Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Card Letter 2010


This is the Christmas card letter that I just printed to stick in the cards tomorrow night...I am off to the airport soon for a lovely reunion with America! Cue the music: "I'll be home for Christmas..."

December 21, 2010

Dear friends near and far,

In a few hours I will be on a plane leaving Jordan at midnight, arriving in the USA, and land in Cincinnati by the end of the next day. The “Gerbil Wheel of School” will slow for 13 days so I can enjoy some time visiting friends and family stateside. This afternoon, after I finished packing, I had some time on my hands before my night flight, so I took a Christmas book of music over to one of our music rooms and played the piano for awhile. I don’t do this nearly enough, but I played through some carols and the piece my sister will sing Christmas Eve in our family’s church. I came upon one of the warhorse Christmas carols:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.


I played through this piece and sang some harmony, remembering an arrangement of this I conducted when I had a church choir in Belmont, North Carolina at the Christmas of 1991. I was reminded, yet again, how when I am in Jordan, I am so very near Bethlehem and this celebrated event. Since our campus was stilled I went back and googled some information about this familiar hymn. It was written in 1883 to mark the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. We sing this song so often, if you are a Christian or not, it makes its way around in December, but I realized we are no longer as shocked by the image as perhaps we should be.

Stop and think about the jarring imagery: a manger is made for animals, not humans. Babies belong in a cradle or a crib, made for tender nurture. But this baby Jesus lies in a manger—hard, harsh, filled with prickly hay. The song is sweet and gentle, but the reality was not. The word “manger” comes from the French verb manger, which means, “to eat.” A manger was a receptacle for animal feed. And yet in God’s strange and unexpected ways, the manger becomes a precious vessel that holds the Christ child. When the shepherds and the wise men come in search of the announced savior, it’s not in a royal cradle, but in a humble manger that they find him. Having attended a Lutheran church while I lived in New York, I knew how powerful the symbol of the manger was for Martin Luther—that was why it was written with him in mind. Luther used the image of the manger in enlightening ways: in his writings he called the scriptures a manger, a feeding trough for believers; Luther also called the congregation of the church as the manger in which the Christ child is found. Congregation as manger? What did Luther mean? I think what Luther wanted us to understand is that the manger is not a place, but a people, an event. Where is that place from which we feed our souls? With whom we do we feed our souls?

Of course at this time of year many congregations set up manger scenes on their grounds, but it begs the question, where is the real action of the manger? What is the responsibility of being the manger? Where does the real Christmas story take place?

I remember a marvelous sermon sometime in the early part of this century in New York in which the minister reminded the congregation, “Christmas isn’t really about the manger—it’s about the Babe.” She then quoted Martin Luther who said, “For not all mangers hold Christ and not all sermons teach the faith.” When we focus on ourselves, then we see cease to be a manifestation of the manger of Christ-like values.

As I pondered Martin Luther and Christmas traditions and the flight I am about to make, and the resolutions I will surely devise in the next two weeks, I loved the challenge of living up to the responsibility of Christmas. Followers or not of the Babe in the manger, there is a mighty responsibility to live up to the ideals of this season and how those ideals might transform the world. Luther offered an answer in a long-ago Christmas Eve sermon: “We are the humble barnyard animals that go with this manger. There Christ is placed before us, and with this food we are able to feed our souls.” The manger, by definition, is a feedbox. Many congregations, many non-Christians sponsor food pantries for the needy. When we recognize ourselves as mangers, then each of us can be a food pantry for all who hunger; we offer that nurturing to the others around us.

This morning a very sweet 10th-grade girl stopped and asked me, “Are you going home for Christmas?” The question was everywhere in the air today with the ex-pats looking forward to flights and time away from that proverbial Gerbil Wheel of School. I smiled and said, “In all my years on earth, I have never missed Christmas at home with my family in Cincinnati. Never!” Since I have been in Jordan, this is my fourth year at King’s Academy, going home is even more exciting than it ever was. I enjoy the work here, but I miss the conveniences and my logic of my homeland. I miss the ability to jump on a plane somewhere domestically and visit friends and family over a weekend if I so desired. But I am very excited about this flight and time spent in Cincinnati.

In the footsteps of Christmas, when love comes into the world in the vulnerability of a child, when light pierces the darkness, and hope is born, when you think about it, as the poet wrote, the work of Christmas has only just begun. There is always that danger to sentimentalize the cuteness of the newborn child in that manger, rather than focus on the awesome mystery of the incarnation. When we look to the incarnation of God and the profound mystery of the birth of love into the world, then we can begin to change from expecting the worst to working toward something good. So from our kneeling place beside the manger, we slowly rise to our feet, and the miracle of this birth and the glow of this gift of love stay with us, lie within us, even as we slowly step back toward that cowshed door and out into the cold January air and to the world from which we came. We begin again in this new year with courage and joy and love to set about doing the work of Christmas in all the far away and forgotten places of our lives and in the world where people expect the worst.

Have a blessed 2011,

Friday, December 17, 2010

"The Gary Show," Part II

It’s been a week since the final episode in Jordan of “The Gary Show,” but, as usual, it has hardly been a dull week here. On one level, the classroom level, it has been exciting as we studied Giotto in Art History, singing a final coda to the Medieval World, and then in 20th Century we drew the curtain on the Great War and are investigating the “chimera” of the 1920s. On other levels, meetings and meetings, and inter-collegial tensions, and two, count ‘em TWO, big social events for the KA community—dinners and dancing and a Christmas party…a boisterous week here in Jordan!

But Gary leaves footprints around the memory books for a few more things and I wanted to muse about them. One of Gary’s favorite Arabic words, and one of mine too, is the word, harem. You don’t pronounce it the way you would in the US—it’s pronounced, “haRAHM.” The word means, forbidden or inappropriate, and you use it like, when you are in the mall, like in the mall, and a young woman has too tight of clothes on, you might say, “Ja, haRAHM,” and look shocked and judge in that “Desperate Housewives”-way at the breach of etiquette. Well, Gary took the word to a whole new level. He decided Jordan needed more of this haRAHM—he thinks that might “un-repress” some people in Jordan. Don’t forget, Gary also likes to get a rise out of people too! But as he became friends with some Jordanians, notably colleagues Fatina and Moamar, he would say, “You know what Jordan needs—they need more haRAHM and I think I am going to start a website, a whole internet service providing haRAHM. We’ll call it harem.com!” That always got a rise and gasp out of the Jordanians. Gary would smile that twinkly smile and continue his campaign. Gary is not a fan of the word “wasta.” Wasta is that old concept of connections, sometimes like graft, sometimes like favors, sometimes just bumps up in lines. But Gary is in favor of a meritocracy and thinks that could help Jordan too. So he decided in his last weeks that if he ran for office in Jordan (just imagine!!) his slogan would be: “More Harem Less Wasta!!” Who knows what that might do to Jordan! Invariably Gary would smile, again the famous twinkly smile, and confirm, “Am I right??!”

One of the nicest things about Gary’s visit is that it motivated my dear friend Lubna to invite us over to her house! She had been promising me for years, “Yanni, someday, when everything is clean, I will have you over, we’ll have a good meal.” It took someone here on a short-term lease to force Lubna! She said, “I have to have you over when Gary’s still here!” So two weeks ago we spent a Friday evening with Lubna, her mother, and her two boys, Mohammad and Ibrahim, whom Lubna affectionately calls, “the devils.” Lubna’s mother prepared that national menu that Jordanians make for guests—enough food for a small army, and stuffed this and roasted that—it was wonderful. Lubna kept apologizing in the days leading up to the dinner that her house was small. I kept saying, “Do you have enough room for all the guests to stand and eat?” I had never met Lubna’s mother before, and I have heard stories of her family for years, so it was delightful to be in her house, see where she starts and ends each day, spend time with the boys, meet the cat, and get a sense of this friend’s home environment. Naturally, Gary charmed Lubna’s mother, who I am pretty sure was blushing as Gary announced his plan for more “harem.” There were salads and appetizers and eggplant and chicken and Lubna made an incredible rice dish that she learned in Kuwait (we passed around and smelled the perfumed herbs used in the dish, a strange and wonderful mix of herbs and who knows what). I appreciate their time, but loved just sitting there with my friends Gary and Joan and Julianne and Hillary and Bowman.

The invitation came out of a moment of delight the week before when Gary and Joan and Bowman and I invited Lubna to the Dead Sea. She always makes the reservations for me but she rarely gets to go. So we invited her, and in the relaxation of the fluffy robe after her massage, Lubna announced, “You must all come over to my house next week for a meal!” Finally! That’s what it takes to wrangle an invitation!

So there is the harem side of Gary (the side that likes to play the game that pits acquaintances against each other in the forever adolescent game, “Who Would You Rather Sleep With??”) and there is the sharp-edged academic side of Gary. This is the side of Gary that you want as a department gets together and critiques each other’s exam questions (actually both sides I guess are fun at department events!). Gary has a knack for taking a so-so question and sharpening it beautifully. He loves the entrance words of “To what extent…” as you ask a student to not only take a position, but explain where on the continuum he/she falls about an issue. Oh, both sides of Gary were a welcome tonic and kept us on our toes!

Last Thursday, Gary’s last night in town, 15 of us went out to his favorite restaurant in Jordan, Haret Jdoudna. I mentioned in the last blog that his favorite dishes were ordered and for a brief moment I paid tribute to this friend. I noted that there is no one that I enjoy more as a colleague—he makes you better at what you do, at what you are thinking. Who knew that 10 years ago when we parted, professionally only, at Hackley, that we would have that chance to work together again? Serendipity smiled on us surely. I ended the tribute by reminding everyone that as Gary tells the story of Jordan over the years, surely I will have fired him again. Twice I have fired him! That’s gotta add up to more sympathy points for him!!

Last Friday I helped Gary clean up and move out of his apartment so I could take him to the airport. Gary was taking two suitcases with him for the next six weeks of travel (I believe he is leaving India tonight, bound for China!) and I am taking a suitcase to New York for him, and then there was all this other stuff! Gary had bought so much stuff to outfit his apartment in his three months here—there were jars of peanut butter and a blender (“John-O, you gotta make these smoothies!!”) and new trash can and pasta and jams and jams and jams and Thai noodles and hot chocolate. It was three trips from Gary’s apartment to my apartment with my new stuff! It felt like I was on a weird game show, well, of course Gary would find something and announce like an announcer on a Game Show, “John-O you have just won a nearly full bottle of balsamic vinegar!!” We joked that this was like a game show for poor white trash who got to win half-opened jars of this and that (and don’t forget 20 rolls of toilet paper!!) instead of, you know, cars, and trips to the Caribbean!

