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
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.