Thursday, September 24, 2009

Postcard from Brigadoon

One week ago right about now I landed at the airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, a little weary after 25 hours of traveling, but very excited for the Denison Singers reunion weekend. I already knew it was going to be magnificent—emails had been circumnavigating the globe for weeks and it was clear the “Singers of the ‘80s” were the dominant era in the gathering of 42 years of alumni of the Denison Singers.

However, there were many reasons not to attend the reunion: it cost too much money for a few days, a marriage was unraveling, a daughter had hurt herself the day before, a bank deal needed to be finalized, an infant should not be abandoned, doctoral work cannot just be suspended, the school year had just started, a business relationship was souring, a family had just moved into their new home and boxes weren’t even unpacked, it was silly to travel clear across the country, what about the high school reunion that needed to be forfeited for this concert weekend?

Those were the real-world things going on with my cohorts as we checked in and sighed about how it made little sense to some people for us to indulge in a reunion. We had just met in Winston-Salem in April, 2008!

One of our friends noted that with the arrival of our generation on Facebook, that social networking site helped facilitate catching up anyway. There had to be something more than just catching up. And there is/was—the music.

Last week as we landed and checked into our Hawthorne hotel we knew that within 72 hours we would deliver a concert and then scatter to the winds. We had come together for the music, for the chance to create a balanced sound with some people with whom we had never sung, work hard for up to 6 hours a day, and see what came of it.

As I said in the last blog entry, there is a core group of the faithful, the hardcore, the ones who have shown up in Granville or Winston-Salem for many of the 11 previous reunions. We wanted to see what our breath support was like, our pitch, our sight-reading abilities, our capacity to process and produce in under 72 hours.

Fast forward to the concert on Sunday afternoon. Let me describe where I stood during the concert at Augsburg Lutheran church. To my right was Rick, the tenor with whom I have sung for the longest in my life, now 27 years strong, and a remarkable tenor voice. He had spent considerable time organizing the logistics of this reunion and produced a spreadsheet with absolutely every answer to our many questions. But he wasn’t just a cruise director—his graciousness and kindness set the tone for the weekend. To my left is my newest lifelong friend from the Denison Singers, Jeff. Since 2003 when I met Jeff, a fresh-faced alum 16 years my junior, we discovered how much we both loved this group together. We have spent reunions in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2009 marveling at our parallel Denison experiences. After each reunion we write melancholic emails wishing it didn’t have to end. Behind me is Ken, the rock of our tenor section, and a strikingly talented sight-reader. Each time I meet Ken again I marvel at his balance as a father, businessman, musician, church leader and friend. In front of me is Sharon, she of the original friends I inducted into my personal Travel Hall of Fame and another lifelong friend. Sharon and I have a mission not to let more than a year pass without a visit to each other. I keep thinking all of these are lifelong friends.

And that is just in the immediate vicinity! All around me are these friends, business people, teachers, scientists, social workers, executives, administrators, musicians, professors who have come together to tackle the music of Purcell, Haydn, Brahms, Britten, and a few contemporary composers. We know this is special. It’s not like the line in Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” where she moans, “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got/till it’s gone.”

Todd has traveled from Arizona. He and Tracy went to school together from pre-school through Denison, and they opted out of their high school reunion to partake in our concert stylings. Heidi completed the triumvirate that had been the seniors when I was a freshman in college. All three of them invested themselves in the group and made sure my freshman class understood the nature of this organization. How wonderful to see them with the complete senior group of my year. When I was a senior I consciously tried to model myself after their leadership my freshman year.

There’s Marnie, the effervescent elfin music teacher, and Lizbeth, the dynamic soprano whose laugh always excites. There’s Jeff, our talented friend who writes parodies of Broadway show tunes to honor and gently mock WO. Sarah returned after a 14-year hiatus from the reunions, singing in a compelling voice that has only ripened with age and experience. There’s Stephanie who just oozes warmth and charisma, and Scott, the young man who stole Marnie’s heart way back in the mid-1980s.

Each of these friends is so interesting—I hesitate to try and define or qualify how and why, but talking with them about their work, their families, their passions, makes me feel all the more blessed to know them. Jeff, that tenor “baby” from WO’s last year railed that we “Singers of the 80s” traveled in packs all weekend. Well, it is true, we met for breakfast, and didn’t part all day until we decided after midnight that we better rest our voices a little.

Then we would meet at 8:00 for breakfast and begin all over again, enjoying bawdy jokes and private jokes during rehearsal, trying to crack the complex harmonies and the Latin and German all while the clock ticked away at our under-72 hours challenge of creating our concert.