So he got on the plane last Friday night. The day after he left, Jordan suffered some of the strangest weather I have ever seen here. Saturday there was a wind/dust storm that was amazing because it rendered the world outside an odd amber color. Then there were high-speed winds and rains. Gary emailed me that the weather gods were clearly angry at his departure!

So here is this super-scholar, this funny man, this man who bought birthday gifts for me in the United States two months before my birthday so I would have gifts to open on my birthday—this guy is gone with the wind. I will see him this April in New York. Hopefully my family will be coming to New York to see me for my spring break, and they will have a chance to be reunited with this unique friend. I will be taking Gary’s mother on a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We will laugh. We will discuss books. He will mention all the “harem” things he has done. We will chalk up another wonderful visit.

It was a great 100 days having Gary here. He is a ball of energy and requires energy to join in his game, but there is no one else like him.

My Christmas wish for each of you (Gary will get a kick out of the fact that he is with my Christmas wish) is that you land a friend and colleague as rich, entertaining, challenging, provocative, honorable, supportive, generous, and thrilling as this guy.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

“and I don’t mean where they serve corned beef!”

That punch line was uttered the other day by Gary when someone asked him, “Dr. Gary, where are you going after Jordan?” Gary smiled slyly and said, “Delhi.” (Wait for it…) “And I don’t mean where they serve corned beef!”

Now, in case you didn’t get Gary’s joke, you might be from Cincinnati. In Cincinnati there is a section on the western side of the city called Delhi. In Cincinnati we pronounce that “DELL-high.” In terms of Gary’s joke, he pronounced it as in his next destination of New Delhi, India, which is pronounced “DELL-ee.” Get it? But you gotta really understand Gary for you get his joke even more. Here he is, this New York Jewish Guy, in the desert of Jordan, announcing he is off to Delhi, but “I don’t mean where they serve corned beef!” Maybe you just have to know New York delis and/or Gary.

Gary (he of the oft-uttered phrase in the blog this fall—“I must write a blog entry about this guy!”) has left the building. Left Jordan. He came for 100 days while on sabbatical from Westchester Community College in New York, and he has been—well, there isn’t just one word for it. I mean, I could say, delight, terror, thrill, privilege, honor, riot—any and all of those words apply. Gary is not a monochromatic guy.

Gary and I worked together at Hackley from 1997-2000. If you have met him with me at any time in this new millennium, he undoubtedly informed you that I fired him from Hackley in 2000. For years I would take his classes from WCC on tours at the Met, and when he would introduce me to them in the staid rotunda of the museum, he would say soberly, “Now, class, here is our tour guide. This was my boss. This is the man that fired me.” As if on cue, the group would gasp and level a deadly gaze at me. They loved their Professor Klein. And here was the man that fired him. Sympathy votes and approval ratings for Gary instantly go up!

No, I didn’t fire him. I counseled him as a good friend that there was a greener pasture for him.

Anyhow, in the 10 years since Gary and I stopped being day-to-day colleagues, we never lost touch. In fact, Gary is on the short list as one of the most important friends I have ever had. But, if you have not met the guy, I still haven’t done a good enough job at describing this guy. To say that he is the kind of friend that picks you up at the airport at 2:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. doesn’t do him justice. Okay, I have thought about it, and I think I have a way to convey what this guy is like. Let’s combine some images: take Fran the Nanny, Adrian Monk, and Greg Brady and combine them…that may be the best way to help you understand this guy. What, you say? Those are all TV characters? Yes, they are. The Nanny, Monk, and The Brady Bunch all offer us facets of this personality, or shall I say, character. Gary hates that I characterize him at all with Fran the Nanny, but you need a little of the New Yawk Jewishness in there to get the mixture just right. Gary has some Monk-like characteristics in his preciseness, particularity, fixation on things, but not his, ahem, fastidiousness. Well, sometimes. But the Greg Brady part—now there is where I really hit the jackpot in figuring out Gary. Gary and I are almost the same age exactly, so that means our cultural references are the same, be they TV shows, commercials, public figures and scandals, and growing up in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. (Both Gary and I have a fondness for the TV shows of our youth.) Greg Brady, let’s be frank, was the stud we all wanted to be. And I don’t just mean his “Johnny Bravo” persona. That guy was cool, got the babes, got the cool room in the house, and had it made. Everyone else wanted to be Greg Brady. But Gary isn’t just Greg Brady—don’t forget to add some spoonfuls of Fran the Nanny and Monk.

I do, if I do say so myself, an excellent impersonation of Gary. In fact, in this meta- post-modern universe, it is interesting to know that Gary also does an impersonation of me doing an impersonation of him. After a glimpse of my Gary impersonation recently, Tristan, my good KA friend, said, “Your impersonation of Gary sounds like an odd combination of Gilbert Gottfried and Carol Channing.” Now, spin all five names together in the air—you have an idea what Gary is like.

But Gary is more than serial dating and flirting, although, time has not mellowed either of those pursuits (for example, Gary turned Jordan on its ear with several comments to women in the last 100 days: “You know, I have a mirror on the ceiling of my bedroom.” Or, “You would make an excellent mistress.” Yes, he is more than that, more than enthusiasm. Gary is a crackerjack scholar. Gary is not just smart—like he knows minutiae, which he does, but this guy has a framework for the world in his head that makes him brilliant. He is never afraid to admit not knowing something, but when you are talking about almost anything in history, sports, or pop culture, I defy someone to stump him.

In knowing Gary for so long one of the most aggravating things about him is his unerring sense of judgment about people. It is only aggravating because he is always right. When you meet someone, you know how it is polite, appropriate, to give the person the benefit of the doubt until they incur, I don’t know, three strikes against you. Well, Gary can size someone up as fast as my father. And they are both right. Inevitably, I come back to Gary, “Yes, indeed, you were right—again.”

Gary and I love to pick each other’s brains. I have said it before, but again, Gary is the best colleague to know. It is like a boxing match, but we are not out to fell each other, but give a little jab and raise the stakes. Over the years Gary has given me some of the best books, best tips, and best appraisals of faculty. He has made me a better teacher. He says the same thing about me. Maybe we are the perfect boxing match since at the end of a visit, be it 2 hours or 100 days, each of us is in better form. We talk about pedagogy, about sources, about evidence, about arguments, again about pedagogy and facts and art works. And food.

Gary is fit, but Gary has an appetite for good food and wine that is impressive, and not totally out of character. Anyone remember the scene where Carol Channing as Dolly Levi eats up a buffet while dressing down Horace Vandergelder? Again, I chose my five elements right in this uproarious personality! In the 13 years I have known Gary, I have eaten out with him, oh, I don’t know, at least a hundred times. And I have chosen the place to go out to eat one time. And that was this fall. In Jordan. Even here in Jordan, after that one time, he did the choosing. I complained about this the other night to him, and instead of apologizing, he smiled slyly and said, “Have I ever steered you wrong?” No, of course not. His favorite place in Jordan quickly became Haret Jdoudna, affectionately called HJ, in nearby Madaba. As Gary does everywhere, he makes wherever he is, his version of Cheers, his hang-out. He called Aida the head waitress “Girl,” and ordered his favorites: the hummus, the stewed tomatoes, the spinach pastries, the local St. George’s wine, and his fave dish, “yabba-dabba-doo,” as he says, chicken with lemon and garlic. Our meals often ended with Gary saying, “John-O, I’m feeling lucky tonight, I’ll get dinner. You drove me here.”

But Gary was not just eye candy or outrageous on campus. He taught a term-long course on “The American Presidency,” and Hamzeh, one of the greatest delights here to me, took the course and adored it. Hamzeh is a soft-spoken young man, a very proper guy, with a great sense of elegance, tact, and honor. Gary may not have the elegance or the tact, but both of these guys have a strong sense of honor, and they bonded quickly. Gary had come to KA in part to create a videography of interviews of what the Middle East is like so he could show his students back in New York what Arabs are like apart from simple CNN presentations. Hamzeh loved being interviewed and filmed, loved the raucous debates in class, and loved the learning. He was exhilarated as anyone who joins Gary’s class always feels. On Thursday, Gary’s last day in classes, Hamzeh offered a good-bye to Gary in front of the school. Shyish Hamzeh spoke in front of everyone, and offered a beautiful and touching farewell to Gary, thanking him deeply for his service, and the lessons in leadership he had gleaned. Gary, apart from some serious comments, then offered, “And the Thank-God-He’s-Gone-Party will be on Saturday night.”

Gary helped me create a program to mentor and train young teaching fellows. Since he did not have a full load of teaching, he had time to visit more classes than I do, and he went about that business like a man on a mission. He wanted to help these recent college grads get a hold of the teaching beast and tame it. Of the seven, almost all of them are really green in terms of teaching. Gary took his video camera into classes, training the lens on the teacher sometimes and sometimes on the class. He helped us enormously make leaps and bounds of progress with these teachers. He would have the teacher watch the tapes, and while sometimes that might be painful, they could see, hmmmm…how engaged are my students? What’s going on in class? What are they doing? What am I doing?

While in Jordan Gary also took some side trips. He went to Vienna, Amsterdam and Rome. He went to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He bought more groceries in these 100 days than I think I have in over three years! We went to the Dead Sea together, hiked Petra together, stood on top of Mukawir together—he is over-the-top and one-of-a-kind.

Gary and I were talking about the perils of AP courses recently, and how some teachers feel constrained by these courses (I don’t but some do) and Gary looked me in the eye, smiled slyly and said, “You may have to walk with the Devil to get over the bridge, but you don’t have to have sex with him.”

Gary has left the building. Jordan may never be the same again. He in on his way now to India, China, Japan, Sinapore, Australia, and Hawaii.

