Monday, November 28, 2011

Inscrutable arithmetic

In the thirty years since I left the domain of mathematics (you have heard that story right? About when I skipped math class for a month as a high school sophomore? Oh well, if not, you should ask about it sometime—it is a doozy of adolescent stupidity!) I have rarely found myself in a math classroom. However, with my new title and responsibilities as…ahem…Dean of Curriculum and Instruction, I have been to every kind of classroom in the last month. It is safe to say that I have seen more math classes this fall than in the last thirty years put together. I have seen Geometry and Algebra and Algebra II and Statistics and something called FST and Calculus, both AP and non-AP. I have seen some excellent instruction, and since I do not have to worry about the content (one could easily say I am content-free in this arena) I can simply enjoy the pedagogy of my colleagues. I have enjoyed going to math class!

So all this going-to-class in math made me think about math and arithmetic in other areas of the world; since I live in the world of the Bible, I often think about the people who trod this area back in Bible times. So I was thinking about the Bible and arithmetic. The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes concludes with this bit of data: “Those who ate were about five thousand men ….to say nothing of the women and children.” So I gotta ask: Who was doing the counting? I wonder who was counting on the day Jesus produced this miracle. Matthew tells us someone was counting the loaves and fishes: they started with a count of five and two … but then, after all had eaten, they ended up with “twelve baskets full.” And someone was counting the people … or at least someone was counting some of the people: “those who ate were about five thousand men … to say nothing of the women and children.” Whoever counted, only counted the men. They only counted the men because only men counted. So how many were there? How do we do the arithmetic? At this picnic there could roughly be two or three or four or five times as many people, if we count everyone really there. (I need a tangent here—the whole thing about ‘not enough food’—have times changed so much? For what mother leaves the house with her child without bringing along snacks: juice boxes, animal crackers, yogurt, Cheerio’s, string cheese????)

Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said if you own two coats, that’s one too many: give one away. On the other hand, if someone slaps you on one cheek, that’s one too few: invite them to slap you on the other cheek … and make it an even pair.
Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said we are to forgive those who sin against us, not seven times, but seventy times seven times … which is a lot … four hundred and ninety times … The point is that none of us, not even those who make an art of holding a grudge, can count that high.

The moral of the story: stop counting and start forgiving.

Jesus has an unusual way of counting. He said this: If you have 100 sheep and one goes missing, you should abandon those 99. Leave them defenseless against wolves and go chase down that one that was lost. That’s quite a gamble. So, here’s a riddle: What if those numbers are reversed? What if it’s the other way round? What if it is not the one who is lost, but the 99? Put it another way: If the 1% are okay and the 99% are in trouble, what should we do?

Ahhh…do you see a contemporary connection right now?? In 60 cities across the US (as I follow from my Middle Eastern armchair) right now there is a “99% Movement” in the Occupy _____ protests. These movements claim to represent the 99% of Americans and how the 1% of wealthy Americans have grown too rich while the vast majority have been left behind. As these protests grow into their third month, critics keep asking what it is all about? (This question came up the other day in a class of mine and a supper time conversation with students and teachers.)

From what I have gathered it is a little murky, but not really anti-capitalist. I think the source of the frustration and anger is income inequality. Let’s do the math they tell us in the news. I have read that the wealthiest 400 people in the US are now worth more than the bottom 150 million Americans. Hmmm…and three years after taxpayers bailed out the Wall Street gamblers whose recklessness stirred up the Great Recession, the average pay in the securities industry is over $360,000. Gulp! I don’t often quote Al Gore, but the once-inventor of the internet says we are seeing “a primal scream of democracy.”

“We are the 99 percent” is a great slogan. It correctly defines the issue as being the middle class versus the elite (as opposed to the middle class versus the poor). And it also gets past the common but wrong establishment notion that rising inequality is mainly about the well educated doing better than the less educated; the big winners in this new Gilded Age have been a handful of very wealthy people, not college graduates in general.

Economist Paul Krugman wrote the other day, “If anything, however, the 99 percent slogan aims too low. A large fraction of the top 1 percent’s gains have actually gone to an even smaller group, the top 0.1 percent — the richest one-thousandth of the population.”