In the Broadway musical, Big, based on the Tom Hanks film, there is a tender moment when the mother peers into the baby’s cradle and sings her wish that time could just stop. She sings,

You want to say, “Stop, time”
Don't move on…

…you say, ”Stop, time”
Stay just this way
But the future comes and he can't stay

Nobody warns you of this parent's paradox
You want your kid to change and grow
But when he does, another child you've just begun to know
Leaves forever
Birthdays fly - 7, 8, 9, 10
Every kid he becomes you clutch and say “Stop, time”
Hold this one fast
But it's not supposed to last…”


Sunday afternoon comes. We know the tick-tock is winding down. We sang three anthems and all the hymns and responses in church that morning. The time had come to see if the weekend delivered a credible concert. The Britten is pretty easy, but fun and bombastic. The Renaissance motet tested our balance and breath support. The Purcell has a haunting quality and a resonance that is surprising. The Brahms sounded like an aching wish that beauty would last. The world premiere pieces had a verve and excitement we didn’t anticpate. Indeed—one of the themes in these reunions is guessing after the first rehearsal which piece we are most wrong about. From a superficial reading we think we are going to hate a piece or two—mostly because they are hard—and we love to see which pieces to which we grow most attached in our marathon rehearsals. We finally come to the finale with Franck and Haydn, nifty choral warhorses and opportunities to make music with the great organ in the church.

The concert ends and as we move off from in front of the church the exodus begins. People must get to the airport. Brigadoon is vaporizing as time flies.

In the next day emails and texts and calls abound as we wish each other well and look forward to the next gathering in June, 2011.

But today, there are fewer greetings. The real world reclaims us as we cull the rivulets of the weekend’s work.

On Monday night, finally arriving in Cincinnati for this week’s rest before going back to Jordan, I had the words of Robert Browning comforting me as I recited, “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to come.”

In the past quarter century as this unusual group gathers again and again to create a concert out of 72 hours time, we have heeded that call. I noticed that in the men’s section, only two of us now are without gray hair—the babies at age 29. We meet every couple of years, and each time it feels it is the best time.

I will be winging my way back to Jordan tomorrow, quite satisfied with how I spent my Eid break, enjoying the connections and counting down to the 21 months from right now when we will watch our Brigadoon come to life once again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stop, Time

I got my musical score in the mail on August 13, the day before I headed back to Jordan for the beginning of this school year. On the cover of the score were the words in a big, bold font: “The Denison Singers Invade Winston-Salem, September 17-20, 2009.” I could hardly wait for that weekend to arrive—a specially timed reunion to coincide with the end of Ramadan, and the beginning of the Eid celebrations—specially timed so that I could be able to join in the festivities and journey back from the Middle East to help in the invasion of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

This was hardly the first reunion of the Denison Singers—indeed, by my count, this might be the 11th such reunion in the last 25 years, and I have been to all of them save one (in 2001 I elected to go on a trip to China, and I hated that the trip coincided with one of these reunions). It is always difficult to describe the emotions and joy at participating in these reunions, but easy to describe what we do. We visit, we laugh, and we sing.

William Osborne arrived at Denison University in Granville in 1961 and promptly started a madrigal-style singing group. Professor Osborne (once you are past the first week of college you never, ever call him that again) signed his memos “WO” for his initials, and his name is always pronounced thusly, WO. WO remained at Denison until he retired to Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 2003. In 1984, while I was a student at Denison and a member of the Denison Singers, he decided to have a reunion of anyone who had been in the group since 1961 and the participants would put on a concert. They ended up enjoying the visit, the laughter, and the singing. So, since then we have met at least 11 times in 25 years; needless to say, we love doing these reunions.

At first it did seem strange to come back for a reunion (I “came back” at the end of sophomore and senior years—I had hardly unpacked my dorm room when I came by that reunion) and spend time with people who were my mother’s age and all those 70s Singers who acted crazily during the weekend. But over the years, as life’s turns become more hairpin, and you realize the speed with which life moves, it has become among the most important things I can do.

The template has been set for these many years. We try and convene on a Thursday, start rehearsing the music WO has chosen (darn it, but he continues to challenge us with complex music that is often in Latin or German, tricky harmonies, and hardly a “swing choir ease”) and continue alternating between laughter and music-making until the concert on Sunday afternoon. Then poof—everyone scatters. One of the most striking things that happen every time is the balance of the voice parts. No one really knows if one can attend the next reunion—things come up, jobs take you farther away, family crises squash the will to come, all of the usual real-life moments that can stand between you and a utopian weekend. So it is always random who can attend these gatherings. But as it happens, the voice parts of soprano, alto, tenor, bass are almost exactly equal. It is just part of the kismet that makes these gatherings so special. This year it was numerically a perfect balance again.

