Friday, March 30, 2012

Postcard from Belgium

A coupla weeks ago I was in Belgium for about a week. And a coupla weeks from now I will be in Cincinnati.

And in between those two trips I taught (and will teach) a coupla classes and accomplish a coupla things.

Busy, busy Spring!

I went to Brussels, Belgium with a group of 14 students, delegates to a satellite version of the Harvard Model Congress. This was the first time of the dozen times or so I have chaperoned students to the Harvard Model Congress that it wasn’t actually near Harvard. But we chose the satellite conference of the congress for a coupla reasons—namely, less far to travel, less airfare to pay, and fewer school days missed. The timing of the model congress was perfect—we left the day winter term exams ended and only missed a coupla school days, and days at the beginning of the new term to boot. A nice chance for a late winter trip to Brussels, Belgium.

The last time I was in Brussels, Belgium—well, it was an exciting evening of parades and triumph. I remember clearly being in the Grand Place in Brussels on May 8, 1985. What a thrilling evening to be there. Do you, dear reader, know why it was so exciting that evening? No, my presence alone in this very international-and-diplomatic city does not inspire parades and joy and happy tears. Thank you for even thinking that! But that night was the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, and I was nearing the end of my semester abroad in Austria, and traveling to a few cities before flying home to the United States. I split that V-E anniversary between two cities actually, to get the full effect of the anniversary of the end of the European front of World War II. I spent the morning in Aachen, Germany, attended a prayer vigil in the Cathedral, and witnessed a somber gathering of tearful Germans there as they meditated on the loss and legacy of that war. Then I hopped a train, and within a very short time was in Brussels, and that moment of glory in the Grand Place that evening. I went from the losing side of the war, to the victorious side of the war in about an hour train ride, and I remember dancing, parades, tears of happiness and joy in the Grand Place that evening.

As I recall the last time I was in Brussels, I feel a little like the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard as she recalls the last time she saw some friends of the movie business. She says, as I recall, something like, “The last time I saw him was a very gay evening—everyone was dancing and happy. Lindbergh had just landed!” Desmond says this about 23 years after the event in her memory. Oh my—I am recalling an event even farther back in the recesses of my memory! Anyway, I feel a little like Norma Desmond as I recall my last time in Brussels. I just hope I am not as mad…

So I went to Belgium three times in the 1980s, and then I haven’t been back since the summer of 1987 on the big European trip with Karen and Sharon. My goodness…nearly 25 years since my trip as a first-year teacher and quasi-adult! I liked Belgium fine all three visits, I just somehow never got back there in all the years of traveling…good to have a group of students to take and re-acquaint myself with Belgium.

So our flight leaves Amman at 1:30 a.m.—the good part, I guess of such an early, early departure is that we landed in Brussels by 9:00 a.m. and were at the hotel by about 10:00. Of course they weren’t ready for us, but we could drop the bags and figure out Brussels. We had almost 48 hours to play in Belgium before the congress began!

That first hour in a new city is always confusing and maddening. When we got to the train station from the quick train ride from the airport, we didn’t know which door of the 12 choices might be the one for our hotel. I knew what station to go to and I knew the address of the hotel, but not much else. Of course, after a little asking, staring at maps (guess what? Our hotel street didn’t make it on the map!) and wandering in a bit of a circle (I prefer to think we walked in a heart shape!) we found the hotel. Great! The best mnemonic device of finding the hotel is locating the Sex Shop near the northwest exit from the train station! I always believe traveling with students means educating them about maps, directions and context. We needed to learn some context about Brussels, then practice walking around, not being tied to my leash, maybe getting lost, and getting it all figured out.

We walked the half hour to the Grand Place—stopping for our first samples of pastries and Belgian frites along the way—and then I regaled them of stories of the last time I was in Brussels. Judging from the looks on a few faces, they probably did think I was as mad as Norma Desmond, and certainly as old! The Grand Place still is a great spot—the heart of the old town (going back a thousand years) and any time of day the chocolate salons, tea shops, flower markets, and endless people watching is fun. I lectured them briefly on some history of Belgium, the beauty of these late medieval guild halls in front of them, how that became the source of wealth for these trade-hungry Flemish, and how they staved off Louis XIV (just barely) in 1695. I talked to them about King Leopold in the 1880s and 1890s and the enormous wealth he brought to Belgium from his personal property of the Congo. Then I set them loose for two hours—their first bit of independence. They may like me fine, but let’s be honest, teen-agers want to be on their own and experience things without an adult.

They all showed up on time—I had emphasized the point of punctuality for traveling with me. I thanked them for their punctuality and said that that was the one point I would hammer home on the trip. “Everything else takes care of itself if you are on time,” I told them. “If you are on time it means you have planned well, thought of others, thought of me, not gotten into too much trouble, and will be given more and more independence. Think about it—being on time will take care of everything!” This group figured that out and made me proud. Group travel can be excruciating in the “I’m not going to be on time if no one else is”—department.

I began the sampling of Belgian chocolates—one must make sure one buys the creamiest chocolates for your gifts, so one must try from many, many purveyors! That evening we went to a suburb of Brussels where we met a group of strangers for dinner. One of my students, the marvelous young man named Divij, had befriended a group of Belgians on a Model United Nations trip to China (I do travel in some swell circles, don’t I??). Divij had written to the advisor of the group, and she put together a group of Belgian teens for our group to meet and enjoy a dinner. It was a great evening—two groups of teen-agers, second language English speakers all, talking about world events, teen events, school events and Belgium. Lovely!

