Thursday, January 28, 2010

Golden Days

This week ended our 20-day foray studying the Renaissance in AP Art History, and I wanted to share two different days that were especially memorable in our historical romp. It is hard to decide if this was the best time I had teaching the Renaissance ever but it was wonderful to be back with these art treasures since last teaching the course three years ago.

Of course the Renaissance is always a memorable topic for me—the first (and only) art history course I ever took was in the Renaissance and Baroque periods 25 years ago when I studied in Salzburg, Austria. I would meet my Denison friend Jill in Florence or Rome and we would scream around museums gawking at art we had just studied that week in our respective classes. And in my early teaching days it was the first art works I attempted to use with my high school European history students. But one improvement over teaching the Renaissance at Hackley was that I got to teach these 20 days all in one shot. At Hackley I would introduce the Renaissance in December, then came the Christmas break interruptus. Then we would come back and have another week, another crack at figuring out all the forces swirling in 15th century Italy. Then came the semester exams. Then after exam week and a break we would study the “High” Renaissance for a bit before the Protestants started spoiling the Renaissance party. It was much more exciting to build the momentum day after day as we stretched and thought and provoked and engaged with the Renaissance.

It has already been a banner year with my young art historians—they have an enthusiasm and appetite for the work that is thrilling. But still some of them dwell too much on the narrative of the art work, and it is hard for teen-agers to dip their toes into the pool of philosophical engagement. But I thought I would give it a whirl.

One day a couple weeks ago I projected a statue on the board without telling them anything about it. No name, no artist, no date, no context whatsoever. I asked them what or who the statue looked like.

They were game to play along. They described the fit, young body as certainly an allusion to the young Greek male, the classic ephebe would should be well-educated and change the world. They commented on the Greek proportions and his sense of confidence. Some wondered if the statue was another relic from ancient Greece or a copy from ancient Rome dug up and paraded through Renaissance Rome. They said everything that the statue certainly projected about the celebration of the individual and that oft-used word in studying the Renaissance—humanism.

[Now if you want to play along with the exercise, go and google a statue by Tullio Lombardo, circa 1490, and see what you come up with…seriously…go and google him and see if you find the statue they saw in class…are you doing it yet? Remember, teachers have eyes in the backs of their heads, and their eyes are good—even all the way from Jordan!]

After we kind of exhausted the ‘What do you notice?’ query, I asked them to ask me questions about the statue so we could fill in the context. They know the drill. They asked good questions about the year in which it was made, and who the patron was. Someone asked, “Where the statue could have been seen?” The statue would have been placed in City Hall actually. No one was surprised given the Italian love of “antique chic” during the Renaissance. Then Fadi looked very quizzical and said softly, “Is it Adam?”

The class looked at the statue again. Well, there did appear to be an apple in this man’s hand, and maybe that accessory thing beside his buff body was a tree trunk and serpent…wait…Adam??

Fadi was correct. This statue—this handsome, confident young man was indeed Adam, the guy with Eve who invented sin and caused…dramatic pause…the Fall of Man…

Several hands went up incredibly confused—this did not look like any Adam from the Middle Ages. “He doesn’t look ashamed at all,” said Abdullah, and Dana chimed in, “That is nothing like the Adam on Bishop Bernward’s bronze doors in Germany.” No, this was the Renaissance, and even Adam gets a make-over.

I handed out a quotation that read:
“Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone
nor function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam…
thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will,
in whose hand we have placed thee,
shall ordain for thyself the limits of nature."

--Pico della Mirandola,
Platonic Academy, 1486

Now these words are not easy even for American students, but imagine, yet again, how remarkable it is for students to tackle this who experience English as a second language! We chewed up these words, and realized the power in phrases like “no limits,” and “thine own free will.” Mohammad was pretty dumb-founded: “But this is Adam—he is all about shame in every art work we have seen.” Rob reminded the class of the medieval Pope Innocent who proclaimed, “Man is the stench in the nostrils of God.” Kais looked at the phrase and dissected the phrase “ordain for thyself,” and said, “The word ordain is usually used for church language and priests, and this Renaissance philosopher uses the word for Adam.” He thought for a moment and added, “If Adam can be redeemed and celebrated—any human can be!”

This is not a simple discussion to have. Think of the complexity of thought, and actually the delicacy of hoping the students get to these points—wow…but we continued with discussing why a city council would put this in their City Hall. They had no trouble speculating the effect this had on Renaissance Italians elevating and celebrating mankind. [Yes, we discussed the article, “Was There a Renaissance for Women,” and we safely decided the era elevated mankind and not womankind.]

