Sunday, January 30, 2011

Is CNN reality?

This morning as I taught my 20th Century History class about the Russian Revolution, I thought about the current unrest in the Middle East a couple of times. I had shared with the class the model created by Crane Brinton in his Anatomy of a Revolution (some of these students have heard this in every course with me!) about how a revolution unfolds: while a tyrant holds sway, dialogue is often sought, and when that dialogue never happens, moderates seize control and events then get bigger and bigger. Disgruntled radicals then take control and…that is about 30% of the model. As we reminded ourselves of Brinton’s template, I said, “So far this template works exactly for what is going on in Egypt right now, less than an hour flight away.”

But then there was another moment, when I explained to them about the “pre-Revolution” to the big one in 1917, one that occurred in 1905. In 1905 there was an uprising in St. Petersburg, and after a kerfuffle the army came in and shot some of the protestors. Eventually Tsar Nicholas gave in a little bit, just a little bit, and most people thought the worst had faded away.

Then I was reminded in the fall of 1917, during “the big one” when the Bolsheviks staged their take-over, it always seemed interesting to me that while we think of it as a big deal today, it didn’t disrupt daily activities much. I remember one source saying that it didn’t even disrupt the daily movie schedule in St. Petersburg or Moscow.


I have received several emails and calls in the last couple of days telling me of the scary headlines about “protests in Jordan,” and since the news has been covering the upheavals in Egypt quite carefully, I have had some worried family and friends about Jordan.

So I did a little investigating.

I visited Starbucks in Amman. No one was talking about any protests in Amman. Then I spent the evening at a family’s home (a lovely dinner indeed—the mother made Arab dishes and the father made Italian dishes—I ate enough for several meals, and both cuisines satisfied me immensely!). When I came into their home, CNN was on TV and they had been glued to the news all day about the news from Egypt. I asked them about the protests in Amman as reported by the New York Times. They swiped their hands, and said, “Oh nothing is going on. Everything is fine.” I pressed them about what the news agencies had reported and the concerns of my family and friends. It was so interesting how it hardly fazed them. Among the half dozen adults there, no one was the least bit worried about the so-called protests. One of the guests said, “You know that happens all the time after Friday Prayers. Several thousand men gather at the King Hussein Mosque and then after the prayers they are ready for a little protest march.” She then added, “Besides, the police offered them water and juice as refreshment, so there was no problem. Isn’t this just like your Tea Party demonstrations in the US? I mean, they just want lower prices.”

They were very interested in Egypt, but hardly at all concerned about what had happened a kilometer or two away…hmmmm…

Today I grabbed the newspaper about 8:00 a.m. and looked through it and there was nothing about protests in Jordan. There was plenty about Egypt, but maybe the news is a little censored here, I don’t know. But none of the teachers coming in from Amman talked about it, neither Jordanians or Americans who live in Amman. Everyone talked about the constant rain today—the beginning of the rainy season, I suppose.

I asked at lunch about it, and again, it seemed to inspire only aloofness and practically disinterest. One colleague reminded me that many Egyptians were swarming into Jordan to escape the troubles in Cairo, and one colleague was glad we weren’t a school in Cairo trying to recruit teachers. One student told me that his family was glued to the TV set all weekend since they do not like Egyptian President Mubarak at all, and he didn’t know anyone who did.

Finally, I looked into my email inbox and saw no warning from the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Usually, they have sent out emails when people should be alerted about…well, all kinds of things. Nothing!

So for all of you watching the news and wondering and worrying about Jordan, I’ll tell you, I couldn’t scare up the least bit of story or interest! The newspaper reported that no Jordanian had been reported injured in the protests and clashes in Egypt, and there was a long editorial about how Egypt, and President Mubarak especially, have missed many chances for economic reform over the years, and how stability and security go hand in hand.

There were stories of the celebrations for the King’s birthday here in Jordan.

But nary a story that matches the hoopla I see on CNN as they leave Egypt for a bit and mention the protests in Jordan.

So, I am fine, and as far as I can tell, CNN is making a mountain out of a molehill. That was actually a quotation from one of the important businessmen at the lovely dinner last night.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Evidently in medias res...