In 2008 the Denison Singers had been invited back (after 2004) to participate in an arts festival in Winston-Salem. That was during my first year in Jordan, and wouldn’t you know, kismet again smiled on me and deemed that invitation at the beginning of my spring break, so that I could actually attend all the way from Jordan. It was exciting all over again to spend time with my reunion buddies. But as we gathered in WO’s apartment for what he calls an “afterglow reception” several of us decided we did not want to wait to convene until June, 2011, for a reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the group. We wanted to get together once before, not wanting three years to pass again to enjoy this unusual afterglow. I piped up that I thought a perfect time to gather would be September, 2009, just as Ramadan ended and I would have a week’s vacation while my Muslim friends celebrated the Eid holiday.

Reunions are tricky things—they can be tacky, they can lack meaning, they can make you feel old, empty, banal, fat, rudder-less, or worse, trying to relive some former glory days. These Denison Singers reunions avoid all of those pitfalls. Sure, in my head I do spend some time fighting ancient wrongs, humming old hit songs in my head. But these reunions do an amazing thing—it connects me to my many selves, transcending time and place and gives me a lift and an arc to really all I have been and hope to be.

I laugh with people who remember me as an 18 year old—we have the scrapbooks to remind us of the hideous clothes and glasses we thought looked good in the mid-1980s. Seriously, someone should have stopped us from the John Hughes movies-like haircuts and dull looks. We reminisce about the tours we took with Singers (I still feel sorry for the Singers who came the year after my class—will we ever stop talking about the European tour of 1983?????). But then it is not a wallowing in the past. We update each other on our lives now—a brilliant, in-person Facebook status update that sighs over struggles and rejoices in promotions, children’s achievements, and trappings that we credit as success. We are an interesting lot—some teachers, some business people, some scientists, living all over (this reunion had people from 18 states and 2 foreign countries). As we move out of our Singer eras, don’t forget this is a reunion beyond just your own era at Denison—there were people there in the late 60s, pushing 70, and the youngest are 29—we take in a vast scope of WO’s 42 years of conducting this group.

But as I catch up with people, we always talk about the next one, the next time we have this opportunity to visit, laugh, and sing. There was lots of talk about 2011, and what that reunion back at Denison will be like. You can’t help but keep an eye on your own future. That will be the end of four years in Jordan for me at that point—will I be packing up and marking a return to the United States at that point? What goals do I have before the next time I see these wonderful people? Who do I want to be when we re-convene? In the next 21 months when next we make music together, who do I see myself becoming? This is the thing about these reunions, it brings together a rosy, now-set-in-amber 1980s of college time, a current assessment of your own personal present, and a chance to look invitingly to a future of growth and transformation.

I often joke that these Denison Singers reunions are like the village in the Lerner/Loewe musical, Brigadoon. This enchanting village magically comes to life once in a great while, and when that moment passes, and the day ends, the village is no more. But while the village was there—you couldn’t imagine a more exciting place! Our reunions are like that Brigadoon—few of us spend much time in contact during the many months in between reunions—real life calls on us and weighs on us. But when the music starts, WO’s lazy circles in the sky, those motets, or the Brahms, or the Schuetz, or the Copland or the Bach or the Haydn—we leave the world for a few days and visit, laugh, and sing.

We rehearse about 10-12 hours for the concert over the course of several days. There are always compositions by some of the talented in-house composers who have been in the group (this year we repeated one entitled, “I Celebrate Myself and Sing Myself”); there is always at least one big piece with the organ, and pieces designed to pique our interest and remind us that as singers there is always work to be done. WO is eccentric, to say the least, and one of the thrills of the reunions is writing down some of the great phrases he utters during rehearsals, comments either in derision or joy. He never says things as blandly as “Keep the tempo up”—no, I remember a quotation from 1984 when he bid us to sing the Mozart movement, “as if Charlton Heston were charging up the main drag!” In one piece this time he reminded us, “Ja, be a bit more legato here and less narcissistic,” and shouted, “Ah, we found a vowel in that phrase!” I think my favorite comment this time was during a new piece written for us at this reunion, and WO stated, “This is a chance for you to wag your musical behinds here.”

