Monday, April 27, 2009

1980s Travel Club

When I was a freshman at Denison I gained entry to the Denison Singers in my first week of college. I soon learned that the 16-member group would be jetting off to Europe for a nearly-month long singing tour during our January Term. Our conductor, universally known by the pronunciation of his initials, WO, had chosen an ambitious program of challenging music. He had decided to celebrate the centennial of the birth of composer Igor Stravinsky, pairing up pieces of this modern music-maker’s work with medieval and Renaissance pieces of the same sacred texts. This music was difficult, but it was so fun to be in a real college group, with very good singers, and get to know these big college sophomores, juniors and seniors. This WO certainly put the “ecce” in eccentric (okay, that was a joke that just fell flat…hmmm…I was going for something like he put the glam in glamorous, and ‘ecce’ means “behold!” in Latin, so I was hoping it might work to say, “behold this interesting eccentric man!” but as jokes go…I think that is enough about that.). Back to this eccentric and music-loving professor.

Throughout the fall semester, if we had a bad rehearsal, which we seemed to have regularly, I learned we could count on some stinging mimeographed memo from WO delivered to our mailboxes the following day (ahhh…remember the purple ink and smell of the mimeograph? This is obviously the days before wanton Xeroxing and certainly before the advent of e-mail!). The memo would generally say something like, “We are 37% through our rehearsal time and you are decidedly not 37% ready for our concerts!” He would chide and chastise us and hope we might spend more time on the Latin texts, or the German folk songs.

There was one memo though that has became legendary in the annals of WO-dom (and there is a colorful and considerable imaginary file folder in every Denison Singers’ head about his marvelous turns of phrases) and he essentially wondered if we should “abort the singing group” and become a travel club????? During the break at our next rehearsal many of the Singers thought that was a really good idea—we could travel and see Europe and other exotic climes and unburden ourselves from the difficult music of Palestrina and Brahms! Over the next few years, that line got tossed around with glee every time we encountered a difficult piece of music (which by the way, many of us wondered from whence WO foundeth many of the unusual pieces to which he introduced us—a favorite lyric in one piece my senior year was, “Lie low, marmot fat…”)

Well, this last weekend a “rump parliament” of the 1980s Travel Club communed in New York on the occasion of my Spring Break ’09. Indeed, if you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that it is not uncommon for the Singers to indulge in reunions. Every few years WO invites all the members who ever participated in the group (from its inception in 1961 with a young WO to his retirement in 2003) to come back for a reunion and to work on a concert. I have missed only one of these (in 2001 I had to choose between a trip to China and the Singers Reunion) in 20 years. Just in the last few years alone we have had reunions in 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. We never did disband the singing group, but many of us have made reunions into a virtual travel club to visit each other.

My friend Tracy says the group was “magical.” Tracy was one of the seniors in my freshman year, and as I have oft referred to this lovely friend, she was the “Earth Mother” of the Denison Singers. What made it magical? How does it still influence us? Wasn’t it just another singing group?

Oh, my. It is hard to say what it is all about, but this last weekend, in my closing days of my marvelous spring break, a group of us once again got together to swap stories about our youth, our European tour, WO, and how the group has touched our lives over the last 25 years.

Tracy, a music teacher just a few miles away from Denison, organized this trip. Tracy is one of those teachers who lives and breathes her love for children. I love to call her from Jordan to see what the little ones will be studying in her class. Inevitably she is speaking gently to some child, helping some first grader to have a brighter day. Heidi came from North Carolina. Heidi was the most sophisticated person I knew that freshman year at college. I mean—she knew German, and from the German folk songs we sang in the group, I wanted to learn German too. Heidi had designed her own major and incorporated biology and ethics and philosophy and religion, and as an advisor to me in orientation encouraged me to sign up for Dr. Eisenbeis, the professor who had the biggest impact on me that first semester. We were going to meet up with two New Yorkers in the bunch—who both were freshmen too when I was a senior. It felt like having three generations together. Scott is an executive in mid-town Manhattan, married to a sweet Denison Singer (from my class) who couldn’t come the other night because she was performing in Connecticut. Sarah was my first great New York friend in life, and teaches at a progressive school in New York. Our currency has always been laughter between us. Rounding out our Travel Club reunion was our friend Rick (a master at humor and hyperbole) who was also a newbie freshman in that semester WO nearly “abort[ed]” the singing group. Rick brought his partner Jim, traveling from Philadelphia. We enjoyed an afternoon and evening together reminiscing and marveling at the passage of time.

Lo those many years ago in college Sarah had had a mad crush on Rick (as Tracy quipped, “He left a string of broken hearts, honey!”) and they had not seen each in over 20 years. So here we were—what bonded us together after 20 years? What did this group do for us? What had it mattered?

I know for me being in that group inspired and compelled me to want to create other group experiences like that. As a freshman I decided I wanted to teach, and without knowing it, over the years doing plays and teaching and traveling with students, I have created my own version of WO’s life and career. It has been a consuming life and career, not especially financially profitable when I see the bonuses many people get, but I like to think I created positive group experiences for my students like the Denison Singers. And those experiences mattered—we carved out time for each other simply to remind each other how much it mattered.

On Saturday I attended the wedding of a student who graduated from Charlotte Latin in 1996. Over the years we have never gone more than a year without a visit and catch-up. This bride, the glowing Elizabeth, introduced me to her fella a few years ago—I knew then that this was a match made in heaven.

It is an immensely blessed thing to be invited to the wedding of a former student. I remember attending the wedding of Audra, a treasure from way back at Gaston Day, in 1996, just after I had left North Carolina. And there have been the Coyle weddings, and singing in all of the Enszer weddings—and it is one of the crowning joys of the close relationships I have enjoyed over the years.

