Monday, December 24, 2012

Not that far?

Our hearts are straining for peace. Whether in the media circles around Newtown, Connecticut, or the ancient town of Bethlehem, it is hard to find peace. Yet on this Christmas Eve, we especially hope to find some measure, or hope, of peace.

Last week in our family’s church an older lady greeted me with, “I know your dad is happy to have you home.” She went on to tell me, “You know I have a friend in Lebanon. Their house got bombed by the Israelis, but you know, I think Israel can do anything it wants to defend itself!” I wasn’t sure whether or not our conversation was meant to be political, or whether or not I was meant to dispute her dogmatic approach to Israeli bombings, but I just said, “I am inclined to a different opinion.”

Tonight in churches around the world people will remember the birth of the babe in Bethlehem. We will sing of the birth; we will hope for peace.

This is my sixth Christmas-time to come home from the Middle East. Peace is elusive. People often ask me what I think of the prospects of peace in the Middle East. Here are a few thoughts about the prospects of peace as 2012 comes to a close: a little over a month ago Israeli missiles targeted and hit Ahmed Al-Jabari, the strongman of Hamas and the head of its military wing. Another assassination… According to what I read in the papers, and according to Israeli leaders, deterrence will be achieved once again by targeting and killing military and political leaders in Gaza and hitting hard at Hamas’ military infrastructure.

Just another death in the endless struggle for calm in the Middle East, but as wiser friends in Jordan explained to me, this assassination may eventually be seen as a grave and short-sighted error. It is not that Mr. Jabari was known as a man of peace—no, he did not believe peace was possible, but he had abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and kept him alive and ensured his safety as an insurance policy with Israel, and was the person responsible for cease-fires in the vitriolic chess game over Gaza.

How can we move past the patterns of the past? How can we find peace?

Here is what I have learned as I looked more closely at this region: Israeli intelligence discovers information about an impeding terrorist attack from Gaza. The Israeli Army takes pre-emptive action with an airstrike against the suspected terrorist cells and the typical result is between 10 and 25 casualties in Gaza, zero casualties in Israel and large amounts of property damage on both sides.

As I read about it, this is always presented in Israel as a war of “no choice.” The only thing that I see that has not been tried and tested is an agreement for a long-term cease fire. I do agree that no government can tolerate having its civilian population attacked by rockets by a neighboring territory. But with Mr. Jabari’s death, did with him die the possibility of long-term cease-fire?

Am I just a sentimental, middle-aged fool? Hope for peace has rapidly diminished. Israeli people interviewed always say, “We have no one to make peace with.” But as I have watched and waited, in these five years, Israel and its leaders have failed to move toward peace. There has been no acknowledgement of what the United Nations declared in 1967 for the borders.

Mr. Netanyahu has ignored the peace process for most of his term. For the first time in 20 years since the Oslo Accords, there is nothing from the Israeli government talking about a two-state solution. In fact, there was a day celebrated at KA about six weeks ago, a day called, “Peace Day.” A noted Jordanian governmental minister came to speak, one who has come before and always jazzed up the crowd. This year his talk was so depressing it was difficult to remember the reason for the day. He spoke about how many Jordanians wish now the Oslo Peace Accords had not been erected 19 years ago—he said people are tired of hoping peace is around the corner.

I have an acquaintance of a friend who commented to her in an email that when she moved to Jordan in the late 90s that she heard a lot of Hebrew at Petra, and she heard from Israeli acquaintances that in those days there was never any question of whether Israel and the Palestinians would make peace, the question was just when.

“It’s not the missiles that are breaking me. It’s the lack of an alternative to them,” she says now.

Mr. Netanyahu has avoided the Palestinian issue while he has increased the settlement building on Palestinian land within Israel. He seems to have no plans to make peace. No Israeli leader is saying, “Enough of blood and tears.” I do agree that Israel has the right to protect its citizens. But on my grown-up Christmas list I wish Israel’s current leaders would recognize that the best defense is peace.

A day before we all left KA for our winter break we had a Christmas carol sing-along. Some who came don’t know the words, so the organizers projected the words for us to sing. At the end of “The First Noel,” as I sang along for memory, I noticed that the words that always end, “Born is the king of Israel,” are sung differently in Jordan. They sing the words, “Born is the king, Emmanuel.” Hadley and I stole a look at each other, chuckled, and whispered, “Well, of course that’s how they would sing it!”

But while it may be a nod simply to not sing about the difficult state of Israel, that word is always welcome. Emmanuel. Emmanuel. God with us. Maybe that’s the missing piece of peace.

Anyway, recently His Majesty came to KA for a talk about the geopolitics of the region. He is hopeful that a move toward peace might happen now that the US Presidential election is over. He observed that United States politicians never feel they can do much in the Arab region in the first term of a presidency. But when the fear of electoral reprisal is passed, he hopes that maybe in this second term of President Obama, there may be overtures toward peace again.

Tonight my sister and I will sing in our family’s church. There isn’t anything novel in the announcement of that performance—we have been singing on Christmas Eve together, without fail, every year since I was 10 and she was 7. If you know about where my age falls, you can do the math, and figure out that this is a tradition that dates back to the era of Watergate in American politics.

Over the years, of course, many variables have affected this set-in-stone performance. There has been a name change in terms of what this church has been called (my family still is not happy about the change in 2004—my father suggested they just call it “The Anything Goes” church). There were some years my mother was in the hospital, and one memorable Christmas Eve where doctors allowed her out of the hospital for three hours so she could be bundled up—IV and all—to come to the church and hear us sing. There were years when the hairstyles and the outfits mattered so much more than the song being delivered to the church family. There was the year the church team forgot to turn on the heat, and up until I put my fingers on the keyboard, I kept my hands encased in much-needed gloves.

Ever since my sister got married in 1994 she has made a point of locating songs for Christmas Eve that illumine parts of the Christmas story we might have forgotten—she has made it her mission to act as surrogate pastor and remind us that there are nuggets of wisdom still to be gleaned by the oft-told Christmas story. For years I had chosen semi-flashy pieces designed to show off our vocal skills—then as Elizabeth took hold of the annual song choice (and leave no doubt—she is in charge of choosing!) she chose songs along the lines of Amy Grant’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” that act as beautiful meditations of how we can look into the traditions and stories and find something refreshing, re-invigorating, and re-affirming.

We are returning to a song we sang in 2008, a song entitled, “Not That Far From Bethlehem.” Of course while in Jordan I seriously am not that far from the real Bethlehem.

The words to the song Elizabeth chose offer this refrain:

We’re not that far from Bethlehem—

where all our hope and joy began.

For when our hearts still cherish Him,

We’re not that far from Bethlehem.

I guess on Christmas Eve we are prone to hope for miracles. We yearn for them. Deep down most of us believe that darkness can be overcome. The Messiah who showed up, however, had different trappings of glory—I guess one could call it the glory of humility. This messiah emerged as a baby who could not eat solid food and depended on an unwed teen-age mother for shelter, food, and love. God’s visit to earth was in an out-of-the-way shelter in a feed trough.

With all my Jewish and Muslim friends I try and look for an ecumenical approach to Christmas, besides the sacred understanding of the birth of the Messiah. And I am not talking about a Santa Claus spin on the holiday or trying to cover up religiosity. I mean—in the birth in Bethlehem, how can we walk away with an ecumenical understanding? Simply put: Jesus’ birth is a reiteration that love came down, and offered vast promise. It is about the power of love to change, and the power of cherishing each other. Christmas offers us that opportunity to turn back to those promises—those hopes and joys, and remind ourselves we should never allow ourselves to be that far from Bethlehem.

We’re not that far from Bethlehem—

where all our hope and joy began.

For when our hearts still cherish Him,

We’re not that far from Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Today as the hand approached 12 minutes after 12 I was in a meeting of heads of our academic departments. As this once-in-a-century moment passed, I decided not to remind everyone else about it, but I noted quietly the perfection of that 12:12 on 12/12/12 moment. In the midst of my ordinary day, that extraordinary minute passed.

I decided that I should commemorate this little moment by recounting what I did on this day. While the stroke-of-the-minute was an extraordinary number, the rest of the day was really a very normal, ordinary day here at KA. But blog entries tend to only highlight the extraordinary days, the days that may be worthy of note or profound thought. What about celebrating the quotidian?

In the last week I have taught Northern Renaissance art, that wondrous art of 15th century Flanders that places many of the familiar Bible stories in the ordinary settings of 15th century Flemish homes. Those artists believed that if they could locate the supernatural events of the Bible in an ordinary setting it might elevate the quotidian to the sacred. It might remind us that each of us may indeed be extraordinary in the ordinary places we live. Indeed, one of my famous lines if someone calls my mobile phone (see how ex-pat I sound with “mobile phone” and not “cell phone”!!) during class time, I answer the phone and say, “I can’t talk now—I’m doing God’s work!”

Anyhoo, I think it might be an interesting thing to remember the day with all the ordinary details, knowing that while the 12:12 p.m. on 12/12/12 is unusual, the contours of the day are familiar, and maybe even a little sacred.

I almost always rise before my alarm goes off. I don’t like this, but my body clock tells me to get going. So while the alarm on the phone is set for 6:10 a.m. I am often up before that. I start the day rolling over at 5:30 and know the sleep part of the day is finished. As I often do, I head to the landline phone to call the United States. I call Tracy, the college friend that transcends time and space. I want to talk to Tracy since this is the week of her Christmas concerts with her students. Tracy teaches music to K-3 grades and I want to know how the dress rehearsals are. Her day is winding down in Heath, Ohio, and my day has just begun here in the Middle East. When I hear my alarm sounding in the bedroom I figure it is time to go and shower and meet that new day.