I could go on and on about the friends who come to this reunion—there are always people from the 1960s here and always the young ones, we call them “the babies,” and always will—from his last group in 2003. My era, the Singers of the 80s as we proudly exclaim, comprised 40% of this reunion group. We are a loud, proud group! Since the group only had 16 members at a time, we are not a huge, huge group. But let the record show that all the seniors from my freshman year were in attendance, and all the seniors from my senior year were there. We toasted our dear friend Tracy on her birthday on Saturday (one of the babies remarked that it was the birthday that never ended since we ushered it in at midnight, and bid the day adieu the following midnight…oh, and when we sang to her in rich harmony, it made the entire trip worthwhile right then and there—I wanted to plead, stop, time) and participated in our parody of show tunes skewering WO in our traditional “Talent Cavalcade,” as WO calls it.

During one of the parties at WO’s apartment I saw on his wall a cross-stitch of some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Art” and they touched me so: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”

Maybe that is the greatest legacy of this group. How do we find the beautiful? WO invited us to travel the world (when we went to Salzburg on that legendary 1983 tour I knew I had to go back there) and through music, and difficult, challenging music at that, we could plumb the depths to perhaps find the beautiful. As I arrived at the Greensboro airport last Thursday, 25 hours after I left my apartment in Jordan, I knew I would find the beautiful. I knew I would see it in the faces of these dear friends. I knew I would be reminded of the beautiful from my youth, celebrate the beautiful in my present circumstances and look toward the beautiful I will still encounter.

How grateful I am to these Singers—these men and women, these former school boys and school girls who all happened to meet twice a week across 42 years in college times and plunk out some notes.

We wagged our musical behinds a little, and found the beautiful.

You know, I am not through with my postcard from Winston-Salem. I think I must continue this tomorrow and introduce you to some of these Singers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ahhhhh…familiarity!

In just a few days the official watchers of the seasons will declare that the autumnal equinox has arrived. But for anyone who works in a school schedule, autumn pretty much arrives when those metaphorical school bells ring anew and one finds oneself feeling the familiar contours of the rhythms of the school life yet again. Ever since I went to Happy Hours Nursery School (dare I say that it was in the fading days of the Johnson administration???? Egads! Now I feel a little more grey at the temples! By the way, since I am already in the middle of a digression, I might as well veer a little more off-course…this summer I went to see a friend at the church where Happy Hours Nursery School existed for nearly 50 years and the pastor of the church took me around and I remembered much from those days when I had Miss Helen back in those fading days of the Johnson administration—and no, not the Andrew Johnson administration…back on track) I have been in school mode every single autumn, whether in a school for many years like Westwood Elementary or Hackley, or being new, at say Gamble Junior High, or like here in Jordan in 2007. Such a familiarity about the school process and autumn…

There has been a wonderful familiarity in the last couple weeks about the return of our students and even though our school continues to grow at an unheard of rate (we now have 400 students! Two years ago at this time we had 108—okay, enough digressing) as I have been showing around some of the new faculty to places in Madaba and Amman, it has been comfortably familiar.

A week ago I took a couple new teachers into nearby Madaba to show them around some of the historical sites and just to practice navigating this strange, is-it-Berlin-after-the-war?, city. We go into St. George’s Orthodox Church (home of the famed mosaic map of the world from the 7th century) and we bump into the head priest, and he wants to visit with us. Well, it turns out that Father Nick has family in Cincinnati, and he and I launch into his familiarity with my hometown. It turns out that Father Nick has recently returned from many years in Cincinnati—he still has dozens of relatives there—and his ownership of a chili parlor in Cincinnati. No way! My family patronizes chili parlors! It turns out his family’s franchise is about 5 miles away from the center of our gravity on the west side, but still, what a fun, familiar man with whom to swap stories of Cincinnati. I may have to go those extra five miles to patronize his family’s Gold Star Chili!

Then on Saturday I took Elizabeth (a new teacher, but also a dear former student actor of mine from Hackley in my maiden voyage of 96-97) into Madaba to meet Ziad, the Kris Kringle-like owner of “Carpet City”—purveyor of carpets extraordinaire, raconteur, and wheeler-dealer who has sold KA faculty dozens of carpets. We go into to say hello—I hadn’t stopped in for quite awhile, and before you know it, mint tea is served, and Elizabeth has become an owner of a splendid carpet from Iran. I remember my first visit to this emporium in January, 2008, and how exciting it was to work with this nice man and make a purchase. What a familiar tale of, “I only came in to look, but I couldn’t help myself!”

As we left Ziad, we looked across the street into some of the shops selling mosaics, watching the skilled craftsmen take the tiny tesserae and create patterns and pictures, especially lovely ones of the famed Jericho olive tree of peace and harmony. Madaba isn’t new to me anymore, and it has begun to feel cozier and cuter—well, okay, until one has to drive around this place. It may be the most stressful place on earth I have ever driven a car! Even that stress is familiar as I navigate around the city from the barber shop to Madaba Best grocery store and the other shops and storefronts.