But this wedding on Saturday—Elizabeth’s wedding—came at a good time.

In the last two weeks I had briefly questioned a couple times the teaching gig, and especially the teaching in a private school thing. At KA we don’t have a pension plan, and that doesn’t paint a rosy picture for retirement, or for long-time tenure in Jordan. Oh, and the current economic situation makes one’s heart beat a little faster in desperation. But I just wondered if there was anything smart, or maybe prudent is the more precise word, in being/staying a teacher.

So I come to the wedding. Apart from the elegance of the wedding (inside at a pier on the Hudson River at the sunset of a supremely gorgeous summery day!) there was a knot of former students I hadn’t seen in a dozen years. There was Callie, the commercial attorney, and Randy, the art-creative writer teacher, and Ashby, the advertising exec, and Anna, the pathologist, and Turner, the writer-activist-actor-producer.

It was a swell time. This wonderful group of thirty-somethings was so exciting, so vibrant, so interesting! And it was very gratifying as they thanked me for the theater group and our plays we created in the mid-1990s.

It was so wonderful—because they had enjoyed a group that provided an identity, a meeting point of creativity and love and passion—much like the Denison Singers had meant to me in college and Studio Choir in high school.

Randy asked me a few interesting questions. “Now that we are adults, how did you do all you did for us when you were having adult problems of your own?” Now that he is out of adolescence, and doing the same thing as a teacher, he was interested in the hows and whys. We had a stimulating conversation about how such work invigorates you and sustains you.

Yesterday I did my last little bit of entertainment in New York. I went to a movie called, Every Little Step, a documentary made about the 2007 revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway. It was heartbreaking and exciting and inspirational about how these performers stick with something so difficult. Of course, if you are familiar with the show, you know the closing ballad explains it all, “What I Did For Love.”

In the last few days of going from the friends of my youth, to the beloved students I taught in the mid-1990s, to the prospect of returning to the AP test rigor and play preparation at KA, I get to think of what I want for them, these students in Jordan. I want them to have a group experience like we enjoyed at Latin and at Denison. I want them to think, and work hard, and to inject passion into that work. I don’t want them to be me. I want to give them a place to practice being who they must be. That is what the Denison Singers did for me.

I may say to my wonderful students this week in class: Do not do what I do. Take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I cannot imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

“cloudy with a chance of meatballs”

Of the two weeks I will have been in the United States on Spring Break, four of them have been glorious spring days (and how nice and symmetrical that two were in Cincinnati, and two in New York!) with soaring temperatures and invigoratingly warm, sun-dappled landscapes. But the rest of the time the weather in both of my “homes” has been more of a gray oatmeal-y kind of day.

Not that I have minded at all about the weather! It has been a chance to visit, and do what I do best: talk and eat.

Last Thursday, when I spent the evening with Jack and Emma the night before my departure from Cincinnati to New York, the visit to Cincinnati ended much as it had begun—with a whirlwind trip through my sister and brother-in-law’s house trying to do a month’s worth of activities in an hour or two. How many games of hide-n-seek can we get in before ‘King’ has to leave???

Just as I was about to leave to go over to see dear Sylvia (by the way, I was criticized by my labeling Sylvia as “loyal” in last week’s blog—I guess that adjective is usually reserved for steadfast pets and not marvelous friends—Sylvia is loyal, but not in a canine kind-of-way, rather she is the kind of friend who is supportive and refreshing, so let me be more clear in the adjectives I choose!) for a final dash to Cincinnati’s Graeter’s ice cream, Jack whisked into the kitchen announcing, “King, look at the book I got today!!”

Jack was so excited that the Scholastic book orders had come in before I left town so he could show me his book choices he had made. His proudest pick was Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. I had never heard of this book, but my sister remarked that Jack had been so excited to get this book. I loved the title! We had a quick look at the book—I loved the conceit of a place, a delicious town called Chewandswallow, that one day started having food drop out of the sky like rain. “Look at the hamburgers, King! And the pancakes!”

Ah, that boy is a chip off the old-uncle’s block. He loves food. (Albeit, I have to say, he is a pickier eater than a true gastronomophile—he tends to love white foods—but the foods he champions, he really loves!) His uncle loves food. This book may be a match made in heaven!

So as Jack was showing me—in between fits of giggles at this imaginative Chewandswallow—the blizzards of mashed potatoes, and the torrent of pork chops, I thought this really was similar to my visits to the United States! Each meal is like their weather report, and the meals and the conversations with friends and family the happy centerpieces of my days in the United States! Ahhh, Jack showed me the way to hope for the latest weather report of Cincinnati Chili, or pulled pork, or Cobb salads!

So in my New York version of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs it has been a veritable week of pleasure with A-listers like Kate and the Ungers. These are friends who somewhere along the way ceased being “merely” former students or nice families, but the kind of friends that are so interesting and energizing to talk with, with whom you want to declare, “Stop, Time,” and revel in the laughter and shared fellowship.

But of course time is marching on, and the Break is like most of my time on break—sad to bid farewell to one friend, but so happy to see another coming. As I left Cincinnati last Friday there was that wistful look back at my dad in the airport, but the thrill of heading to New York to see the Hackley family and other friends in the New York area.

I have a few more people in the NYC area to see now due to the “miracle of Facebook” (remember my sister warned me I should not use the word ‘miracle’ so wantonly—my word, not hers).

I left Westchester county on Tuesday morning, after several days in the company of the omni-wonderful Anne. It rained steak and veal and blood oranges and soprasatta and apple tarts with Anne! We saw a play, we saw a foreign film. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I came, I saw, I conquered, in other words.