Hmmm…my 1500 words are up but I have more Gary reflections. I guess I will have to have a Part II of “The Gary Show.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Family’s Thanksgiving

Speaking of Thanksgiving, I recently got to wondering about a curious phrase in the English language. The phrase is, “Let’s talk turkey.” Wherever did that come from? After a little intrepid googling, I found an interesting explanation: Back in the day (okay, I hate that phrase—as a historian, I find the lack of precision in that phrase repugnant, but since so many people young and old employ that phrase, I thought I would try it out. I will not be using that phrase again!) Back in colonial Massachusetts, an English settler and a Wampanoag Indian went hunting for birds. Together, they caught a number of turkeys and buzzards. When the pilgrim divided the game, he took for himself the two turkeys, leaving four buzzards for his companion. Annoyed, the Wampanoag responded, “Stop talking buzzards. Let's talk turkey!”

Ah, a little original-Thanksgiving history to remember the past Thanksgiving 2010 weekend!

Last year, as you may recall, I surprised my family in Cincinnati on Thanksgiving Eve. I got another chance to re-live Thanksgivings past with them as we went to the Price Hill Thanksgiving Day Parade, and then spent the evening gorging on the incomparable Thanksgiving feast produced by my Aunt Joy. Just thinking about her stuffing, succotash, mashed potatoes (both kinds white and sweet), mushrooms, pie—I have to loosen my belt!

This year there wasn’t a holiday coinciding with American Thanksgiving, so it was a work day, a school day, as usual, and we were all here in Jordan. I shouldn’t be too upset—I was just home with them the week before T’giving. Early last week Randa, one of my first friends I ever made at King’s Academy, asked me if I had plans for Thursday evening. She wanted to invite me to join her family for their version of Thanksgiving. They planned to gather at a lovely hotel and eat dinner—one of her Aunts is American, so hence the urgency of having a Thanksgiving meal. Randa said, “I know you will miss your family this Thursday, and it may not be the same to be with another family’s Thanksgiving, but I hope you will join us.” Of course! How wonderful to be invited—just to be with somebody’s family is a beautiful, gracious gesture!

It was strange to be in class come Thursday, since that is always a “sacred” day off of school, but I wore my pumpkin-colored shirt and went about my business advancing my students’ knowledge of art history (we are right at that key moment known as the “Ottonian Renaissance” around Y1K—that joke about 1000—Y1K—never gets old!!). Later that evening Gary (yes, his own blog entry is coming soon…) and I journeyed into Amman.

Driving in Amman—surely you have picked up on this over the years—is always a challenge, and I was going to a spot to which I had never gone before. I got lost in one place—I never saw the circle I was supposed to run into—and so I called Randa and I handed the phone to someone on the street and she tried to direct him to direct me. That didn’t work, so she said, “Just come straight down the street and you’ll see it on the right!” I get that direction pretty often, but this time, it was accurate!

We arrive at the Regency Hotel and go down to join Randa’s family. There are maybe 30 members of her family there, and they are all so gracious to us, especially Randa’s American Aunt Ann (her own triple A club!) who welcomes us so that the poor American souls are not alone on Thanksgiving Day.

The feast was beautiful! The hotel guys had roasted beautiful turkeys (you need to know that turkey is very expensive in Jordan—about 10 times the cost as in the USA) and carved them more beautifully than I had ever seen. They had roast beef as well. They had the candied yams and the mashed potatoes. There was stuffing (I’m sorry, it’s just different here—it lacks the sage and the celery that I prize so much in a truly great stuffing). We also had a whole appetizer course with mini-barbecues on the table to grill your own strips of beef. Did the Wampanoag and the Pilgrim do that as well?

But the piece de resistance for me was the pumpkin pie. Jordanians are not fond of pumpkin so it is hard to find and usually just available, if at all, around this time of year. But Aunt Ann had made sure the quintessential Thanksgiving pie was showcased and fine. As I gobbled the pie, I said, “Aunt Ann, this pie tastes, I mean it tastes like November in America!” She grabbed my hand (the Aunt Ann-types always like me, I have to admit) and whispered, “You wanna know the secret? It’s Libby’s canned pumpkin!" I blessed and toasted Libby’s and Aunt Ann!

It was indeed a pleasure, a blessing to be with a family on Thanksgiving. Randa is a dear friend, and her family was so polite, so interested in welcoming us to their hotel family Thanksgiving dinner. How full of thanks as I drove home to campus with a happy full belly.

For what are we most thankful? That should be a daily concern and pleasure, but sometimes we do wait for the formality of Thanksgiving. People pay lip service to health and family as chief reasons to give thanks. But they are good reasons nonetheless. And yes, I agree…but as someone who lives far away from many friends and family I am also thankful that I know things about my friends and family. I may be thousands of miles away in the desert of the Middle East, but I know how Jack’s last soccer game went, about the lovely little girl in Emma’s class who just died, about my father’s trip to Kiwanis and the good little meat loaves they had, about my sister’s battles with the schedules to get her children to all their lessons/games/meetings (and yes, she wins the battles!) and about little joys and sorrows in people’s lives. No, it is not the same thing as when I could drive around the corner and see Judy Enszer after school, or sit with Chuck and Anne after a good school day at Hackley, but I am thankful that I am at a place that challenges and feeds my soul and that I can still know things about those whom I love.

My mother was one who loved the details of people’s lives—not in a gossipy way, but being aware of details of people’s lives so that she could better know them and love them. This weekend was also my mother’s birthday—that one-of-a-kind Mary Martha. She would have been 72 this past weekend, and would have been asking about what new things the students had mastered here at KA, would have wondered how Mary was doing in Gastonia, how our friend Neal was doing in his job search—she was a one-woman Thanksgiving Friendship Parade herself.

One of the rules she laid down in our family was that one should not speak of Christmas until after her birthday (November 27th) which is exactly four weeks before Christmas. She wanted Thanksgiving to have its place, her birthday to have its place, and then Christmas to have its place. There!

This year her birthday fell on Saturday—which is church day in Jordan. I actually had a real dilemma about Saturday. Back up a day or two—it turns out that the school just kind of forgot about Thanksgiving (many, many things are going on here!) and someone forgot to tell the chef to create a Thanksgiving meal for the ex-pats. On Thanksgiving morning they announced that on Saturday night they would have a somewhat belated Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings promised.

Well, what to do? Have the Thanksgiving dinner? Or go to church and celebrate the first day of advent? Hmmmm….the suspense…would I choose food for the body or food for the soul?

I chose God. I had already enjoyed another family’s Thanksgiving, and on my mother’s birthday it just seemed appropriate to be in church.

While at church my Bible passed over two scriptural passages that, while they have nothing to do with advent, certainly reminded me of my mother’s fervent devotion. One, from the end of Psalm 27 reads, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” I remember that she explained that verse to me once and said, it is not really about patience, that kind of waiting, it is about trust. "If you trust, you can wait as long as need be,” she explained. The other verse that opened was Proverbs 3:3 which reads, “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck.” What wonderful Thanksgiving and Mary Martha messages.

So the sermon was what you would imagine on the first day of Advent: about the anticipation, the expectation of the savior’s birth. This sermon topic was perfect for me to sit and gather the remembrances of my mother. There is hardly anyone I have ever known who has enjoyed those two words more. Anticipation. Expectation. Be it a church bazaar, a show, a birthday party, her children doing something, her husband coming home from work, going out to breakfast or lunch or dinner or coffee or dessert, the thoughts of seeing her parents again, or the impending birth of a baby in a manger, Mary Martha made an art of anticipation and expectation. How she would have loved this whole project in Jordan!

So Thanksgiving 2010 was with another family—a lovely family, and I got to revel in memories of my own family as the Thanksgiving weekend unfolded.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rome or Home?

These last two weeks have flown by…many blog-worthy moments now seem a bit, as Margaret Mitchell once sighed, gone with the wind. But let’s have a little catch-up. One of the reasons that the two weeks have sped by is that for one of those weeks in the last two weeks I enjoyed a whirlwind trip to the United States. This trip was not on the horizon for very long. No, I have not been fired, nor am I chasing down my 401K. An unexpected little poof of serendipity landed me at JFK nearly two weeks ago for an embrace of nature’s fall palette.

Let me back up about four weeks ago. What was expected was a vacation from November 16-20. That was the projected date of the Eid break that is two moons after the end of the holy month of Ramadan. If you recall from other blogs from other years, Islamic holidays are not as easy to predict as many other holidays. These holidays are lunar and when exactly they commence is not a science. One can never be certain that the Eid holiday will begin on a certain day—one may guess, but it comes down to when an imam, or sometimes a government, “calls” the holiday. Imagine how difficult it may be when you are an international student, or teacher, and you try and nail down plane tickets on a given day and time with a holiday that is a little bit unpredictable.

What was certain is that mid-November would bring the first break in the school calendar. Where should I spend this break? This was the shortest Eid holiday planned yet in the four years of the school’s history, but a break is still a welcome chance to travel somewhere and partake in some relaxation. Let me see, in the past years, I have gone on some very nice brief vacations during one of the two Eid holidays every year. I have gone to Kenya, Budapest, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, and twice to the United States, one to a Denison Singers reunion, and one surprising my family last Thanksgiving. Where to go from November 16-20? As I pondered it in October, I began to teach the art of Rome, and decided, yep, that’s it—I will go to Rome for the Eid holiday! I hadn’t gone to the “Eternal City” since 2001, and why not try and find that perfect risotto about a hundred yards from the Pantheon or get lost in the Vatican Museum or the Villa Borghese.

Around the first of November there were rumblings that the cycle of the moon wasn’t exactly on target. I never did really understand it, but was the moon going through its phases faster??? What? People started talking about the fact that Eid would be called sooner than the projected date. There was lot of hand-wringing over what the school should do—do you wait until the holiday is called to know what is going to happen? What about the families of students who live beyond Jordan’s borders? If we try and have school will anyone show up? So, let’s see, the rumor circulated that the government was going to call the holiday early. If that is the case, we would fall in line, and that would leave us with potentially a one-day school week. Hmmm…how many students would show up, after a weekend, for one day of wonderful instruction? Or would the most dutiful simply be “punished” while others lapped up a longer holiday? So the decision was made, and enthusiastically accepted by the student body that the holiday would be early, and students got three bonus days of vacation, and that meant that people could leave after Thursday’s classes and come back the following Sunday. Or should faculty have a professional development day on that Sunday—it wasn’t a planned holiday anyway—no one had flights anywhere yet. Think of all the things that must be weighed!

