Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My most frequent excuse!

"I have been working on a play."

How many times in the last 24 years has that been a response as to why something has not gotten done? Oh, dear reader...many times...

Since "Fiddler on the Roof" in the spring of 1987, I have been busy with high school productions three score times...and that line has helped explain many things from unintended silences, to almost-missing-tax-dealines, to you name it.

"I have been working on a play." That is where I have been, and starting tomorrow, I will be back again.

Just to tantalize any readers left, here are the titles of the the next four blog entries, all hopefully-completed by Sunday evening:

"Butterfly Kisses"

"She asked, gingerly..."

"The People in the Picture"

"Camping with Henry and Tom"

Everything is well, I am relaxing today after a whirlwind rehearsal schedule, and ready to go to a colleague's apartment for dinner in just a few.

We'll catch up this weekend...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

“Jerusalem” Bookends

As I wrote the blog entry the other day on the “bookends” of “welcome home,” I realized there were more than one set of bookends to my delightful spring break in New York and Cincinnati. So today and tomorrow I will devote some time musing about two other pairs of bookends from my trip.

There is a song in England that is more beloved, according to recent surveys, than any other national song—more than even “God Save the Queen,” or “Land of Hope and Glory.” The song is called “Jerusalem,” and at the beginning of my spring break week I encountered the song in a curious way, and then at the end of the week the song “Jerusalem” made another appearance.

On a glorious Easter Day, after church at Advent Lutheran (where I attended for years, oh, and did I mention that Tina Fey sat behind me in church??) I took the wondrous Anne Siviglia to see a play that had opened just days before to rave reviews. We saw Jerusalem, by British playwright Jez Butterworth. I didn’t know anything about the play beforehand except that the play revolved around a magnificent performance by British actor Mark Rylance. As we entered the Music Box Theater (sigh for a moment, as I remember the days when it was not infrequent that I got to go to plays at the Music Box. Okay, end of sigh. End of diversion.) the entire proscenium and curtain was festooned by a monumental flag that looked ancient. Anne and I, anglophiles both, figured out that it was the flag of St. George, a powerful symbol of old Britain. As the play opened, a girl that looked like a fairy or something adrift from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, festooned in green and with wings, came out and plaintively sang a bit of a song called “Jerusalem.” Neither Anne nor I knew the song before, but we learned from the “Director’s Notes” in the program that this “hymn is held very dear by the English people. Its words have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness.” Oh, my.

Yet when the flag/curtain raised, it was a totally different scene: a thunderous party in and outside of a cheap mobile home with unbelievably stoned partyers. We soon meet the head hedonist, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a boastful wreck of a man held together by drugs and drink. The time is now, the setting is Johnny’s squalid mobile home in the middle of a gated set of estates in Wiltshire, just a stone’s throw from pre-historic Stonehenge. In Act I you meet Johnny’s mates, mostly teen-age ne’er-do-wells who rely on Johnny for drugs and drink. What a strange juxtaposition of this hallowed hymn and then this story of Johnny’s last stand against the philistines who would evict him from his home.

Johnny isn’t particularly likeable, and certainly is no hero, although the playwright and the actor have created an indelible portrait of contemporary, as some may say, “poor white trash.”

So what in the world does this have to do with the opening? This “hymn is held very dear by the English people. Its words have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness,” as told to me in the “Director’s Notes”??? Anne and I started to wonder during the first intermission. (Yes, this has an old-fashioned structure of three acts and two intermissions and is a three-hour odyssey of a play.) William Blake wrote this poem in 1804 inspired by an apocryphal story that Jesus actually traveled to England and inspired the Britons to create a new, and perfected Jerusalem. Let’s look at the words of the poem:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.

Anne always cultivates a good discussion and we surmised that this Johnny guy, again, a bravura performance by this Mr. Mark Rylance, kind of incarnates the spirit of a mythic England that may never have been but that everyone, on some level, longs for. This is a state-of-the-nation play and Jerusalem functions as a metaphor for a heaven on earth, where people live in peace, and in connection with the land. When Blake wrote this poem, in 1804, the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution convulsed England, and there were many social ills from the new “Satanic Mills.” Blake summons up the spirit of a desired place, an Arcadia, in the hope that it can be created again.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land.