Krugman’s article helped me out a little: “The recent Congressional Budget Office report on inequality didn’t look inside the top 1 percent, but an earlier report, which only went up to 2005, did. According to that report, between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent.”

I read a story the other day about one of the satellite protests, the Occupy Boston protest. There were champions and critics of this protest, like in all cities, but it made me think about the history of Boston as well. Back in another November, the November of 1773 (wow—238 years ago, and no, I was not there) there was incredible frustration about income and tax inequality then too. People we routinely call ‘patriots’ today did some counting and counted the total chests of tea aboard three ships in Boston Harbor: 342 chests. They counted and deeply resented the taxes they were obligated to pay to the British Crown for their beloved tea. So they had a Tea Party. Heard of it?

After the Boston Tea Party, after the three ships had been boarded and after the chests had been pried open and the tea poured into the Harbor—all 342 chests, all 90,000 pounds of tea—Benjamin Franklin, the one and only, counted the cost. No fan of such wanton waste of good tea, Franklin urged the colonists to pay back the cost of the destroyed property (which, at two shillings per pound, came to £9,000, or, in today’s numbers: £888 thousand). I was just in London, so let me do the math for you. More than a million dollars. A tidy sum. But counting is a tricky business … as we know, the counting being in the eye of the beholder.

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Party had its many detractors: those who condemned it as the “ill-conceived act of a lawless mob.” And it had its defenders: those who, like John Adams, found it “dignified, majestic and sublime.” The Boston Tea Party was, and Occupy is, fundamentally about money and fairness.

Both movements sprang from a similar conviction: that a small percent of those in charge are playing by a different set of rules than everyone else.

The Boston Tea Party involved trespassing on private property and the temporary occupation of ships belonging to the East India Company … while Occupy involves the occupation of public spaces.

Unlike Occupy, The Boston Tea Party, centered on and depended on the intentional, calculated destruction of property.

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Partiers were comprised of more than its serious organizers and activists … there were other elements along for the ride: common thieves, smugglers, hooligans, drunkards, and provocateurs … all of whom attracted the attention of detractors and gave to the committed activists a bad name.
If Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable, it is not alone in that. One of the most inscrutable statistics about Occupy is this: half of the top 1% of earners in this country don’t count themselves in the top 1% … according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Whether you are counted, and how much you count for, very much depends on who is doing the counting.

What about your arithmetic? How do you count?

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Joy of Pie

The other day during one of our advisor/advisee lunches, my advisee Mu’umen smiled at me and said, “You know, Mr. John, of all the things I like about you, I think it is how much you enjoy food that is my favorite thing about you.”

The boy knows me well!

The occasion for the comment was a quasi-Thanksgiving meal on Tuesday, on the last “sit-down” meal of this term before exams swooped in and everyone would eat for a week in what we call “walk-through” meals. The chef and dining hall staff approximated a Thanksgiving meal for the students and advisors, and my advisees gamely tried things like stuffing and sweet potatoes. I love my advisees anyway—we six simply enjoy being together—and we love to talk about food, share food, laugh over food. (Other advisor/advisee groups are not as lucky and I heard some grumpiness about “Why do we have to have this stupid American food?” and “Who said we wanted to have an American Thanksgiving meal” and “That orange stuff is awful!” and also “Who would actually want to eat turkey????”)

So of course in Thanksgiving week, if you are far from your real home, a wistfulness creeps in. I have only been home for Thanksgiving once in the five years of this Jordan project, so it puts me in mind of things Cincinnati and New York. And, well food. And when I think of Thanksgiving, in the top 5 food things I think about, I think about pie.