Before breakfast I do an email check and answer a few of the ones that just require perfunctory replies. I check facebook because I am awaiting a lengthy email from a long-lost friend who said one was on the way. No email yet, but some of my stranger (I gather) facebook people are already spending time wondering whether the world might end on this historic 12/12/12 day.

At 7:05 I go over to the Academy Building to greet Nidal, the man who makes copies for us. I leave a couple jobs for him so that they can be ready for my first class in a little while. I head over to the Dining Hall, my head full of names that I need to contact for the upcoming Bangkok job fair, and also with the plans for my term-long course on how World War I shapes the 20th century. At breakfast the mood is one of an odd focus—for some the focus is on the remaining tests before the break, for some the inter-dorm lip synching contest that afternoon, and for some the enervating feeling of the last week before a well-deserved respite from the breakneck pace of a boarding school.

I am trying to decide how I want to begin class. The plan for the day is to look at the bizarre fight that breaks out on May 29, 1913 at the Paris ballet when Stravinsky’s work Rite of Spring debuts and there is a melee and mayhem in the aisles of the theater. Modris Eksteins, a man I admire and deplore (why deplore?? He wrote Rites of Spring a book that I should have written first but he beat me to it!) wrote about how this fight may be the real beginning of the first world war, well, at least as he (and me too!!!!!) sees the world as a simmering cultural ferment and not just a war of nations. I want the class to juggle all the strange things we have noticed about the pre-war world. I want them to explore this 19th century document by a German war theorist who discusses war as a moral, cleansing agent of civilized peoples. My thoughts are interrupted by a colleague who calls to ask me to think of her as she prepares for a Skype interview in an hour with a school in Japan. She decides to go with the red blazer for the Skype interview.

The official beginning of the day is at 8:05 and I meet with Charlie, a four-year veteran of the school, and the night before the host of a dinner with pork tenderloin—talk about your extraordinary events in Jordan! I had visited Charlie’s 10th grade class the day before—as I have done with each member of my department in the last week or so—and we had the follow-up conversation the next day. Charlie is someone that has been fun to watch his progress as a young teacher, and he had taught a lively class about Napoleon. I shared with him the moments where he had done such a good job with class discussion and questions. And as I find interesting to do, I shared some suggestions as to where else he might go with the lesson. I hope it doesn’t come across as, “Here is where you are wrong and what I, Lord Master of History, would do.” I always find it interesting to think about a point, or an art work, or a document and how it might re-cast or re-frame the class.

Oh, we talk almost the whole 45 minutes and now I need to get going to class. I think I will begin class with a certainty: on August 5, 1914, a war of large proportions had erupted. But when should we say the war began? And whom shall we blame for this war? We read the theorist. I got answers that were really more along the lines of 9th grade answers and I tried to explain how seniors need to up the ante. I modeled some answers and we teased apart the simultaneous events of 1913-1914.

A colleague had asked in an email if she could meet with me for 10 minutes to discuss an upcoming parent conference that could be tense. After about 20 minutes I reminded her that a good idea with a parent is to ask them to articulate their hopes and fears for their child for this year. Oh, I better try and finish grading the art history quizzes…can I squeeze in 6-8 more??

At 10:45 I go to teaching fellow Hadley’s class to watch her 10th graders give presentations on essays they have read. Later that afternoon we joke about many of them confessed/professed that they are not readers, per se, but “I loved this essay.” They do a good job, although this one girl was a little more obsessed with a murder than might have been seen as healthy.

Next is the meeting of heads of department. We are discussing how to finesse the decision that we will eliminate winter term exams and simply enjoy five more teaching days. Yep, that needed another hour discussion, but put a committee on something, and wow—the time can go. That is when I noted the remarkable 12:12 on 12/12/12 day…

I did not have a sit-down lunch today so I went back to my apartment and have chicken salad so I could prepare a little more for the art history class on Botticelli. As I am reminding myself of Botticelli’s obsession with Platonic philosophy I am wondering if I will have time to finish grading their quizzes. It turns out…no, a student asks for some help on my to class and there went that last 20 minutes.

As always, class with these guys is just great. We explore four paintings from the 1480s and I remind them of their test the next day. On my way to go finish working on their test I see a teaching fellow with whom I need to chat. He had recently made a youthful error about deadlines and we needed to have that chat. In that time headmaster John came by and we needed to chat about the professional development speaker coming in February. With the change of exams we may back his day a couple days and need to think about that. Of course we had to go over some things about the Bangkok job fair. I need to contact everyone on that list.

For the last block of the teaching day I had my seminar with the teaching fellows, exploring 3 of the 49 techniques in Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like A Champion and also trying to impart some wisdom about the first big break in your teaching career…there may be some pitfalls in thinking about and reacting to the trip home.

I need to run back to class for a 30 minute study session—we go over a Gothic statue and a Gothic cathedral, and then we all have to run over to the auditorium for the Lip Synching contest. I think perhaps the least said about the contest the better! It is now 6:00 p.m. I have an hour where nothing is going on…I head back to have pears and cheese and finish the chicken salad and wash dishes…and not talk.

At 7:00 I go watch a little concert of teachers who wanted to sing Christmas carols. If the play had not been last weekend I would have joined them but instead I got to be a good audience member. After the concert—oh, I promised another study session. To the library and for 50 minutes we discuss the proto-Renaissance and how one writes about innovations in art.

Ruba and Chris ask me to stop by afterwards and we sit and talk for about 90 minutes about the state of the world—or at least our little place in it—they are always fun! I go back, procrastinate with emails and finally write email comments on papers I had promised earlier that day to attack. Somehow I end up staying up late, perhaps the only one still awake at almost 1:00 a.m. as the fire alarm sounds in the dorm and we all trudge outside in the cold.

That’s the day. Really an ordinary day, but sometimes interesting to look back and see what you did. I am up now for a new day—up an hour or so before the alarm sounds. But at the end of this day there is an un-ordinary feel as we scatter to the corners of the world for winter break. I will be flying home to Cincinnati tomorrow—an ordinary Christmas with my extraordinary family. I anticipate just like the Northern Renaissance guys, there will be tinges of the sacred in that ordinary setting.

12/13/12—perhaps not as remarkable a day, but another day in the life of the school.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Twelve Angry Diamonds

Twenty-four hours from right now I will be enjoying yet another open’in of another show—I think it is my 64th show to open, but frankly, I have lost count. If you read my trilogy of blog entries in October, That Being Said, you know the play is not the one I began with students in September. Oh well, it is one of my favorite plays to direct anyway.

The play we will present to the KA community this week is one of my warhorses, the tight 90-minute no-intermission drama originally produced for 1950s television, and then as a major motion picture as Twelve Angry Men. Since I have always opted to cast the play with males and females, one must adjust the title to Twelve Angry Jurors. This play is the simplest, cheapest play imaginable. You find a space in which to perform, grab a good sturdy table and some chairs, get a couple of regular props, and boom—you got a play. But while it is simple and cheap, it remains among the most powerful plays I know—I know it well…I have directed it before, very memorably, in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2010.

Twelve Angry Jurors is a play as bland as butter and as brilliant as diamonds. The setting and premise is so simple. Twelve jurors, strangers before this court case, are sequestered to debate the guilt or innocence of a young, unseen, defendant, “one of them,” as Juror #10 announces often. It is an actor’s feast because all 12 actors are on stage the entire time, and you get to hone the skills of an actor in that the way you sit, sigh, drum your fingers, drink water out of the water cooler, engage with the other jurors, and raise your hand to vote, speaks volumes about your character. The playwright gives you little to work with—you don’t even have a name, you are simply your juror number, and while you can guess how the play will go, it can still be nail-biting in watching the narrative unfold.

I have always staged the play so that an audience is surrounding the jury room of actors. At Charlotte Latin I placed the actors on stage in a theater of the round; at Hackley we performed it in the Lindsay Room, a great space where about 100 observers could be just a few feet away from the action. One year we performed the play while Timothy McVeigh was on trial, and many of the audience told me later it gave them a chance to reflect on the American judicial system and ponder how we do what we say in trying our criminals.

One of the messages of Twelve Angry Jurors is how we should look past stereotypes and not shallowly judge people, and that we need to think about how we discuss a “them” group characteristic. I think this message can play effectively anywhere in the world.

Since I have done this play 6 times over the last 19 school years, I know the play thoroughly. And when I cast the play, I enjoy the nostalgia of thinking back to previous casts and enjoying how much the actors in this particular play have enriched me. The “Henry Fonda” character to me will always be the “Chuck Edwards part,” the student-actor who first played the role for me in 1994. Juror #8 is the young man who acts as the moral compass in the play and instructs and guides the jury to think a little harder about what is a reasonable doubt (if you know Chuck, well, you know why I call it as I do). David played the part in 1997, and Tom in 2001, Kenrick in 2005, and Mounir in 2010…my trip down memory lane, each time it is interesting to note how the actor must play a sage role and avoid treacle-y didacticism. This time I cast a female actor for the first time, the estimable Hanna Lee, a veteran of other plays with me here in Jordan.