Ultimately, the faculty and the student body received the dispensation for what would amount to a 9 day holiday.

Then I ran out of Edge Shaving Gel.

Oh, hmmm…I thought I had enough Edge until the Christmas holidays 40 days later. Oh, well, it’s not that Edge Shaving Gel is not available in Jordan. It is, in many of the fine stores in Amman. It’s just, well, if you know me, spendthrift is not my middle name, and Edge Shaving Gel costs between $6 and $7 in Amman. And you know, it’s on sale for $1.99 pretty regularly at Walgreen’s in the United States. Maybe I should re-think the travel plans. I mean, I need the Edge Gel. I liked the idea of Rome—but maybe I should just go home instead…

I think I blame my colleague Arthur as well for changing my mind. He said, “Surely you are going to the United States in the break.” No, Arthur, I had meant to indulge my love for Caravaggio and Bernini in Rome…but Home was pretty appealing. I mean, the Shaving Gel is a good bargain at Walgreen’s. Cereal is also much cheaper in the United States. Grape Nuts runs you about $8 in Amman, but again, that magic $1.99 price at Walgreen’s is a pretty standard sale item.

I checked with a couple people and thought, well, for my two standard destinations, New York and Cincinnati, the major players are going to be in town and between major projects. And there was the prospect of seeing autumn leaves for the first time in years (late November last year doesn’t count—they were tired of their colorful parade and most had fallen forlornly on the ground). Remember just a few weeks ago I extolled the wonderful Margot for remembering to send me the papery Maple leaves again.

Hmmm…I might go to New York for a few days and then jet home to Cincinnati, doing both of my home bases in the 9 day break. Yep! Let’s do it before I realize I won’t be traipsing around the Colosseum or the Arch of Constantine as expected!

It turns out my colleague Tristan and I were on the same flights going and coming, both stealing this quick trip to the US to fortify us for the coming exam season. When we got to the airport we soon felt like we were at a cattle call for Central Casting for an old Cecil B. DeMille Bible extravaganza. The normally sedate airport in Amman was teeming with old people, and not just old people dressed in what looked like Bible-story costumes, but the kind with the veristic faces you see in the art of the Roman Republic (second guessing my decision??) with the most weary, time-worn, creased faces you could imagine! What in the world? We remembered…this was the beginning of the Hajj season. This Eid holiday signals the optimum time for the faithful to journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, for the longed-for pilgrimage of every faithful Muslim. We landed at the airport with what seemed like every octogenarian in all of the Hashemite Kingdom traveling for the first time. Tristan surmised that many of them had never flown before and did not quite know what to do in the airport. Well, they might not have known what to do, but many of these wizened women felt compelled to try and cut in front of us in every line. I know, it shouldn’t matter, but you know my oddly competitive self felt compelled to outwit them in their cut-in-line schemes! We were forever in the line to check bags—there felt like 75,000 people in line—and this one diminutive woman who looked like Anne Bancroft at age 195 in The Greatest Story Ever Told—simply sat on my suitcase for about 15 minutes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have roll it/her away to suggest she move.

Anyway, I digress. Tristan and I were on that great Delta flight that leaves at midnight in Jordan and arrives at dawn in New York. How can you not sense the drama of the impending trip with dawn rising as dramatically as God can muster!!

New York is always rewarding—both the city and my friends. I spent time with Anne in Westchester and we dove into doing the New York-y things I love: plays, walking, eating, and museum-going. I had lunch with the inimitable Kate, met up with super-hero Harrison, and simply reveled in the beauty of Central Park. It had been since the fall of 2006 that I could walk through the autumnal majesty around the pond on the Upper West Side. I was struck by the juxtaposition of two facts: one, all I could see in any direction was a dense canopy of red maple, oak and hickory treetops, the leaves fanning out in autumn’s golden regalia; two, I was in Manhattan!

Among memorable meals (quick run up to Saigon Grill for the Papaya Beef Salad, get a pizza at Patsy’s and marvel at the perfect olive oil, savor the steak at the Post House, and thank Kate for the glorious pork chop at The National) I also got to see excellent theater. The Pitmen Painters tells a true story of English miners who stumble onto an art class and how it changes their lives. And The Scottsboro Boys offers a musical, a rather dangerous musical, about the injustice in 1930s Jim Crow Alabama known as The Scottsboro Boys. As I entered the theater I made my way past loud protesters pleading with patrons not to see such a racist show. You see, the famous composing team of Kander and Ebb (heard of Cabaret? Chicago?) decided to tell this story via the device of the old-fashioned, and now derided, infamous minstrel show. Hmm…Theater as a provocateur! The extraordinarily talented cast of 11 wows you…wait, did I just applaud a number that is essentially a shuck-and-jive number??? But the show is not a betrayal of the young men at all—the sheer audacity and farce of the minstrel show makes you think anew about the farce of the trials these 9 young men endured. The audacity of the minstrelsy is subversive—and the show, and the boys’ story is a discomfiting, blunt-force thrill.

So I get to Cincinnati, enjoy the fam, going to the diner, going to Emma’s soccer game, picking them up from school, and don’t forget to go and get the holy grails of cheap Edge Shaving Gel and Grape Nuts.

The only hitch in this 9 day reverie home was the delay for the flight back to Jordan at JFK. Seems there was a leak in the fuel line—not the best thing for the thousands of miles we will travel—and so we endured a 15-hour delay. Oh, and one of my two suitcases has not been located yet…you’ll never guess which one. The suitcase that Delta cannot find yet has in it the sought-after Edge Shaving Gel and Grape Nuts! Mamma Mia!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tend the Flame


So my favorite day at the conference in Kathmandu was Saturday—it was the mix of everything I set out to do for this six-day jaunt to Nepal. I enjoyed a keynote address, chose a provocative workshop to attend, enjoyed sumptuous Nepalese food, bonded with colleagues, made a new friend, toured a new city, enjoyed a cultural experience, and even wrote a couple of the 60 comments I needed to finish before I landed in Amman. All in one day! Now if you know me, that is my kind of day—inspiration, laughter, new planes, new sights, satisfaction.

The day started bright and early with one of the scary Nepalese taxi rides to the hotel which hosted the conference. However, we had a bit more room this time since one of ours had not made it downstairs on time. The breathing space was welcomed as we careened and bumped through town to the gorgeously designed Hyatt. Hey, the Yak and Yeti hotel was pretty nice, but not as temple-like as the Hyatt. We started off with a keynote address by educational research guru Jay McTighe who spoke interestingly about what a teacher’s job is when teaching, and what is the teacher’s job when not teaching. He and his writer partner Grant Wiggins revolutionized the teaching world when they explained their “backward design” of curriculum planning, and again, with such a simple premise there was great brain work going on.

I had chosen a workshop for that day that very clearly stated in the conference booklet, “This workshop will not provide new techniques or strategies to take back to your staff…” but what appealed to me was the leader’s announcement that he would challenge us to “reflect on the role” we play “in creating the emotional condition” of our school community. It struck me as something different from all the rubrics one usually discusses at conferences—don’t get me wrong, rubrics are provocative and food for thought, but there was something in the promo for the workshop that grabbed me. And the leader, Steve Shapiro, is from Ohio!

At the outset of the workshop Steve again made it clear that this was not a conventional workshop, but hoped to engage us in reflection intended to help us create more collaborative, positive, reflective school communities. He said he planned to have us read some poetry, do some writing, and engage in deep conversations with the other participants. Several people left at that point since I guess they hoped for a different “take-away.” I thought this would be like a different kind of spa day. The man running the conference had opened the entire event with a poem, so I had been kind of tuned in to poetry since the convocation on Thursday. Steve had suggested this poem, and it bears repeating here:

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.
We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
grows
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

--“Fire” by Judy Brown



What an interesting image to think about how a fire grows—with the space and not the reckless piling on of log after log. Certainly in our world we suffer from the too-many-logs syndrome, but the poem, and indeed the whole conference seemed to provide me with some space to tend that flame of excitement about education and leadership. The poem reminded me of friend Gary (yes, that blog entry will come someday all about him!) and his old adage, “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music.”

In this four-hour workshop it became such a thrilling place of sharing, discussion, engagement and introspection. That night Steve joined my colleague Ola and Dana and we spent the time at the cultural evening laughing and joking. What was quite remarkable was the ease with which this quartet interacted. Rarely it seems do adults actually enjoy the tingle and excitement of making new friends, but instantly Ola and Dana and I enjoyed Steve’s conversation. For me, there was the midwestern connection—Steve met his wife teaching in Cincinnati. But it was that rapport and that collegiality and respect and joy that rarely seems to come when we are just busy piling on the logs.

So that evening the conference transported us about an hour away from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage city that is a thousand-years old. At one time this city was the capital of a unified kingdom. Remnants of temples and other examples of faded glory stood proudly throughout the town. The city inhabitants greeted us as we stepped off the bus and then we were a part of a parade, well, we were the parade through the town with the townspeople of Bhaktapur applauding our visit to their town. They celebrated Dashain again with us and we ended our parade through the windy city streets at an airy square, Taumadhi Square, where a banquet had been set up for us catered by the Hyatt. Steve, Dana, Ola and I found space and even though we were surrounded by hundreds of the other attendees, joked and relaxed like this whole evening had set up to stimulate these new friendships. During the evening a dancing troupe performed perhaps twenty dances right under the 5-story Nyatapola Temple. Indeed, at the beginning of the evening the MC, the happy-happy man from Bhaktapur, introduced us to a “living goddess,” a young woman who is raised from birth to act as the embodiment of blessings on Bhaktapur as the ideal young virgin. She sat in a throne high up above the dancers with her hand raised in a mudra of peace and love. The mysterious tantric goddess Siddhi Laxmi, to whom the temple is dedicated, is hidden inside. At each corner of the temple is a shrine to the popular god Ganesh, the lovable half-boy, half-elephant. Hindus visit this shrine to ensure safety on a forthcoming journey and when starting any new work. As a defender and remover of obstacles, Ganesh must be honored first before worshipping other gods.

The buffet was marvelous, the dancers impressive, the enjoyment quite splendid. As the attendees of the conference dined on the food from the Hyatt, along the edges of our banquet, the townspeople watched with pride as their dance troupe entertained us. They had floodlights for us to see and the central square of Bhaktapur looked charming in the night air. The MC smiled and smiled and kept uttering his catch phrase of the evening, “Come on—surely you agree: once in Nepal…is never enough!”

