell into a crevice in the wall, and I have thought for years to go back and see if the picture can be pulled from the rubble of that classroom…)

I remember you walked into the TV studio and the set was a kind of “Munchkinland” set crossed with something out of Willy Wonka. Uncle Al always dressed with a bow-tie and a suit and a straw hat that probably was fashionable back in the 1920s. Captain Windy always flew onto the set (what a thrill to see how TV technology worked and see her “flying” over Cincinnati until she landed onto the Candyland set). Each child had a nametag—shaped like Uncle Al’s bowtie. There were other characters, but the most fun part of the whole show was the making of music and the making of art.

Al and Wanda never quite left their art school roots—and there would be drawing and dancing and orchestras—it was like the most wonderful daycamp watching the show and being on the show. Uncle Al and Captain Windy were also great salespeople—they made sure their advertisers got their due, and came up with clever jingles that the children would remember, and so then the nagging to parents would start (“We have to drink Barq’s!” or “We have to buy our furniture at Pat & Joe’s—Uncle Al said it would save our daddies dough!” Clever, clever…)

If it was your birthday you got to ride the special merry-go-round, and the camera stayed on you for a long time. Why I never got to go on a lovely October 4th, I will never understand.

When it came time for snack time, Uncle Al and Captain Windy taught us to sing a grace and fold your hands. I remember it was the only time Uncle Al took his straw boater off, and there was such a seriousness on the set as we thanked God for our cookies and milk.

Uncle Al was less of a moralist than Mr. Rodgers, but there was such excitement and theatricality in the shows. Captain Windy was really in charge of the art projects, but then a highlight was when we were told to grab pots and pans and make a band! March around your house and make music!

About a decade ago there was a short story in the newspaper about an art show of the art of the real Al Lewis and Wanda Lewis. My sister and I went downtown, to meet them again—we had gone in the summer of 1975 to a live show on Fountain Square celebrating his silver anniversary of children’s shows, and then we went in 1985 for his farewell outdoor shows. But this was the late 1990s, and that era had certainly passed. There was not a show like their show anymore. They probably seemed quaint, out-of-touch to young bean counters and hot-shots.

But when we went into the art gallery, and saw a line of other thirty-somethings and forty-somethings it was so exciting to see their bright eyes and magical smiles again, a little aged, of course, but we would have recognized their electric, telegenic radiance anywhere. We thanked them for the years of the shows. I marveled at how much they cultivated a love of the arts in children—through their insistence on art and music. Who knew how many children sought out an art class because of the drawings Captain Windy encouraged, or how many lovers of music just from the appreciation you learned at the feet of Uncle Al. Maybe it was just a misty-eyed nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, but it was cathartic to get to tell these broadcasters/educators/entertainers/artists in their mid-70s what they had meant to more than one generation of children.

On the one visit I remember the most clearly, my mother was chatting with Uncle Al and Captain Windy after the show—does this surprise anyone? I was left to wander in the back of the studio—no one stopped me, and I discovered the treasure trove of costumes and props. It was the most magical closet in the world, and it didn’t destroy the “magic” of the show at all. Seeing how the technology made Captain Windy fly, seeing the costumes that Tom York, a character actor, wore and seeing the portable sets and wondrous theatrical bits, only made me want to be a part of that world in some way.

Toward the end of every show the whole gaggle of children (I can’t imagine how many children were at each live show—maybe 40? Maybe 50?) took to dancing with the Hokey-Pokey. Uncle Al was busy on the accordion, and Captain Windy smiled her way through another rendition of shaking shaking shaking and doing the Hokey-Pokey. At the end of the show the children left with a bag full of the marshmallow ice cream cones you had had as a treat on the show.

Uncle Al created an excitement that I don’t know if any American Idol or Survivor or reality show can generate. I guess I am most grateful that Uncle Al and Captain Windy stimulated the imagination—encouraged us to release our imagination! What a gift to Cincinnati from 1950 to 1985.

I remember someone said they saw him once out to dinner—he was smoking a cigar. Scandalous! I spent just a minute yesterday looking at comments on the WCPO website, and many of the comments were people my age saying that they had seen him out to dinner and he was so nice to them.

We may forget many of the actual moments from the show, and what we did. But we cannot forget the magic of going to an Uncle Al show or watching it at home. Among the most priceless memories of childhood…

Rest in peace dear man.