On Tuesday as I arrived in Manhattan I had plans to meet up with a guy who holds a unique position in my history, in my pantheon of former students. Through the “miracle of Facebook”—no, I will just call it the incredibly serendipitous social networking arena—a student who was in my first class I taught, and the first musical I directed, had found me, was in New York on business from Charlotte, and we had scheduled a meeting time before the theater.

Somehow we had lost touch over the years, even though his mother had been a colleague in my first school, and one of my dearest friends in the rich network of friends in Gastonia. But he had gone off to college, I had left Gastonia, and since there was no e-mail in those days, one had to actually post letters and keep in touch the old-fashioned way.

Now this former student is a successful businessman, darkening the doorstep of 40 (am I really that old? Remember—I was only a four year post-secondary education older than those first students of mine!) and while it was rainy and foggy outside, inside our meeting place it was sunny and delightful catching up. So what have you been doing the last 20 years??!!

We talked about current joys—his young son, my position in Jordan; current fears—will there be any pension money left when we retire? And we talked about the proliferation of technology—things that just didn’t exist when I taught Trip U.S. History or directed him in Hello, Dolly! twenty-one years ago.

“Have you seen the Susan Boyle clip?” I asked. That was one of the things we did at my sister’s house as well on the whirlwind final visit last Thursday night. Someone in the house had heard of the Scottish woman’s story and the Youtube clip that played like the end of the one of the most satisfying, feel-good movies imaginable. Of course Trip had seen the clip! In the last week when my family first showed me the clip, not a day has gone by where someone has not asked me about the clip, or vice versa. I joined the Susan Boyle Fanclub on Facebook. Anne and I watched the clip a couple times together.

When I visited Hackley on Monday one of my former students asked me why I thought the clip was being watched by so many millions of people. The student asked me if it was a “sign of the times.” Maybe—and as that young gorgeous judge Amanda says to Susan in the clip, her performance and triumph is a wake-up call. I don’t know if it is a wake-up call or not, but her stunning singing of “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of my favorite songs ever, a song I first heard in my first visit to Les Miserables (a show I would eventually see 18 times!) when I accompanied Trip to New York in 1988 as my first time to chaperone students, is a triumph of imagination over reality. This rather homely spinster Susan Boyle imagined herself as a winner on this show, and went on, looks and age aside, and performed with such grace, such conviction. Wow—I guess Meryl Streep will play her in the movie.

Trip and I then discussed this phenomenon ‘Twitter.’ Granted—I have not gone to this site, but talk about it—like the clip of Susan Boyle—is ubiquitous this week. Indeed, yesterday I counted three articles yesterday gushing about Twitter in the New York Times. It was on the evening news, and the ladies on The View tittered about Twitter. I learned that an entry is called a Tweet. It seems to be like your life in a Haiku. Oh no—for the verbose of us, this is scary.

On one hand it makes me scared—it is such a short amount of space in which to write! They say you get only 140 characters for an entry! Jumpin’ Jehosephat! I mean I take three pages to tell you I went to the Dead Sea, or three pages to say I have been talking and eating during Spring Break and liked the title of Jack’s book! This Twitter has the pressure of a post card it seems—I would much prefer to write a long letter rather than try and sum up everything on an insidious little 3X5 card.

I said to Trip, “Of what possible use to me is Twitter?” I became a little self-deprecating as I said, “To convey the capsulized brilliance of my life at any moment of my life at any moment, 140 characters are too many!” Oh well—I think the same goes for you as well, and I would add, unless you are hemorrhaging, I think I can wait to know the Tweet of what you’re doing until the next time we talk.

So anyway, my week has been raining conversation and good meals. An afternoon with Aunt Dot, brilliant! A luncheon with the Celantanos, captivating! Catching up with Diana, and Claudia, and many others at Hackley, heartwarming! Thai food with Jane and Christy, newfound peace!

Jack’s giggles are appropriate. Imagine a place with food and conversation raining down around you…delicious…

Next courses: a reunion with Denison Singer friends and then a wedding of a former student from Charlotte. The weather report looks stunning.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Promised Land

Going to the Westwood Public Library is another of those “favorite things” (as Julie Andrews trilled) I love to do when I am back home in the bosom of Cincinnati. It is the library of my childhood—in fact, the library was built in 1938, the same year my mother was born, so it is sort of a womb, well, of sorts—well, that is just strange, I suppose. Anyway, this 1930s art deco gem is just a few steps from my elementary school, and I have been going there since I could walk, or maybe read. As a child I made a beeline for the biography section, reading a certain Abraham Lincoln biography dozens of times as a child, until I moved on to my junior high obsession with Gone With The Wind.

Anyway, I visited the library this week to get a few books just in case the jet lag wreaked havoc with my sleeping patterns and I could devour a few books before sunrise. I picked out a book called, The Movie That Changed My Life, interviewing famous people about, can you guess what? And I got an art book by the inimitable Sister Wendy on Impressionist art, a book of letters by comedian Don Rickles, and a book called Promised Land by Jay Parini.

Well, as the sleep patterns go—I tend to wake up around 4:30 am as I adjust being stateside. So the first three books went pretty quickly. The movie answers were pretty lame, Sister Wendy was on autopilot, and Don Rickles was uncharacteristically toothless and dull. But that Parini book really killed time waiting for sunrise.

The subtitle of the book is, “Thirteen Books that Changed America,” and as I saw it in the library I groused that someone had beaten me to the book I should have written. You see, when I used to teach AP United States History, one of the ways I prepared my students for the final cumulative exam was a lecture on the “Fifteen Books that Changed America.” This Parini louse beat me to publication, and even made it a little easier on himself with just 13!

Anyway—got the book, and as I paged through it, I just loved his writing. The concept is a good one (even if he purloined the idea from my teaching files of 1996-2000!) trying to explore what books throughout our history would help us understand the climate of America from the earliest days down to the present day. It is not a “greatest books” lecture, but rather, a search for books that played a role in shaping our nation’s idea of itself, kind of providing the intellectual and emotional contours of our United States; I guess you might say he wanted to have books explain our “psyche.”