In the midst of the Great War (now we call it World War I since we had a sequel) King George V wanted a rallying cry, a song that would give faith to the British soldiers fighting a terrible war. In 1916 Hubert Parry set the Blake poem to music and it has inspired the British ever since.

The play takes place on St. George’s Day (aha! That is why the flag greeted us in the beginning!) in this nothing-small-town in Wiltshire County. This is an annual fair (since the Medieval times, we learn) to welcome spring. But as we learn in Acts II and III, there is little to welcome with the crowd at Johnny’s submarine-like mobile home. They come to get high because life is one big disappointment. Johnny acts as a Robin Hood-like hero to these cast-offs from society and they reminisce about the good old days when England was good and life was grand. Here is where the play became profound for me, and like many another experience at a play in New York, it is what art can do so well—find grandeur in unexpected places. You don’t like any of the crowd here, but you see how they have been numbed by the resignation of what life has offered. Everyone has a hunger to believe in legendary figures but these are times of shriveled fantasies. Johnny is a loser. Yet they hunger for the mythic. This starved theater-goer enjoyed the play and a performance that I can talk about with glassy-eyed rapture for years.

At the end of the week, the song “Jerusalem,” came up again! I had gotten up at 4:00 a.m. on Friday, April 30. Dear friend Sylvia had invited me over at that ungodly hour to watch the coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Sylvia made scones, and we sat there in the pre-dawn darkness enjoying the veddy British treats of scones and lemon curd and tea, lapping up all the coverage of this royal wedding. I can’t believe how fast those hours sped by as we saw Britain do what it does best—orchestrate a fairy-tale wedding with precision, pomp, and pageantry.

During the wedding the congregation in Westminster Abbey—yes, they may have been invited, but I am sure we had the best seats with the most gorgeous photography and close-ups of this Gothic wonder and all the posh invitees—sang three hymns. The one that had the most rousing sound was the Blake/Parry hymn, “Jerusalem,” the very song that had started out my week at the Music Box Theater. Sylvia and I were watching NBC’s coverage, and as the song ended, Matt Laurer commented, “What was that song? I have never heard such devotion to a song!” Evidently the British crew members sang it reverently and he was overwhelmed. Fortunately, a Brit was there to provide context about this song. We learned that this song is offered at the end of every Labour Party Conference, and at the conclusion of many a rugby and soccer game. Everyone in England, according to the broadcaster, feels they “own” this song. It was also a favorite song of Princess Diana’s, we learned.

Go figure. Here today, on that perfect fairy-tale wedding day in England was the same song that Johnny “Rooster” and his cohorts claimed. The situations and contexts of the play in Wiltshire and the refined wedding before two billion people around the world couldn’t have been more different. Well…maybe it is not such a reach. My friend Tracy texted me at 5:00 a.m. that morning asking, “Why are we watching a wedding of people we don’t know?!” Of course, we want to know them. We want to know William, son of that charismatic Diana, heir to a throne that Americans shrugged off some 230 years ago, but for which we have never lost a fascination! Here was the prince marrying a commoner. Yes, everyone has a hunger to believe in legendary figures and for many, these are times of shriveled fantasies. A wedding is a perfect antidote to hard times. Maybe it will work. Maybe the will be happy. Maybe this will usher in a new era. Indeed, we persist to hunger for the mythic. Sylvia and I enjoyed the wedding coverage and I am sure that I will talk about it with glassy-eyed rapture for years.

Yes, it is a British hymn, a song that just two weeks ago I did not even know, but bookending my spring break I came to love this gorgeous poem and melody. Of course “Jerusalem” transcends ownership because its sentiment is so optimistic, so yearning, so human. Let us all think about the personal struggles we make to improve the world, to create a new Jerusalem.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem…

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I still believe in the sea

It is the beginning of May, and for most of my adolescent and post-adolescent life the beginning of May signals the beginning of the AP test season. Except for my years in college and graduate school, there have been only three Mays in the last 30 years that I have not been preparing to take an AP exam or readying the troops for battle against an AP exam in this week. Whew!

Yesterday the troops rallied and conquered the AP Art History exam.