We rode back into town continuing our chatting from the evening and bidding adieu to our new friend. I wrote 5 more comments before packing the suitcase since I had a 7:00 a.m. departure.

I finished the comments on the flight back to Amman and even more important I sketched out the six-month plan for the teaching workshops I will lead for the young faculty. It was a magical trip—a totally new environment, delicious food, an opportunity to see colleagues in a relaxed, open way, space between those logs to reflect on where I can work on being a leader and how to lead the faculty…all the things you hope you might accomplish from a professional and personal adventure.

One of the things I have done in the last couple of weeks since my return is look up some more poetry to use to create a little space and reflection. This is a busy place, no doubt, a consuming place, but I have worked extra hard not to let the consuming nature consume the fire. That fire needs to be tended, and if an afternoon in a steam room at the Dead Sea, a lingering meal of mezze and conversation, or a little poem can help tend the flame, all the better.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Aiming At Austerity

Today is Election Day in Jordan and according to many of my friends here, they are not terribly heartened by the prospects of the new Parliament. “They’re not very honorable,” has been the common theme—“all they want to do is raise my taxes,” my colleagues have cried about the candidates.

Well, it is a national holiday today so everyone can go vote, and I spent some of the morning watching the first episode of the TV show, “Rome,” and while watching the shenanigans in the Senate (the one in Rome, I mean) I couldn’t help but think about election days yet again. As I watched the bitter partisanship playing out in ancient Rome on TV, around the time of Julius Caesar, seeing the machinations and mendacity, well, it made me think the French just have it all together in that glorious phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same!”

I did a little work on-line looking up some facts (far more enticing than writing more college recommendations—I am only 60% finished with this year’s crop for whom I agreed to write). Let’s take a little look-see at the United States. I learned that nearly half the population of my homeland is receiving government benefits—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc. About 45% of adults pay no federal income tax at all. The U.S. government is taking in $2.2 trillion in tax revenues this year (and for those who think I am tax-free, may I remind you of the tax code: in my first year abroad I paid taxes in both the US and Jordan for the same salary in Jordan! Now I just pay taxes on investments in the US, and oh yeah, I pay taxes in Jordan) and I almost lost my train of thought… The U.S. government is taking in $2.2 trillion in tax revenues this year, and spending $3.5 trillion. Without some dramatic policy changes, we’ll be borrowing more than $1 trillion from China and other nations every year for the next 10 years. Add up all the numbers and what do you get? Paralysis? Incoherence?

Two years ago Americans panicked at the polls and fired the Republicans, and last week, Democrats lost a lot of seats in Congress as we get nervous again and worry about paying higher taxes. What about a sober reckoning of reality? Is it imminent? Hmmmm…maybe we should surrender benefits? Reduce our international ambitions? Gulp, pay higher taxes? It’s just not the American way.

As I listened to the bitter debates from afar, it was finger pointing in the most glorious sense. The Democrats are, of course lambasted as Big Government—however, let’s remember that during the Bush years private enterprise was given a free hand, and Republicans dismantled governmental regulation, leaving banks free to take ever-crazier gambles until the entire financial system blew up. And other commentators will tell us that the government has no right to spend wealthy taxpayers’ money on social engineering policies, since they say long experience shows us that it is the free market, not government, that creates real economic growth.

And another bizarre element I read about from here is Newt Gingrich blaming President Obama’s actions as president as “outside our comprehension” because they reflect his “Kenyan anti-colonial” worldview." Oh, that is why things have been bad! We have a ticked-off African running the show. But listening to the Tea Party movement picks up on this anger certainly. This movement is filled with resentment against a ‘THEM,” liberal elites, and Wall Street bankers and the president with a suspiciously foreign-sounding name…all angry over the deficit, and sounding like they want to dismantle the federal government and return to local rule.

So the big debate, as I hear across the pond and cyberwaves, is what about extending the 2001 Bush tax cuts for 98% of the population, or also for 100% of the population? Ezra Klein of The Washington Post pointed out that option 1 would add about $3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, while option 2 would add $4 trillion. How’s that for fiscal restraint? What should we do? How do we aim at austerity? Cut health care? That’s rationing! Cut defense spending? Not while we have ongoing wars or potential ones on the horizon.

The best solution, of course, is to cut somebody else’s benefits—but not mine or yours. Oh, Lord, give us austerity…just not yet.

Oh, my. I wish my Jordanian friends well today as they choose leaders who will steer this ship, and I think I will retreat to another episode of “Rome”—at least I know what will happen to the Republic as I watch the soap opera…and I can admire the cool architecture and production values as I wonder what we will do in our Senate.

Tomorrow I promise I will come back to my postcards from Kathmandu.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sleep Tight

It is always a bit of an out-of-body experience to observe elections from a distance. When you live somewhere and drive to and from work and play, see the election signs, hear the rhetoric at the grocery store, overhear the frustrations on the subway platform, and steep yourself in the culture, it is just a part of the patina of that daily life. However, when you are farther away, and get only a glimpse over the wall, you never really know what is going on, even with the glimpses and jumping up and down trying to understand it.

Today is Election Day in the United States—one of my mother’s favorite days of the year. She majored in Political Science in college and never ceased to be interested in those elections—she never kept them at a distance. However, I live thousands of miles away, and even though I jump up and try see over the wall of miles, it is a strange peering.

There was an editorial the other day in The Jordan Times that saddened me about the writer’s peek over the wall into my homeland. The writer noted that “Much of America is in a nasty mood, and the language of compassion has more or less been abandoned.” How my heart sank as I read this assessment. When I left the United States on August 30 the midterm elections were still 9 weeks away, but it was obvious then that this would be a fire-breathing year. I remember driving up and down Montana Avenue, a street I have known since my birth, since an era when America harbored the idea of ending poverty at home and abroad, and I noted the strange war of yard signs. House by house it went Democratic sign, Republican sign, in a pretty, but eerie red-blue-red-blue-red-blue almost civil war. Yesterday David Brooks wrote of the America of the fall of 2010 in an editorial: “Everyone is writing about anger…and not inspiration.” The commentators in my paper here, all trying again to peer over that wall in that out-of-body experience attempting to experience somebody else’s election, all comment about “America’s deepening moral crisis.” One writer noted wearily, “An already bad situation marked by deadlock and vitriol is likely to worsen, and the world should not expect much leadership from a bitterly divided United States.”

Sigh. But let’s hear it for Election Day. Let’s take a moment away from the “nasty mood,” and give Election Day its due.

Tomorrow when I peer over the wall into my homeland (via the internet and the news agencies) I don’t know if I will be able to see the “moral crisis” others see. But I know what I won’t see: I won’t see violence and bloodshed over the election.

Two weeks ago when I went to Nepal and tried to learn everything I could about this country in a few days, I read with interest and sadness editorials in the newspapers excoriating the Nepalese government. One writer bluntly posed, “Is Nepal a failed state?” I learned that there are actually 12 social, economic, and military indicators used by The Fund For Peace to determine if a state is a failed state. The editorialist, a man named Bishwambher Pyakuryal wrote, “In responding to this question, I presume, based on the review of the characteristics that qualifies a country to be deemed as a failed state, Nepal is not yet a failed state, but can become one at any time, any day.” He crunched numbers but concluded that Nepal did not know how to “handle fragility.” Mr. BP concludes, “The task of policymakers has been to make unrealistic growth estimates and blow their trumpet while denouncing any warnings on the possibility of state failure…” Hmmm…

Next week is Election Day in Jordan. The Parliament will be elected and each voter must return to his or her hometown to vote. In order to encourage voter participation, it is a national holiday. Our Jordanian faculty will journey home for the registration and voting. This Thursday the Prime Minister will speak to us here at KA about the elections so we can better understand the issues, the processes, and the prospects. I am curious to ask what the voter participation rate is in Jordan. I read the other day that the United States ranks #139th in the world for its voter participation rates. Let’s just drink that in for a moment…of the democracies in the world, my homeland comes in a dismal number 139 for its percentage of eligible voters who actually go out and vote.

But let me, from my distance, just appreciate the certainty I have about today, tonight, and tomorrow in my homeland. While there is division and vitriol, while there is less statesmanship and more paranoia (Can we afford to elect so and so????) my travels have shaken me out of my complacence about Election Day in the USA and about the beauty of Election Night. When I traveled to Kenya in 2008 on the cusp of their elections I was heartened by their democratic process and then saddened when over 80 people perished in riots following Election Day.

The first big test of this little democratic experiment came in 1800 when power transferred peacefully from John Adams’ Federalist Party to Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. Maybe Americans held their breath in 1800 over what might happen, but as the new day dawned, there was no bloodshed over the nasty campaigning and change of power.

We do this right. While campaigns are enervating, the suspense agonizing, we do Election Night well. It is simple. It is right. When I learn of the results tomorrow I will read about upsets and Tea Party this and Tea Party that. But Americans will have celebrated our project once again without bloodshed.

It’s time for bed and the slumber of certainty.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard from Kathmandu


Teachers get to go to conferences once in a while, and depending on the school, and the location, sometimes the conferences are in exciting locales. At my first school, for example, in Gastonia, North Carolina, several of us piled into a car at dawn to drive down to Columbia, South Carolina for a day-long AP conference. At my next school, in Charlotte, I attended a great week-long conference in Vermont during July. That was nice…and then from Hackley, I went back to Vermont again (and again…the conference site also hosted a culinary school in the summer!) and also went to San Diego for a conference! Well…last week I attended the Fall Leadership Conference for NESA (Near East South Asia International Schools) in…wait for it…Kathmandu. I have stepped up in the world since that little day-trip down to Columbia.