Next I decided to bring a little mathematics into the discussion. I helped them understand the concept of the “Golden Mean.” “The Golden Mean” refers to a proportional relationship developed by the ancient Greeks that establishes a harmonic ratio between two unequal parts. It is defined as a line that is divided in such a way that the smaller part is to the larger as the larger is to the whole. (I drew on the board a mess of geometric stuff to demonstrate the point.) “The Golden Mean” is believed to be based on a mathematical formula present in nature and known as the Fibonacci Sequence. Numerically, this sequence is: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and so on. Each new number is generated by adding together the last two numbers: (0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, 5+8=13, 8+13=21. etc.) An example found in nature would be a flower with 13 petals in one row—its adjacent rows would have 8 or 21 petals. The mathematical formula for “The Golden Mean” is derived by dividing one number in the Fibonacci Sequence by the next highest number. For example, if you divide 55 by 89, the quotient is .618; if you divide 34 by 55, the quotient is .618……..hmmmmmmm………

We went back to the statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo—there is mathematical precision there. If you measure him from head to foot, it is 75 inches. If you multiply that by .618 you will get 46 inches. If you measure up the distance from the man’s foot, guess where that takes you exactly? It takes you to the navel, where, as these Renaissance philosophers professed, life begins, the center of life…

They were appropriately wowed by the fusion of philosophy and mathematics and the Bible. We went back to the ancient Greek quotation:

“…that beauty does not consist in the elements
but in harmonious proportion to the parts;
the proportion of one finger to the other,
of all the fingers to the rest of the hand,
of the rest of the hand to the wrist,
of these to the forearm
of the forearm to the whole arm…
of all parts to all others…”

“Canon of Human Proportions”

And we looked at how the Renaissance architects used this philosophy and mathematics to actually use the human as the measure for all buildings, just as Athenian Protagoras had pronounced, “Man is the Measure of All Things.” We looked at drawings of private homes and public buildings, with sketches by Leonardo and Durer, and saw how they used man’s body as the measure of buildings, seeing the building as a meeting point of the human and the divine.

Later that week, each student worked in a group of four to teach a Renaissance “Golden Age” art work we had not studied before. Each student acted as the resident scholar for their mini-Platonic Academy. They were impressive.

Maybe sometime I will get to tell you about the contest we had the day before the test on the Renaissance. Right now, I need to get cracking on grading those 60 tests. I hope some of that brilliance from those two classes found its way on those tests.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

…to the ridiculous!

I had originally meant to describe my whole thrilling day of January 13, 2010 in one blogisode from the coffee talk in the morning to the intricate lesson plan of Renaissance art to the afternoon Declamations contest to the chilling images from Haiti pouring out of CNN to the wacky, silly, unbelievably fun Garbage Disposal eating contest of the evening.

But I did not want to diminish the power of Faisal’s speech just by recounting how strange each turn of the day seemed to be, and ultimately what a moving day it was.

So while it might have been very Seinfeld-esque to combine and blend all those things, I will dissect the day that day a little more straightforwardly.

Anyway, a month ago one dormitory of boys challenged another dormitory of boys to a soccer game—you know, one of those man-to-man-he-man contests of strength and wills that schools find fun to stoke a little friendly competition and enliven school spirit.

It was a very exciting game (words that don’t come out of my mouth very often!) but, as you might suspect, the most fun was the old camaraderie on-and-off the field as people shouted and caroused about whose dorm is better. I cheered like my brother-in-law (a true sports enthusiast and lover of life). Actually, I mimicked whatever the coaches yelled out to the team, I simply copied their words, but just sounded more like the lead guy on Coach (I had to make a sit-com reference—I really have few sports references of my own!) and looked uber-serious. It felt like a fun, fun game in the stands on a great autumn day.

Okay, you are caught up to speed.

So one of the girls’ dormitories decided to get in on the action and challenge my boys dorm to a contest—a contest in which contestants from both dorms tried to out-do each other in consuming gross food. The girls were all fired up about it—they were going to trounce the boys.

At first my dorm was a little apathetic in signing on for the spirited contest. (By the way, the Renaissance can be referenced here as well—contests were all the rage in the Renaissance, used very much like American Idol to stoke the fires of civic pride.) So I volunteered to be one of the contestants. And, well, others, my shebab, (Arabic for “bros”) jumped on the bandwagon.

The contest was held in our smaller auditorium. One group got together to plan what the gross food ought to be for the contestants; one group chose judges and set the rules; one group took care of the logistics of securing the venue and all those other things. This contest was going high-tech!

I showed up for the contest last week and surprisingly, the Lecture Hall was packed. A couple hundred people had ventured over to see how the gross-food smack-down went down. I figured it was going to be things like BBQ sauce over ice cream. Child’s play.

Oh, no. They had taken their time and carefully planned the 9 courses in this contest. There was an MC. There were cheering sections. The food was unveiled with the utmost drama and explained in gross detail.

As the first course was brought out by our smiling waiters (smiling actually a great deal like Joel Grey’s satanic MC character in Cabaret!) one of my shebab smelled the plate and abruptly quit the contest. It was a plate of hideous dried sardines. Quickly we found a heroic replacement.