Then there is the part of the “bigot,” a part I have always used in which to cast a female actor. This is a meaty role with a killer monologue at the end (I call them “arias” in this play). This has always gone to my Meryl-Streep actress of that year, and the pedigree is rich as I recount that Catherine played the part in 1994, and Elizabeth in 1997, Liz in 2001, Alyssa in 2005, and Hana Mufti in 2010. Now I have another newcomer to me—a scrappy, charismatic actress named Dyala who resorts to a sweetness every time she starts to be nasty, but she is as lethal as they come.

The third of the “showiest” parts is the loudmouth, angry, and embittered father, a part played by Lee J. Cobb in the movie, and played by dynamite actors in my productions. This part needs to feel as if it is essayed by a 50-ish actor, a terrific feat for an adolescent actor. This is a part that must be more than blather and bravado, and must touch the heart as the jurors, and the audience, realize he is hurting due to the alienation of his son. This juror also has a showstopper of an aria at the end of the play, and reminds me of Mama Rose’s breakdown in Gypsy. Again, the gallery of actors whom have tackled this role reads as a veritable who’s who of my great actors: Eric in 1994, and then Brent in 1997, Kieran in 2001, Harrison in 2005, and Lawrence in 2010. I have a young actor named Ali Mango, and yowza! This guy is giving his all in the part.

But as I said, each part is juicy in this play since all the actors (except the Guard, who appears from time to time, but even then I have cast the guard with actors who are just great to know, like Brent in 1994 and now Nasam) are on “stage” the whole time, and each is afforded moments in which to shine. Here are the actors who are my line-up for the 2012 version:












I don’t direct them to emulate anyone else’s performance, but the rehearsal room is quite crowded, because in a cosmic way, for me, as I think about Lyde and Bennett and Jen and Soyoung and Brian and Jake and Lani and Becky and Junko and Ethan and Melissa and Julia and Abdullah and Rob and Burhan and Robert and Dana and all these great actors and how they have enriched this play for me over the last 19 years. You know, I am reminded of the interesting Ogden Nash observation as I contemplate this play and the casts: “Middle age is when you’ve met so many people that every new person you meet reminds you of someone else.”

I will let you know how the week and the performances go…

Let’s see how they handle the butter and diamonds.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Art of Impatient Living

I am going to ask you to do a very difficult thing. I want you to forget all the seasonal trappings that surround you right now and seduce you into thinking that Advent has anything at all to do with Christmas as you and I understand it. I want you to clear out all the “let’s get ready for Christmas!” cheer and folderol.

Why? I want us to think about what Advent is about—the patience required to wait for something extraordinary. There is an agenda to Advent and we often lose sight of what is required. We need to wait for that which we have not yet seen. We work for what has not yet been accomplished.

Actually for me in Jordan, at least as of right now, this is all very easy. There are no radio stations playing Christmas music, there is no mad dash to the Mall for Santa electronics gifts. Moreover, I am waiting patiently for three weeks from now when I will travel the thousands of miles back to my Cincinnati home. So since today marks the first Sunday of Advent I am all caught up in the expectations and required patience for the holiday. I am thinking how interesting it is that we must reconcile the patience of Advent with the impatience of human and 21st century living—wow, that is the problem and opportunity of Advent!

When I have spoken to students over the years who believe that the Bible lacks credibility, one of the reasons that they find it so unbelievable is that the Bible asks us to do things that are manifestly undoable. They ask us to believe things that, if not believable and true, are at least unlikely. We are asked to have patience with the clichés of Advent—light over darkness and hope over despair and gentleness over might and power—and believe that they will come true. Let’s just look at a couple of things—we know that Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth but we do not believe that that is likely, or not at least not anytime soon. We know that we are to forgive people who have hurt us, but we know that except in rare and wonderful circumstances it is very difficult to bring ourselves to do it.

So we come back to the patience bit. Oh, patience that cruel muse/demon. Isn’t patience for the unambitious, or the under-achievers? I remember someone joking once that patience is for those who have to take the long view because they can’t succeed in the short run. And, have you ever been told to be patient? Oh, think about studying a language or piano. Or writing. Or learning to tie a tie? Yes, I remember my father urging me to be patient about tying a tie. “Be patient, it will come.” Somehow it is hard to believe whenever such counsel is offered. It is such an irritant! (I know of what I speak—as a teacher of writing, I implore my students to be patient, like six months while they work and work and wait for the breakthrough—I know it feels irritating to the students!)

I guess patience implies passivity and we wish not to be passive, we wish not merely to be spectators at somebody else’s spectacle of achievement. We want to make it happen NOW! There is a line in the New Testament epistle of James that shouts, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only!” That I get! I want to do! I don’t want to be told to wait.

I remember as a cub scout we were asked to take a seed and make something grow. I had no interest in farming, but I certainly had an interest in merit badges! So I wanted the biggest seed I could find because I thought that would grow faster. I wasn’t interested in those little packets of seeds—those things would require far too much patience! So we had an avocado once (why we had an exotic avocado in my mid-western household I don’t know, although we did have the requisite 1970s avocado-colored kitchen!) and I got the huge seed from the middle of the avocado and planted it in a pot on the front porch. I raced to see every day the progress of my seed. It took forever—even the biggest seed I could imagine! My father, a master of patience if there ever was one, urged me to calm down and be patient. Finally, after what seemed like eons (what? Maybe 72 hours?!) my father told me in his magisterial way that I needed patience and hope. If one could cultivate those two things, he said, life would be easier and better. I can’t imagine I really agreed with him then, but nearly 40 years after that conversation, I cannot forget his sage advice. A harvest is a result of incredible patience and the hope of things to come. A farmer cannot do anything to induce the rains and development. We have to rely on forces beyond our control. Argh!!!!!!

I am not sure why all of this crossed my mind today, but as we crossed the threshold into Advent all of this came flooding back to me. My father, a master of patience and hope, has never been idle. That was another lesson he sought to impart to me. Tuesday, November 27th is my mother’s birthday—she would have been 74—and the project that was Mary Martha’s health and well-being was my father’s greatest demonstration of patience and hope and never being idle. My father was a sometime farmer for fun, not a real farmer, but you know the kind of suburban guy who plants tomatoes and zucchini and such. But he had the gifts of a farmer, imbuing living things with love, patience, hope, and endless care. He never was held hostage by fantasies and disappointments of the impatient.

In the house of my childhood we were not supposed to speak about Christmas until after my mother’s birthday. So until November 27th had passed, we were not allowed to jump and cheer and wish and beg and cajole and upend the Christmas cheer truck. What a funny thing, in a way, but totally in keeping with my parents’ ultimate goal to cultivate patience and hope in some desperate children.

So why the desire for a lesson in patience in Advent? Like everything else, it is about more than we think. We are not really anticipating the commemoration of the birthday of a little baby in Bethlehem, but the fruition of some divine plan, the culmination of human hope. I guess Advent is reminding us of really re-births and that possibility of getting it right, of mercy triumphant and truth triumphant and joy triumphant and peace triumphant. I don’t know about you, but certainly in this neck of the woods, those concepts would be a miracle.

I don’t think it is about waiting for something in the past either, of merely recreating those moments. There is no hope in history, no age, no season to which we could return when everything would be fine. There is no place in history where it really has worked. Soooo, I guess, there is no better time or place than where we are right now. Oh, wait. Our time and place right now doesn’t work. Soooo, the only place where we can invest, where there is a harvest worth aspiring to, is in the future.

This is the language of Advent. This is not merely a “waiting around for something interesting to happen,” but as with the farmer, a working for which we wait. Impatient living is what we do. Impatient living isn’t about just keeping busy. Working well for that for which we wait is the essence of Advent hope.

I remember one time when I was in college and I asked my mother how it was that she never seemed to give up on her situation with MS. How did she not give up? As she did often, she turned a little moment into a mini-sermon. She agreed that it would seem that there was plenty of opportunity and reason to give up, but she reminded me that God does not give up on his creatures, although we must have given Him millions of reasons to give up. She said we need the patience of Job and we must always live in the anticipation of hope.

How fitting that my mother’s birthday is always around the time of Advent. No one exemplifies patience and hope better than my mother and father—and at her birthday I get the invitation to Advent. Advent hope is not an invitation to easy, silly optimism, nor an invitation to mind-numbing despair or hope held hostage to experience. As my mother would surely sermonize if she had a blog (I would love to have seen her creative blog entries!) Advent hope is an invitation to translate the energy of impatience into the art of expectant living in the here and now.

Happy Birthday on Tuesday to you Mary Martha Griley Leistler! I thank the good Lord that you and your Kenny Babe were my parents, trying to tame the impatient young man, modeling patience and hope and love. I hope you don’t mind I spoke about Christmas before Tuesday. It feels kinda good to get away with something!

Bring it on Advent—I accept the invitation.

P.S. I just googled Advent 2012 to check and make sure today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is not! Next Sunday, December 2nd is the first Sunday of Advent, 2012. Well, I suppose my impatient living wanted me to speed it up, but I will go ahead and post the blog entry anyway…enjoy the week anticipating the season of anticipating!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Reckless Abandon Under Control

Last night I went over to my dear colleague Reem’s house in Amman for the second year in a row for Thanksgiving. About 18 people, family and family friends, gathered for this American-style Thanksgiving. Last year I wrote in a blog entry about my first time for Thanksgiving with Reem’s family:

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.

So last night before we go to dig into the wondrous bounty of Reem’s mother’s food, we stood and sang the “Doxology,” and Reem’s father offered a prayer again. This year he added a new feature of thanksgiving: gratitude that Jordan was safe and managing the volatility around it and coursing through it. It was obvious from the vibe in the room how important this note thanksgiving and stability for their beloved Jordan was.