Evidently I am a bit in la-la land...

I just had a call from my friend Gary, and I had an email from my dear Aunt Dot. "Um, John-O, are you watching the news?" Gary asked me.

No, I was finishing a blog entry and working on my syllabi for February.

I quickly go to the website for the NYTimes and find this:

"Thousands of protesters gathered in Jordan, but Yemen and other restive locales in the Middle East stayed relatively quiet Friday as the region’s focus turned to Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, where tens of thousands staged an unprecedented challenge to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

“It has blown up in Egypt,” read the front page of Al Akhbar, a leftist daily newspaper in Beirut. “Today, all eyes are focused on the mosques in the land of Egypt.”

The collapse of Tunisia’s government and the escalating protests in Egypt, long a pivot on which events in the region turn, sent shock waves across the Middle East, where activists have looked to their examples for inspiration in bringing about deep reform. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the most influential Arab satellite channels, broadcast nonstop coverage of the demonstrations and clashes in Cairo, from morning until well past nightfall.

“This is a moment, and we’re definitely going to see change,” said Laith Shubailat, a veteran dissident in Jordan, which has been beset by its own protests this month.

Thousands took to the streets there Friday after prayers in peaceful demonstrations. In central Amman, many of them chanted, “We want change,” with banners and slogans decrying high food prices and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai."

How embarrassing that I need to check the news when evidently I am in the middle of things.

I have been on campus this weekend, but no one has been talking about it, but I wanted to assure family and friends that I am all right. I am fine. I will find out more but have not heard a word on campus about what is happening evidently in Amman and so therefore think everything is managed competently.

Given that a few minutes ago I published a blog entry about my peace-of-mind state over signing my letter of intent, it is good to be watching and attending to the real world as well.

Thanks for the concern, and all appears to be under control...

I will head into Starbucks in Amman to see what I can learn...

Decisions, decisions…

Yesterday as I sat outside grading papers on a typically sunny, blue-sky, 60 degree Jordan January day, I realized this was a very smart time, a very smart month, in which to obligate the teachers at KA to sign their letter of intent about the coming school year some 200+ days down the road…again, I was outside grading papers on a typically sunny, blue-sky, 60 degree Jordan January day and my friends in the New York area had another 15 or so inches of snow dumped on them, and my friends in Ohio are just shivering and awaiting the next chapter in their winter saga. Very smart indeed.

In all my years of teaching, I have never had to declare so soon into the school year my intentions for the coming school year. At Hackley it inched earlier to February, but one could stretch that to March if you were on the fence and biting your nails about your destiny. The first school year here in Jordan we didn’t make our intentions clear until May—everything that first year was a little, “wow, we are really running a school! We better think about next year!”

We knew all Fall that December-January would be the time this year when we had to state our intentions for 2011-12, and when the school year ended last year and I bid farewell to Jordan for the summer, I knew that this school year would be my last year at KA. After all, I had had a contract of sorts brokered by one of the great students here, Jude Dajani, sometime in her 10th grade year. At that time I had taught Jude since the school opened, and she was doing well in AP World History. She decided that I must stay until she and the class of 2011 graduated. I liked the momentum of the new school, liked my boss Eric very much, and enjoyed the work/project of bringing AP history to the students at KA. So Jude and I shook hands, and there was my binding contract. Just so you know—I have since taught Jude in two more courses, so I will have taught her four years, every day of her high school career!

Last summer I had a strange amount of phone calls from American friends asking me my plans after I left KA. It’s as if everyone knew the deal I had with the effervescent Jude, and knew that I was beginning to think post-Jordan. Where would I relocate? What kind of school? Would I do some administrative work? And then there was that program at Harvard I read about—would I really be a student again?? It has been 15 years since the Klingenstein program and my latest Master’s program (okay, that was a little self-serving, since now it is clear I have done more than one!) While I have done 7 NEH seminars over those 15 years since Columbia, it has been since the mid-1990s that I was a full-time student. Hmmmm….the program entices nonetheless…and that seemed a good way to re-enter the USA as a full-time resident. I even went so far as to shell out the $40 for the GRE Test practice book!