Now, I am not new to food contests. At Hackley the History Department had an annual atomic chicken wing contest (And I came in second too many times!! That darned Mike Reist always beat me by one lousy wing!!! Curses!) and I participated in a Taco-Eating Contest one year as well—all in the name of school spirit, of course! I ate 13 tacos in a super-speedy time. And of course besides the official contests, much of my life plays like a food-eating contest…

I couldn’t believe how electrifying the mood was in the lecture hall. There was yelling and cheering and truly, the most energized moments I have felt at this school. It felt like the best pep rally/football game one could imagine.

In the rules, you had to eat everything on the plate, sometimes with your hands, sometimes with no hands at all, then show a judge your empty mouth, then jump up and see how you did in the contest. I was the only adult participating…although many were cheering me on in the back.

I’ll tell you, if I wasn’t a good sport, I might have leapt off the stage like my buddy Mo Q, who took one whiff of the dried sardines and headed for the Madaba hills! Try and imagine the stinkiest, awfullest, smell of thousand-year old fish, and that comes close to the first course. And because they were dried they were slow to chew. And Dry! Oh, this first course lived up to the name of the Gross Food Eating Contest. But I like competition!

I came in fourth for the first round. I noted how well the girls did. My team had some heavy-weight eating contenders, but those girls looked fierce. They wanted to win.

In the next course we had to eat pickled plums that had been doused with some concoction that reminds you of the word ‘heinous.’ I held my own in that round as I spat out the pits of the pickled plums and made great faces for the crowd. Actually, there were no forced faces just to be a ham. The food was so gross the faces came quite naturally.

The crowd roared as the courses went by, as more creative gross concoctions came out of the make-shift kitchen. Each time I finished my cheering section sounded its approval.

Then came the whole hot pepper. Interesting choice. Nothing like the course of hummus and goat brains and peanut butter. Just a plain, hot pepper to devour whole.

I am munching away on this pepper, mindful that I want to keep my place since each round, someone is eliminated (Oh, how, Dancing with the Stars! this all is!). My mouth is on fire as I chomp away, and a part of my brain wonders, “hmmmm…is it healthy to eat a whole hot pepper? Do I remember reading anything that it is bad for you, oh no, maybe it’s bad…I’m over 40, maybe it’s bad for you!") and as my mouth pretends to be the Fourth of July, I decide to, gulp, actually, not gulp, and not swallow the pepper, and concede. I am the one kicked off the gross gastronomic island at the end of that round.

But the rest of the contest was so fun to watch. That bizarre, kinetic energy that is school spirit whipped the crowd into a frenzy. I had never heard such yelling and excitement, well, maybe not since a West High-Elder game back in high school. I was standing with some faculty, yelling, laughing, enjoying the whole strange, ridiculous moment.

It came down to two boys and two girls. Then one boy and two girls. The boy was about three times the size of the girl, but she had been fearless in each round. It was such a pleasure watching this spectacle! Just beholding it was pure fun!

Omar and Lubna faced off. I forget what the last course was, I think some salt-y, bone-y type Arabic obscure food. It looked like Omar was ahead; indeed his posse gathered around as he slurped up the mess. The crowd anointed Omar the winner, and the guys went crazy. Then the photographer who had been preserving this gross gladiator contest for posterity stepped forward and showed a photo-finish. Lubna had actually triumphed.

Hey, the whole crowd had triumphed. It was a silly hour that galvanized us in the most juvenile and fun-loving way.

That day my students had tackled the most complex lesson I had devised for them; they triumphed. Faisal stood up and offered his diagnosis for some of the ills in the Arab world. Instead of boos or apathy, his peers offered him a thunderous applause and the acclaim as the winner of the senior class. That evening I slummed a little on Low-Brow Row and had a belly laugh and a belly-ful of an outrageous contest.

I know, it’s not the thrills of Manhattan, but thirty months into this project at KA, and I still find so much that moves and thrills and delights.

It’s never plain-brown wrapper here…

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just One Day

Most days in any school do have a mundane feel to them—indeed, we educators covet a painless, crisis-free day. But if you were watching from a worm’s eye view (just taught that kind of perspective, so prized by 15th century artist Andrea Mantegna, the other day!) as people shuttle from class to class, sit down for lunch, finish up some math problems, cram for a French test, I guess most days feel kind of plain-brown wrapper. Ah, but to those of us who are lovers of school, even the seemingly ordinary days really are more like Our Town which when unwrapped is like a great iceberg—what we see on the surface goes much deeper than we realize. (yes, I know I mixed the metaphors…sue me.)

Anyway, last Wednesday was not ordinary at all. And as I look back on that day, January 13, 2010, it is one of the most wonderful days of my whole KA experience.
First of all, I taught a complex lesson about the Renaissance—but I will devote a whole blog entry to that in a couple of days. The day was remarkable because of something so serious in the afternoon, and then an evening event so silly—a gross food eating contest—that sets that day apart. You know I think I better handle just one topic at a time in this blogisode…stay tuned for an upcoming blogisode about the gross food eating contest…guess who participated??????