Pie has been on my mind this week in a wonderful way. (Is it ever that far from one’s mind??) On Wednesday night this week, I invited over dear friends Reem and Julianne for mushroom soup and other things fresh from the London trip (like cheeses…yum). Reem knows me well—she eagerly offered to bring a pie for dessert. Oh, Reem—we need to have dinner more often! As always, the mood was light and fun and deep and important when we three get together and break it all down. But then came dessert. Reem made that pie. And it was a beauty. She made a peach pie (how did she know?? One of my Top 10 Favorites!! Oh, time for a little tangent: do you know the story of the joke my mother used to tell about my father and pie? When she did a “This Is Your Life” party for my dad, she had all these quiz questions about Kenny Leistler, and one question was…” ‘Ken Leistler only likes two kinds of pie…what are they??’ The answer: “hot and cold”! Well, our family friend Edna, who turned 94 this fall, always forgot that answer, and we would tease her going over to this veteran pie-baker’s house for dinner, “You know Edna, our father only likes two kinds of pie…I hope you made one of them!” Edna would dither and sputter and flutter and flither (a new word as of this moment) hoping she had guessed right, and then we would slay her with the monumental answer of “hot and cold!” Oh, see how these pies give my mind a flight of fancy!! Back to Reem and her peach pie…) and it was a beaut. Oh, I think I already said that. Well, she had made a flaky crust, and you know how a good flaky crust just takes those flecks of butter and just enough sugar…oh another strange allusion—do you remember the 30 Rock episode where Tracy Morgan’s character loved the cornbread so much he wanted to go out and marry it…well, this peach pie was a beaut.

Maybe I like pie so much because of all the gastronomic things I like to make, I don’t attempt pie much and so I appreciate it. Maybe I like pie so much because my mother was an intrepid pie-maker. She eschewed cakes for the most part and concentrated her efforts on supremely great pies. Meringue pies stunning! Berry pies, and, yes, she made a ribbon-worthy peach pie. Maybe I like pie so much because it takes time and commitment and I love things that require investment and labor and then have all the simple wonders of butter and sugar and…okay blog-writing is not supposed to be so mouth-watering.

So Thanksgiving morning (a work day for us) I get a call from my friend Randa—she has an apple pie for me! She knew Thanksgivings were hard for the Americans away from home, so she wanted me to feel some of the love and care of home…Randa—well, pie can do that, can’t it?!

Reem had tendered an invitation to her family’s home in Amman for Thanksgiving dinner, and even though I would sadly miss the faculty pot-luck Thanksgiving meal, being with a real family on that day beats almost anything. Reem’s mother and father have lived in Georgia, in the United States, for a long time, and just this fall moved back for awhile to Jordan to be with Reem’s grandmother, her sweet and feisty 90-year old Tateh. So Reem’s mother and father know of Thanksgivings.

Julianne and I come over to Reem’s family’s house, and the mother is putting the finishing touches on a splendid meal. She has a schedule on the refrigerator of when to get everything done—ahhh…a woman after my own heart—and has it all mapped out. Soon the guests arrive—Reem’s aunts and family friends for decades spill into the apartment. The dishes spill out of the kitchen, the two kinds of stuffing, an American-style and an Arab-style stuffing, broccoli salad, beets, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and a beautiful turkey. We gather round and hold hands, and Reem’s father offers a stirring prayer. He thanks God for our blessings and abundance and gratitude for flourishing lives. While I know really well only two other people in the room—Reem and Julianne—I am surrounded by a loving family and devoted friends and a sense of sincere thanks. It may not be my blood family, but in this moment of food and thanks, it fills the void. This is a family that has had to be peripatetic: they had to leave Palestine in 1948 and then they left Lebanon and many have left Jordan to America. But through it all, these ties of family and friends have obviously sustained them. In Cincinnati, at almost the exact same time, my large extended family was eating at Uncle Jack and Aunt Joy’s house (now she is a Thanksgiving cook of your dreams!) reveling in the same ties of family and friends, in awe too at the abundance and blessings.

I did good work at Reem’s mother’s house. I had thirds. And then came dessert. There was chocolate mousse cake and a pumpkin cheesecake and Arab sweets and a pumpkin pie. You know, Libby’s canned pumpkin really does fit the bill well…it wasn’t quite the American pumpkin pie, but maybe that’s just all right. I can still think about and long for that ideal pumpkin pie.

At the dinner I discovered all kinds of ties to my own peripatetic journey. One aunt had lived in Chicago, and I told her about when I lived there as a college junior, and I would take the bus right by her church, and we talked about the North shore of Chicago. Another friend lives in Charlotte, North Carolina part-time, and her church at one time met in the school where I taught in Charlotte; we talked about the explosion of activity and homes on the south side of Charlotte. Reem’s mother and I looked at her hymnal collection, and right there was the same hymnal that my family had used in my childhood in our church.