But going to conferences is never easy during the school year—in fact, it is just plain hard to be absent; there are too many duties and well, you know, my life in middle management is just so hectic, it is often easiest to just stay put. But I attended this conference last year in Athens, really enjoyed the speakers, and well, it is excitin’ for this boy of the Midwest to end up at the base of the Himalayas (I will get this out right now, for those of you who read the blog aloud—wait, seriously, did I just think someone would read the blog aloud? I just hope a few treasured friends and family keep up a little—oh, back to my point—I have learned from my very sophisticated friends that the way we pronounce Himalayas is rather gauche. Hit the ‘al’ part like the word ‘all’ and put the stress on that and not that the ‘lay’ part. I would hate for any of you to ever be embarrassed by how you mis-pronounced this important mountain chain!) As it turns out, no one wanted to teach my AP Art History class (although they missed good lessons on Hellenistic Art and the Etruscans!), so my friend Gary (I know I keep promising his own showcased blog) suggested that he film me teaching him the art and he would show it in class. Okay! Finally, I will be a film star—please keep the close-up on me a little, Mr. DeMille, and not just on the gorgeous turbulence of Hellenistic art.

All the planning is taken care of, and I realize that for this conference in Kathmandu I have three full-time jobs: attend the conference and grow as a school leader; strengthen the bonds with the three women with whom I will be touring Kathmandu; and write the nearly 60 comments for the fall report cards for my students. Those comments are due the day I am back, and I then have 500 comments from my department to read so they must be done. Okay. Three full-time jobs…I am a multi-tasker, and I will make a schedule. And I will do all three of the full-time jobs.

Of course the blog readers are most interested in the Kathmandu part…the wait-where-is-that-exactly-?? part. At my sit-down lunch table the day before I left I announced I was going to Nepal for a conference and one student asked, “Isn’t that in Italy?” Before I corrected him, I said, “I think I know why you said that! Italy has a city called Naples, and I am going to Nepal.” How many of you thought it was in Italy? Okay. Quick geography lesson Nepal is at the base of the Himalayas (did you pronounce it correctly??) sandwiched in between India to the southwest and Tibet China to the Northeast. Given that it is in the valley of the highest mountain range on earth, I will be going to the Top of the World (you know I have to cue the 1970s Karen Carpenter tune…).

I am travelling with some formidable powers that be: Dana, Deputy Headmaster and head of the finance at KA, Ola, the Operations Manager for everything at the school, and Sheena, Deputy Headmaster as well, and Dean of the Faculty. And little ole me. One of the great promises of a conference with colleagues is a chance to bond with them in new ways, whether it is sitting through a long layover, laughing over some old piece of business, seeing a new site, exploring a new country, trying a new food, or feeling inspired by a speaker. Those were my hopes for that full-time job as we set for the airport.

We flew from Amman to Doha (oh, my…talk about hot!) and then had a six-hour wait before we boarded for Kathmandu. When we landed in the morning at Kathmandu, we aimed to spend that pre-conference day discovering the city and seeing what this country was about. In our 20-minute drive from the airport we got a sense as to this city. I knew poverty was a wet blanket on Nepal, so I was not surprised to see it so graphically in the drive. But in the next few hours as we meandered through the shopping district, looked for lunch, got a feel for the goods and services available (oh, don’t go to Nepal hoping for high-speed internet access or cell phone coverage) and saw each other in action in the realm of haggling, we did more than just drink in the warm sunshine. We drank in the beauty of the pashminas and the Buddhist painted banners and we were amazed at the number of trekkers in Kathmandu (duh…we are at the base of the Himalayas; again, have you gotten the correct pronunciation??). We also kept trying to figure out the time…from the airport to the hotel to every clock we saw, we surmised that Nepal is 2:45 minutes off from Amman. What? Not three hours?? But two and three-quarters?? Can they do that??? Very strange…

But the afternoon was wonderfully relaxing as we tried to connect the dots as to what we saw in Kathmandu. We walked about a half hour to the tourist shopping district (these women are fierce bargainers…again, with the duh…duh…they run the school! But I swear I saw some merchants crying over these transactions!) and saw the Royal Palace (more on the politics later) and finally found a restaurant a merchant had recommended (we promised to patronize his shop after lunch—sucker!) and we laughed and enjoyed a long leisurely late lunch at a place called Anatolia, a hole-in-the-wall gem (wait, every restaurant we saw was a hole-in-the-wall—we knocked at a place called Taj Mahal, and they opened and said, “Not open today. Come back tomorrow.” Anatolia specializes in Indian, Turkish, Tibetan, Chinese, and French cuisine. We picked out a banquet and took care of the bonding part of the trip. As always happens, you see each away from a desk, or away from an impending disaster, and the beautiful human elements stand in high relief to the mundane matters of an institution. I felt grateful to travel and visit with these colleagues. Oh, even the name of our hotel gave rise to good laughs—we will be staying at the Yak and Yeti Hotel!! Yakkety, yak…don’t talk back…oh, a deficit of sleep and a tummy full of food will make that joke funny again and again…

I spent a chunk of the evening beginning the comments so that I could do my other full-time job of conferencing tomorrow. Well, yes, I did work on the comments for a couple of hours, but I spent time in the evening in the hotel spa and became instant good friends with Raji, the guy at the desk running the spa. In between trips in the steam room, I learned a great deal about Nepal from him.

It seems we came to Nepal at a very auspicious time, at the tail end of a fortnight holiday known as Dashain. Raji and Buzzybashar (that is a transliteration of how his name sounded to me) explained that about 80% of Nepal is Hindu, and Dashain is a big, big festival honoring the Goddess Durga who showers her people with prosperity. It is two weeks long in which family members try very hard to travel and visit each other, buy gifts, especially new clothes, enjoy big meals, and get the vermilion-powder mark of Durga’s blessings on the forehead (it looks like a neon-orange-colored Ash Wednesday mark). The guys also grumbled and groused about how the prices were jacked up for the holiday season and that the heavy rains created such mud that the new clothes got dirty. I spoke with them on and off for about two hours, enjoying their kindness and learning of the holiday. “It is like your Christmas,” BB said, “and we try and forget all the feuds and quarrels.” They explained to me the elaborate public dances and animal sacrifices in honor of Durga, who in a victory (against whom I didn’t get quite understand) saved the world from the evil forces.

The following morning we four piled into a taxi about the size of my dining room table—seriously, it was sooooo tiny; oh well, we drove over to the Hyatt for the opening of the conference. I will discuss the conference in another postcard, so I will fill in a few more details about Kathmandu. That afternoon, in between the speakers and the evening cocktail party, we walked around the beautiful hotel gardens, out the back gate, and down a lane to the Baudu Stupa, a Buddhist shrine. I believe about 10% of Nepal is Buddhist, and there are several important shrines in the area. A stupa is a bell-shaped, pyramidal structure, made of earth, or stone, and holds sacred relics. When we arrived we saw a large contingent of pilgrims there, regular folks, and monks and tourists, all circumambulating around the stupa (it must be clockwise) and spinning the prayer wheels as they reverently sought protection and guidance. For the Buddhists it is a carefully calculated understanding of the cosmos as envisioned by Buddha. We joined in the walk after a bit, and at sunset it was a striking thing.

The following day, as much as I pondered the helicopter ride up into the mountain range (we know how to pronounce it, do we not?) I decided I needed to work on the student comments during the conference break. After a couple hours of mad typing and adjective spewing, I went back to the spa, and found my friends from the day before. They urged me to go and visit this Hindu temple nearby. In fact, they said they would take me after their shift. A little later I am on my way to Pasupati, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. I was not allowed to go into the temple, but I was able to stand a little bit away and witness the live cremation of bodies on funeral pyres. Oh, my. My guys explained different things to me so I would understand the significance. The pyres were built of wood and the bodies were wrapped in white cloth for purity and burned in 7 different pyres, historically representing the 7 levels of the caste system. The ashes and any remaining body parts were then ceremoniously tossed into the river along with flowers. The Bagmati River eventually flows into the sacred Ganges, so it is certainly a sacred rite in Nepal. Not your average evening…But then I needed to get back and write a few more comments.

Along the same lines, it is October 31, and while many will celebrate Halloween today, I always have college recommendations due on November 1 and I have a couple more to go…I will write another postcard tomorrow evening to conclude my trip to Kathmandu.

You know, for a boy from the Midwest, I have also travelled to Disney World a few times, and one of the newest attractions is a roller-coaster ride called Expedition Everest. I gotta say, having been on that a couple of times, the Disney people sure do their homework well. The set-up and landscaping of that ride looks an awful lot like Nepal!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gastronomic News!

I know, this is not really a blog entry, but a promise that my postcard from Kathmandu is forthcoming. I have 9 college recommendations to write in the next 48 hours, but the postcard from the conference is coming.

But, but, did I tell you?! We now have bagels with cream cheese once a week in the dining hall...my, my what little morsels of civilization will do for ya! They are started at a bakery in Amman but baked on campus, and the bagels are fresh and good, and the cream cheese reminds me of how GIs in WWII began to feel that the war was waged so that everyone could have the freedom to have Coca-Cola...

bagels and cream cheese...almost as fun as walking across the street to Barzini's and getting a bagel and walking down Broadway in Manhattan...

Ahhhhh...okay...back to grading and recommendations...

Postcard on its way!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

October Woes

Margot remembered again!

Margot Robinson is one of those great souls who cross your life’s path for a short period of time, but fortunately she is never that far away. Margot was a “Junior Fellow” the first year of the KA project. Margot had just graduated from Deerfield the previous June, and she ventured to Jordan for a “gap year,” to work as a kind of prefect/proctor/indentured servant in our lovely new world. Margot and I worked together for a brief spell doing some drama work, but all year, she was just a joy to know.

In that first fall at KA, we talked one day about what we missed the very most from home. It’s an interesting question: and the answer might surprise you. It kinda surprised me! Since we live in a world of email and skype and vonage lines, communication with family and friends is not as big a burden as it was when I studied abroad in Austria in the mid-1980s (has it really been 25 years???). And since we have Hamudeh DVD, a.k.a. “The Candy Store,” providing us with (ahem, bootlegged—sorry Stephanie, I will send you a royalty check!) pretty recent TV shows, it comes down to…what? Food? Well, remember when I fly back from the U.S. I come loaded down with at least 30 pounds of food smuggled into the kingdom.

So I told Margot that what I miss the most is the changing leaves of autumn.

I have never lived far away from the magnificent changing leaves. Growing up in Ohio, especially right near a municipal forest, the autumnal beauty was all around me. Then when I went to Denison, well, the annual Licking County fall pageant was radiant with the maroons and yellows and oranges. In North Carolina, the changing leaves came a little later, but, please, I didn’t live far from the Smokeys and the Appalachian Trail…and then when I went to Brown, it was a zippy trip into New England to revel with all the other leaf-peepers. In New York I had a special connection with this one tree in particular. It was a tree right by Broadway in Tarrytown, right there by the Washington Irving Elementary School. It seemed it would explode into the most majestic red leaves every year right at my birthday. I always thought it a nice little present from the people of Tarrytown.