Then Sunday I decided Elizabeth needed to visit “the candy store.” Oh, this is a store—I hope my lawyer friends aren’t paying attention—I could begin a digression about The Golden Girls and they might just skim for awhile and gloss over the fact that I patronize a bootleg DVD store. This store is chock full—by the way, it is a real store, and not just some bootlegger’s van on the side of the road—of DVDs of movies and TV shows. Rehema and I used to go and neither of us exhibited much restraint as we paid our $2 per disk…I still haven’t even watched all I have bought there in the last 2 years; some of the fun is just the excitement of buying it for so cheap!

So anyway, I haven’t been for many months, but I remember the directions perfectly to the store in the corner of the ritzy section of Amman. And there I introduce Elizabeth to the familiar and wonderful DVD “candy store.” Eventually the sales guy remembers me and helps me load up. I get last season’s episodes of 24 and a couple of seasons of Monk and Nip/Tuck, and the first few episodes of contemporary Mad Men. How fun and familiar to look through the scads of DVDs and decide what I want to watch in some late-night hours of illicit TV pleasure. (By the way, Elizabeth does our friend Anne proud—she really loads up at the store!)

And there are other familiar moments to enjoy…I am back teaching AP Art History for the first time since 2006-07 at Hackley, and the familiar joys of tracing the world’s history through the paintings, sculptures, and architecture rush back to me. I have on my walls posters from those glory years at Hackley, and it is exciting to introduce my great students in Jordan to the visual images through time. Today was the first major test of the school year, and there was that familiar, earnest quiet and hum as the students plowed through all the questions and prompts in the test on Pre-Historic, Ancient Near Eastern, and Egyptian art. Not that I compare all that much, but these students have the same zest and engagement as those thrilling students at Hackley. And don’t forget—they are writing their essays in a second language. The familiarity of that intense test quiet was as welcome as…well, as the changing leaves will be soon to those of you in North America.

Some of the familiarity is not that welcome, however. In the last 24 hours we have had what occasionally is all-too familiar here: pulled fire alarms. Last night at 1:00 AM and then again at 3:00 AM someone decided to pull the fire alarm, causing all 90-some of us in the dormitory to rush into the night air (“Oh, look Orion looks spectacular now,” I heard someone say.) shivering (yes, at 3:00 AM even I shiver in Jordan standing there in gym shorts and t-shirt and slippers). I don’t remember the number, but pulling the fire alarm probably has occurred about 10 times per year in these first two years. Today, during one of my Art History tests, the alarm was pulled again. Gag, the familiarity of that stupid act probably resulting from a dare.

By the way, as the alarm sounded today, a little more than halfway through one section’s test, my students didn’t want to leave their desks! They were enjoying the test, and thought we should just stay inside and finish their task. You never know if it is a real fire, and I did that once at Hackley, and got justifiably chastised for putting a quiz above the notion of safety. I do remember another time at Hackley when a fire alarm went off during a quiz, and we just simply took the quiz onto the quad, finishing it with the swirling masses around us. I loved that the students did not look delighted to abandon their first major test!

Along with these familiar strains sounding around me, I have been enjoying some surprises in my students, the kind of things that mesmerize you at their potential. The other day we were discussing the art of Pharaoh Akhenaten, an unusual Egyptian ruler who changed the conventions, the rule book, of Egyptian art. Akhenaten has himself depicted in a shocking, androgynous way. At first it just looks freaky, but I asked the class if there was anything particularly powerful in that choice of androgyny. Omar, a young man I taught for a few months in 9th grade, offered that it could be a very savvy move. “We have seen images of the power of women in art, and we have seen images of the power of men in art—but if you are both man and woman, that might double your power.” Very interesting speculation Omar! And there was Yazan, a student who had often said he feared being in my class because he didn’t know if he wanted to work hard. Well, he did elect to take the class, and on his first quiz he discussed where these votive figures from ancient Iraq were found. He said they were in “a cella, like a waiting room, where they stood there beseeching the gods.” He is correct, but I did not use the vocabulary word ‘cella,’ in class, and Yazan correctly used this word that means a sacred inner chamber, and he also revealed that he read the textbook. No way!