As the summer drew to a close, and I packed up the GRE Test practice book to bring back for study purposes, I didn’t want to begin the year with such finality about my departure. That felt like I wouldn’t even give the school my full attention. I decided to get the year up and running and spend the month of November pondering whether I would stay longer than my Jude contract.

As it turns out, the year has been swell. I like the new boss in so many ways. I love my juniors (and seniors) in AP Art History and I am enjoying the work with the youngest faculty. Oh, my. Then I have the added “problem” that a few times a week, some younger student stops and asks if I will still be here when they can take Art History. Then last month, two juniors presented to me a written contract urging me to stay another year. Herewith, or some legalese, is the contract offered to me by these juniors Dima and Divij:

WHEREAS, HACKLEY—NO, NO, WAIT KING’S ACADEMY is unique in that it is HELLA TIGHT and is committed to maintaining in the framework of Catholic, (oh wait you’re Protestant….never mind then.)

WHEREAS, it is the policy of King’s Academy to employ highly qualified bros and sistas who support the ballin’ history program in pursuit of such high educational standards;

Queen DimaSaad and the wanna-be mayor of AwesomevilleDivijMehra propose the following conditions of employment for the renowned Mr. JLo (Divij’s attempt of a nickname) for the academic year of 2011-2012.

1. The term of this agreement is August something, 2011 until whenever the queen graduates, 2012.

2. BASICALLY, Mr. John Leistler must agree to instruct the queen (DimaSaad ’12) *cough* AP Modern European History *cough* and be instructed in the field of Art History by DivijMehra (because he is a work of art).

3. You WILL (Yeah that’s right) devote a reasonable amount of out-of-class time to curriculum-development (i.e. taking us to Papa John’s), to sponsoring student activities (MORE Papa John’s), and to other duties as assigned by the administrator (Chili Ways).

4. You can’t be a naughty boy or we’ll suspend you and terminate this contract

6. So you’re probably wondering what we can pay you..well the Queen proposes that we tax the students extra money so that your salary can be quadrupled… a la Louis XVI (LOL YES THE QUEEN CAME UP WITH A HISTORICAL REFERENCE, SHE’S SPECTACULARJHHH HHH).
• You get to see The Queen and the wannabe every single day of your life next year and that will make your heart dance, we guarantee.
• More pizza in your life. (See condition #3)
• You get to be more badass because you get to tax people

Prettyboy_Divij Mehra@hotmail.joewr455r _______________
Queen DimaSaad _______________
Mr. BROman Dickson _______________
Zeyna Goldilocks Tabbaa _______________
Mounir -thinks he can play the Piano- Ennenbach _______________
(Signature of BRO—that’s you…) (Date)

How could I not consider their contract? They are offering me pizza!

So I met with our new headmaster and delivered the news that I would stay another year. It doesn’t hurt that the weather here is sensational in January, but it really wasn’t a hard decision. What was the basis for my decision? I work for a visionary educator, I work with committed educators in my department, I teach subjects that put me over the moon, and I have students stopping me asking, “You will save a place for me in Art History, won’t you??”

Yes, I will miss the conveniences of the United States and the presence of autumn, and I will continue to pay hundreds and ultimately thousands of dollars to rush home for a week of vacation now and then, and I wish I had a better car here and better entertainment options, and more museums and walking spaces nearby…but the project, the reason I came here is alive and well. Here is a poem that Jamil, a senior I taught last year, sent to me saying that he had submitted this to English class for which he had to write a sonnet:

Art History Influence
Tis course of great depth and immense insight
Tis all-encompassing will awe and stun
Didactic and pragmatic day and night
One moment serious while the other fun
Art history is a one of a kind course
Viewing the Parthenon or the Stupa
Looking at the Greek Ephebe with his force
Or at the omniscient and wise Buddha
All in all, a change within me was made
Being more audacious than Claude Monet
Or more creative than Picasso’s shade
Occupied by sublime and ArĂȘte
A Sonnet! Said some sober students suddenly
Ay, I have learned to be extraordinary

These students, Jude, and Dima and Divij, and Jamil and of course, others—they have been remarkable, and why not stay and see where this may yet lead?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Something New!!