Another family friend wanted to ask me about the tradition of the US President pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving time. She wondered if it went back to the beginning of our history. I don’t know when it started, but I guess it is much more modern, perhaps the 1930s or 1940s and certainly just a photo op really, but she was fascinated by the ceremony and the official pardon for the National Thanksgiving Turkey. I told her about the great episode of “The West Wing” that also goes over this strange tradition and the lighthearted jesting that must ensue as the President says something like, “Our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody’s told him yet he’s getting a pardon.”

It was a delightful Thanksgiving. I have pie in the fridge and pie on my mind…which reminds me that the title of this blog could go another way as well. The Joy of Pie, could also be understood, by math-o-philes, as The Joy of Pi.

Speaking of math—a phrase rarely uttered by me—I heard a thrilling lesson the other day by a math teacher. On one of the professional development days that I plan, last Sunday, I asked a handful of teachers to give brief lessons so we can watch colleagues teach and enjoy their expertise. I asked Cassie to do a lesson, and she did a lesson on graphing that astounded me. She had graphs and asked us to make up stories about what the graphs might mean. Then she gave us some story scenarios and asked us to “graph” the stories. It was so fun. I loved math again!

Thanksgiving is obviously about thanks. Not just food, of course, but thanks. But as we expand that understanding of thanksgiving (expand? A Thanksgiving pun on expanding waistlines?!) it is also about pardons and therefore forgiveness. And maybe as we make our way out of our food comas, we can go from the pie to the thanksgiving to the pardon to the forgiveness and therein lies the greatest of all gifts…hope. As we remind ourselves of our blessings, think purposefully about forgiveness, there we find the hope to sustain us. An old theologian once wrote, “Hope is fueled by the presence of God…it is also fueled by the future of God in our lives.” We can join in the psalmist who sang, “I shall yet praise Him and thank Him.”

You know, math got a little short shrift in this blog entry. I think I will come back in a day or two and offer some musings on math. I’m serious! I even have the title already: “Inscrutable Arithmetic.”

Time to turn on the Christmas music, and have a pie break.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Postcard from London

It has been thirty years since I first travelled abroad—and the first city the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir landed in was London on that 1981 tour. London has always been a special city for me (have I revealed that in my youth I even subscribed to a British magazine about the royal family called Majesty???) and I sat and down and counted. I think I had been to London 13 or 14 times. Although, I haven’t been there much in the 21st century.

Anyway, the Eid break in the school calendar came up, and I decided to go to London. In the last couple of years I have gone back to the USA for this break (By the way, to refresh your memories, this Eid break is two moons since the last Eid celebration which marks the end of Ramadan. This Eid marks when many pilgrims will make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. If you don’t go to Mecca, well, Muslim families rejoice and celebrate and eat a lot of lamb.) but I decided to go to London when one of our dearest students from last year planned to attend a university in London.

Well, his college plans changed, but I still liked the idea of going to London. I hadn’t been there in such a long time, and for many of those times I went I led group tours and I got in a bit of a rut of seeing the same things. I also called up Christy, the education genius/guru friend of mine in New York and floated the idea of meeting in London for a fall holiday.

She was in!

Now came the real worry—how would Christy and I meet up in London??? In the 17 years I have known Christy, while she is a genius about education and pedagogy, well, her genius stops short of being a whiz with plans and meeting and times. I could fill many a blog entry about the misfires over plans and where and when to meet (and not just say 8 hours away, just when we are in a museum and we plan to meet at the end—bathroom stops anywhere practically fill me with dread…will I ever find her again even though we had a plan. See here is the difficulty: we were coming from different continents into different airports. Christy—(oh, how can I put this gently???) is not good with maps or times or meeting points. They all run together and fortunately, the angels have conspired to nudge her along in life so that she stays out of harm’s way. Where shall we meet? I was to arrive at midnight and she would arrive the following morning about 10:00 a.m. Hmmmm….have you heard the story about when we both flew into Amman at the same time but on different airlines? The plan seemed so simple—I said to her, just wait for me at baggage claim and we will go back to school together! Such a simple plan…oh, but as the sage warned us, “the best laid plans…” She found a ride back to school and left me waiting at the airport for an hour or more until I guessed she must not have followed the simple plan. So how shall we handle this? I needed a plan. Yes, but a plan with extra plans. I needed a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C.