As I wrap myself in these wonderful little moments, many familiar moments of discovery and re-discovery, I look forward to one of my ultimate familiar and comforting events. In about 18 hours, as Ramadan comes to a close and Muslims celebrate their Eid holiday, I will be jumping on a plane bound for North Carolina in the US of A, for a weekend Denison Singers’ Reunion. I have gone to, I think it is 7, of these over the last 20-some years, and these reunions are magical and familiar and rejuvenating. Several dozen members of this singing group from college will be convening in Winston-Salem, practicing music for three days, putting on a concert, and reconnecting with dear friends all in the name of music and fellowship.

Like a wonderful, treasured autumnal sweater one discovers after the hot summer months have past, I will be wrapping my heart and soul around these people both here in Jordan and the United States, relishing the beauty, and certainly not a contempt, for the familiar.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

“It was just a stupid ten dollars.”

Minutes after I finished last Friday’s blog entry and jumped into the car for my foray down to the Dead Sea, I stopped at a gas station about 2 miles away just outside of Madaba. The gas gauge was lurching toward the big ‘E’ and I did have to make the 50-miunte trip down to the Lowest Point on Earth, so one should be full for the crazy trip down, down, down from Mount Nebo to the Dead Sea.

This was my first chance to fill up the gas tank since I got the car a few weeks ago, and there was something momentous about saying to the attendant, “Full, shukrun!” Julianne ran in to get some water, needed a little money, and I watched that tank choke down the gas. As it burbled over the top, the meter read between 24 and 25 JD. I knew the attendant would do his best to make it to that next dinar’s worth of gas. So it comes across the finish line of 25 Jordanian dinars. Usually I try and have exact change, but I just had big bills from the ATM. I handed the attendant a 50 JD bill and a 5 JD bill. (A 50 JD note is worth about $75.) He doesn’t have the change (a simple 20 and 10-spot!) and has to go back into the office for my change. Julianne comes back, glad she has change for me and I hold it in my hand waiting for the rest of my change.

The attendant comes back, smiles, and gives me a 20 JD bill and 5 JD bill as my change. I politely said, “I gave you 55, so I need 30 JD back, thank you very much.” He sheepishly reveals he doesn’t know much English, and I said a couple words in Arabic, obviously as knowledgeable in his language as he is in my mine. I point to the amount on the gas meter and said, “hamzeh, hamzeh” for 55, but he doesn’t quite know what I mean, so I grab a 5 JD out of his hand to make it 30.

Maybe I didn’t think that through! A couple other attendants gather ‘round as we try and explain to each other in our native languages why we think the other guy is cheating the other guy. One of his buddies grabs back the extra 5 that I snatched, and then one other grabs the change Julianne had given me for the water. The voices get a little louder in pitch, the gestures develop in a bit more of a baroque style, and now we are yelling at each other. No one there can speak adequate English, and none in our car can speak adequate Arabic to say that I had given him 55 JD for 25 JD of gas, so I deserved my 30 JD change—plus give me back the other money from the water transaction!

Since this is going nowhere, and we find ourselves yelling now, I accuse them of being cheaters, get in the car, slam the door, and leave swearing I will never come back to that gas station.

Okay, so they got 6 JD out of me that wasn’t fair. It was just a stupid ten dollars. But surprisingly the incident really stayed with me for awhile as we headed through Madaba and then down the windy road to the resorts at the Dead Sea. So much for relaxation! So much for peace and serenity!

Obviously I was bothered by the swindle. Lubna had warned me that attendants often do not give correct change—hence my usual tactic of offering the exact change. But I was bothered by a bigger fact—I still do not know enough Arabic to really handle crises, either real or minor like this one. I have taken up Arabic both autumns I have been here, and learned some fun words, and enough for cute expressions and a little showing off, but I am still not able to take care of a situation in the best way.

It kind of sat in my stomach all day as I was reminded that this experience still provides downs beside the ups. Now, I am not na├»ve enough to think that any place can provide me with a “down-free” existence, but you get to be this age and you think you can handle gas station transactions!

On Monday this week I met with a representative from our branch of the Arab Bank. I have had few dealings with them since I opened the account 2 years ago—and each encounter was frustrating since they do not seem to be big into the service side of this banking arrangement.

I met with the rep to ask about on-line access to my account and for an application for a bank credit card. He seemed flustered that he had to provide some help, and then smiled and said, “Oh, we cannot allow a credit card for a non-Jordanian.” I inquired as to why and he responded with that twittish answer, “That’s the policy.” I asked him to explain the policy, and he said that the bank couldn’t allow unlimited charging if you weren’t a native of Jordan. I said I would gladly allow them to put a limit on my charges. “Oh, we have a policy that we can’t do that.” I reminded him that I was stockpiling my salary in his bank, and why couldn’t he enforce a very strict limit on the charges, and they could debit my account. We kept in this rat’s maze of a conversation for awhile until I said, “I would tell your boss that if you cannot provide me with a limit and a simple request, I can move my money elsewhere.”