Anyway, last Wednesday afternoon the school was divided into the four grades, and the winners of each section of English class participated in a declamation contest. “Declamation” is one of those wonderful, old-fashioned traditions from prep schools, one maintained and cherished at Deerfield Academy to this very day. Each student prepares a speech, a declamation, and then offers that speech in English class. Then each class votes on whose declamation was the very best. Then each of the class winners competes against each other in front of the whole school.
Too bad more schools don’t honor this tradition of rhetoric, poise, sharp writing, and public speaking. In the Renaissance (all this month we are studying the magical Renaissance in Art History class) declamations were a part of every young man’s education. In order to be an effective and productive citizen of a city, a young man needed to be successful in Declamations.

I had heard how well the class speeches were going, and last Wednesday afternoon I looked forward to hearing as many as I could in the one hour after school devoted to the public declamations by grade. I heard several from the junior class, then zipped over to the venue for the seniors, for I wanted to hear my student Faisal offer his declamation.

Faisal is a young man who was my first interview with a prospective student two Januaries ago. I have taught him now twice, and he earned a superior grade on the AP exam last spring. He is a worker bee and a delight to know. However, he makes no bones about how he does not enjoy public speaking. I knew he did not relish this opportunity for public speaking as some would.

Faisal eschewed the choice that some had made speaking about a sad moment in their lives for their speeches, or how much they enjoyed KA, or something else light in subject matter. Instead, Faisal did exactly what those Renaissance scholars would have advocated 500 years ago—a speech of moral and civic courage. Not only did Faisal write a captivating speech, but this speech about his own world, his own people, was delivered in a majestic, confident tone. I asked Faisal if I could put his speech on the blog for everyone to read his speech, and he agreed. Here is the text to Faisal’s declamation:

The Arab World
"A moment comes, which rarely comes in history, where we step from the old to the new, when an old age ends and when the soul of a nation finds utterance."-Jawaharlal Nehru. That moment seems unattainable for the modern Arab world even when the environment feels ripe for reform, change and prosperity. We are the characterization of unfulfilled potential; countless moments and opportunities were offered to us only to find the overwhelmingly lethargic nature of Arabia prevail in inhibiting growth and development. A void of educated leaders and a lack of emphasis on human development coupled with a fixation on the Arab-Israeli conflict and a reactionary interpretation of the ideals of Islam has guaranteed intransigence at every point of the threshold.

The “Israel complex” Arabs seem to hold is best identified through the 2008 Brookings poll which found that 86% of Arabs classify the Palestinian-Israeli issue as one of their top 3 priorities. So much of our gusto has gone into protesting Israel’s formation on Palestinian land that it has sapped our energy to take constructive strides towards achieving our goals. After its establishment in 1945, the Arab League released declaration after declaration boycotting Israel and calling for its removal. Its agenda did not address why it was so easy for Israel to forge a nation at the epicenter of the Arab world. Nor did the Arab League look at ways to re-build the 21 other newly independent Arab states. Arab obsession with Israel is so intense that it did not provide the motive for unification and development a common enemy usually induces- as was the case during Otto Von Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871.

Islam has been falsely interpreted to prevent reform and hinder the moderate Arabs’ plight for modernization and widespread modification of an outdated social and political system. Arab extremists have used religion as an excuse for stagnation by referring to acts of democratization and social development as un-Islamic. This has made sure Arabs lag behind in issues such as women’s rights, even when the founding of Islam in 600 C.E brought significant reform to the conditions of women in Arabia. Mistaken interpretation of Islam has also contributed to widespread censorship in the educational process, in addition to over emphasis on religious studies at the cost of a secular learning. Arabs forget that the prophet Muhammad once stated, “Seek knowledge even unto China.”

Research and the development of human capital is the only way to guarantee Arab success. Countless civilizations have forged success through increased expenditure on research and development such as Russia’s Peter the Great. Education is the way of the future and it is severely lacking in the Middle East. “A listing of the world’s top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes… six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one.” The quality of education in the Arab world is primitive and does not equip students with critical thinking skills needed for innovation and advancement. Today’s Arabs have no resemblance to their ancestors who “studied astronomy, alchemy, medicine and mathematics with such success that, during the ninth and tenth centuries, more scientific discoveries had been achieved in the Abbasid Empire than in any previous period of history." Today’s educational void has guaranteed exceptionally high poverty and youth unemployment rates in the Middle East.

We have listened to our family members debate the issue and we have formed our own ideas. Now it is time for us to take action. The energy for achieving a moment where we move into a new era is planted in us, the youth of the Arab world. We must work hard for this cause. We must not talk about this issue and then leave it to someone else to handle because we have seen what that attitude produces. I recently came upon a letter that a nationalist wrote in exile to his wife; “I’m sorry it had to be us, I’m sorry I put the nationalistic cause above the well-being of our family. It is a necessary sacrifice for the greater community.” Our task is clear: we must honor and develop the work of our ancestors and finally see through the moment “where we step from the old to the new.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Highest Caliber In Devotion

I received word this morning that rescue workers recovered the body of my friend Luis yesterday.

I went to facebook to write something for one of his daughters, and these two messages summed up the sad news.