Before I figured out the plan, I also needed to tackle the problem of lodging. London is expensive! Since many of my trips to London over the years have been group tours, I don’t really know how much a good, clean, well-located budget hotel costs. Let me give you a hint: anything under $200 a night is subject to the kind of reviews on-line that run the gamut from, “If you don’t mind peeling paint, cigarette burns everywhere and mold, then this is the place for you!” Another review went, “I believe the breakfast served us at this place is historical. I am sure the bread is left from sea rations from WWII.” Or the many reviews that went something like, “This is the worst place I have stayed in my life.” So…how to find a budget hotel…I finally decided that we didn’t need central London. We had decided to come to London to visit each other too, and so a longer subway ride (the Tube, you know, as they call it) didn’t matter. So I found a guest house in the suburb of Brentford, a suburb in Zone 4. (Central London, of course, is in Zone 1). But the reviews were decent and the price was about $75 a person…far superior than all those other highway robbers. Okay, now to the plan…

Plan A—where shall we meet? How can Christy find me? I decided that we would meet at Victoria Rail Station…okay, but where? I hadn’t been in that rail station in over a decade, but, hmmm…they must have a Track 1! Yes, that is Plan A. Let’s say noon!! Christy will come off her plane about 10:00…oh, and did I say that there would not be cell phones available to us…she knew hers would not work…oh, see, you thought it should have been simple to just call each other. I am one scary step ahead of you! Okay, she would get through customs, get on the Tube at Heathrow, transfer—good heavens, would she remember to transfer???? Then we would meet in Victoria Station at Track 1 at noon. She was not to walk around, go shopping…nothing…if there were any complications…we would meet in front of Buckingham Palace at 2:30, and then Plan C, the scariest one of all, we would proceed to the guest house in Brentford and meet there.

When Julianne took me to the airport in Amman to catch my flight to London she said gravely, “Does Christy understand that the very future of your relationship hangs in the balance here??” I felt like a Secretary of State going into a high level meeting, “I think she does,” I responded.

She arrived at 12:02 at Track 1 looking like the intrepid plan-follower that she was at that moment.

Oh, yes, the blog entry isn’t just meeting at Track 1! I almost forgot…
It was a great holiday in London.We had a glorious visit and holiday! Christy was there for three days, and then I was on my own for three days in London. What a great city. I saw 5 plays, 1 concert, 1 British film, visited a dozen museums (they are FREE people!!!) ate food from around the world, kicked autumn leaves as we walked down our suburban street in Brentford. (By the way, if any of you go to London, I recommend the Hazel Wood Guest House highly—cleanest place I have ever seen, a hearty breakfast, and interesting guests…in fact…at our first breakfast, as Christy canvassed the table, we discovered that there were guests at the table from New York, England, India, China, South Africa, Ireland, and I was the Middle Eastern representative. There were only 8 of us in this guest house (it was full) and look at the around-the-world dynamics.)

The weather report on-line had predicted rain every day, and so I carried my umbrella with me, but after the third day, I left it. It never rained…well, maybe four drops. I walked into bookstores, I lingered in tea shops, I ate many, many good bacon sandwiches, and I just walked. While I used the Tube considerably, I hopped on the double-decker busses, but I walked. London is a walking town.

Oh, and the plays. Christy and I saw “The Pitmen Painters,” a British play in New York I saw last year about coal miners who had a little fling with art and the art world in the 1930s, and then I saw Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and I saw “Inadmissable Evidence,” a bitter 1960 play by the angry John Osbourne, a play about Wallis Simpson, a play called “The Kitchen” at the estimable National Theater, and Hamlet with Michael Sheen…wait, that makes six! I forgot—one glorious day was a double-play day!

I went to several museums I had never gotten to before—the unbelievably beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Cortauld Gallery, and the Tate Modern. I flitted in and out of the British Museum several times, the National Gallery several times, and just soaked in the vast amount of culture in London.
I could hardly have been happier!