You know, I think January is my favorite month in Jordan. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is that my friend and educational soul mate Christy has spent two of my four Januaries in Jordan. She has descended to KA for three weeks each time spreading her TIEL-wheel sunshine and provoking thought among our faculty and providing me with a fun guest to romp around Jordan. When I first started teaching my grandmother, the veteran teacher of 62 years (!!) warned me that January was a difficult month in the teaching profession. She warned me that after the Christmas holidays students might be a bit more sluggish, a bit more apathetic, and a bit more prone to whining. January, of course, is the mid-way point of the school year, and one needs a certain resilience and stamina to sustain oneself through a school year.

But January in Jordan is gorgeous! It is sunny, and many days the temperature peaks in the mid-60s…yes, read that and weep all my dear ones in the Midwest and on the East coast…sunny and warm days. (Now February is a different story, but that is not the month I am savoring or celebrating at the moment.) Each year I have marveled anew at the beautiful days of the Jordan Januaries…this year I was not surprised at all and have sighed and soaked in all the Vitamin D this month has provided me (again, February will be a different story).

So Christy came and cut a wide swath through the faculty as she went and observed classes, offered coaching and tips to faculty young as well as experienced, all in the name of heightening and deepening our teachers’ sensitivities to the cognitive and evaluative development of our students.

Yesterday she headed back to New York, ending the nearly three-week visit in her return engagement to Jordan. As we came to the end of her stay, I wanted to do something different and fun to celebrate Jordan. We had done Petra in 2009, and there wasn’t time for Aqaba or Wadi Rum in this last weekend since she needed to be delivered to the airport at dawn yesterday. So I looked around (figuratively) and realized I had not gone to the Ma’in Hot Springs yet in Jordan. Was there really something new for me in Jordan? I kind of thought I had discovered almost everything in the kingdom (there are some medieval desert castles out east past Amman and nearer to the Iraqi border that I have yet to see actually) so it was exciting to add another place in Jordan for me.

A colleague had suggested the spa at the Hot Springs and avoiding the public areas there (“too gauche and smelly from the sulphur springs,” she said) and so I had Lubna investigate the spa. Hmmm…the “Six Senses Spa” it is called. We thought of over-nighting at the Hot Springs, but since there was a faculty party last Thursday night, I didn’t want to miss the bash, so we set our sights on a daytrip on Friday to the Hot Springs. We had appointments for spa treatments at 1:00 in the afternoon. No one seemed to know how long it takes to get there, (“thirty minutes?” wondered one colleague, and lots of ums, and “I don’t know if I have been there,” said others.) so we decided to give it an hour or so.

Lubna said with more than a hint of warning in her voice. “I hope your car has good brakes. The hill down—well, you won’t believe it.”

That “oh” actually gave me the shivers. If you have read anything in the blog about the car I lease here, I worry about the car on 15-minute drives…so an “oh” from Lubna chilled my blood a little. Let’s leave 90 minutes for the trip. Hmmm…there is no manual in the car, and no one seems to know really how to switch this semi-automatic/semi-standard car into a low gear. Oh, indeed.

We go out of Madaba and about 20 minutes we are on a road on which I have never traveled before (is this a metaphor, or what??!). It is a Jordan January day, and the fields look lovely as we drive past towards some mountains that I have only seen from the bottom at the Dead Sea. I see—they have a road alongside the mountain. How very, south-of-France! After about 40 minutes of easy driving we began on the steepest, most tortuous road I have ever seen. Now, first of all, I am prepared for this. Lubna had warned me with that helpful, “oh.” I figured out how to get this stupid car in low gear, but I am still driving about 15 mph (maybe just 10!) down the windiest, seriously, windiest road I have ever seen. (It must be said—it is a good road, however). But the views are gorgeous—I sneak a couple peeks as I make the hairpin turns. The views over the desert hills down to the fairytale Dead Sea, luminous blue in a valley of browns, are incredible. My friend Joan Fox has been telling me how much she loves the color brown now after having come to Jordan. There are so many browns in the Jordan palette—dark browns, chocolate browns, pink browns, ochre browns, beige browns, yellow browns, et cetera.