In the last two weeks I have received a number of emails and calls wondering about my safety and what was happening in Jordan. I decided I needed to discuss what I thought was going on, and I remembered the sermon title from last week’s meditation at the church I attend. The speaker entitled his sermon, “Reckless Abandon Under Control,” and discussed how we needed to discern God’s timeline for the trajectory of our lives. As I listened to the sermon, I kept thinking about that title—is this an accurate statement about the events and situation in Jordan right now???

If you read The Economist or almost any other political journalist, or listen to reports on the news, they all seem to claim that Jordan is in upheaval—maybe even finished. It sounds so strange to read that when each day of the week we go about our business at school of educating adolescents. It seems so normal! Now, granted, I live in a bit of a “bubble,” 30 minutes by car to Amman, and behind walls (in case you have ever wondered, once you are on campus, you never see the walls) protected by security guards. But each day hundreds of students and teachers and workers come on campus, and go about the quotidian tasks of a school. So when I look at the news reports, this upheaval seems about as far away to me as if I were back in Cincinnati.

But I don’t want to sound as if I have just buried my head in the sand—there are problems coursing through the veins of this kingdom on the fault lines of Middle East tension and trauma. Let’s leave Gaza alone in this blog entry—I just want to explore what is happening in Jordan.

Almost two weeks ago the government announced that the price of gasoline and home heating oil would be going up. (It is helpful to put in perspective the hike: as I understand it the cost of the heating oil rose from 6 JDs to 10 JDs. Even if you don’t know a JD from Jasmine plant, you can appreciate the significant rise in price.) There were fairly aggressive protests in various places throughout the kingdom about the price hikes and worries over whether or not this would become another Middle Eastern government toppled. This comes after the violent civil war in neighboring Syria which has sent between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees fleeing into Jordan.

I am not saying it has been an easy year for Jordan, but I do think the reports of the demise of the kingdom of Jordan are greatly exaggerated. (Thank you Mr. Twain for that sardonic comment!)

As an outsider I can’t decide if I have more insight since it is not my homeland, or so much less insight because I just don’t get it. I can’t change my outsider status, so here are my observations about the current situation in Jordan: the King has a substantial legacy of legitimacy in Jordan, both spiritually and politically and diplomatically, with a population dependent on the government for many things. Price hikes are unpopular, yes, but the monarchy has a legitimacy with the people. Many people revere King Hussein (who died in 1999) more than you can imagine. The police in Jordan are not seen as a joke or as torturers. About 20 months ago when I went down to watch a “protest” I noticed how as men marched by, police handed out bottles of water. The police, as I see it, is not the sharp end of the stick of a dictatorial regime. Jordan is not like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt or Yemen. Given the number of protests, there have been few deaths. These determinedly non-violent protests often result in counter-protests of Jordanians driving around waving their flag, shouting support for the King, and praising Jordan.

Moreover, Jordanians treasure their peace and stability. They take enormous pride in being an oasis of calm in a desert of volatility and violence.

Ahhh…but let’s not be naïve. Could all of this crumble? Of course it could, but it seems unlikely to me. For every protest and the burning of tires and yelling, there is also vocal disgust for the vandalism and lack of understanding about economies. But, but, but, my historian’s mind reels with other examples of this, from Paris to St. Petersburg to Tunisia, etc. Let me not try and predict the future, but let’s look at some of the real problems facing Jordan:

Number 1—the situation in Syria and the threat of a violent spill-over that could destabilize Jordan. But one thing I have noted is that it would not surprise me if that kind of external stress would not actually galvanize Jordanians in a powerful way. The typical tension of East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians could be transcended by such a threat.

Number 2—I have heard the phrase “fiscal cliff” a thousand times in the American press recently about our economic woes. Talk about your fiscal cliffs—well, Jordan is at that precipice. The budget is far overdrawn, like by billions, and the government needs cash and worries about the future of more loans. Hence the price hikes in fuel. But there is so much economic investment in Jordan from countries from around the world that I wonder if they would just sit idly by. Or do I sound like the surprised college sophomore whose father must finally rein in the reckless spending habits???

Long, long ago when I taught Economics in my first school, the Latin phrase Ceteris paribus came up regularly in the study of economics. The phrase literally translated means “all other things being equal or held constant.” That phrase may be why I didn’t like teaching economics! How silly is it to try and think of things being constant. The study of History, on the other hand, if it is done well, is about the utter lack of constancy, and the mess of history and trying to deal with and understand the stew of simultaneity.

So that’s where I am about Jordan. I think the fatalist tantrums are overstated. But all of these scenarios for the future involve a certain tendency to follow the past. The government has done well in going to various tribes and having tea and coffee and straightening out messes. The king has looked at his neighbors and learned from their mistakes. The protests have fizzled away. The police have managed to keep the protests from getting really out of hand. People have loaned Jordan money. The easy prey that Jordan seems to be in this pivot of the Middle East has not swept away the monarchy and its substantially stable government.

In my judgment the protests have seemed a reckless abandon, but one that is under control.

What will come next? I think that again requires the careful consideration, the prayer, the discernment and the wisdom of what the timeline reveals. The stakes are high. As Reem’s father offered thanks for our health and our bounty, I also join him in his prayers for the stability and future of this Middle Eastern kingdom, my home for the last 65 months.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Kingmaker Ohio

Yesterday my dear colleague Tessa invited me into her 10th grade English class to, as she said, “tell us what this whole election thing means to America.” Tessa is a South African, a doyenne of the independent school world, a veteran world-traveler, and yet, she said, “I do not know what to make of this Electoral College thing.” So I went into Tessa’s class to demystify the Electoral College for them (she doesn’t know this, but my mother’s college senior thesis was on the Electoral College—I guess it’s in my DNA!). I spoke to her 19 students about how the Constitutional Convention of 1787 came about after the fairly disastrous years of our newly won independence in those not-so united states. How fun to explain to them—without any false modesty—the supreme importance of my home state of Ohio. If you have watched any news analysis at all, it does come down to those 18 prized electoral votes from my Buckeye state. We discussed how candidates spend almost no time in 29-vote New York, or 38-vote Texas, or even 55-vote California. We briefly pitied 3-vote Vermont. I tried to explain it is not just because I hail from Ohio…but we know…the kingmaker swing state of Ohio, perhaps just a few counties actually, may determine the vote in this presidential election.

Today I put together a special Election Day outfit for school! (Just in case you have not been made fully aware of how eccentric I can be!) I had on a bright red shirt (in honor of the red states) and blue trousers (in honor of the blue states) and a $3 tie I bought in New York’s Battery that has the words of the preamble of the Constitution, an image of the U.S. capitol, and a blindfolded Lady Justice…go American Justice and Democracy!! I had to explain my outfit to a few people.

I had to explain my outfit in part because there was not the buzz and excitement around campus today about the Election Day in the U.S. that there was in 2008…the mood was not really subdued, just pretty unaware and/or blasé. In 2008 there was considerable buzz and excitement here. We had made plans for people to watch the final returns starting at 5:00 a.m. our time in the Dining Hall. If you remember, over 80 students got up to watch (that was half of the boarders at the time!) The U.S. Embassy had a glittering party at a fancy hotel in Amman on Election night. I never got an invitation to a party this year from the Embassy. Maybe I sang too many show tunes or patriotic songs in 2008, I don’t know. But I looked in The Jordan Times today, and on page 3 there was a smallish story headed by, “Many Jordanians indifferent to US election outcome.” The article was about as lackluster as the responses from “ordinary Jordanians.” Essentially, everyone quoted said the same thing: sorry, just not interested. They did not marvel at the phenomenon of democracy, and even though it is the print media, you could practically see the shrugging and grousing with the lines, “Whoever wins, it’ll be the same foreign policy anyway.” Some of those interviewed called Election Day, “a charade,” another “a sham.” It came down to this general consensus from those “ordinary Jordanians”: “it will be the same for us.” What they mean is that they have seen it long enough to know that United States policy will be about unconditional support for Israel. “They will be on Israel’s side no matter who is in office,” said an IT professional. A salesman lamented, “All I know is they will enforce Israel’s unfair policies against the Palestinians.” As veteran politician Tip O’Neill once noted, “All politics is local.” Tip got it right.

Well, it’s not 2008 here or anywhere else. In 2008 our election invigorated Jordanians because they felt there might be a change in the air for issues near and dear to their hearts. But you know, my ardor for Election Day is undiminished—I just understand the political thing a little better.

I had a great talk with one of our foreign exchange students from China. I learned as usual far more than I might have “dispensed” in talking with him. First of all, I learned that the Chinese people my student knows are utterly fascinated by American democracy. He said that a pop star scored a hit in Beijing by talking about the Electoral College for 33 minutes! Did Tessa try and wrangle him for her class??

He explained that interest in US presidential elections is unusually high in China this year because Americans are voting at the same time Beijing is going through its own political transition. A generation of Communist Party leaders will step down next week to make way for younger leaders after a highly secretive selection process.

The student compared what he thought about both systems and their approach to the upcoming political transitions. He told me about a popular political cartoon in China where an American voter covers his ears over all the endless droning campaign ads on TV, while a Chinese man struggles to hear anything from the party congress taking place behind closed doors. He marveled that Americans get to select their own leaders. He reminded me that to the Chinese their own leaders were distant figures whom they have no way of replacing.