The list of books is surprisingly similar to mine, okay—enough—I didn’t write my own book! The books range from William Bradford’s 17th century Of Plymouth Plantation and covers predictable territory in the 19th century, and then he includes Dr. Spock’s book, Dale Carnegie’s self-help book, and concludes with The Feminine Mystique. But there is a book I did not know at all, an early 20th century immigrant’s tale called, The Promised Land, a 1912 book by an author named Mary Antin (never heard of her! Good to learn!). Parini quotes the first sentence of the book: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over.”

Not only is the Antin book new to me, but I enjoy reading about this Russian Jewish immigrant’s secular “rebirth,” and I appreciate Parini’s enjoyment of the metaphor of the Promised Land.

Now that I live near the spot where Moses looked into the actual Promised Land of the Hebrews, the concept captures my attention all the more. As I live and work in Jordan, I think of my hometown Cincinnati now even more as a Promised Land, indeed that Westwood Public Library often seemed to be the Promised Land to my childhood doppelganger. And then my second home, New York City also acts as a Promised Land to me as well.

But I love working over that phrase that Antin uses to open her book, that notion of how we are “made over,” with all the potential of rebirth, even resurrection. I toss aside the other books and dive into this exploration of the books that chart the adventure that is the history of the United States of America.

The more I read the book, the more I see parallels to the young history of KA.

Throughout the book Parini speaks of the United States as an “adventure,” and an “experiment.” He says, “its Founders were, for the most part…a band of sensible, well-educated people who valued rational thought and weighed carefully the elements that constitute a successful organization.” That is certainly a parallel to the conception and execution of KA. Many of the books Parini chose deal, in some way, with a quasi-biblical epic idea of a promised land, often visualized and hyped as a dream of independence. He writes of this American Dream as “not so much a physical place but as John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, a ‘paradise within thee, happier far.’ By its very nature, this land lies just out of reach, and the note of yearning can be heard again and again in these works.”

Hey, that sounds like the same heady talk that propelled KA into being—going from a pipe dream to a concrete reality, to a fragile young seedling, with very real olive trees transplanted from the veritable Promised Land of the Bible.

How funny that back in the bosom of Cincinnati I am reminded of the vision that built this school in Jordan, and how that vision informs many of the hopes of our young academy. Just as Emerson and Thoreau’s words provided Americans a visionary laser whose beam never faded, our school, our own contemporary “Promised Land” project, tries to locate the “better angels of our Nature,” as Abraham Lincoln urged.

So in these pre-dawn hours I am enjoying this exploration of Parini’s book, musing about my own visions of a Promised Land. The immigrant tale, The Promised Land probably irked some people—it sounds as if it wore its confidence and bravado on its young 20th century sleeve—the kind of arrogance that does make people outside the USA bristle at us. But the book sounds exciting about these immigrants coming here, remaking themselves, reaching, and maybe overreaching.

What do we make of overreaching? Is it bad? Or is it just like youth in general, when we grapple with worries and doubts and the anxious seeking of authority figures. There probably is a declaration of independence involved, and hopefully a coming-to-terms with humility.

I guess any exciting adventure, worthwhile project, or risky experiment follows those same intellectual and emotional contours. The history of the United States certainly has followed those grooves, and now it seems so does the young history of KA, and also my own involvement in this current of events.

Hmmmm….some interesting thoughts as I await dawn in Cincinnati, waiting for my father to wake up and for us to go out to breakfast. As I watch him work the room as the Mayor of the Imperial Diner, he seems to have found his Promised Land.

In a few hours I will go out to lunch with my divine Aunt Dot—our times together are about as swell as Moses must have felt as he stood on the precipice of Mt. Nebo considering the land of Milk and Honey. She has been working hard on our family’s history, going back into these times that Parini has charted about the American promise. Aunt Dot has been navigating these 19th and 20th century waters on a microcosmic scale, seeing how the Evans and Griley families plumbed the depths of the Promised Land in America—recent immigrants from Wales, and Germany, respectively. I will have lunch with Aunt Dot and Jim on the terrace of the Cincinnati Art Museum today, catching either up on our own adventures, projects and experiments of the last few months. I wonder what our sure-to-be-marvelous discussion will yield!

Sunday, April 12, 2009


“And now for something really breathtaking!”

That was the pronouncement my beautiful 10-year old niece Emma made as she picked up her recorder yesterday to play for me an exercise she had learned in music class.

I loved her excitement—and she probably has no idea that ‘breathtaking’ is a word I seemed to have used a great deal in the last few months in teaching world history. I don’t know why all of a sudden I have embraced that word so often in my classes, but I was tickled by Emma’s enthusiasm as she made music for me yesterday. I had been treated to a whirlwind catch-up of everything that had been going on in Emma and her dashing brother Jack’s lives since I had last been with them on New Year’s Day. Jack wanted to show me one of the costumes he had been designing. Emma wanted to show me the trophy she had won in a music contest last month, and then ran to the piano to play for me “The Slavic Dance” piece she had played in the music festival. I got to read Jack a book about Arthur forgetting his underwear, and Emma showed me a video of her gymnastics, and we played two rounds of the game “Clue.” (One time it was Colonel Mustard, and one time it was Miss Scarlett) The pace of the catch-up itself breathtaking!