I am not allowed at the test site (not me, in particular, mind you, but according to the rules of the College Board, no instructor is allowed within 50 feet of the test site) but as the three hour+ exam came to an end, I did hover near the test site so I could greet the happy warriors as they emerged from battle.

I never fancied myself, particularly, such a martial person or educator, but a decade ago, I was honored by a former student at her college in South Carolina, and in her testimonial, she remembered that I “prepared the AP students for battle against the test.” She called her peers “intellectual warriors.” Since then I have embraced the phrase and I note to the students all year that we are preparing for battle! Because of that image, I enjoy having a water-gun fight with the students the night before the actual AP test. We have the battle after listening to Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of the immortal St. Crispian’s Day speech from his 1989 film of Henry V.

I remember in that first year of teaching AP Art History at Hackley, wondering what I should use as the very last art work to study at the end of this incredibly long course. In that year, 2001-2002, of course, the year was tinged with the sadness and horror of 9/11 in the first week of school. I loved the challenging questions, “What should be the last piece of art we study after hundreds of art works this year? What piece has the gravitas with which to end our parade of millennia of art?”

In that first year I chose a work from 1996 by Anselm Kiefer called Bohemia Lies by the Sea. I have used it ever since as well and I love this confounding work. Just look at it.

What is it?????? What has Kiefer depicted in this painting? Is it a landscape?? Can you sense whether the paint is thick or thin? Has it been applied smoothly? Does the technique have an effect on the work’s mood or meaning? Who is this Kiefer guy?How will some knowledge of his life help us decode this painting???? Oh,the many exciting questions one can explore!

Anselm Kiefer is a German born in the final weeks of World War II. Think of what
context, what burden, what stew of history he must endure in this lifetime—as he says, “my work is to come to grips with my country’s past, our Nazi past, and to try and understand the madness.”

The road that leads us into the landscape, a standard device used in many 19th century landscape paintings, here invites us into Germany’s dark past. This is a work which constitutes a rich blend of references including recent history,
ancient history, the distant past, poetry, literature, and the future. Wow…
Once you have unpacked the metaphors, the piece allows for a rich, personal interpretation. Start with what you see…a rutted country road…
and let’s go from there…

But still—there is more…the title is most intriguing, and Kiefer writes the title on the painting in two places, alongside the road, and on the horizon…let’s explore the title…

In William Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, the bard sets Act III, Scene 3 off the seacoast of Bohemia. Huh??? But—Bohemia is landlocked. Well, you see, Shakespeare’s Bohemia is an imaginary place beyond our ordinary sense of geography, a vision in which the extraordinary becomes possible. His ‘Bohemia’ in this play is a place where problems have been solved and life has become beautiful.

An Austrian poet, a friend of Kiefer, borrowed this theme from Shakespeare and wrote a poem which in turn inspired our artist Kiefer:

If Bohemia still lies by the sea,
I’ll believe in the sea.
And if I believe in the sea,
I can hope for our land.

I border, like little else,
On everything more and more,
A man from Bohemia, a vagrant,
A player who has nothing, and whom nothing holds,
Granted only, by a questionable sea,
To gaze at the land of my choice.

In the fields beside the road one spies poppies—a flower not lost on anyone European of the last century. Poppies were planted where the millions of soldiers died in The Great War, in the rutted fields of France and Belgium. You may be familiar with the poet John McCrae who wrote during the “Great War” in 1915 about death on the battlefield:

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders field.

What is the symbol of poppies? The well-educated from AP Art History will remember that the poppy is a symbol that goes back to ancient Greece…to the promise of young men cut down by war, and the paradox of death and resurrection.

How do we put together meaning for this painting…is it appropriate for the end of the course?

I love this painting, and last week when I was at the Met, I took my friend Gary and his mother Marilyn on a tour, and used this painting as a point of discussion and reflection at the end of our afternoon. You cannot see this work for just a moment or two. You have to adjust your eyes, you have to see past the clutter and gunk of the paint and his technique. We cannot really see the end of the road, no, that would be too easy, but if you believe in the sea, even the land-locked Bohemia, you can believe in…what? Hope? Utopia? Arcadia?