A good week for being steamed over kinda silly things…

The steaming continued… I started getting emails from a few friends about the speech President Obama planned to make to school children this week. It seemed incredulous that this was a controversial issue! Why wouldn’t any parent and school system welcome an opportunity to hear an elected leader speak to them! You could talk about it as a parent, in a class, trying to figure out the message, the points—I mean, hearing someone speak does not mean you are voting for someone! Anyway, one friend wrote, “Today, the President of the United States is addressing the students of our country. My Superintendent is NOT PERMITTING ANYONE in the district to allow students to watch this address. I downloaded a copy of his speech so I could see what could possibly be SO OFFENSIVE that people would not allow their children to listen to the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!!. Of course there is NOTHING anyone could question. How have we, as a country, gotten to this point?!!!!”

Another friend wrote that her district had sent a note home telling parents that the students would be watching the address and to contact the school board if they had concerns. This friend asked her elementary age daughter what the key points were in the speech and the young American responded, “1) stay in school because an education will help you achieve whatever you want to do in life and 2) set goals and work hard.” The friend said she told her daughter that some children were not permitted to watch the address so that kids would not be brainwashed, and the girl said, “that’s stupid.”

Now if you, dear reader, are getting steamed at the topic, well, sorry.

I saw Laura Bush on CNN supporting the idea of a president addressing school children and railing against partisan politics clouding the issue. Interesting! Another friend offered, “This whole thing infuriates me… it’s not like the President is going to go on the air and encourage children to smoke crack. Plus, he’s the President. Respect the office.”

Yet another friend inquired to his hometown school board as to what they decided to do, and the board wrote him that they allowed students to opt out with a parental consent form, and as my friend editorialized, “which I think is itself a little silly, because it lends credence to the idea that this is somehow controversial to be addressed by the President, any President, about working hard in school.”

So, lots of people have been steamed in the last week. One of the new teachers was fixated on the oddity that he was issued one board eraser, and then when it broke, he found there were no more for him to take. This elegant Jamaican man was steamed and said, “You mean there is just one eraser per teacher? There is no more budgeted than that???”

But what with board erasers, extra Visa cards, or a lousy $10 misunderstanding, it has saddened me about the reaction to a President addressing the children. We have no problem with children watching about Michael Jackson ad nauseum, or Michael Vick, or the Octo-Mom, et cetera, et cetera, but a chance to better understand the American government, and even partisan politics—we want to shield them from that?? Wow, that’s more than being steamed…that’s depressing.

So I decided to play a little game with myself—hmmmm…what is something I can enjoy a full head of steam about, but it’s really pointless, not like erasers in the classroom or a lighter wallet, or parents steadfastly keeping their children uninformed.

And I came up with a great thing that just gets me upset: squeeze mustard bottles.

I’ll tell ya what—someone had better make a mustard container that doesn’t squirt out yellow water before it gets to the actual mustard! I get all excited about a little Gulden’s spicy brown mustard and then it comes out all watery….ew…okay, it steams me so much I demand that the mustard be pre-blended to my specifications, AND it should also whiten my teeth!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

In the Blood

I landed in Jordan on August 15 and on Sunday morning, August 16, the work for school year 2009-10 started. And right now, in these moments of Friday, September 4, I am enjoying the first break in the action. I am not whining about it—working in a school like this, a boarding school still tweaking and honing is, I guess, much like parenthood, you just gotta get the job done. So I am just observing that after 19 straight days of work all day every day, today is a true weekend day.

What am I doing? In about an hour, I am headed down to the Dead Sea with my Hackley peeps in attendance in Jordan (there are four of us now!) and getting a massage. Oh yeah.

But when we came back in mid-August, there were about 5 days of new teacher orientation (you know from previous blogs how much I enjoy them already) and then Julianne wanted us to prepare student orientation, then returning faculty zoomed back into town, and before we knew it, student orientation was underway and so was the first week of classroom teaching. So, on Tuesday of this week when I thought, “Gee, I am a little tired,” it was more than just the first week.

Anyway, that is not the subject of the blog—I got sidetracked justifying my drive to the Dead Sea for a massage—note to self: there is never a need to justify that decision!

In the sweep of it all in the last week, I was reminded of something our headmaster Eric shared last June as he gave a “State of the School” address. If you remember, it was a challenging year, and by June, we were a little weary limping to the finish line. The pace can be staggering here. But as always, Eric casts a brighter light on things reminding us where we have been, and that we must continue to fight the good fight. He quoted a passage from Macbeth, that reads, “I am in blood, stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” And in tones much like General Eisenhower in the Second World War, Eric reminded us that we must stay “in the blood.”