The road keeps coiling and recoiling in steep switchbacks until it finally enters the barren, yawning gorge of the lower Wadi Zarqa Ma’in. You keep going until you reach the valley floor—the entrance to the public areas and then the spa of the Hot Springs.

The car made it! I made it! Christy had to cover her eyes during some of the turns—I didn’t have to, well, there really wasn’t much choice as the driver.

We pull into the parking area for the Six Senses Spa—with just a few minutes to spare before our appointments, and as we get out of the car, the door of the spa opens and an attendant smiles broadly, and says, “Mr. John and Miss Christy—welcome!” Now that is service!

So we go into the exquisitely designed spa—it is right in the base of the rocks on the valley floor—and get acclimated (hot towels and all that jazz). Since we are right on time they take us to the treatment areas and we meet the spa professionals. Yeah, there is something beautiful about the luxury and indulgence of a spa day!

After the massages we went to the spring area—what a relaxing place and the natural beauty was exceptional. The waters have been channeled to form two hot waterfalls, and there are hot spa pools, natural and artificial saunas, and surprisingly there are not many people there, so it is easy to find a quiet, steamy niche in the rock all to yourself.

Some nice people at the spa said the hikes around the springs are great. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I am sure, but who would want to leave the rejuvenating steaming water! One British man told me there were some neighboring archaeological sites with Neolithic standing stones. Uh-huh, that sounds nice, but right here at the pool they bring me fruit and tea, and I can sip the tea while soaking in the spring…yes, it would make an exhilarating counter-point to lying around in the hot water, but oh, not today.

Just for fun, Christy and I checked the weather report for our beloved New York—oh, it was to reach a high of 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Too bad for the New Yorkers as I lazed around Friday afternoon on a stunning Jordan January day in the sunshine amid the stunning rock formations!

While we enjoyed the decadent afternoon Christy wondered why we enjoyed this so much (really? Wasn’t it just obvious?). But I decided to dip my toes in the pool of profundity to provide a reason…we were sitting around marveling at the rocks and water, just as the Daoists in China have done for centuries. Just as the Renaissance scholars did after they discovered the Chinese penchant for painting said rocks and water…Hmmm….

You see, to refresh your Daoist memories, these Chinese spiritualists sought a means to provide order to their chaotic lives. They thrilled to the opposing forces of rocks and water (just think about it and begin your list with all the opposite attributes!) and how these natural phenomena overwhelmed yet calmed them. This balance of the opposite forces, they believed, brought order to their lives. If they achieved balance and order in their lives, they would reach a state of harmony. We like harmony!

So, as we soaked in the hot springs at the valley floor of this stunning place on a perfect January day, we saw ourselves like the Renaissance and Chinese scholars—blissfully savoring the order we had brought into our lives, the balance in our dispositions, and the harmony into our souls.

Lubna had warned that we should not get caught on that road at nightfall, so we hightailed it out of there before sunset, and crawled back up the hills, drifted past the fields and rolling hills outside of Madaba and enjoyed the serene sunset in the rearview mirror.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Modern Family

Last week I passed by my mailbox in the Faculty Lounge, hardly slowing down since all I ever get in that mailbox is the monthly bill from the Jordanian cell phone company. I have gotten used to getting no mail in Jordan, but once in awhile I walk by, just to confirm that I have not received a notice from Ed McMahon that I have won a sweepstakes. (I know the man is dead—you see, that’s how long it’s been since I have gotten mail, my jokes and pop cultural references have to go back that far!!). But lo and behold, there were four envelopes in the mailbox! And none was a cell phone bill. Each of the four envelopes was a real treat—a Christmas card, letter, and photo from long-ago families I have taught! No way! Real mail!