Educators had better believe in a better day, in a better future, in Hope, that “thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson observes. Each year I send those students in to do battle with this notorious test, and I am so proud of them for their confidence, for their stamina, for their knowledge.

In 2009 I wondered if our KA students could manage the AP World History exam. Manage it, they did. And last year, when it was our first time to attempt the “boutique” course of AP Art History, I wondered a little too if they would hold up against their seasoned American counterparts. But I believed in the proverbial sea, I believed, against sensibility, that Bohemia, land-locked Bohemia, can lie by the sea.

Yesterday at 4:00 the students spilled out of the test site, aglow with how excited they were, and how they trounced the test. One shouted about the Egyptian art work they got, or the Greek sculpture, or the comparison of Manet and Titian, but they were jockeying for a position to tell me which art works they had used on the big essays. One commented that this “exhilarating feeling is priceless.” Bohemia indeed has a port on that sea today.

This afternoon His Majesty the King came to speak to us, as he does from time to time. He wanted to discuss the domestic policies and his vision for the future of Jordan. In his typical candor he addressed the last few months, what he is trying to develop for the future, and the parts these students will play as young leaders in the years to come. He is trying to instill in Jordanians a sense of how to develop political parties that transcend tribal issues and concerns, how Jordanians should develop attitudes and ideas about health care, women’s rights, welfare, and taxation. He discussed how he has been studying the transformation of eastern European governments since the 1990s, studying how to transform the youth of Jordan and help them explain to the “old guard” how changes must work. He discussed how the economic issues of the nation keep him up at night—how do you deal with subsidies and job creation? As usual, he was magnificent, and full of hope.

I have no idea if HMK has heard of Anselm Kiefer and this painting or the poem, but judging from my four years of studying this man, he would certainly buy the idea of belief in a land, belief in progress, a belief that if you wish it hard enough, Bohemia can lie by the sea and you can create an Arcadia that elevates society.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Welcome home

Is it silly to have a “favorite flight”?

I mean, we have favorites in many categories: favorite TV show, favorite aunt, favorite ice cream flavor, favorite teacher, favorite book from junior high, favorite comfort food, favorite color, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum (if you need answers to any of these, please feel to write and ask for my favorites in these categories). I fly very often, so I guess it should come as no surprise that I have a favorite flight. This flight just seems magical, maybe because it seems to whisk me from one world to the other more swiftly than usual. It leaves at bedtime in one world and arrives with a whole day ahead of it in the other world. And on my favorite flight from Jordan to the United States, that magical Delta flight that leaves Jordan at about midnight and lands at JFK airport in New York at 5:30 a.m., I have two favorite moments in my re-entry to the United States.

When I come through passport control, I give them the passport and paperwork that marks me as a U.S. citizen but a resident of Jordan, the passport control officer asks why I am living in Jordan. I explain that I am teaching there, he stamps the passport, and invariably this officer of immigration control says to me, “Welcome home.” A short, but very sweet, sentiment. I don’t know if they are trained to say this to the ex-pats, and I think not, because I have entered the U.S. in Boston, Atlanta and Chicago too, and I don’t get that lump-in-the-throat-inducing, “Welcome home.” I smile, and head toward getting my bags. And I treasure the remark.

This time when I came home to New York and Cincinnati for spring break, I waited for it. And like the blossoms on the trees every spring, it came as expected, and is more beautiful than you expect. I can’t say why I find this comment so heart-warming, but I do find coming to the United States for breaks more invigorating, and yes, more heart-warming, than traipsing around as a tourist somewhere else new to me. I am sure some people thought I would never tire of traveling and discovering new places, and I am not sure I am tired of it, I just prefer coming back home for a respite.

The other moment I rank as a favorite is about a half hour after the first with the encounter with the passport agent. I have retrieved my bags (never once have they been lost or held up at JFK!) and gotten on the airtrain shuttle that takes me to the place where I can connect to the subway system of New York. As we swing by this one locale, there it is: the next favorite moment—the sun rising over New York City. Again, you expect the dawn, but it can be more beautiful than you expected. Streaks of orange or red or a yellow ball reaching up to welcome all of us to the new day. At this moment the trip feels as it will be perfect—the dawn of a break, the break of dawn.