“Your father is an inspiration for us all, a true hero; he served with passion and dedication to make the world a better place, all while being a loving father and husband and accomplish the mission of the UN. It's very rare that people will visit a troubled area such as Haiti, and your dad did it with honor and respect.”

“We remember him as deeply generous and loving, open and warm. We lifted our glasses to him this evening. He was a man of the highest caliber in devotion to family and indeed to humankind.”

Peace be with the da Costa family.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I hope there is enough time in the next week to relay all the blog-worthy episodes of the last week—it has been a thrilling, roller-coaster week, to be sure.

But in the last two days there has been one great burden weighing on my mind and heart: I know someone in Haiti. Life in Jordan has been stimulating and noteworthy this week, but it has all been filtered through my daze of wondering about my friend Luis da Costa.

I first learned of the earthquake in Haiti on Wednesday while I casually checked CNN for any interesting world news. The early reports were staggering of the devastation and loss, but as that old axiom says, “the deaths of thousands are a statistic; the death of one is a tragedy.” I know someone in Haiti so the reporting took on so much more meaning—was Luis in Haiti? Was he safe?

Luis is the husband of a dear friend from Hackley, a serious, stylish, spitfire Spanish teacher named Cristina. I quickly emailed some friends at Hackley to see if they had good news about Luis. I heard back that he was indeed in Haiti at the time, and as of yet, unaccounted for.

Every couple of hours on Wednesday evening, all of Thursday, continuing today, I have been scouring the news web sites, checking facebook pages, looking for any news about my friend Luis.

Luis works for the United Nations and for several years he has been second-in-command of this important peacekeeping mission in Haiti. He was dispatched to Haiti around 2005 because he has been so successful in other dangerous, delicate areas of the world, such as Liberia and Kosovo.

Cristina and Luis, for many of us, are a dream couple. They are so good-looking, it as if Central Casting matched them up to dazzle the world. They invited me to many parties at their home—they are the most natural and gracious hosts—and my favorites were the parties where I got to mingle around the glamorous UN crowd. Here was the kid from the mid-west rubbing elbows with movers and shakers from around the world.

No, I think my favorite parties at their home were the teacher parties, where Cristina and Luis waited on some teacher friends as if we were movers and shakers. Cristina has more cheese boards and cheese knives than any other human I know, and an evening at their home was always magical with the many new cheeses to try, or calm, elegant meals at the formal dining table, or casual elegance outside on the deck. To be honest, any moment at the da Costa home felt like the best treat in the world.

Luis would be gone from the New York area for stretches of time—he headed missions around the world where very fragile infrastructures needed nurturing. But often when he came back into town he would come to my class to help my students understand the developments and promises around the world. He loved to help the students see how crucial it was to empathize with people in far-flung places and imagine how to solve problems in the world.

Luis and I had a kind of bond about my mid-western roots—he had been an exchange student to Mansfield, Ohio from Brazil as a high school student, and that trip fostered his love of international work. His happy days in small-town Ohio encouraged him to spend his career doing work around the world. At nearly every party we regaled each other about things we loved about Ohio.

I am in Jordan actually, in large part, due to encouragement from my friend Luis. Three years ago this weekend Cristina and I performed together in a concert with their daughter at a school in Rye, New York. Cristina had asked me to participate in this concert as another way for us to spend time together as friends. Luis was gone much of the time, and we would spend Monday evenings together rehearsing for this great concert. Luis flew in for the concert, and while out to dinner, celebrating the beautiful concert, I turned to Luis and said, “My worldly friend Luis, I need some advice and counsel from you. I am sorta kinda thinking about moving and teaching at this school in Jordan. But I am nervous. Can I lean on you for some sage advice?”

Luis and I moved to the other side of the restaurant for a chat about Jordan. I explained that the vision of this school intrigued and inspired me, but what do I tell my family about Jordan? What could I expect from moving to the Middle East? Luis spent some quality time explaining to me some of the pros and cons of working outside of your homeland. He also explained I might relay to my family that in the United Nations, Jordan was considered a “family post,” i.e. a dispatch safe enough for one to take one’s family. He compared his post in Haiti, which he said was not a “family post.”

Over the next day he was quite kind helping me see Jordan in the context of international work and just soothing my nerves about this prospect. He called me and said he had a book to loan me about the Arab world that he had read, and found useful, before he did some work in the region.

Luis always has such a calming effect, perhaps on everyone with whom he interacts, but it was after my conversations with him, I felt confident to pursue the thought process of accepting a job in Jordan.

Later that year, the dream couple hosted a farewell dinner party for me, and like always, you felt you were so special. I was there with a tableful of the people who had enriched my life for a decade at Hackley, and we could relax and savor the conviviality. Six months later, upon my first visit back to New York, they hosted a beautiful party for me again.

The other day I saw an article in the paper with a statistic and commentary that arrested my attention. The article stated that “about 6,000 people died of AIDS yesterday…twice that of the September 11 attacks…and that gruesome death toll should be a front-page story, except that after thirty years AIDS has become boring.” Except, of course, if you knew one of those 6,000 people who might have died yesterday of AIDS.