As I grabbed the envelopes, I thought—this is like when you get a bunch of chocolate. Do you eat it all at once, enjoying the sugar buzz as you fill your mouth Augustus-Gloop-style, or do you wisely ration out the chocolate and savor it for longer…do you see what I mean, or am I alone in understanding this dilemma? Do I open all four envelopes today, rushing to see how the former teen-agers and parents have grown, aged, and evolved, having a nostalgic rush all at once, or do I somehow put them in the order of my association with the family, and open one envelope a day. You may be surprised at my answer.

But what a thrill—and what is interesting, not just the thrill of snail mail itself, but that each had a family letter, each had a photograph, and each family was a family of more than one child I had taught. Ranging from the Clouds whom I have known since 1992 to two families I taught when I left the USA in 2007, this was a veritable scrapbook of families and moments and wonderful former students.

The Clouds, from Charlotte, represent the Charlotte Latin chapter of my life. The Clouds were one of those great families with whom I share many a memory, from teaching Mandy, directing all three of the Cloud children in plays, cast parties, graduation parties, beach parties, and teary good-byes. Middle child Matt is a film editor in Los Angeles now, and came to see me in New York in 1999 when I directed a play he had been in Charlotte in 1996. In 2009 I visited the youngest, Mickey, who lives in New York now. Mandy wrote me one of the greatest farewell letters ever, in 1996, as I left for New York and Hackley. This is 9-page opus that is among my treasures. I look at the photo of the family, by their property at the North Carolina beach, and sigh happily.

The other three letters and photos all come from the Hackley chapter of my teaching career. Rebecca Owen always turns out a great newsletter, The Owen Zone, with photos and best/worst lists from every member of the family. I taught all three of the Owen children, but in an interesting twist, I taught each of them in a different course. I taught Abby in U.S. History, Jamie in 20th Century History, and Charlotte in AP Art History. Of course, each is a unique personality, but in a nice twist of fate for parents Bob and Rebecca, all three have ended up in Chicago now. This is a family I have known since 1999, and always very supportive of me.

Then I looked at the photo and letter from the Galgano family. Different memories, different classes and events in the Hackley life come to mind as I remember the two classes in which I taught Ali, the plays in which I directed Chris, a lover of history, and Piper, a member of my last AP Art History class at Hackley. Since I was at Hackley for 11 years, it was easy to get to know families well, teaching all the children, treasuring invitations to homes for dinner, and oh yeah, the Galganos hosted a great farewell party for me in June, 2007—the menu? Oh, I couldn’t forget the BBQ from a great place called “Q.” Mother Holly’s letter lets me know all the travels of the family in the last year, and how well the kids are doing. Holly writes that she is traveling to Egypt in January—hey, Holly, um Jordan is only an hour flight away from Egypt…come see me!

The last card comes from the Kilman family, and as they do every year, all four charming Kilman children on the card. This card is a tad wistful for me; I taught the two Kilman girls—both sharp and enjoyable, but I left Hackley before I got to teach the two Kilman sons. Alas, this card, of the four, makes me just a little sad that I didn’t get to know and teach all of the children in that family. But, I got to come to Jordan and meet a bunch of great students here! As I look at the card I am reminded of the great summer day last July when I got to meet up with daughter Becca and mom Theresa at the Met for lunch. Becca was working at the Met—not bad for an art history college kid—and how fun to remember our monthly trips down from Tarrytown to the venerable Met. And now she was working there.

All four cards/photos allowed me such a wonderful celebration of the families I have known and taught in my teaching career. None of the students in these four families actually was in any of the same courses, and the collection is a great reminder of my good fortune and blessings of the families I have known. If you know me at all, you know how much that concept of family means to me, and I would rather spend my breaks in Jordan dashing back to be with my family than practically anything else.

But it is odd, and I don’t think about too often, but with my love of family, I basically live alone, not in a family in the traditional sense. I don’t know if it is a puzzlement, per se, just the way life has taken me. But in the last 10 days, I have enjoyed a family of sorts, complete with nightly family dinners.

