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.”