And the rate at which they are growing up is breathtaking…

Emma’s promise that her recorder playing would be breathtaking reminded me of the old salvo,“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” I have not been home in the United States very long, but here are a few of those moments in the last 48 hours which took my breath away:

• Watching sunrise over New York City as my plane from Amman landed at JFK airport just after dawn

• My breathtakingly beautiful sister Elizabeth hugging me at the airport, offering me a BLT sandwich to welcome me back to America

• driving around our home in Westwood and seeing the beautiful, blossoming pear trees

• going over to Price Hill Chili Friday night to see loyal friend Sylvia and walking in and seeing a host of family friends: there was Mr. Justice, my senior English teacher, and over in the corner Harry and Ruby, friends from my father’s breakfast haunt, and a couple that met during the dark days of World War II, and in love ever since

• biting into a real Reuben sandwich with the chatter of Emma on my right and Jack on my left

• seeing the blossoming daffodils and fragrant hyacinths in our front yard in the exact same spots as I have remembered them every spring for the last 40 years

• I went with my father to a store called Harbor Freight Tools and stood amazed that there was not a single thing in the store that I knew anything about! But my father was as happy as I would be in a music store!

• enjoying my first banana shake of the season at the Creamy Whip down the street—another place we have frequented my whole life

• and on the same gastronomic front—the whole family and friend Sylvia—chowing down on LaRosa’s pizza last night, a tradition of pizza for us on Saturday night going back to the 1960s

• sharing an Easter morning call with treasured friends Tracy and Grace MacBride, people whose love and support make life ever more bearable

Those are just some of those little moments that have provided me restorative relief of Spring Break.

This morning my father and I arose early and ventured over to Spring Grove Cemetery for a sunrise Easter service. Our family’s church stopped doing sunrise services maybe a decade ago, but I find the early morning service the most meaningful on Easter, and after my mother’s death in 2006, we discovered that Spring Grove offered a sunrise service.

It was about 30 degrees this morning, quite brisk, but clear, and as we gathered in the pre-dawn cold there was an elegant mist rising from the lake, and we faced the rising sun, with tulips and daffodils rising up from the cold ground around us. We sang the familiar songs, with the sharp query, “O Death, where is thy sting?” the most resonant of the triumph of Easter.

When we later met up with the rest of the family, Jack was so proud of his “new” blazer for Easter. It turns out that this scarlet-colored blazer is something my father had saved, and was a blazer that I had worn on an Easter long-ago, probably circa 1970. Jack reveled in his handsome look and delighted that we had both shared this jacket.

This morning I recalled another Easter, around 1992 I think, when this guy Steve who had been hanging around my sister for awhile, came and spent Easter with us, and I finally got to spend time and get to know him. My sister’s happiness around this guy took my breath away, and his humor and warmth made my mother feel loved, and my father feel safe. I told Steve then that he was the best thing to ever happen to my sister. I count Easter as the marking point as to when I too fell in love with this guy who has made our family complete.

Easter is a breathtakingly beautiful holiday. We inhale the fragrances of spring flowers, we hear the laughter of the children, our eyes see the colors emerging, and our hearts and souls savor the promises and blessings of what takes our breath away.

And those are just some of the breathtaking moments from my first 48 hours home…

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Walking through the campus at KA is strangely unsatisfying. Not that it isn’t beautiful, for you see there is the carpet of neatly-tended green lawn providing a break from the scrubby ground of Jordan. But still, it is just so perfect and nice, and um, bland. Here’s what I love most about walking around the area of our sprawling campus: its edges. In this one corner of the campus the school ends abruptly, as a school should, surrendering gracefully and completely, to farms and fields beyond the walls. On the horizon loom the hills to which David the Psalmist looked for inspiration and strength and comfort. Walking around the edges of the campus provides me with that experience of exploring boundaries and thinking what lies beyond them.

I think I always liked exploring “edges.” In my childhood I loved going on walk-a-thons, and since we all know that my athletic prowess is limited, it wasn’t really for the exercise. In a 10-mile, or 30-mile walk-a-thon, you got to explore the edges of communities and since I couldn’t drive yet (in the pre-16 year old days) the walking let me go where I couldn’t otherwise.

I have thought about edges this week since last Friday our History Department had a potluck dinner and discussed Lois Lowry’s provocative novel, The Giver. In the book young Jonas, our protagonist, is beginning to look more deeply into the life that has been very superficial, beginning to see that his own past goes back farther than he had ever known and has greater implications than he had ever suspected. Lowry writes: “…now he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently. He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and carried in its slow-moving water; and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.”

In those prepubescent days before I had the all-mighty driver’s license, I rode my bike all over Cincinnati, riding through unfamiliar neighborhoods just to see what was there and who lived there. Every time I read The Giver (I think this was my 8th read) I find wonderful parallels in my life to Jonas and his excitement at discovering the edges of his world.

This week, right now, I am on the edge of Spring Break. In fact, in just under an hour I will take my suitcase and jump in friend Tiffany’s car and head off to the airport in Jordan, ready to zoom across waters and lands to my wonderfully familiar Elsewhere in the United States. But on the edge of this break, a break for which I am grateful, I look at the edges, a little frayed perhaps, of my journey here in Jordan.

It is a little like Jonas looking into the river and realizing that it carries with it everything that has come from an Elsewhere. A spring, perhaps, at the beginning, bubbling up from the earth; then a trickle from a glacier; a mountain stream entering farther along; and each tributary bringing with it the collected bits and pieces from the past, from the distant, from the countless Elsewheres: all of it moving, mingled, in the current. For me, the tributaries are memories, the playthings of historians.

Back to those bicycling days: at eleven years old I am not a particularly adventurous child, nor am I a rebellious one. But I have always been curious. I have a bicycle. Again and again—countless times without my parents’ knowledge—I ride my bicycle out of the comforts of my safe Westwood environs. I ride down streets on which I have never ridden because I am curious and I enter, riding up and down the Cincinnati hills, an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even unsafe Elsewhere … though I never feel it to be.