Wow. What a reminder of something I have never worried about. We squabble and call names and throw out words like, “evil,” “Nazi,” “idiot” and on and on, but oh, do not forget—we have the power of the ballot box! It may a flawed system—of course it is, but we have a semblance of something, and as the words from 1787 attested, we are working toward “a more perfect union.” I hear Martin Luther King, Jr. words, “I may not get there with you, but someday…” I explained to Tessa’s class who could vote in 1800 and then compared it to 1900 and then to 2000. I talked about demographic changes, about “American Exceptionalism,” and the wonders of pride and the pitfalls of hubris, and I said what my friend Doris Jackson always reminded her students, “Please vote—it is more than a right. It is your obligation—people died for the right to vote.”

My friend from China said the internet has changed everything. They now get more than “state-sponsored propaganda.” They can learn more, see presidential debates. Oh, but then the conversation took a turn. He noted that admiration for the US political system does not necessarily extend to the US itself. They worry about how the US tries to manipulate the Chinese economy and “scold” China.

Campaigns feel like an eternity somehow—but in the next 24 hours there will be a change. Elections will most likely be decided. The rancor will soften. We will accept the verdict of the voters. And most importantly, there will not be bloodshed in our streets over the election results. There is nothing I treasure about America more than these two glorious days in the Fall: Election Day and the sun breaking over a violence-free acceptance.

Speaking of fall days—today I got that special package I have come to treasure every fall. My friend Margot sent me my fall leaves! Margot was a Gap Year fellow in 2007-08 here and in that first autumn away from autumn leaves we confided to each other how much we missed the turning of the leaves. Next autumn, when she was beginning college at Williams, I got a special package in the mail with gorgeous autumn leaves from Williamstown. Every autumn since Margot has remembered and sent me some leaves. What a treasure (both Margot and the leaves!)

As millions go to the polls today—god bless ‘em every one—they will decide on the candidate and party which they feel understands their community and concerns. They will pick leaders in which they find their allies in peace and justice and progress. They will elect the ones who they think will make America better, stronger, smarter and more just. What a wonderful thing. What a patriotic duty!

Okay, it is bedtime here in Jordan, but oh, the night is young for me! In a few minutes three teacher friends are coming over. We plan to stay up all night, biting our nails as we watch the returns on CNN and MSNBC here on Jordanian TV. We will welcome in the dawn awaiting the news from across the pond.

What will my native state of Ohio do? What will Kingmaker Ohio show us in the next 12 hours?????????

Go put on your red, white, and blue and celebrate! I’m cheering from thousands of miles away!!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

I had “A Day”

It certainly seemed as if it were tempting the Fates to make the Eid vacation plans meeting Christy again in London! Last year, if you remember my travel plans expertly, I planned to meet TIEL Queen and soulmate Christy in London. Last year it worked—we came from different continents, flew into different airports, traveled to central London on different subway lines—and had no cell phones to connect ourselves. And it worked! Last year she arrived within 10 minutes of the ETA I had established! Dare we, dare we, tempt the Fates that it could work again??!! We dared…

By the way, to refresh your memories, this Eid break is two moons since the last Eid celebration which marked 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 revel in family time and celebrate and eat a lot of lamb.

As I wrote in a blog entry last year after the trip: “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 picked Victoria Train Station at Track #1!”

You must have guessed that it couldn’t work out so well twice! To be fair—and I must be fair—it wasn’t Christy’s fault. Her plane was delayed in New Jersey for three hours since they were missing a part to the door. But in our plans with no cell phones and instantaneous email access I didn’t know this. Her ETA at Victoria Station this year was to be 12:30 pm London time. After 2 hours had gone by, and not without fretting and freezing on my part with the Arctic plunge London had last Friday, I called Marcey, our friend and concierge (she was graciously offering free dorm rooms for our stay!) in London and worried. Marcey immediately checked the flight times on-line and discovered that Christy’s plane had had a 3-hour late departure…oh well…Christy arrived about 3 hours after the ETA and we began our London vacation!

Dear Hackley and KA colleague Julianne famously once spent “A Day” with me in Manhattan: she wanted to see what I did on a weekend day and she found out it was a busy, busy day. She has joked since that of all the things she can endure, she doesn’t think she can handle another “Day” with me as I make the rounds doing all the things I loved…

Well, last Sunday was one of those days in London…a beautifully planned and executed “Day” that just makes me smile and enjoy the busy-ness of all I enjoy. I thought I would walk you through “A Day,” a quintessential Day where I hit upon many of my favorite activities and haunts…Here is a run-down of last Sunday:

We stayed in these dorms (quite snazzy by the way with single rooms with a private bath—better than many B&Bs I have found over the years) out on Holloway Road in Islington in London. I woke up a little early, walked down the street on a brisk and sunny morning to go breakfast shopping at the Morrison’s grocery store. Oh, I got some English cheddar, Wiltshire ham, grapefruit juice, bananas and just-baked whole-grain bread. After Christy and I fed ourselves we went to take the bus southeast to church. We decided to attend the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (and besides the spiritual fulfillment, it would save the usual $25 visiting fee!). The bus took us through some neighborhoods we didn’t know well, we arrived on time, and sat mesmerized at the sights and sounds of the choir. The church was one of those moments in my 1981 first trip abroad—I remember standing agape in St. Paul’s at the mosaics and exquisite beauty of Wren’s dome and cathedral. How moving to start the day here…

After a quick little pick-me-up croissant and hot chocolate we walked down the lane to the Museum of the City of London. We took in a tour of pre-historic London and then went down to look at some exhibits of 19th century London. I couldn’t resist the book store at the museum and I looked at books on Roman Britain and the many novels that could feast on my London obsession. Next we hopped a subway for a neighborhood that wasn’t even on most tourist maps—Stockwell.

We were on our way to Stockwell to see a play that was off the beaten path. As we emerged into this neighborhood—it reminded us of Greenwich Village—we loved the houses and shops. We found our way to the theater, bought our tickets, and had an hour then for lunch before the matinee. We passed a pub, The Priory Arms, that lured us in with its Sunday Afternoon Roast Special. Oh, we found a remarkably wonderful roast beef and yorkshire pudding meal, and the six vegetables. While we had enjoyed our Indian food and Thai food on our trip, this comfort food was heavenly. Christy, in her own hyperbolic way pronounced this “among the best meals of my life!”

The play is a new play called Peter about the effect on the Davies family their friendship with author James Barrie had. Barrie named his newest character “Peter Pan” after the youngest Davies boy and the play looks at the sad realities of that family’s life. Several scenes took place in Kensington Park at the famed statue of Peter Pan and how the namesake wished he had never heard of the little boy who couldn’t grow up. We made a plan to visit the statue the following day. The play was a great matinee…but the day wasn’t finished yet!

I timed it exactly right that we could take the Tube over to Westminster Abbey and make a 5:45 organ concert (again, another way to get into a famous church for free since the recitals are free and you skip the $25 fee!). We sat there in this nearly-1000 year old church enjoying the ogive arches and sumptuous trapping of British regalia along with the Cesar Franck organ piece. A great way to collect one’s thoughts and look back on the day. At the conclusion we headed out for a walk up by Parliament and Big Ben to Trafalgar Square on our way to Piccadilly! We met Marcey for dinner at a Thai restaurant. We regaled her with our completed for plans for the day: we had enjoyed new neighborhoods, church in a spectacular setting, comfort food, a museum, books, walking through a park, a play, a concert, foreign food, historic sights…seriously…like the Days of old in New York—this was A Day! After dinner we went back to the dorm to “meta” about the great day. Last year I wrote in the blog entry: “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.”

The trip is over; I am back doing laundry, preparing for classes and the onslaught of school. But the beauties of the break linger: a change of weather, time with a friend that enjoys the exact same things I do, laughter, exploring, delightful art works, new things to see and taste…just a lovely time. Each day of the trip was in and of itself, of course, A Day. I just thought I would focus on that lovely Sunday…

Oh, but I have to mention the weirdest thing we did…Kensington Palace is newly opened after a two-year renovation for the parts open to the public. It has a hefty visit price of $25 but we decided to go anyway. After all, Queen Victoria grew up here, Diana lived here, they must have prepared it well…

Imagine if film director Tim Burton were in charge of designing a museum. Go ahead—think about it for a moment—what would it look like? Think of his movies and think how he might design a historic museum. That is along the lines of how Kensington Palace is treated in its new incarnation! The strangest part of the museum is the floor dedicated to Queen Anne (she lived here around 1700) and her 18 children who died before maturity. There were piles of suitcases with Anne’s name and the destination of Kensington Palace. There was some wall text about Prince William’s upcoming 11th birthday party. The text began to dance as you read it! It told of how William looked forward to dancing at the party. Sad, but none of Anne’s other children lived so long, the text reminded. The end of the text kept reminding us how William looked forward to the dancing! Upstairs one learned that during the party, during the dancing, William got “overheated,” and soon developed “a fever.” Within days, he was dead. The museum seemed to delight in the macabre elements of Anne’s dead brood: there was a dining room set with 18 places, all with enormous gold bows, all for the dead children. There was whispering around, real recordings of whispers, “palace gossip” the text read, of what everyone said about the seemingly evil Queen with her dead passel of children. One could sit in a royal-esque chair and look up at “William’s dreams,” and see the hologram of the dead Prince. Need I go on? Every exhibit seemed like a Haunted House—seriously!! The creativity was over-the-top and bizarre. I guess children might fancy the place, but as a historic house, it was ridiculous. Eventually we decided to run out of there, run through the park, find the Peter Pan statue, and get back to a much saner real world.