But here in Jordan—no changing leaves.

It was not long after our discussion that Margot returned to the U.S. for a week for some conference or something. She came back with an envelope full of autumn leaves from Massachusetts for me. I loved those leaves! I loved her remembering! Such woe at not seeing the collage of beautiful leaves every year.

Margot left Jordan in the spring of 2008, bound for Williams College. But each October I receive a letter in the mail, catching me up on her adventures in college, and also full of the autumn leaves I miss so much. Last week, the letter came and I have a tiny piece of the autumn I love so much.

I went and asked one of our science teachers why the trees change colors in the fall. I am sure somewhere sometime a science teacher taught me this, but it probably went the same place as the lessons my father gave me in car mechanics. Oh dear, why can’t everything stay in one’s brain!

The science teacher reminded me that trees are green in summer because chlorophyll, a green pigment in the leaves, absorbs red and blue light from the sun. The light reflected from the leaves appears green to our eyes. I learned that chlorophyll is an unstable substance, and bright sunlight causes it to decompose rapidly. So that is why plants must continuously synthesize and regenerate it. The shortening days and cool nights of autumn, I am now told, interfere with this process. As chlorophyll breaks down, the green colors of the leaves begin to fade. So some trees change from green to bright yellow as the chlorophyll degrades (oh, this teacher is a smartie!). In others, the action of sugar in leaves creates a red pigment, causing the leaves to turn shades of bright red as the chlorophyll fades.

Well, more stuff I didn’t know how it operates. Hmmmm…

For a couple weeks I have not been able to use my Jordan bank account ATM card. It seems I have been here long enough to have had an ATM card expire! It is three years after all! And the way it works here, the way the banks operate, they cannot send you a new ATM card. One must go to the bank. During banking hours. Which also happen to be school hours…argh….

So today I had a chunk of about 90 minutes to do what could be/should be a 35 minute trip to Madaba and back including the running in time to get the new ATM card. On the way I see a mother of a student who is struggling in class, and we talk for a little bit—it was a healthy, and necessary conversation. That’s okay—I don’t need lunch today, I’ll be back in time.

I zip down the road to Madaba, find a parking place not too far from the bank, run over to the bank, watch them stamp forms and check my various IDs and give me the new ATM card (“I hope it will work later today,” he adds as I leave. Yes, that would be nice. I need to pay back everyone who has been loaning me money!).

As I get back to the car, oh, no—really? A flat tire. A flat-as-a-cliched-pancake tire. Of course my father is too far away to call (If I had called him, he probably would’ve said, “All right, I’ll get on a plane tonight and be there tomorrow.”) So who do I call in Jordan? I call the ubermensch Julianne. “Um, Jules, I know you aren’t really in charge of this, but I have a problem.” After I tell her where I am, she says, “I will send someone for you. It’ll be fine. Call me in 20 minutes if they aren’t there.” Besides the 425 students at the school, she has to watch out for me too!

So in 15 minutes two guys are there in a school van, ready to help. This is one of those moments when I feel the most inept! Woe is me! But the guys open up the trunk of my leased car and start to cluck cluck (or is it ‘tut tut’??) my misfortune. They can’t find a jack, and it seems that the spare tire is flat. I whined that I had never looked at the spare tire and so didn’t know…I didn’t…have…a jack…oh, I am in Woe Soup at this point!

The guys get their own car jack and set out to take off the wounded tire and then we haul them over to the school van and they are in charge. I thank them profusely as we rush down the road to the gas station. We stop at the place where just the other day I overpaid for an oil change (and that was with a fluent Arabic speaker negotiating the price!). I explained that not only did I have no money, but my ATM card probably didn’t work either. They reassured me there was no problem.

In the next 30 minutes I watched a brilliant tire man at work—strangely, this tire guy reminded me of the science teacher who explained such important phenomena to me, phenomena like the science about which I knew next to nothing. I watched him take the tire, do surgery on the whole tire, figuring out the problem, doing this and that, looking at the innards of the tire in a way that I am sure I have not seen before (or again, my mind has purged the experience!). He took out the inner tube and fixed it, fixed—well, fixed both tires.

No charge!

The men asked me when I had class again, and assured me I would be back in time. They whisked me back to the public square where the car was parked, and bada-boom, bada-bing, put everything back in place. I told them they were my heroes. One guy said, “What is hero, Mr. John?” I said, “Superman!” They laughed. They took care of my woes.

I chose the title of the blog entry in part because of the woe of missing the leaves, and in part because of the temporary woe today with the tire(s), and in some part because this title reminds me of one of my favorite songs, “When October Goes.”

But as woes go in the world, these are not bad woes. Qxhna, a student from the U.S. got back tonight from a brief trip to interview at colleges in the U.S. Another student saw me asking her about her few days in New York, and how I love it there. She said, “Oh, Mr. John, you miss it so, don’t you?” I said, “Of course. Walking in Central Park in autumn is glorious. But of course, autumn in America does not have you, dear Jude.”

The woe can be tempered, either with wonderful students, remembrances from Margot, or my ubermenschen in Madaba-Manja.

In two days I am traveling to Kathmandu for a conference on school leadership. I will be sure to send you a postcard about this trip to Nepal!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Silver and Gold

Truman Capote once noted that “friendship is a full-time job.” Well, it seems to have been the full-time job of my dear sister Elizabeth, and wonderful friend Tracey to worry about my birthday plans for this October 4, 2010. Neither wanted a repeat for me of last year’s dreary birthday non-celebration, and both kept checking to make sure there would be a little somethin’ fun going on over here in Madaba-Manja, Jordan!

I will end the suspense now. It was a very nice birthday. Whew! Elizabeth and Tracey and the rest of my flotilla of friends probably didn’t need any more moping around like last year’s non-starter for a new year (if you didn’t read that blog, well, there was a little blues singing going on!). It was a delightful birthday.

I am entitling the blog entry “silver and gold” to sum up not what I received in tangible gifts, but the silver and gold friendships I enjoyed on my birthday. Okay, my mind is full of strange things, like sit-coms and camp songs, and I was reminded of the camp song (and this is when my brain is awfully strange—I think it was a brownie scout song that my sister sang back around 1976) that included the words:

Make new friends, but keep the old,
one is silver and the other gold.


So I spent my day, and enjoyed a birthday dinner, with some pretty great silver and gold.

In case you haven’t read other blog entries about how my mother always inaugurated birthdays, she would make sure to bid you good night the night before your birthday to bid adieu to your current age. So from young tender ages, up past 40, I would get a call the night before my birthday to say, “Good night little 41 year old,” as you went to sleep and dreamed about the next big year. Elizabeth takes over that job now, and since my phone lines are not always easy to reach, I now have to make the call to her, so that she is able to offer that farewell to that year. So at 11:30 last Sunday I called Elizabeth to hear her tender words (I can’t say the year/number though—the number just might get stuck in my throat).

The following morning at 6:30 a.m. Tracey called to make sure she had wished me the first happy birthday of the morning. She asked, “Now who is taking you out? Are the plans set?” I assured her that the plans had been made and that there was a celebration lined up.

When I had planned the lessons for the week I made sure I really liked the lessons for Monday. I mean, it is your birthday, and it should be fun. In History of the 20th century I taught about the struggles to cobble a peace together in the 1990s with the former Yugoslavia. Part of what made this so interesting was evaluating the needs of the participants in this drama and how hard it is for the actors in these real-life events to move ahead of revenge and hate. Ahhhh…we steeped ourselves in the peace process and conflict resolution!

In Art History we studied Chinese art—always a refreshing venture since the art is so much like reading Act III of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—over and over, a discussion, a rumination, a reflection on what is eternal in our lives. So much of Chinese art is like a Dr. Phil and Oprah marathon: how do we explore our journey in life? What will yield peace and harmony and balance? Ahhhhh…nice thoughts for a birthday while on the threshold of a new year.

In the afternoon Art History class a student had ordered a cake to be delivered to our class. This was the biggest cake I had ever seen outside of a wedding or something. It was from a bakery in Amman called “Sugar Daddy’s” and it was—well, dark chocolate fudge cake with rich, vanilla-bean frosting…I licked the box. It was great. Of course one reason a class wants to have a party for the teacher is that you get out of some class. Come on, I am not as young as…oh, I better not go there. I am as young as I look. Or maybe I have pictures of me as young as I say I am. Or whatever. The cake was spectacular, the wishes very thoughtful, and the class on Chinese art invigorating as always.

For those of you who know my friend Gary, well, this guy just doesn’t disappoint. I will devote a whole blog entry to him soon, for he can hardly be contained or explained in one birthday entry. Gary is a hoot, Gary is as golden as a friend can get. Last week Gary started saying things like, “John-O, what plans are in the works for the great day next Monday???” I mean, that’s what you want for a birthday…that little Stephen Sondheim like phrasing, Something’s comin’!

And again if you know Gary, I didn’t get to choose the restaurant for my birthday! When he asked me where I might like to go, I suggested “Fire Brazil” in Amman—the Brazilian steakhouse place in Amman with the skewers of meat that are paraded around the restaurant. Yum. Dramatic. He asked me if they have red wine available. I said I believed that they did not. Gary does this thing as he considers a restaurant. He chomps on imaginary food as he decides what his tonsils are tuned for. Not tuned for “Fire Brazil.” “Boss, I can’t have red meat without red wine. Let’s go to that great place in Madaba.” Gary gestured in that decisive way where he points and pokes and punches the air with resolve.

Haret Jdoudna it is. HJ is one of my favorite places in Jordan, the scene of many, many dinners over these 40 months in Jordan (Hmmm…saying the number feels slightly akin to the 40 years in the desert of the Israelites after the exodus!). The dinner party was a celebration of my silver and gold. Among the golden friends, the old friends, were Gary, of course, and sweet Lubna, a true friend here in Jordan almost since the beginning of this journey, and a guest who happened to be in Jordan last week, Danny Mallonga. Danny and I were in a class together in 1994 at Teacher’s College at Columbia, and had kept in touch for a few years, but then he began free-lancing around the world offering workshops in conflict resolution. It had been at least a decade since I had seen him. He was a welcome addition to the birthday table. The three silver friends were Win and Jennie, my neighbors in our Nihal dorm, and two of the funniest, warmest, most gracious people to spend an evening with. Our group was capped by Maria, one of our teacher fellows, a recent college graduate and a genuinely insightful teacher. She asked Gary if she could join the party. I am so glad she did.