I love the feel of it, the vigor and the audacity of going somewhere new. But I never talk to anyone. I am not frightened of the people, just trying to make sense of their world.

It is the same curiosity that compels me to study in Salzburg, Austria in college. I remember choosing a study-abroad program wherein you lived with families rather than opting for a dormitory of American foreign exchange students. At first it is hard. I didn’t know much German. Dinner table conversations were limited. Going to church was strange since it was conducted in a language I did not speak fluently. But I remember attending this old Catholic church on the edge of town, when a woman stood in the balcony and sang words in English: “Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people.”

I hadn’t thought of that service in years, and then the other day, that thought, fleeting, but profoundly assuring, entered the current of the river. We are all each other’s people now, I found myself thinking. Can you feel that this memory, too, is a stream that is now entering the river?

As we discussed the novel, I asked the teachers how our journey at KA is like or unlike the journey on which Jonas shakily embarks in his world. We discuss how comfortable, familiar and safe we think we want our journeys to be. In fact, we turn to the beginning of chapter 16, when Jonas gets angry at his difficult adjustments. “Jonas didn’t want the memories, didn’t want the honor, didn’t want the wisdom, didn’t want the pain.” He wanted his easy childhood back. He wanted to shield himself from Elsewhere. But like Jonas, I jumped on that bicycle and went exploring again. My instinct had been a child’s attempt to see for myself what lay beyond a metaphorical wall. That thinking becomes another tributary into the river of thought that brings me to Jordan.

I think about that, and it becomes a torrent that enters the flow of a river turbulent by now, and clogged with memories and thoughts and ideas that begin to mesh and intertwine. The river begins to seek a place to spill over. When Jonas meets The Giver for the first time, and tries to comprehend what lies before him, he says, in confusion, “I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.” I loved that line, and as history teachers we discussed how that is where most of our students, naturally, find themselves. They think there is only them. They think there is only now.

In the book it is clever how the reader is seduced. Lois Lowry, the writer, made Jonas’ world so familiar, comfortable, and safe. She got rid of all the things we fear and dislike: all the violence and prejudice and poverty and injustice—and all the choices.

One of the most exciting things about coming to this Elsewhere in Jordan is a profound resonance that we can’t live in a walled world, in an “only us, only now” world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear and feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete. And besides, I had ridden my bike Elsewhere as a child, and liked it there.

One of the things that made this read meaningful for me was that I borrowed Hamzah’s copy of The Giver. If you are a faithful reader of the blog, you will remember this supremely kind, enthusiastic, bright young man who has been one of the best features of my experience in Jordan. I wanted to use his copy of the book in part to sneak a peek into what he had underlined when he read the book at the close of last year’s 9th grade history class.

What a delight to see what he wrote in the margins! Hamzah commented on plot points and how certain moments reminded him of shards of historical memory. He compared various moments to Soviet totalitarianism, Plato’s The Cave, and the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church. Hamzah also commented on the process of discovery through which Jonas changed in the book. One of the most delightful bits of marginalia came when The Giver transferred memories to Jonas and Lowry writes, “And this time I am not going to tell you the name of it because I want to test your receiving.” Hamzah wrote in the margin: “That’s what Mr. John wants us to do with critical thinking.”

The end of the book is vexing and ambiguous, like most journeys, obviously. Even if you have not read the book, it doesn’t give away much, but the ending can have many interpretations. Jonas is on a sled, and he starts down, to a final destination, “the place he always felt was waiting, the Elsewhere that held their future and their past.” Last Friday as we discussed the book, and I had the nagging desire to get on that plane for Spring Break and go back to my family and friends, I felt I had a new thought about that Elsewhere—it was a circle. When they came to “Elsewhere” it was their old community, but they had accepted the memories and all the feelings that go along with it.

Tonight—Spring Break! And then in a couple of weeks I will leave that comfort zone and return to this Middle Eastern Elsewhere, making that circle, taking that risk.

The Giver is an unusual book to teach in a history class. Ahem, it really isn’t about history. There are certainly safer books. More comfortable books. More familiar books. Jonas took a trip beyond the realm of sameness. The man named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Of course, every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you take a risk. Each time any of us opens a book, we jump on that bicycle and go to an Elsewhere. The act gives us choices. It gives us freedom—magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

“The Play’s the Thing”

It is Hamlet, that muffy-headed Danish prince, who speaks this line that every theater-lover has stolen at one point or another to express his or her devotion to the stage. In Shakespeare’s play, as I learned in Mr. Justice’s class my senior year of high school studying Hamlet for the first time, Hamlet does not actually use this line to extol the virtues of “the wicked stage.” In fact, Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing in which I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” hoping to use the ruse of a dramatic dastardly act to uncover whether or not the king indeed has a black heart.

It has been thirty months since I directed a play, and it has certainly been the thing that I have missed the most from my previous academic life. In fact, thirty months is a longer period of time than any in my entire adult life not directing a play! When last I directed in the autumn of 2006 the notion of coming to Jordan had just presented itself, and even then, the evening of theater had a valedictory feel to it. That weekend in November I put together three disparate dramatic works, and entitled the evening, Defying Wilder. I took a one-act play by Thornton Wilder, a 1996 play by Jane Anderson entitled, Defying Gravity, and then ended the evening with Act III of Thornton Wilder’s chestnut, Our Town. It just felt like the right combination of dramatic challenges and celebration of human life.

I had seen Defying Gravity a decade before in a small, off-Broadway theater and immediately was smitten with this piece. I filed it away in my brain—it would be perfect at the perfect time. The play dealt with the 1986 national crisis of the space shuttle Challenger. I remembered back in 1985 and 1986 the interest and growing affection over the selection of one Christa McAuliffe, an elementary school teacher, for that mission. Still youngish, brave, strong, and pretty, she was an American icon and a media darling—the first civilian and one of but a few women to journey into space. “I watched the space age being born with the Apollo landing,” she said on her application, chosen from among 11,000 others. “I want to participate.”