From there we went on to High Tea…but I won’t regale you with any more itinerary nonsense…I am just reveling in the beauty of the Day in Londontown…

Thursday, October 25, 2012

That Being Said, Part III

So last Saturday, as I was wending my way through part II of this drama about the drama, I noted that I had come to the end of my word allotment in the blog entry. Of course there isn’t really a ‘word allotment,’ but if you have been a steady reader of the blog for the last 64 months you may have noticed a strange trend over the course of these 340 blog entries: they are almost always the same length! It isn’t really by dictate/mandate but it has seemed over these 5 years that I tend to think in 3 page single-space chunks—95% (I made up that statistic, it may be 92% or 99% or not in actuality) of all the blog entries are 3 pages or about 1700-1800 words. I don’t ever look at the word count, to be honest, but I went and looked at the last blog entry and saw what the word count was. But it has been interesting to note that in these 5 years of doing blog entries, I certainly do think in 3 page chunks. But last Saturday it came at a convenient time to continue the cliff-hanger status of the play.

To remind you of where we were, sitting in Room 125, trying to end the deadlock over whether we ought to scrap Our Town and embrace Twelve Angry Jurors or ignore the jurors and celebrate the homespun values of Grover’s Corners. I wrote last week:

I started getting emails from actors from both camps about how their play choice was the better choice. Hey, you know, I should be grateful they wanted to be in a play, and that both play choices were appreciated!

Julianne, ever the coach and athlete extraordinaire, recommended that I simply toss a coin and let that decide which play we did. I pointed to the headmaster and said he should come and toss the coin since he got us in this mess! I chose a beautiful Egyptian pound coin for the coin toss.

But on the day that we would meet again, I realized one choice was actually a better choice for us…there was a very practical reason why one play choice should prevail—simply about the possibility of the cold. If I direct Our Town I want it to be in the courtyard, a space I have used for plays twice on lovely May evenings. But this time I am to present a play in early December. While it is the desert, it can be cold in December, and certainly in the evening when we would present the play. I pondered how beautiful the message of Our Town would be under a starlit sky. Then I thought about the cold. I considered renting great Arab heaters to go around the perimeter of the courtyard to keep the audience toasty. But I worried, “What if my audience goes home talking about the cold and not about the message of the play???” I asked colleague Sheena about the possibility of cold and she said, “I won’t even come! It just might be cold and who wants to sit around and shiver????” Of course I said it was like the Dead in the cemetery scene. She just looked at me like I was nuts.

The cold. The cold. Of the 66 plays I have directed, this might be the first time that the issue of cold or warm would determine my play choice! Yep, it could be cold. The audience just might boo me at the end, or we might just hear teeth chattering instead of grateful applause.

So I considered the coin toss. Should I just gamble that that shiny Egyptian pound coin would go my way??? I could…there was of course a 50% chance I wouldn’t have to explain the decision and alienate the Our Town camp.

But of course that is silly. I knew there was a “best choice” for the Fall of 2012 now, and I needed to explain that choice. I mean, wouldn’t it be worse if the coin came up heads for Our Town and then I had to say, “Well, that’s not really the best choice.”??? It kinda sounds like that infernal phrase, That being said…

So we met on Sunday afternoon for rehearsal—the students were interested in what the play choice would finally be. I explained to them the idea of the coin toss…and decided to tell them what the better choice should be. I explained about the cold issue, how bad the auditorium is for presenting plays, how Our Town required more production headaches like accurate costumes in a kingdom practically void of costumes, etc. So I announced my decision that we would plunge ahead with Twelve Angry Jurors. At the end, I said, just for fun, let’s see what the coin toss would have produced: heads for Our Town and tails for those angry guys. The Egyptian pound coin sailed through the air, and landed. Tails. So, I might have gambled and that would have decided it for us, or it reinforced the decision. Then for fun I flipped the coin and said, “heads, the Our Town gang will be mad at me; tails they will not be mad at me. Sure—this time it was heads! Oh well.

Thus ends the trilogy of what we will be doing theatrically this fall. We lost about a month of time actually starting on that world premiere of an idea, but it is good to be back with Twelve Angry Jurors. That play is like greeting a treasured old friend. I have done the play, usually when I am in a pinch, financially or time-wise with plays. I did the play in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2005, and then in 2010 here in Jordan. It is an actor’s feast since the 12 are on stage the whole time. We only have about 17 rehearsals left, so fortunately it is a play that even with novice actors, you can get it done.

Thus ends the drama about the drama.

But speaking of treasured old friends, last week at this time, I ran into one of those treasured old friends. I attended a book launch party for a great book on education entitled, Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov. Mr. Lemov had come to our campus the day before, and I attended the party for the book’s translation into Arabic at a training institute run by Columbia University in Amman. I was sitting outside on the stoop, waiting for my friend Moamer to get me for one of our scientific best-burger studies we like to do, and I hear someone say, “John, is it really you?” I was absorbed in my kindle so I almost didn’t hear, but I look up and see my old friend Sam, really Samer, one of the drivers and one of my favorite people at KA that first year of the school. We can hardly believe it is the other! I hadn’t seen Sam since October, 2008, when he got a job at the Columbia research center in Amman. Strangely, when he left, the only numbers I had for him were KA email and phone numbers so I had no number by which to reach him. Many times over the years I have thought about Samer, wondered about his progress in grad school, his wife and children. If you have read the blog entries of 2007-08 you will remember how wonderful of a friend he was. Four years have gone by since last we saw each other. It was a nice reunion. We hope to make some Saturday afternoon dates from time to time so we keep up.

And in an hour or so I will be heading to the airport for a week in London! It is the Eid celebration in the Islamic world this week and so we have a week holiday. I will be visiting London, itself an old treasured friend, and Christy will be flying over from New York to play for the weekend. Another treasured friend…I have few plans for the trip, since I have seen most everything before, it will be just good to have a week of theater and art and bacon and walking and fall leaves…

Okay, I will subvert your expectations and bring this blog entry to a close. And just for the record, 300-400 words earlier than almost every other time!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

That Being Said, Part II

“I would like you to know that I am very open-minded.”

That statement was made repeatedly by the person who complained about my world premiere of an idea. And that is all I will say about who complained about my world premiere of an idea. Blogs are not diaries, nor done to vent and expose, and since the internet is the most public forum ever invented, I won’t divulge anything more about the source of the complaint. Well, I will say that up until the conversation with the person complaining, I had never met the person, nor is it anyone I have ever written about in the blog. So that at least helps a little with your wondering. But the point of “That Being Said, Part II” is not to discuss the complain-er, just what happened after the complain-t.

I met with the complain-er and then a few days later our head decided to re-evaluate the decision that this world premiere of an idea should happen. As you know from Part I of this saga, our head did not go into this naively; he knew he would, I would, the school would, meet some opposition. But one Tuesday, about two weeks into the rehearsal process, the head stopped by to talk with me. The problem with The Laramie Project would actually never be with those who saw the truncated production alongside Our Town. The problem would be those who heard about it and might insinuate something. As an English literature scholar and an educator, John the headmaster couldn’t stand the idea of not presenting the plays. He thought they would provoke the kind of conversation, compassion, and progress that the school is founded to do. However, he had been wrestling for several days about whether or not to cancel Laramie. He felt confident that I would offer the play to the community with the kind of teachable-moment context that it demanded; he knew how serious and sincere the play cast was about performing a play that at its heart is about acceptance and tolerance and loving your neighbor. Here is when (again!) I am so glad I am not a headmaster. He had to weigh whether the potential good that would come from doing the play would outweigh the potential bad. Which would prevail???

The following day John met with the play cast at rehearsal time. He looked beleaguered as he announced that he had re-evaluated his decision to allow the school to perform The Laramie Project. He explained how proud he was of the drama program at the school, had every confidence that the play would have been performed with dignity, intelligence, and maturity. As John explained these things to our stunned cast, I felt…oh, no, I know what phrase is coming… That being said…

He went on to explain that this is a delicate time in the region in terms of stability and empowerment. It’s funny—a week does not go by without someone from the United States asking me on the phone or in an email if I feel safe in Jordan. WE really don’t think about it! Libya is close, yes, Syria is closer, but those images in the news seem as far away as summer vacation. So John’s talk reminded us all that we must make decisions that are prudent and hopefully will not endanger our precious stability.

After John spoke to the students for about 15 minutes they asked him questions, mostly trying to change his mind back. Many of the cast felt this play was important in this exact time of “awakening” in the Arab world and that their play might actually herald a new era of discussion and progress forward. They knew it was a “tightrope” to walk, but they were willing to take the chance since they had fallen in love with the play. “This may not be the best time,” John observed, and one young man exploded, “Then when will it be the right time? 50 years? 75 years?”

What educator wouldn’t have loved this discussion? Teen-agers passionately imploring for the opportunity to raise issues and seek new understandings…

I chimed in to settle the students down—John was doing fine, but they needed to know that I stood by his decision since the point was not to create any discord among all of us. I explained that a month before the headmaster felt the enormous good that might come from doing this play, and pairing it with Our Town and having a sister school perform the school in the same season, would be a highlight of the year in drama. But in his wisdom, he now worried that more bad might obscure the potential good. Could this play turn into a debate that misrepresented the school in a harmful way? Could my world premiere of an idea brand the school in a way that could invite condemnation? We are too young of a sapling to invite too much debate.