We see these stories all too often—natural disasters, roadside bombings, flus, terror attacks, and we hear the statistics, and we may be moved by the death and carnage in the world, but we don’t often know someone there.

A month ago in New York I had a morning coffee with Cristina—she had recently spent Thanksgiving in Haiti with Luis and she related how good the work was coming along with the UN in Haiti. She and Luis had had an exceptionally good visit, and she suggested that we travel together to Haiti sometime to see the beauty and progress enlivening the place.

The reports of the earthquake’s death toll in Haiti vary widely—they say, anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people may have died. But I do know one person there, and it is unimaginable to me what my dear friend Cristina and her daughters feel as they wait for a phone call or email.

Last night I was out to dinner with a student and his family and my phone rang about 8:00 p.m. It was Eric, the head at KA. He just called to ask if I had had any news about Luis. “No,” I said, “Still unaccounted for, but thank you so much for calling.” His kindness touched me as I wait. As I look on their facebook pages, comments of hope and love fill the pages as the networks of family and friends pray around the world.

As I wait upon the news, hoping and praying for his safety, it is good to remember the ways that this four-decades long UN worker has touched my life. In the spirit of Tarrytown, where Hackley stands, I think of the words of native-son Washington Irving, who once said that “Great minds have purposes; others just have wishes.”

My friend Luis is a purposeful man, a caring man, a great man.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pass the cinnamon sugar!

A couple of hours ago I was in a meeting of department heads, sitting around this very fancy table with fake-fancy chairs, and I could feel that dastardly feeling of defeat crowding in over us as we considered a couple of issues and how we (as a school, institution, organization, bureaucracy, etc) have failed to think about every aspect of school life. As the mood veered dangerously away from the giddiness of that New Year’s promise I wrote about last Tuesday, I retreated into my little daydream world while people volleyed ideas and cracks about when certain reports should be filed, when advisees should be notified of something or another, or when or if seniors should write final exams. Yes, it is all important, but I sensed that feeling of normalcy (or is it apathy mixed with cynicism???) creeping upon us, so I retreated into my head for a few moments.

I remembered when I was about 10, and very much in the stage of my life when I wanted to be a celebrity chef and restaurateur and my mother called the Frisch’s corporate office to ask on my behalf how I should go about starting a restaurant. She never acted like 10 year olds should not be doing such things, so it seemed pretty normal for the life I knew with the vibrant Mary Martha. (For those who remember, Frisch’s is in that Big Boy chain of restaurants, and it was my mother’s haunt for breakfast/coffee/fellowship for my childhood and adolescent years—indeed, they owed her a little attention for all the mornings in that establishment on Glenway Avenue…) They gave her a corporate document that was essentially a check-list of everything one needed to start your own franchise of Frisch’s. I knew the menu well, and so I studied this very detailed list of like 400 things you needed before you could open your doors and start your business.

I certainly did not have any of the booths, or chairs, or glassware or fryers; indeed, as I studied this list and planned how I would open this restaurant, I really only had one item available that was on that list to open the doors: cinnamon sugar from our family pantry. But, you know, in my 10 year old head, I was not deterred that I didn’t have the hundreds of other items on this corporate check-list. I had one of the items and I had will and desire. In my mind, let’s get going and plan and organize how to open that restaurant!

As I sat in this meeting, not unlike dozens of other meetings I have attended this year and other years here, I felt that lethargy, no, maybe worse—like a torpor kind of feeling engulfing us and maybe just stopping us in our tracks. There were still so many things we hadn’t considered in the opening of a school! Like when would the seniors finish classes, or what would we do with them on Graduation Day (the date had been set last year—it is June 3!). As I came back to the meeting, leaving my childhood reverie and Frisch’s checklist in the annals of time, I wondered about that New Year’s feeling, and didn’t want to concede to Time yet. It is still early! It can’t be that normal feeling on just January 12! We need to keep the fires and excitement of New Year’s going! I almost felt the need to pull some of my colleagues by their collars and remind them of the beauty of a New Year. Or at least remind them that we have more than cinnamon sugar—we need not be so deterred in working on the school and revising and clarifying our plans and thoughts and hopes and actions and policies!

Anyway, as the meeting lurched onto another topic, I found another reason to escape into my head. I remembered my favorite movie of the Christmas break I saw, a kind of small-ish, independent kind of movie entitled Me and Orson Welles. I saw this with two of my oldest and dearest friends, Shelley and Doris, teachers in Cincinnati, former performers all of us together and friends since 7th grade.

I loved this movie! It was set in New York in 1937 (my favorite city, a great era for music) when a brash 22 year old named Orson Welles mounted his first theater production in New York. He worked with a maniacally devoted group of theater pros to put up a visionary production of Julius Caesar with the characters dressed in the uniforms and long coats of the Italian fascists. We see Welles through the eyes of a cocky seventeen-year old, Richard Samuels, a New Jersey kid who bluffs his way into the company. The movie is set in that frantic week as the production lurches toward opening night and Welles experiments and seduces and bullies everything and everyone, trying to achieve theater alchemy.