So there I was with my three golden friends, and my three silver friends, ordering all my favorite dishes at HJ, basking in the warmth of tried and true and developing friendships. As we dug into the many dishes of mezze and then my favorite entrée of sagia, it was what a birthday should be: laughter, reminiscing, stories about childhood and longago loves, stories of strange obsessions, and a little reflection, vis a vis Our Town again, about the impact of another birthday.

We got home by 10:00 for I had been tipped off that the boys in the dorm wanted a birthday surprise for me with brownies. They trooped in, sang the Arabian version of “Happy Birthday” (it has several more choruses than the zippy American version) and left me to spend some time to make calls to my father, Elizabeth and her children, and Tracey. They were all relieved to know that the day had gone well. It is almost a full-time job worrying if birthdays will work out. Of course it is just silly when they don’t—but when they are as sweet and special as this year, well, it is a job well done.

Some people had gone to a lot of trouble to make the birthday matter for me. My father had hidden a birthday card in my suitcase when I returned to Jordan on August 30; Aunt Dot and family friend Edna had mailed cards on September 14 in the hopes that they would arrive. Lubna had looked for just the right shirt and tie for me. Gary had brought his birthday gifts in his suitcase when he left New York on August 7. Fatina had bought for me a camel tea kettle (!!!) while in Saudi Arabia. The Ungers had braved sending a musical card through the byzantine mail system of Jordan. Thanks to all those who went above and beyond!

And the Facebook emails! How fun to be able to send out greetings via that social networking site. I got greetings from junior high and high school friends whom I have not seen since President Reagan was in office, and I had greetings from people who call me Mr. Leistler, and Mr. John, and Johnny, and Bamm-Bamm…any other names I missed?

In fact, (spoiler alert!! Here comes a sit-com reference!!) as I went through my day I felt kinda like Mary Tyler Moore in the beginning credits of her eponymous show, enjoying mundane tasks, but just so oh-so happy about it all. Love is all around…

Good day. Good week. The theme song from MTM reminds me of another song that declares how important those silver and gold relationships are. The song is called, “Next Best Thing to Love” and it was a “trunk song” (a song waiting around to be used) by the lyricist of A Chorus Line. What a fascinating idea Edward Kleban postulated in his lyrics: that a deep friendship is as close to love as one can get – before coming to the beautiful conclusion that it’s good enough to qualify as genuine love, too.

We had the smiles
We had the tunes
We had a multitude of lovely afternoons
And come to think of it
It was the next best thing to love…

Couldn’t turn the corner
Never made sublime
Still we should be so lucky
All the time
So no regret
Forget the tears
I know a dozen girls who’d run with this for years
And come to think of it
I guess the next best thing to love
Is also love


Happy Birthday to me!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Double-take Re-visited

About 38 months ago, as the faculty and administrators nervously awaited the opening and inauguration of KA, I dug out a poem I had discovered a decade before and always liked very much. I remember reading this poem the night before classes began, when the still desert night had quieted down all the noise and fears and pricklies that come with the beginning of a school year (not to mention with the beginning of a new school). I wrote a blog entry that night, August 25, 2007, and here is a portion of what I wrote:

So now that the boys are in their rooms, I get to muse about tomorrow and the promise of this school year. Earlier today I thought about a poem I really like, a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, but one I had not thought about for awhile. Take a moment and read his words:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

Seamus Heaney,
from "The Cure at Troy"

This poem starts out pretty hideously, doesn’t it? “Human beings suffer”?????? What kind of lovely, lyrical poem is this? And by the second stanza, one begins to beat one’s breast over all the angst and mistreatment in the world. Then we get to the third stanza, and we meet the mundane historian mouthing conventional wisdom that we should not hope for goodness in this life…But then…the little tiny hint that once in a lifetime, oh, and I love this phrase: hope and history rhyme. It could. It might!

Then the rest of it is this rush of possibility. The Pollyanna in me loves that possibility of “a great sea-change.” The global citizen in me longs for that “further shore.” The dramatist in me revels in the special effects of fire and lightning and storms. And of course, the teacher in me seeks to cultivate that “utter self-revealing double-take of feeling” in students.

I used to teach this poem when I taught a certain 20th century history class at Hackley. It was a poem beloved by James Agee and Walker Evans, two intrepid men who worked together in the 1930s hoping that their prose and photography might spark new empathy in Americans. I used to teach about Agee and Evans, and that little opening allowed me a chance to share this poem with my seniors hoping they might enjoy it as well.

As I enter my classroom tomorrow in the King Hussein Humanities Wing, I will lean on those possibilities. I will look for those possibilities. This school is certainly founded on a noble ethos, and it may take a long time for this school to live out the lofty principles and promises set (and of course there is always the possibility it will not), but tomorrow I will start to enjoy that double-take of feeling along the way, and I can help my students long for those connections when hope and history rhyme.

--August 25, 2007


So last week I assigned my 14 seniors in my marvelous History of the 20th Century class to read and respond to these very lines. This was the third assignment of the year. Two nights before they had read the preface to Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, a man so burdened with the “weight of history” as he called it, that he took his own life. And the night before they had read the preface to Howard Zinn’s memoirs, a historian who also pondered deeply the burdens of history. I asked them to write a one-page response to the lines by Seamus Heaney. Here are some of their responses:

Zeyna wrote, “This light at the end of the tunnel view on life is much like the state of the sublime present in Romanticism, in that there is always hope for a calm after the storm, a moment in which the wars and conflicts subside and we are left with a serene landscape….In my opinion this is a naïve view of life. Howard Zinn’s reflection on life, while similar, was different in one key aspect: instead of saying to “hope for a great sea change” he says to be the instigator of that change…”

Abdullah wrote, “To better understand Seamus’ poem one should take into consideration the play it is from and the historical context it was written in….The play ends with the boy repenting and Philoctetes being healed. Perhaps this also reflects that both Heaney and Sophocles saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Sophocles also saw that despite all this corruption with the Peloponnesian War there is still some hope left. Similarly, perhaps Heaney also saw hope in the world with the end of the USSR and the Cold War.

Dima wrote, “This excerpt was taken from a play written in 1990, almost at the end of the 20th century—a century of “the most inconceivable decline of humanity into a barbarism,” according to Stefan Zweig….Heaney adopts the concept of a post-rain existing rainbow, motivating the readers of a splendid future that would be gained after the schism and disaster many experienced.”

Qxhna described the poem as “the marriage of how Stefan Zweig felt about the 20th century and how Howard Zinn felt about the 20th century,” and summons up Howard Zinn’s reminder that “we have been given a gift: the gift of life.” She quotes how Zinn discussed his wartime buddies who died, “I owe it to Joe and Ed not to waste my gift…for that new world we all thought was promised by the war that took their lives.”

Rob said that “when I read the title, “The Cure at Troy,” it struck me, so I looked it up and my suspicions were correct, it was an adaptation of a play by Sophocles….When it says, “don’t hope on this side of the grave” I am driven to think about the classical ideal of the Kouros, the young male full of potential and possibility, and it usually served as a grave marker. I find this quote to be related to this somehow…”

Thaer writes, “Let us imagine that time machines became a reality. As an experiment, a man by the name of Mr. John would be sent to live through every historical era and every civilization known….As Mr. John travels through today’s world he finds that there are 1 billion people starving’ around 30,000 people starving to death every day…However, there are areas where women and non-whites can vote; there are environmental activists; there are many glimpses of hope….If you can see those glimpses of hope, we can aim to bring the walls down and see the sun again. That’s what activism is about. That’s what the Revolution is about.”

Adel noted that Winston Churchill had declared that the 20th century was a “disappointment” in 1922. Adel said, “the 20th century is not what anyone expected. What was expected was an era of peace, harmony and advancement.” Adel suggests that we act like Heaney and “believe in miracles,” and Howard Zinn who insisted that we hope.

Jude discusses how Heaney views the “failure of the human race as the poem begins. He magnifies the viciousness of our race. Our swift ability to kill each other, to erase a life, push, pull, and eventually fall ourselves. Heaney hints that in the midst of this chaos there is no way to take back time…. Though optimism is in short supply there is still a lingering sense of reunion exemplified by courageous folk.”

Reed feels that “the poem reminds us that within the dark violent sea of prejudice, there stands a wave above all to reunite and carry us through….Much like Howard Zinn and Stefan Zweig’s confusion about society and the heavy weight of history behind them, the poem recognizes the dark past, but transcends despair just as Howard Zinn had a glimpse for the future…”

Faisal comments that this realization about life “comes with a burden. Because we are the solution, we have a responsibility toward those suffering. But Heaney, like Zinn, does not demand much. All we are asked to do is “hope,” and “believe”….Now that I think about it, Heaney’s message to “hope” helped get a U.S. president elected into office in this new century.”

Yusra says she “likes this way of thinking during hard times. I myself have learned first hand that it’s the only way to keep going in life. I am so optimistic about life that people often question my sanity, when really it’s my optimism that keeps me sane.”

Hamzeh notes that “Although History is telling us not to hope, justice can defy every rule and thus enable us to hope and defeat the ego of History. I see it as History versus Hope….This hope, its believers and embracers are demonstrated best in the case of the African-American people….What did these people have? Nothing, except hope….They got their freedom and history got defeated by hope.”

Suhayb reflected that “this poem reminded me of the painting Raft of the Medusa…Heaney throws out all the despair in the beginning of his poem and then gives you the hope. The Raft of the Medusa uses a similar format showing you the complete despair of the people on the raft, but then it builds up this pyramid of people showing the hope that then leads to the little point of life igniting hope in the people.”

Back in August, 2007, I wondered where it all might lead. I wondered what this experience might be like, if the project would work. Hamzeh noted that history and hope cannot sound the same, but just as Heaney wondered, might they just sound a common chord? As I read these papers this morning, I see where we have come in these 38 months.

Can you hear it?