London is really everything Amman is not: there is variety in food choices, diversity in people, art, theater, bookstores…lots of music and attention to history, clean streets, abundant maps on the streets and easy to understand signs (and signs, of course in English!) and some very good manners. I made a new friend, Marcey, an old friend of Christy’s who is in college in London. Marcey is also enamored of London. She can hardly imagine living anywhere else. After Christy left Marcey offered me a free dorm room in her college hall—how wonderfully nice—and we sighed over our mutual love of London.

So what doesn’t London have? Well, this week when we started school, and my first class came in, that wonderful 20th Century History class of Dima and Lubna and Mohammed and Moutasem and Jooho and Mounir and Hashem and Zain and Noor and Sumaya and Noor-Eddin and Hussein and Hanna and Divij, I just love these guys. They weren’t in London. I needed to come back and get to work as we deconstruct the 20th century.
My trips to London over the last 30 years have been with most everyone who has made it into my Travel Hall of Fame and also my Travel Hall of Shame. I thought of them as I traversed the city, readying itself for the 2012 Olympic Games. I loved thinking of Anne and Chuck and Tony and Sharon and Mary and my sister Elizabeth and students from all three of my previous schools. What a grand reunion with London, six marvelous days in an exciting, vibrant, fulfilling city!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Capacity to Love

Since my last blog entry, an important milestone in the history of the world has passed. No, it wasn’t a Golden Girls marathon, or a chili festival, or a musical about my life. (Nothing about me actually!) In the last few days the world witnessed the birth of the 7 billionth person on our planet. I went and looked up and learned that since I was born, the world has literally doubled in population.

Of all the 7 billion people who are alive now, and the billions before us who have passed into the life beyond our profanus, there are two who really stand out to me: my parents, Kenneth and Mary Martha.

And in the next 24 hours a slightly less momentous event will pass in the history of the world—Kenneth and Mary Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Over the years of blog writing you have picked up bits and pieces about how influential on me my parents have been. Right now is a perfect time to re-visit some of those thoughts and think about what they were doing 50 years ago right now.

Frankly, Kenny and Mare couldn’t have picked a better date for their wedding. Maybe they knew that their first-born would be a history-obsessed being, because they chose such a perfect, November 4th, for their wedding day…wait for it..wait, you don’t know? You can’t see how perfect it was that they chose November 4th? Ahh, maybe you weren’t invited on another November 4th, back in 1842 when resolute Abraham Lincoln married saucy Mary Todd. In my childhood I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and I remember one year thanking my parents for having picked the Lincoln’s wedding day for their own wedding day.

Talk of this glorious November 4th wedding in 1961 was never far from us in my childhood. My mother loved her wedding photo albums and we looked at them frequently. There was a beautiful one, bound in red leather, of the black-and-white shots of the wedding. Then there was a more-expensive-looking album full of the color shots. And from time-to-time, my mother was known to take out the reel-to-reel tape recorder and play the recording of the actual wedding. My sister and I would sit right by my mother, and we heard the recording often enough that not only could we recite the vows, but we knew the exact intonation of that wonderful bride and groom. The bride sounded dreamy and the groom sounded no-nonsense—what a pair, what a combination!!

When I was in 5th grade I inaugurated a new way to celebrate my parent’s anniversary: I would cook them a multi-course meal. This was toward the beginning of my obsession with cooking, and I would get out my mother’s cookbooks and pore over the possibilities of courses. In the 4th grade I made a meal, like, you know a standard, bourgeois meal. But the following year, I planned far ahead, chose stuffed pork chops with an orange glaze as my main dish, and then looked for appetizers and courses and courses to make. I decided to invite my friend Kecia Yee home from school, and paid her $5 to be the waitress for all the courses.

At the end of this extravagant meal I wished them well, and wished them good luck in cleaning up, and went to watch an episode of Rhoda. I announced that none of the great cooks in the world cleaned up. Can you imagine what Kenny and Mare talked about as they cleaned up every pot and pan they owned from their multi-course anniversary meal? Oh, my. Eventually, I did learn to clean up after myself.

These days I like to watch the TV show Mad Men just to get an idea of what those days were like in the early 60s when my parents courted, got married, and started a family. My father even looks like Jon Hamm as Don Draper. But while the fashions and the mores are similar to 1961 Cincinnati, that is where the comparisons end. In terms of personalities, smoking, and drinking, Kenny and Mare are nothing (thank Heavens!) like the Drapers.