I liked it for many reasons—the theater part, the New York part, the fact that I saw it with two friends with whom I shared a coming-of-age in suburban Cincinnati in the 1970s and 1980s. But what enthralled me the most was watching this nascent organization come to life. Watching this theater company come to life and figure out its way reminded me of this school. And don’t forget the words I chose—“maniacally devoted” and “visionary.” This is a movie of great spirit and considerable charm—much like this place, KA, here in the desert of Jordan. But the point that moved me the most was that this film was about the giddiness of promise, the awakening of young talent, arriving at the moment (after considerable labor and nail-biting) when anything seems possible.

As my colleagues’ faces drooped throughout this hour-long meeting, I retreated to this movie reverie enjoyed two weeks ago. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have the conversation with them, but I felt the enervating mood, and I don’t want to lose that excitement and gratitude for a new year. So I thought about the movie, and that giddiness of promise… and I thought about how a restaurant and a movie and a school require thousands of inter-locking details, long-range planning, consistency and reliability. Okay, let’s leave the movie-land and trip down memory lane, and get back to the business at hand.

We need to fix our attendance policy—heck, we need to re-invent the wheel it seems at understanding how to take attendance, collect attendance, ensure it is correct, enforce the “rules” of missed classes—really, this one area may be the end of it all it seems! I spend too much time on this as a dean, and it can overtake you like ivy choking out a young seedling. We need to think about advisor reports—when do we do them, how to communicate information, how do we decide on graduation robes and music and school plays and soccer tournaments. When everything is new, you need to go back to the checklist.

The funny thing about the checklist is that the board of trustees created an entire campus before the doors opened to educate the youth of the Middle East. Of course, that gives the illusion that everything is else is complete. There is so much more to creating a campus, and creating a school, supposedly unlike other schools in the region. The list is long—it feels never-ending.

In my pantry here in the kitchen is a paltry amount of spices. But one thing I always buy in a new home is a new bottle of cinnamon sugar. Somehow if I have that, and the will, and capitalize on the giddiness of promise—really, everything else is possible.

The New Year’s euphoria continues…

And boundaries are being watched and monitored…

More to come…

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Look it right in the eye!

Four days ago, on the shiny-penny day of January 1, I hopped on a plane bringing me back to my job-sweet-job in Jordan.

There is something profound about New Year’s Day anyway—resolutions and new beginnings and all that, and certainly an exclamation point to the holiday season.

But when you get up on a day with so many 1s in it, and you travel 8,000 miles, well, it just allows for uber-reflection…cause ya know I hate that anyway…

Everyone always asks how the vacation was—don’t they know by now, my vacations are great! I eat and talk for how many days are pressed in-between trans-atlantic flights. My vacations will always be great. And New Years are marvelous—of course, they really aren’t once-a-year things for teachers. We get two New Years’ every calendar year. We get two chances to bury the old and rejoice in the spanking-new.

Christmas breaks are different from summer breaks, of course, and more than just the temperatures and humidity levels. Christmas breaks tend to be stuffed with nostalgia. I don’t know about every family, but my family excels at nostalgia. We reminisce about the Thanksgiving of 1974 and of 2009. We meta-reflect about Christmas of 1971 as well as 2005. And heaven help us, if we do something twice, I think we are honor-bound to codify it as a traditional event or practice. We are steeped in nostalgia.

What is the power of nostalgia? On one hand, we can’t wait to cast off an old year—witness all those old-fashioned ways of celebrating New Years’ with old, bearded men being kicked around while the bouncing baby in diapers of the new year is heralded and welcomed. We want that chance of the new, but we also love to renew our acquaintance with old recipes, old friends, old stockings, old ornaments, old carols, old charms, and old memories.

For my family nostalgia is not a wallowing in the past. I think there is a coping power in nostalgia, or at least in how we treat nostalgia as virtual alchemy. If we had something once, the pull of nostalgia might empower us with the energy to move forward. That’s how I view our exercises in nostalgia. When I visit with my remarkable Aunt Dot, there is something in our stories of weaving together the past, understanding the past and where we have been, informing our present, and empowering us into the future until we see each other again and enjoy lunch in the Cincinnati Art Museum cafĂ©. Well, this is hardly a new thought I guess, about the power of nostalgia with the past, present, and future—I think I wrote about these thoughts a few months ago when I enjoyed another of our Denison Singer Reunions.

But at Christmas time there is an inevitable near-overkill of nostalgia, and one needs to leaven it a bit. It doesn’t help that we have more stimuli at this time of year than any other—from eggnog to Silver Bells to Magi to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (anybody remember the obscure 1970s Christmas show about Nestor The Long-Eared Donkey?? My sister especially loves that show.)

A week ago Sunday, when I was in the middle of the Christmas coma, I was watching “CBS Sunday Morning,” a show I genuinely miss while I am in Jordan. We were eating the traditional Christmas toffee-coffeecake left over from Christmas and I was enjoying the feature stories. One story discussed a phenomenon in psychology known as “The George Bailey Effect”—the what-it-might-have-been-like-if-I-had-never-been-born??? conundrum.