After the headmaster left several students shared what they had learned from their very brief exposure to doing the play. I talked about the plays like the “twins” that I had imagined. One of the beautiful connections between The Laramie Project and Our Town happened to be about stars. In Our Town after Emily came back to earth and found that “live people” never “realize life while they live it,” she returns to the cemetery, and sits with the other serene Dead. One woman shushes Emily by saying, “Look, it’s clearing up. The stars are coming out.” An anonymous man among the Dead says, “My boy Joel, knew” all the stars’ names. “He used to say it took millions of years fer that speck of light to git to earth.” At the very close of the play, the Stage Manager notices the stars as well, sighing, “There they are—the stars—doing their old criss-cross journeys in the sky…this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.” At the conclusion of the The Laramie Project when the tortured Matthew Shephard’s father finally speaks he wondered what would have become of his son who was just shy of his 22nd birthday. He explained that while he was tied to the fence where his captors left him on that cold night, he wasn’t alone. “There were his lifelong friends with him, friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who those friends were. He had the beautiful night sky and the same stars and moon we used to see through the telescope together…” It was so interesting to me how both plays, set in small-town America, took on cosmic proportions as they were settled not really in any one town, but in every town, actually in the universe. Our plan was to perform both plays in the courtyard where I have done two plays before here—we would have the audience and the actors under the same night sky and the same stars that shine over the United States and any town in the world. I enjoyed those heady, universal, cosmic connections.

So we met a few days later for rehearsal and the students wondered what I planned to do. I wanted them to have a choice so that they did not feel that this change of events would saddle them with just one twin.

At rehearsal I talked with them about the realities of choosing plays for us to do in Jordan. First of all, we had lost rehearsal time, there is little money, little hopes of good sets, limited this and limited that. But I still wanted them to have a choice. So I brought the play, Twelve Angry Men, a play I have done several times in the last 18 years, to their attention. It is cheap, effective, and an actor’s delight with almost no production headaches. After I explained the criteria of choosing a play, and that we had no time to read and evaluate plays from scratch, we read through most of the play. The students found the play very interesting. I announced that at the next rehearsal we would have a good, honest discussion about both plays, Our Town and Twelve Angry Jurors (re-christened by since it is a mixed gender cast).

Wednesday came and I asked the students to break into two groups. The seniors would moderate the discussion evaluating the pro’s and con’s of each play. Afterwards we would come together, vote by secret ballot, and then have a choice finally after a week of drama about the drama.

The students handled the discussions well. I collected the secret ballots and my tech guy noted each vote as I opened up the ballot. I thought the voting would make the choice pretty easy. Well, the vote was a deadlock. Exactly even! We discussed again the pro’s and the con’s. Obviously some serious camps had developed and felt passionate about each of the plays. We voted again by secret ballot. No one changed votes. As strange as this sounds, it was very suspenseful in that room going through the ballots! One student noted that the drama about the play choice mirrored the voting of the jurors in the Twelve Angry play.

Deadlock! I didn’t want to vote actually—I had hoped the cast would decide…hmmm…I decided that we should go out to the courtyard and play a theater game. Let’s put the play choice aside for a moment and just enjoy being dramatic! We played “Killer” and that was the end of that.

But somehow by the next rehearsal I needed to break the deadlock. I started getting emails from actors from both camps about how their play choice was the better choice. Hey, you know, I should be grateful they wanted to be in a play, and that both play choices were appreciated!

Julianne, ever the coach and athlete extraordinaire, recommended that I simply toss a coin and let that decide which play we did. I pointed to the headmaster and said he should come and toss the coin since he got us in this mess! I chose a beautiful Egyptian pound coin for the coin toss.

But on the day that we would meet again, I realized one choice was actually a better choice for us…oh wait, I seem to have come to the end of my word allotment for a blog entry. I guess there will be a trilogy after all of blog entries about the drama about the drama…Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

That Being Said…

Last spring, when it became clear to me that too many things were going on on-campus, and that I would not be able to direct my hoped-for production of Our Town, I had a really interesting idea one day. I might even say, a world premiere of an idea. I mused—what if down the road I directed Our Town and performed it alongside another play? Hmmm…I mused to myself, what if I edited two plays, juxtaposed them, directed them both for the same evening and see what came of the juxtaposition? Hmmm…Julianne decided that I should direct the first play of the year, so I needed to go and discuss with our headmaster my world premiere of an idea.

I sat down and said, “Now, John, I have an idea for a play, but it would be a little provocative.” He laughed, remembering the semi-explosive nature and effect I Never Saw Another Butterfly had in the spring of 2011. I said, “Well, it’s not about the Holocaust at all—but it does bring up issues of gay people.” He chortled in a way that was unexpected and intrigued. I explained to him my idea to juxtapose the 1930s American classic, Our Town with a play that emerged at the end of the 20th century: a play called The Laramie Project. I explained that I wanted to juxtapose these two plays because they communicate some very important themes that we promise our community we will explore at our school—issues of community and tolerance and diversity and open-mindedness.

As we talked about the possibility, I said that I would speak to a number of people and sound them out about this project. I needed to confer with a number of constituents and see if we thought we should tackle this project. I prepared a little summary of the two plays that I would show people. Here is my little summary:

Our TownThornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, ranks among the most classic of American plays. But it is not an easy play to summarize because Our Town was an experimental play when it was written in the 1930s, and it still requires good study to understand its structure, themes, and production values. The play is divided into three acts, which represent the three stages of life: birth, marriage, and death. Some of the play is comical, but Act III is set in a cemetery after the untimely death of a young woman named Emily. Emily feels strange being dead and wishes to return to the living. She insists on reliving her 12th birthday, but when she returns to earth she realizes that people live their lives without ever really appreciating life. Back in the cemetery she realizes that those still on earth understand little about death and even less about living.

The Laramie Project
This play is also about an American town, a real town, dealing with a real crisis in the late 1990s. In the last 10 years The Laramie Project has been one of the most produced plays around the world. This play also has as a focus an untimely death of a young person, a horrific crime that occurred in the city of Laramie, Wyoming. A theater group from New York traveled to Laramie to interview dozens and dozens of people attempting to capture the emotions, reflections, and reactions of the citizens of this town. Was the brutal beating and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard, a young college student, a hate crime? The Laramie Project challenges our community, our town of King’s Academy, to ask questions about our society. One link between both plays is how something, or someone, ordinary can become extraordinary. In many ways this is what our school is attempting, to transform ordinary young people into extraordinary citizens of the world. Both plays also are known for being actor’s delights since they offer meaty roles. Ultimately, both plays encourage us to live out our school’s mission statement and ponder how we “cherish one another,” as our school’s mission statement ends.

Now in this little summary, you notice there really isn’t anything provocative. I wanted to save that and explain it to the people eyeball to eyeball with whom I sat down and talked. I picked about 10 people from the KA community, young teachers, older teachers, people in the OSL department and the Communications department, a number of Jordanians, and finally a couple of former students and a current student. What is the big deal? Well, Matthew Shephard was savagely beaten because he was gay. And here in Jordan, such things are not discussed. Each time when I would explain the story of 20 year-old college student Matthew Shephard the person with whom I was one-on-one would emit a sigh like, “Wow.” I explained the history briefly: On October 7, 1998, a young gay man was discovered bound to a fence in the hills outside Laramie, Wyoming, savagely beaten and left to die in an act of hate that shocked the United States. Matthew Shepard’s death became a national symbol of intolerance, but for the people of Laramie the event was deeply personal, and it’s they we hear in this stunningly effective theater piece, a deeply complex portrait of a community.

I explained that I wanted to take an American classic about community, Our Town and stand the beating in Laramie next to it and ask, “Could this happen in our town?” I think the idea came to me as an issue of discrimination. I remember last spring, as I have heard 2 other springs before here in Jordan, KA seniors worrying about going to the US for college and being discriminated against because they are Arab. Those are certainly reasonable fears given what we see and hear in the media, and given that in many American towns there are simply few Arabs. They worried about being “the other” and what that might mean as they tried to live their lives as well-meaning college students.

As their fear settled into my brain, I went back 10 years to when I directed The Laramie Project at Hackley. I had taken on the project then because of another comment from another senior. David Aranow, a bright light for sure in the class of 2000, had commented to me once that “Hackley tolerates only one kind of discrimination—homophobia.” It made me think about how and why schools are reluctant to speak out more about such things. Sexual identity is such a quagmire, and discussing it always makes people uncomfortable. So I directed the play with 16 actors to great acclaim from parents and faculty. We had raised important issues.

The play is really a series of transcripts of interviews made by New York’s Tectonic Theater Project documenting the aftermath of the savage killing of Matthew Shepard, including the perspectives of both friends and strangers: it is structured not in scenes, but in "moments," addressing the various issues relating to the tragedy. However, the play moves the audience with its authentic portrayal of a small town facing a terrifying event. Think of the parallels with Emily and Our Town!

By the time I finished explaining why I felt compelled to do both plays, almost every person said the same thing, “It sounds like such important work to do. That being said, it may not go over well at all.” Time and again I got that phrase, That being said, That being said, That being said, That being said—I began to wonder if I would ever get the mantra out of my head! The problem is people don’t talk about those issues at all here. I was asked if the play would turn students gay. Does the play endorse homosexuality? Does it describe gay sex? Is it a debate on homosexuality? One colleague asked if I might not just make Matthew black instead of gay. Of course I could—but that is not the discussion that needs to be undertaken!