My friend Christy is visiting here in Jordan for three weeks. She and I met back when I had the Klingenstein Fellowship in 1994, and we have been associated/connected/whatever ever since. Two years ago she came to Jordan as well, and one night when I invited the young drama teacher Tristan for dessert, we laughed so much, and seemed so comfortable that Tristan looked at us both and said, “You know we are sort of like a family. I feel like a surrogate son to the two of you.” It was an audacious statement. I mean we say things like, “You’re a good friend,” or “I treasure our friendship,” but rarely does someone step over that imaginary line and declare, “we are like family.” I did think about it, and Tristan does have a number of traits of this new, surrogate “Pa” and “Ma,” but then we just moved on to other topics.

In this visit with Christy, I decided to capitalize on our cobbled-together family—almost every night in the last 10 days, I have cooked a meal, and Tristan and Christy and I have sat down to dinner, held hands, said the prayer that Christy fashioned from my family’s prayer, and enjoyed a family dinner. By candlelight we have shared stories from the day—whose classes did Christy observe that day, what had happened in Tristan’s auditions, what meetings had landed during my day of great classes—shared the food (salad purloined from the Dining Hall, but otherwise, solid Midwestern, homemade family fare) and reveled in a family moment. Each of the three of us ostensibly lives alone, but how fun to take that time and do what families used to do, still do, and should always do—carve out time to visit and eat and relax and reflect.

No, Tristan is not our “love child” from the early 1990s, and no, we are not actually a family, but we are certainly a “modern family” in the best sense of the phrase—we are choosing to bond and celebrate that bond and help each other through the day. Now Modern Family is also the name of a hilarious sit-com I discovered on bootleg DVD here in Jordan last year—a crazy updating of the (tired perhaps) old sit-com formula of a TV family. It is fresh, it is invigorating, it is funny, and it shows a flawed family helping each other stumble through the journey. This TV family may not look like what we think a family should be, or was, but it is new and vital. My makeshift family in Jordan is similar.

Now, I have been known to glean some wisdom from time to time from sit-coms, and I remember a line of dialogue from the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that allows Mary to thank her WJM colleagues for seven years of collegiality. She calls them “family,” and muses about what a family means. “A family is a group of people who makes you feel less alone in the world and loved,” said Mary tearfully. I am so fortunate to have that here as I sit down to dinner with Tristan and Christy. And I remember those moments with those families who sent me Christmas cards all the way to Jordan by snail mail.

The news last week at this time reached Jordan about the shooting spree in Arizona, and then the editorials began about how our “American family” has been poisoned and civility crushed. I read Bob Herbert’s blistering editorial about the spate of violence and the number of killings every year. He wrote, “Ordinary citizens interested in a more sane and civilized society would have to insist that their elected representatives take meaningful steps to stem the violence. And they would have to demand, as well, that the government bring an end to the wars overseas, with their terrible human toll, because the wars are part of the same crippling pathology…. For whatever reasons, neither the public nor the politicians seem to really care how many Americans are murdered — unless it’s in a terror attack by foreigners. The two most common responses to violence in the U.S. are to ignore it or be entertained by it. The horror prompted by the attack in Tucson on Saturday will pass. The outrage will fade. The murders will continue.”

I don’t have anything to add to the shame, the anger, the disappointment. But it does make me want to hold my family a little closer, a little tighter, as I hope for our modern, American family.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Like a sad taco…

One week into the new year—are we still allowed to greet people with the cheery, “Happy New Year!”?? Maybe we might have better years if each morning we looked at that sunrise as a beginning of a happy new year.

I am back in Jordan, back for about six days now, and in the thick of Renaissance art in one class, the tensions of the 1920s in another class, curriculum design with the teaching fellows, planning a trip to Boston with students in 5 weeks, looking at our 9th and 10th grade courses and debating strengths and weaknesses, and…anything else? Surely, something else is on the cosmic to-do list for the month of January. Oh yes, my friend Dr. Christy Folsom is visiting Jordan for three weeks as the next “Visiting Scholar” in my line-up.

I had a lovely time in the United States—I had about 12 hours in New York (again, a cleverly concocted layover to allow for some Manhattan facetime) and then almost 12 days in Cincinnati eating and talking and merry-making. As I do from time to time, I tried to downsize some of the “treasures” in my old bedroom. The treasures are usually paper-products, like books and maps and tour guides and old magazines and old papers from courses and classes gone by. I know, I know, I should just wholesale dump it all (my heart is beating more rapidly, no, no!) but it is fun to go through and find old stuff, and…what? Well, if you are in my family, you don’t dump it, you re-read it!