She was both ordinary and extraordinary; she was amazed but not distracted by her celebrity, and in her gratitude for this opportunity she reached through the television cameras to take each of us along with her, as far as we wanted to go. On the morning of January 28, 1986, we were surprised. As a nation. And we were devastated. For my generation, the Challenger space shuttle disaster is one of our most defining moments as young Americans—much like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is for my parent’s generation.

Seventy-three seconds into that perfect take-off, billions of people saw something no one wanted to see: a bright flash of yellow followed by billowing clouds, pure white fingers of vapor snaking back down to earth rather than up toward the stratosphere.

Jane Anderson’s play Defying Gravity, is about much more than the tragic shuttle disaster that occurred in 1986. It is about the human ability to dream and to overcome tragedies of all kinds. One must continue to reach for dreams although they fail. This play is highly appropriate at this time in the life of America because we are still dealing with another of those nation-galvanizing tragedies. Defying Gravity urges us to keep dreaming and to keep reaching.

Jane Anderson inserts the 60-years dead French artist Claude Monet into her free-structured play. Monet symbolizes the continuity of time regardless of life’s tragedies. He is a comforting presence and makes things easier for the characters in the midst of these events. Moreover, Monet's connection to this adventure is his vision of a world without horizons. The motif of the medieval Cathedral is also a constant, a metaphor linking the past with the future as the Teacher lectures to her class about man's eternal desire to defy gravity. From the 13th-century buildings that seemed to reach heaven to the latest NASA engineering—the Heavens are viewed as a vast house of worship and the people who blast off into them as pilgrims in search of a new religious order among the stars.

It seemed to me as I watched that play during my first few months at Hackley way back in 1996 that playwright Jane Anderson had channeled Thornton Wilder as she created Defying Gravity, and so I decided in that fall of 2006 to juxtapose Anderson’s work with two works of Wilder from the 1930s. Each work is, to me, a montage of hope and faith, and the three works together formed an expression of our capacity to recover from catastrophe and move hopefully forward again.

In Pullman Car Hiawatha, a 28 character one-act set in a Pullman Railroad Car traveling from New York to Chicago, Wilder uses the microcosm of a train car to explore the pulses of life as they collide physically, metaphysically and cosmically. Beginning with a view of passengers in an overnight sleeper car, Wilder’s vision expands to a macrocosm of American towns through which the train passes and eventually encompasses the entire universe. This work of a young playwright captures both the triumphant cacophony of human life and the delicate lessons of human experience. The Porter is shy, the Stout Amiable Woman is stout and amiable, the Hours collide with the Planets, a woman dies and Archangels appear, as messengers from heaven, calm and transcendent.

Wilder’s inspiring message rings clear: the world may be too large to fathom, but the miracle of love guides our way through the night. In this play we also see the creative roots for Wilder’s better-known Our Town, so the chance to experience this theatrical building block is a rare opportunity.

Thornton Wilder worked to re-imagine and re-define theater—indeed he made that his mission. That nobody blinks at a thousand things done on Broadway stages today that the pre-Wilder theater would have called avant-garde, is a testament to Wilder's success. In fact his innovations have become so accepted, so much a part of what people think of as ”theater” to day that current worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned.

While death is in fact a central theme in all three plays, it does not dominate the elaborate fabric of life that extends from leaky hot-water bottles and dropped suspenders up to, literally, the music of the spheres. Rather, it is the fabric of life, seen in cross-section in these three plays, that is important; but most important is the message that love renders life so much more than meaningless noise.

So, thirty months later, I am finally directing a play again! It is a play familiar to me, one that I also discovered in 1996, the last play I did with Charlotte Latin students, and a play I directed twice at Hackley. So I am back in familiar territory, happily revisiting meaty dramatic scenes, remembering delightful actors of yore who have inhabited these same characters, people in my own hall of fame like Megan and Liz and Mandy and Will from Charlotte Latin, and David and Nicky and Giselle and Jennie and Stefan and Katharine and Alyssa and Alex and Harrison from Hackley.

The play is Our Country’s Good, a play by a playwright otherwise unknown to me, but with a cool, cool name: Timberlake Wertenbaker. The narrative is about a group of hardened, dirty, brutish criminals. These convicts fall victim to a system in which the British government feels it is for the “country’s good” to get rid of them and expel them to far-off Australia. But the play is really about overcoming, or transcending, difficult circumstances. It also happens to be a true historical story. The play focuses on British 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark and the shipful of convicts he accompanies to the new British penal colony in Australia in 1788. Clark actually believes that one way the convicts might behave better is if they had the chance to put on a play! Seriously! Clark meets with opposition from his naval officers—they simply think the convicts are born bad and should be whipped more often. Clark, however, gets the go-ahead, and works with these convicts on a play. Clark comes to have an entirely new understanding of the concepts of power and powerlessness from his work with the convicts. Finally, one of the great things about Our Country’s Good is that it is also about the value and power of theater itself.

So I cast the play about a month ago, and rehearsals have been spotty due to the school’s predilection to cancel co-curriculars around here (they need a good German who understands the need for schedules and planning, and anyway…) but it is just wonderful to be directing again. I will speak of this again in future entries, I am sure.