I enjoy thinking what my parents were like in terms of personality. I know them well. But of course much of our family story could be overshadowed by the MS that took hold in my mother. The MS limited us in some ways, and some people would think it would ravage the dreamy-ness of that 1961 Mary Martha. But no, the MS did not deter the resolute Ken, nor rob the dramatic, dreamy Mary Martha of their love and efforts at wedded bliss.

A couple years ago, in a blog entry, I wrote this about my father: Last summer I read an account of Abraham Lincoln’s rise to national prominence. A New York newspaper characterized the newly minted Republican Party Presidential Nominee: “As for Lincoln, he has all the marks of a mind that scans closely, canvasses thoroughly, concludes deliberately, and holds to such conclusions unflinchingly.” I read that, and thought—that’s my father! Those are the same traits as Ken Leistler. Grappling with my mother’s MS for decades imbued him with strength and human understanding rarely found in people. He has taught us that life-affirming humor and profound resilience will lighten despair and fortify one’s will.

And as for that dreamy-voiced, effervescent bride 50 years ago? Well, they didn’t make it to the 50-year mark here on earth. But they triumphed in nearly 45 years of marriage plus the courtship. Four years ago I wrote of the evening when my father called to relay the news that she had slipped away to Heaven: On that May evening when my father called to relay the news that my mother had passed away, I was on the way to one of my plays I had directed. There were scenes in this play from the myths that Ovid wrote in ancient Rome. My favorite was the last scene, wherein a man and wife begged the gods not to outlive their own capacity to love. In the weeks preceding the performance I had enjoyed this scene anyway, for it reminded me of the love between my parents. In the play, this man and wife stood hand in hand begging the gods not to allow them to outlive their own capacity to love. As I drove to school that night, it was such a natural thing to honor her life by watching this play of mine. She was the one who infused my life to enjoy adventure and excitement, instilled in me a love of imagination and wonder, and taught me that love was the mightiest bulwark. As I watched those two beg the gods, “let me not outlive my own capacity to love,” I knew that I had witnessed the best example I will ever know of a man and wife who never outgrew their own capacity to love.

For many years I would call my parents on November 4th, and ask my mother to remember what she was doing on that day. While her short-term memory became more like vapor, she had a vibrant memory of that day in 1961 when she married her “Special K.” I would ask what she had been doing that November day, who she was talking about, how the plans were going, what she worried about, who she was excited to see at the wedding. I could feel her smile and joy as she re-lived that day for me on the phone.

In a couple minutes I will call my father and ask him some of the same questions, marveling that half a century has passed since he wore that white dinner jacket, dark trousers, and brilliant smile at the end of the aisle. In a couple hours I will be jetting to London for a quick vacation, and who knows if I will get to call tomorrow. I have to relay my congratulations for this momentous event in world history.

In my Christmas letter of 2006, I reflected on the power of my mother in our family’s life and times: My mother’s life and death have been powerful teaching tools for our family. She showed us what deep, abiding faith in God looks like. And yet, she never exhibited a stony stoicism, nor did she cultivate an anger at God for what had happened to her. While some say anger might be appropriate, and certainly understandable, she showed us that we have to imagine other responses. Anger, vengeance, regret, remorse, these only foster a destructive cycle—like Indiana Jones, we may have to make it up as we go along, so in my mother’s opinion, we might as well choose joy. Mary Martha Griley Leistler always looked for something to give thanks for in the midst of what might be troubling and fearsome. She would remind us that we don’t always have a choice about what happens to us, but we always have a choice in our attitude. Refuse to complain. Insist on hope. Expect miracles. Seek peace.

They may not be as famous as the Lincolns; it may not be as earth shattering as the 7 billionth earthling, but what a pair that I have been blessed to know. There is a bulletin from a church service in Tarrytown back in 2004 that I keep in my Bible. The title of the sermon is “The Grip of a Loving God.” I keep it because of the title of that sermon. I look at my parents, the wondrous Mary Martha, the resolute Kenneth, and I think that my whole life has been shaped by that loving grip of my parents’ capacity to love.