I found an old 2002 issue of a magazine called The Lutheran, sent to me after I joined the Lutheran church at 93rd and Broadway in Manhattan. The cover story was called “Sticky Theology,” and I guess why I saved it was that it had an interesting take on how various authors unpack such popular (though sometimes banal) bumper-sticker sayings such as “Let go and let God,” and “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I reminded myself as to why I had saved it over these years (that and the fact that my family has a hard time letting go of things). The writer commented that life is “a plateful.” She elaborated: “I travel on my earthly journey carrying a flimsy paper plate. As I move along, I’m often caught by surprise. Life jumps out at unexpected times and places and dumps scoops of pain and loss on that paper plate. A final dollop of grief and my paper plate will fold in the middle like a sad taco.” As a lover of interesting writing and tacos, what an interesting image! I had never thought of life like a sad taco! This writer goes on to say, “Nasty, greasy juices will drip out of both ends, along with a goodly amount of sour grapes, bitter lemon and salty tears. I will be irreparably stained.”

So as I sat on my bedroom floor, contemplating the end of 2010, the death last week of a 49 year-old brother of a friend of mine, and the looming new year, I did what I guess any writer hopes someone will do—I took that image of the sad taco and pondered it awhile. We live in a time (has there ever not been a time?) of lost jobs, lost prestige, lost homes, lost hope. Our metaphorical plates are piled high with broken dreams and broken hearts. Sigh. Setbacks and disappointments. Our world always seems to be precariously juggling plates saturated with oil spills, starvation, war, earthquakes, flood and death. What we need, as individuals, as friends, as a world, is some way to put a hand under that paper plate of the sad taco and support it before it folds in on itself.

Such reassurances such as “God will never give you more than you can handle” can seem so glib and hollow and simplistic. The pains and indecisions and losses warrant more than a bumper-sticker rejoinder. But as I sat there thinking about the new year, and my own direction in life, the direction of the region where I spend 75% of my year, and my friends’ lives touched and marred by the heavy “taco” of life, it actually gave me such an invigorated feeling of the shiny year ahead. Instead of just watching the paper plate ooze sorrow from the sad taco of life, these pains and indecisions and losses can serve as a call to act as an earthly hand of God supporting the paper plates and the lives of others.

On New Years’ Day I spent virtually the whole day at my dear friend Sylvia’s house who hosts an open house every year. Sylvia puts out a great spread—no sad taco here!—and she has great cheeses and vegetables and Austrian Christmas cookies and pulled pork—and her friends roll in and out from around noon until the evening. One of her friends is a childhood acquaintance of mine who lost her mother this past year. Her mother had taught me Sunday School when I was in the 3rd grade, and we talked about how hard it is to lose a mother.

Naturally, I thought about Mary Martha, that extraordinary mother of mine, and how this was our fifth Christmas without her. As I missed her, I thought about how she would have responded to the “sad taco of life” analogy. She might have liked the gastronomic reference, maybe, but she would have likely reminded me of the pains that another Mary, the original Madonna, faced. My mother, always the dramatic one, would likely have reminded me of how Mary must have knelt at the foot of the cross, her son’s lifeless body draped awkwardly across her lap, recalling with yearning the boy she had known. But my mother, if ever there was one to deal with the “flimsy paper plate of life” would make sure that we remembered that Mary didn’t stay at the foot of the cross. Grief-stricken though she was, I imagine Mary leaned on Joseph’s arm, probably John’s arm, got up and got going and hoped for a better day. That hope was how she handled the inexpressible sorrow.

In my Bible is an underlined passage of Romans 5:3 that reads: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

A sad taco would surely disappoint us. But, instead, let’s look at 2011, in the 51 weeks left of it, as not so much the “flimsy paper plate of life,” or the funny image of the “sad taco,” but an alleluia of hope for the new year, for each day.