But recently I faced an interesting headache—one afternoon several of my cast faced a disciplinary hearing. Evidently, some of the actors I had cast as convicts had been a little bad outside of school. Indeed, one of the scenes of the play actually read like the transcript almost of our disciplinary committee hearing. One of the actors had written a statement that the impulse to shoplift actually helped the actor understand the character in the play. Oh my! The actor hoped the KA Disciplinary Committee would redeem him or her much as the character earned redemption in Our Country’s Good. I repeat: oh my! As it turned out, none of the actors had to lose his/her part in the play (well, yes and no—another young man in another incident did have to withdraw from the school, so I did lose one actor in the spring fever of bad behavior) as a disciplinary consequence.

In fact one of the actors confided something very interesting to me in the wake that this particular student might be asked to withdraw from the school. The student said to me, “I was asked why I want to stay in the school, what I found meaningful, or was there nothing here that mattered to me.” The actor looked at me and said, “Mr. John, I realized there is one really important thing to me here—the play. Our play really matters.”

Billy Shakespeare is so often right—it really can be, the thing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Musing On Mosaics

I can jump in a car—well, you know, if there is one available—anytime I want and drive 15 minutes down the King’s Highway and go see some mosaics from the 5th and 6th centuries in the easy-going town of Madaba. Indeed, Madaba is lousy with fine Byzantine mosaics preserved in churches and an archaeological park!

As an art form, mosaics had a rather simple and utilitarian beginning, seemingly invented primarily to provide inexpensive and durable flooring. Originally, small beach pebbles were set, unaltered from their natural form and color, into a thick coat of cement. Imagine how exciting it must have been to start playing with the stones, arranging them in artful and decorative designs and geometric patterns. As with every new technology, it seems, thoughtful people kept advancing the technology, and during the Roman empire artisans used the stones to try and approximate the volume of paintings. These artists used tesserae (time for a Latin lesson=it means “cubes”) or cut and polished stones that you carefully place in its ordered position in the mosaic line-up. In Early Christian mosaics, the preferred tesserae were made of glass, which reflects the light, and must have sparkled in the most glorious ways.

Just as a reminder for anyone not up-to-date on early church history: just after Emperor Constantine allowed the practice of Christianity in 313, Christianity suddenly became a public, and not long after, the official religion of Rome. There was a building boom for churches, and wholesale decoration programs for the churches became necessary. To advertise the new faith in all its diverse aspects—its dogma, scriptural narrative, and symbolism—and to instruct and edify believers, acres of floors and walls in hundreds of new churches had to be filled. The mosaics caught the light flooding through the windows in vibrant reflection, producing sharp contrasts and concentrations of color.

An impressive 6th century mosaic map of the Middle East takes top billing in the package tours that come through Madaba, but there are, as I said, dozens of beautiful mosaics around Madaba. Remember, this area where I live was once in the Roman Empire. Some of the mosaics are from grand homes, when a retro taste in classical motifs was popular. In the churches there are representations of the lamb and the fish, venerable Christian symbols. But many of the mosaics in this area are of pastoral scenes—scenes which no doubt reflected the daily life of the people around this ancient town. Some of the mosaics portray in detail a whole encyclopedia of flora and fauna, drawn from local experience, some probably from travelers’ tales, and also from the realms of the supernatural.

My favorite mosaics in the area are up on Mt. Nebo, that spot from where Moses looked over the Promised Land. The mosaics are found in a church built there at the end of the 6th century and are stunning—a dramatic one of a shepherd fighting a lion, and a peaceful one in which a shepherd sits under a tree watching his flock. Another one has a dark-skinned guy, kinda Persian like, with an ostrich on a leash, and another fantastic, creatively imagined giraffe-like creature. Oh, and maybe the best, a spectacular mosaic featuring peacocks and doves. It is this site that brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims to Jordan. Having led the Israelites for forty years through the wilderness, Moses finally saw, from this dizzy vantage point, the Promised Land. He saw things so clearly from that remote, awe-inspiring point.

I am thinking about these mosaics this week—in part because I have signed up for a class in May to learn how to make mosaics, and in part because the process of the mosaic-making intrigues me, the painstaking labor of taking the little pieces, the unpolished or polished tesserae, and placing them next to other pieces. Along the way these seemingly unrelated little pieces create a picture we can relish.

And I am thinking of mosaics this week after last weekend’s bout with homesickness. Maybe it only makes sense to me! But thank you to the friends who emailed or put comments on the blog this week—of course, there are those ups and downs, and I appreciate the love transmitted over the cyber-waves.

One of the things I learned from my family is that when you are feeling low, just look around and put things in perspective, take a gander at other peoples’ tesserae. All these little pieces comprising an image. Of course, everybody has something that threatens a “good day,” and all these little pieces make for interesting arrangements and patterns in our own life mosaics.

This week I learned that one of my good friends has been dealt a blow of rejection from a number of medical schools to which she hoped she would matriculate later this year. And another devoted friend has lost her beloved mother in the last couple of weeks. And this morning I sat with a friend distraught over the loss of a potential love relationship—she learned that a man she hoped would provide companionship couldn’t deal with her limp left from a childhood bout with polio.

Each of us could go on and on with the difficult details of our lives, our loved ones’ lives, and how each piece of these unpolished moments in our lives are often difficult, and painstaking, to place in the cement of our lives.

Those mosaics in Madaba are important to consider. While we see them in their dazzling completion, and we marvel at how they loom with an impressive solidity, each tessera, each little cube represents the mood, the moment, the frustration, the hope, with which we greet each day. Staring at these mosaics, you notice that they cast shadows, but it is the shadows which allow for the appearance of three-dimensionality. And when we let them reflect the light, we see a spiritual quality we might have overlooked, or not appreciated.

I sat down to write this entry a few hours ago—on this beautiful April afternoon at the end of the school week when Tiffany called and said, “Hey, I am going to the grocery in Amman. I know you couldn’t resist a grocery-store run! And let’s get some KFC on the way back.” Each week a few more pieces go in that mosaic.