Two favorite moments…

And the trip did not disappoint. I crammed as many of my favorites as possible into a few days in New York and even fewer in Cincinnati. My breaks consist less of seeking out newness, but greeting old favorites, reveling in the friendships and sights of my American home. As usual, that first day plays out as they always do now from this magical flight. I arrive by subway to my friend Christy’s house, at about 7:30 a.m. with a real New York Times newspaper suddenly in my hand. Christy has gotten up earlier than usual and prepared her monumental oatmeal. (While oatmeal may not be considered a monumental breakfast choice, hers is crowned with walnuts and blueberries and strawberries.) Shave and shower and by 9:00 there is still a whole day in front of us to enjoy! See why that flight is my favorite?? You maximize your time buzzing around an exciting city and not just sitting on a plane! We will look at what plays to see, and by the early afternoon we will have walked through the park, had a trip to the Met, and had the lunch special at Ivy’s Chinese food on 72nd Street.

The rest of the vacation there is full of favorites: lunch with Kate, seeing Gary, visiting with dear Anne and enjoying a fabulous dinner, talking with as many people as I can, theater, walking in the park, heck, just walking around. Amman is a not a walking city, so just walking the blocks in Manhattan is thrilling.

By the end of the visit we will have had my favorite pizza at Patsy’s on West 74th Street (oh, and their olive oil is the best in the world!) and my favorite Vietnamese food at Saigon Grill on Amsterdam and West 89th Street—I must admit I felt a twinge of guilt as I entered since some people were picketing the other day, claiming they don’t pay their workers enough—oh, I felt a little bad, but no one else makes my favorite Papaya and Beef Salad! We enjoyed Easter services at Advent Lutheran Church at Broadway and West 93rd Street, with Pastor Brown--one of my favorites--preaching as eloquently as always. Oh, and this is fun--guess who sat behind me in church?? Tina Fey!! I found reasons to keep turning around and checking that this was indeed the TV star. One time, she just nodded at me, kind of a reassuring nod that yes, indeed, I was seated in front of a TV star. Since I am on the name-dropping part of the blog, I also saw Neil Simon, chatted with the actress who was Paul Reiser's mother on Mad About You, and sat in the airport with TV news hounds Harry Smith, Lester Holt and Dan Rather. I had to find a way to shoehorn in the celebrities with whom I rubbed elbows!

What a rush of favorites on that trip! Then I head out to LaGuardia (driven by that favorite Gary after a breakfast with bacon) for a flight to Cincinnati. There, in the span of a few days, I will indulge in more favorites: my family, of course, how can they not be among the favorites on my Planet Favorite! There will be a buffet at the Farm, a BLT at the Imperial Diner with Pam, ice cream at Graeter’s, and I could go on and on (some will quip that I have!) that my trip is simply my chance to go through the favorites of my life.

I come to the end of the trip, and the trip always ends the same, with another of my favorite comments said so simply and heartwarmingly. When it is time to go, my dad takes me to the airport, and after we have checked the bags and weighed them (he always comes inside in case there is excess stuff he needs to take home) we come to the point of good-bye. Then my dad, with those soulful, wise Andy-Griffith-like eyes, looks at me and says, “Thank you for coming home.”

What great book-ends of a trip! That passport control agent, so anonymous to me but so kind with his “Welcome home,” and then that greatest of men, my father, thanking me for coming home. It is hard to beat those comments. My colleagues went to many places over the break, among them, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, Spain, Africa, Thailand, England, but I went home. And loved every minute of it.

Sad to say, that favorite flight is going away. I learned in the last couple weeks that Delta is suspending service to Amman, and so on June 1st, there will be no more of those magical flights. I will be fine; I will fly either to Paris and then Cincinnati, or Chicago then Cincinnati, and Royal Jordanian Airlines will still fly to New York—it just leaves mid-day and gets there mid-afternoon. Not much magic in that flight!

But I took some comfort in a sight yesterday, when I returned to Jordan after spring break, a new banner greeted me. HSBC, one of my two banks in Jordan (don’t get me started on the inane practices of Jordanian banks!) had a new banner shouting, “Welcome Home.”

It may not be those nice passport agents in JFK in the pre-dawn hour, but it was a kind greeting. I’ll take that!