It is an arresting passage. On the surface, of course, Macbeth is saying that he is so far into the situation that there is no turning back and he had to continue with what he was doing despite the consequences and immorality of it. Going back would be as difficult as going on with it.

I’m not sure, but that may have been the first time in my teaching career that a headmaster had summoned an image of somebody standing in a river of blood! The metaphor, of course, represents Macbeth’s crimes: and rather than stop committing crimes (presumably, for fear of damnation) Macbeth says that he might as well continue to commit them. One is as pointless or boring (“tedious”) as the other.

But what a provocative metaphor—I mean, here it is 10 weeks after he referenced it in a faculty meeting, and I am still rolling the idea around in my head. Eric went on to say that while there are still problems (logistical, emotional, pedagogical, cultural) in moving our school forward, we have come too far to turn back. He repeated the phrase a few times, “We must think that we are ‘in the blood,’ and we wouldn’t dare abandon the project or each other now.”

And he is right. We are too far in just to pack up the Persian carpets, digital camera scrapbooks and go back to wherever home is. I love his steadfastness and inspiration. So last week as we pressed forward into a third week of work without a legitimate break, the phrase came back again—we are too much ‘in the blood’ here, we have had some great successes (if you wonder, go back and read the blogs from the first semester in 2007 and compare them to our first AP scores this summer!) and we must continue the work.

By and large it was a glorious week. I have over-stuffed classes in AP Art History, but they are exceptionally well-behaved and engaged. We are about the business of surveying and experiencing the art that our world has produced. We spent two days thinking about themes in art (like power and authority, and abstraction, and the tree of life, connecting Heaven and Earth, masculine power and feminine power) and then we made a beeline back to the Pre-Historic times and we will spend the next 132 school days inching closer to the 21st century. These guys are punctual, ready, and even enduring the hotbox that is my room.

The dormitories are calm at night—we have new student proctors to help model good behavior and keep the peace, and it was a nice week.

There were a few bumps along the way. On Orientation Day, a family came about 8 hours later than the scheduled check-in and demanded to see the new Dean of Student Life. Julianne happened to be in a meeting with 400 students, and I figured the father would understand. Oh, no! He demanded—after all he drove hundreds of kilometers, and pays a king’s ransom (whoops, bad pun) to send his daughter here. I reminded him that the Dean had stood on the front lawn greeting people for six hours and he missed that chance. He stepped toward me, plump finger about to invade my personal space, and I heard myself say, “Back up, sir. You will not tell me what to do.” I guess I got a little New York up!

And I broke up a fight. And I discovered fourteen people had left their dirty trays lying around the dining hall after some meal.

Puny things really. Eric’s right—we are too much “in the blood” to let the mundane things bring us down. It may be trite, but sweating the small stuff is for suckers. It’s the good stuff, the real learning, that is happening that makes this place invigorating.

I had an email from dear friend Tracy the other day—it was for her also the first week of teaching in Ohio. She teaches music to little ones, and she wrote about how the day had been perfect. She had planned classes well, the students had enthusiastically helped execute the lesson well—she just glowed in the email. Teachers don’t share those things enough. We don’t let ourselves get excited about if an explanation of a cool phrase, like sacerdotal intermediary, works well in class. We get bogged down by administrative snafus and untucked shirts.

I clipped a page from an in-flight magazine three weeks ago on my way back to being ‘in the blood.’ It was a column by, of all people, Joan Rivers. She discussed how much she has loved her life’s work of mining comedy out of life. She concluded:

“Runners, skiers, surfers, football players and wrestlers report experiencing an intense ‘high’ when they feel they are performing to their maximum potential. When we make people laugh, we experience our own version of runner’s high. Thrilled and energized by the feeling and drenched in laughter, at that moment we are on top of the world, we are invincible and there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

Joan should have talked to teachers too—add them to that list! It was clear when Tracy wrote the other day that her music classes had produced just such a feeling. And walking around campus this last week, greeting new students, enjoying the endless hugs and hand shaking, and “habibi” comments with old students that in spite of problems along the way, there are palpable moments here just like Joan shares.

There are some inconveniences, headaches and language barriers, but Eric is so right. We are too much ‘in the blood’ to turn back now. It is thrilling. It is energizing.

Time to pack the sun block and head to officially the Lowest Point on Earth.

Get the metaphor? There are moments that are like the Highest high a teacher can enjoy. Time to relax with a little R&R at the Lowest Point on Earth.