You know what’s coming—a pronouncement that the 1946 perennial holiday classic is one of my favorites. Yes, it is. And for those of you out there in blog-land who think it is a sissy, saccharine affair, well, I say to you: have you watched it lately?? I watch the movie every year—yes, as a tradition, because I started doing it in 1979 (actually, I do remember I started watching it that year, I am a historian and I remember dates—sue me! I was making broccoli bread and cranberry bread as presents for grandmothers, and it was my first time to watch the movie. Jenny Jones stopped by and…okay enough of pointing out my crazy-good memory).

I watch the movie every Christmas Eve—arriving home about 20 minutes into the start of the movie after having sung with my sister in our family’s church. And for the record, this Christmas Eve was our 36th consecutive appearance singing and playing on Christmas Eve. Yes, if I could be a professional tradition-carry-outer, I would probably be highly-paid. So I watch the movie and start to wrap my gifts. Every year I am surprised at the audacity of George’s brother at getting married without telling the family first, angered at the idiocy of Uncle Billy, lovestruck by the gorgeous Donna Reed, and chilled by the nastiness of ole man Potter. And every year the tear ducts do their traditional exercising at exactly the same point: first when George exclaims, “You know me Bert?!?!” and then when George finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket; then after George is bounding through town announcing “Merry Christmas Bedford Falls,” and a random couple shout back greetings. Then, scissors and tape are down on the table as I try and hold myself together through the telegram from Sam Wainwright (“hee-haw and Merry Christmas!”) and Harry Bailey’s return from his special dinner after Mary called him and told him to hightail it back through the blizzard to Bedford Falls. The blubbering continues (well, if my dad is in the room, I mask it a little) through the sight of the inscription of George’s book from Clarence.

Oh, I got off track—I meant to say that the movie is hardly a bland, sugar-coated treat. There is a tartness in how Frank Capra creates that Bedford Falls, and it is not difficult to sense the anger underlying our dear Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.

Oh, my, but just relating the plot points with the tracks of my tears gives me a good sigh. But back to the story on “CBS Sunday Morning.” The commentator spoke about how this “GB” syndrome can have a quite salutary effect on us. I guess no one else other than George gets Clarence as his guide, but thinking back on our own, without an eccentric angel-waiting-for-his-wings, we can have an appreciation for what we have now, a new clarity for the new year.

One of the five books I gobbled up during the vacation (reading=another reason vacations are always good) was David Michaelis’ excellent biography of comic strip king Charles Schulz. Having grown up in that Peanuts world, I assumed I knew everything about Charlie Brown and the gang. I didn’t know that when the strip emerged in the 1950s that college kids gobbled it up because of the sarcasm and pointed barbs toward adults and the establishment. I guess I just thought of it all as cute. Schulz got talked into commercializing the Peanuts gang and from the titles of the books, Happiness Is… I didn’t look too hard at the tartness Schulz invested in his characters. Schulz insisted that his strip was not cute and sweet, tossing back, “There are a lot of bitter and sarcastic things in it. I think it’s very real.” One British critic wrote of Snoopy and the gang, “Happiness is not a warm puppy. It’s work.” Michaelis reports that each week brought “mailbags of sheer relief from readers who” thanked Schulz for “giving us so many happy moments in a worry-torn world.”

Our world is hardly any less worry-torn. Even with such a pronouncement of what happiness is, it does allow us to wonder what happiness really is. It is work! It is complicated! How can it not be? Each new year, each new chapter offers us a chance to re-define, and re-calibrate our happiness meter.

As I approached my return to Jordan last week I talked with friends and family about my resolution to better define the “boundaries” in my life here. I enjoy most of what I do here, but this year especially, I have not defined my boundaries well. As I have mentioned in the blog, adults and students call me all evening, or bang on the door, all evening wanting just a little help, or guidance, or relief, or laughter, or editing, or studying, or patience. (I just had a knock at the door—a student wanted to know if I could change money from Oman! I never had been asked to be a banker before!) I don’t mean I really hate it, but I have hardly any time to prepare for class, much less breathe or play on Facebook. Boundaries. “I am setting clearer boundaries,” I proudly announced.

One friend guffawed a little and said, “Yeah, call me in a week and tell me how it’s going!”

I think that was George Bailey’s problem—he had a hard time setting boundaries, or enforcing boundaries, or envisioning boundaries. He had a hard time understanding the nature of happiness. Is it a warm puppy? An uncle in the loony bin? Children asking how to spell Christmas words? Financial solvency? The poor guy had no time and no energy to ponder the boundaries and happiness in his life.

I don’t really indulge in the what-it-might-have-been-like-if-I-had-never-been-born??? angle so much, but I do like a little thinking about George…how can I do a better job at chalking off some boundaries? How can I savor my own happinesses a little more?

New years are great. Here we are, right in that week of newness.

Here we are, looking that new year right in the eye…