When we left for the summer I asked a few people to read the play over the summer. And when we all returned in August I reminded our headmaster that I needed to know whether or not to proceed. We debated the merits of the play, but that wasn’t the point, it was much more to the point, could we, should we, dare we, raise these issues in a place where it is harem, forbidden. Finally, the headmaster wrote and said, “Let’s give it a go.”

That was only one hurdle! Now I needed to convince student actors that this project was worthwhile and necessary. I wrote a letter to the student body sharing the summaries of the plays that I shared with you earlier in this blogisode. Next I had a meeting with interested students (some showed up! About 20 came to the meeting!) My colleague Fatina, who wears a hejab, came and offered her endorsement of the play that it was such an important piece to do. Okay, their eyes followed mine as I explained how I saw this as a piece about discrimination and how a community reacted to a tragic death of a young person. I said that there were about 60 characters in the play, and each actor would play more than one person from all those interviews. Many different voices are heard in the play: a policewoman, Matthew's father, a Catholic priest, Matthew’s friends and college professor, Matthew's killers, a Unitarian minister, a viciously anti-gay protestor, the administrator of the hospital where Matthew died, etc. I had decided that I would take out the gay characters—I didn’t think that should be in the equation that my student actors should decide or not to “play gay.”

The week that we began read-throughs and auditions I learned that Deerfield Academy, the school where his Majesty attended, and on which we are loosely based as an institution, would be performing The Laramie Project this fall. Usually, I wouldn’t care all that much—but this time, how great to lean on the fact that Deerfield would also be exploring these same issues!! However, they would not be doing my world premiere of an idea.

As we read through the play before auditions, the 18 students who came for that obviously got the message of the play. One student wrote me an email afterwards stating, “This play is a triumph of the human spirit that has arisen from a truly dark moment in recent American history.” That sounds very formal, but I think her take on it was so formal and so serious.

I cast the play with 16 actors—along the way a couple had felt a little squeamish about the subject matter. So I had 16 actors for my two plays—one play set in idyllic, pre-WWI Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and one play set in 1998, Laramie, Wyoming. Both plays evoke the beauty of the stars. Both plays would be performed in our courtyard here under the stars.

These students loved the idea—even with the extra rehearsals added to our slim schedule every week so we could accomplish the project. The first scenes I blocked in both plays were the funeral scenes. So we went from the funeral for Emily to the funeral for Matthew. The same hymn sung in both plays—“Blest Be The Tie That Binds”—and we were off exploring these two plays that reverberate about our shared humanity.

Then someone complained.

Oh—this blog entry isn’t long enough to contain the drama about the drama…this may be a trilogy. Come back for the next installment and see where this drama about the drama goes…

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Raised Right

My family was able to sleep well last Thursday, October 4th. October 4th is my birthday, and my family always gets a little nervous that I won’t have much to do over here in the desert on my birthday and they worry about me. Indeed, in years past I have lamented the state of birthdays while here in Jordan, but this year, it was a lovely birthday, and my family could sleep easily that night.

Birthdays are a funny thing—even when you leave the stage of childhood parties and the hopes of extravagant gifts, you kind of hope it will be a special day. I have had birthdays with surprise parties or drama rehearsals or choir rehearsals or Broadway shows, but at some point—when was that exactly???—we want a birthday that shows us a little of our worth.

As I have written before, my sister continues a tradition that my mother started for us in childhood. The night before I turned, let’s say, 11, my mother would tuck me in (even though by 11 I did not need tucking in!) and say, “Good night, little 10-year old!” When I moved away for college, she continued that tradition, and on and on. My sister picked up the baton a few years ago, in 2006, when my mother passed away. It is one of our sweetest traditions. So at bedtime I had the last taste of the year that would vaporize shortly.

I woke up early on Thursday—again, it is a habit that irks me sometimes. I went and checked email and there was a name I had not seen since 1996 when I left Charlotte, North Carolina. A parent of two girls I taught at Charlotte Latin had found my address, and wanted to write and send greetings after 16 years. Her daughters are in their mid-30s now and she simply wanted to thank me for all I had done to shape them into capable, intelligent, interesting adults. What a beautiful way to begin a birthday! How touching and how remarkable to look back on those vintage years in Charlotte in the pre-dawn of Jordan. She wondered how I had ended up in Jordan…

It was a work day so I set out for class observations (with my colleague Lilli we are visiting every classroom over a 3-week span, so I have about 4-5 class observations a day) but on the way to my office I get a call from Tracy, that wonderful Denison friend, who lives in Ohio. She had meant to call exactly at midnight her time to be the first to wish me a happy birthday but she had fallen asleep and woken up to find it was 12:30 a.m. her time. No worries! Tracy was indeed the first to wish me a happy day on the 4th! How great to start the day with the wishes of a loving friend!

One of the librarians that I met on my first whirlwind weekend visit to Jordan before I signed my contract in February, 2007, called me and asked me to come over to the library. He had a gift of two ties for me in a box he had made. I thanked him for his years of kindnesses to me and went to AP Art History class. I figured they didn’t know it was my birthday—students like to know so they can have a party—mostly so they can get out of having class. They didn’t know so we got to learn about the Parthenon—one of my favorite topics of the year!

During lunch with my advisees they decided it would be funny if they acted as if they were ignoring me. I guess they forgot that at various times in the week before they had all wished me a good birthday coming up. So they came late purposefully, ate quickly purposefully, and left…I figured they were up to something. Then they came back with a cake—a red velvet cake from Sugar Daddy’s, my favorite bakery in Amman. They had gotten the bakery to do a facsimile of a Piet Mondrian painting on the cake. How clever!

Later that afternoon I had a second cake—the teaching fellows with whom I work had gotten a mocha mousse cake (!) and two of the TFs had gone on-line and decorated the box of the cake with paperdolls from my guilty pleasure TV show, Downton Abbey! What a funny thing, and we traded some of our favorite lines, mostly from Maggie Smith, of course, but relaxed and enjoyed the camaraderie. I have saved the paperdoll-decorated cake box top and it is over there looking down on the kitchen counter.

As the school day came to an end, I called my sister and then my father. They were relieved to hear that I had plans for the evening! My friend Maria had invited me over for a little party, so whew, the fam in Cincinnati could rest much more easily! In a birthday email my Aunt Dot had bluntly and appropriately said, “If no one invites you out, so just go up to someone, announce it is your birthday and ask them to join you!” Ever the pragmatic one, Aunt Dot wanted to sleep easily that night as well!

I talk with my sister and my father at least once a week, but birthday calls are special. For one thing, our family treasure trove of memories is quite inexhaustible it seems, so my sister and I trade memories of birthdays past, of what the gifts were like, or going shopping for our present with our grandmother. Every August my father sneaks my birthday card into my suitcase just before I leave for Jordan. I forget he does this every year, so when I return and unpack here in Jordan I am always somehow surprised. I put the card aside until October 4th and then look lovingly and thankfully at his wishes. My father reminded me that when my mother decided it was time to go to the hospital to give birth, she wanted to first shave her legs so she would look her best for the hospital staff!

Maria made a party with me clearly in mind—she had pigs in blankets and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese….I mean, seriously, that is the heart of good party food, as far as I am concerned! Of course, bacon-wrapped anything makes me happy! She had invited about 10 of our colleagues and the evening was spent with laughter and joy. No, it wasn’t a Broadway show, but it was caring people reveling in each other’s company. As a historian of sit-coms (among a few other things) the evening also made me think of a moment in the last episode of the The Mary Tyler Moore Show (of course, half the revelers from that night were not born yet when this episode first aired in 1977 when I tape recorded it with a hand-held audio microphone right up to the TV volume!!) when character Mary Richards spoke heartfully to her colleagues at her work TV station:

Mary Richards: Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family anyway? It's the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that's what you've done for me. Thank you for beginning MY family.

So anything that evokes an MTM reference must be a stellar evening!

I came back to my apartment and decided to look on Facebook. Say what you will about this phenomenon, but birthdays alone make Facebook spectacular! How easy, how fun to hear from people all throughout your lifetime. I had a great comment from a friend from the Gastonia, North Carolina chapter of my life. Kay wrote this sweet post:

Dear John, I join people of all ilks, ages, backgrounds, zip codes, nationalities, faiths, economic standings, educational levels, and political grounds to tell you that we, your fan club, come together on this day to celebrate the occasion of your birthday! We celebrate your wit and wisdom and expertise and we thank you for showing us the connections of art, music, times, culture, and history and for connecting us to the wonder of you! So get your celebration on, be it in Jordan or at the Red Sea or at RO's of Gastonia! Love you!

I had about 200 posts from people on Facebook, ranging from “O’C,” the family friend who witnessed the night my father asked my mother out for the first time, to students from all four schools where I have taught, to cousins to old colleagues, to Jordanian friends. It was a beautiful thing to scroll down and enjoy.

Before I went to bed, I called my father back. I had forgotten to tell him something I thought he would like to hear. Besides the cake, my advisees had made me a card, a big red-heart with kind thoughts in it. One of the comments ended with a tear-inducing, “Thank your mom and dad today for me. They sure raised you right!” I thought that my father should know.

So the birthday went nicely. It was sweet from morning to night. In fact, at 6:00 a.m. Jordanian time the following morning, the phone rang. Christy wanted to speak with me before October 4th ended in the United States. She said wouldn’t have slept well if she couldn’t have wished me a happy birthday!

All in all, a good day to think about the paths I have taken, the twists and turns of the road, and the wonderful people who bless my life.