The next day we went on our obligatory tour of the art museum. Every model congress I have students go on a tour of an art museum, you know, to culture ‘em up. I had never been to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, but I had planned a tour from the on-line stuff available. I wanted them to feast their eyes on some beautiful Northern European Renaissance art. Oh, the exquisite work of Van der Weyden, and Memling and Bruegel and Rubens. Then some nice Dutch work and the Frenchie Jacques Louis David. One of my goals on these model congress art tour trips is to get a coupla more students interested in art history to take the course. Somehow it is addictive.

That afternoon I gave some more free time but also took a group to Antwerp. Less than an hour train trip away was this city, once in 1500 the richest city in Europe given that its stock exchange and port filled with ships from the New World docked in Antwerp. What a great city! I had never been to Antwerp, but hope it doesn’t take me 25 years to get back. The train station itself is an art work—one of those great and glorious Beaux-Arts buildings from the 1890s with heart-stopping arches and sumptuous columns. It was going to be a good afternoon.

Much of tourist-y Antwerp is serviced by a pedestrians-only shopping zone, past statues of native sons Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. The buildings are ornate, from the Baroque Age and then during the Art Nouveau 1890s age. Like most European cities, Antwerp is a mixture of cities, art, great snacking, promenades, and eccentric history. We learned a little eccentric history—like the name of the town—about a man who defied a giant, severed said giant’s hand and threw said severed hand into the river. “hand werpen,” which means, “to throw a hand,” evolved into Antwerp. After that little knowledge, we noticed severed hand images all over town.

In the next few days the congress began, students began 12-hour days debating issues, writing bills, and role playing a specific U.S. representative. It was different, certainly, than the congress in Boston. For one, it is smaller. About 550 students attended the Belgian conference, whereas about 1800 attend the one in Boston. But it was also mostly “foreign” students, i.e. foreign to the USA, acting as the representatives. Some of them did not quite understand the workings of US government, and some Greek students kept pressing the point that the US government should bail out Greece. But as always, it is great to mix our students with other students.

I hopped a train to Ghent, another town made terrifically wealthy at one time (from the medieval textile trade) and full of ornate guild houses and grand churches. I did update my facebook status that evening to say I had had a bratwurst as big as my arm that day in Ghent. How could it not be a good day???? Ghent was wonderful—more real than idyllic Bruges which I would re-visit the following day, and home to one of the great altarpieces of all time (by Jan Van Eyck). I stood there studying it for awhile, so happy in this town of picturesque embankments and finely decorated gables.

The trip was good—good food and art and chocolate and punctual students. I found a museum about the history of Belgium that was thrilling to visit—I left obsessed about the history of Belgium. You know I love being obsessed.

I left Belgium with happy memories of a trip with excellent students, and memories of my first visit when I was their age, the V-E day celebration night in 1985, and the last time in Belgium in stunning jewel-like Bruges with friend-for-life Sharon in 1987.

The only downside? Well, the student who sat next to me for the two flights back to Jordan had a cold, and happened to sneeze on me…and then again…and then again, for about five good sneezes. You know how you can feel the germs seeping in?? Well, I came back to a bad cold—the kind of cold where you say, “Why do I want to get out of bed???” and then a tooth ache set in (I think un-related.)

Oh well, we can outlive the germs and the aches and pains. I probably didn’t feel those aches and pains when I was last in Belgium, way back in my youth in the 80s.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

No Drop-Out

Last night I received news from my sister that I had been expecting for the last month—news of the death of Edna Duebber, a dear family friend. Recently my sister had visited Edna in the nursing center of her retirement home and Edna’s sister looked quizzically at her and said, “Now how did you know Edna?” It is a little hard to explain, and certainly provides evidence of how a friendship can take root and thrive. You see, Edna kind of dropped into our lives about 20 years ago and quickly became a fixture in family celebrations. As I remember the story, Edna had had a nodding acquaintanceship with my mother at Frisch’s, one of my mother’s watering holes (or coffee-ing holes, to be more exact). But my mother was never really one for a nodding acquaintanceship when one could sit down and inquire about the other’s life. So my mother found out that Edna was a widow, a rather lonely widow after the death of her beloved Walt. My mother wrote Edna a letter, and somehow from that letter spawned an admiration and gratitude from Edna for my mother. My mother invited Edna over to her table, no doubt the A-list table at Frisch’s, and then Edna just kind of dropped into our family.

At that time we all became acquainted with Edna we had, in the last few years, lost the grandmothers in our family, and it became such a wonderful treat for Edna to invite our family over for a meal, or a birthday, in that grand grand-motherly tradition. Oh, we loved going over to her lovely home with the immaculate yard and the groaning table filled with mouth-watering dishes. In short order, we discovered that Edna loved to cook for people, and our family, growing now to include new member Steve, obliged Edna, since we loved to eat, especially her dinners!

But Edna became more than just a purveyor of mashed potatoes and roasted meats and beautiful pies—she became the kind of family friend you call when there is sadness and crisis. Edna became a fixture at hospitals and retirement homes. Edna maintained her home she had shared with Walt for over 50 years, but she had a heart for people suffering and wanted to take them flowers, cards, or meals.

As time went on, each of us in the family spent personal and communal time with Edna. We learned much about her life. In so many ways, Edna is the embodiment of the American Dream of the second half of the 20th century. Not just the tract house in the suburbs, but the ups and downs of suburban and family life, rebounding from the grim 1930s Depression, celebrating the expansion of American cities, the unbridled prosperity of the 1950s, a working woman in the 1970s. I loved talking to Edna about her life—and she eagerly filled us in. She told us of the desperate times of the 1930s, all the daughters in the family having to work to help the family survive the Depression. She confided to me more than once, “You know I had to drop out of school in the 1930s to help support the family. But I never dropped out of life!” I can see that characteristic flash in her eyes as she spoke about her life, her good health, her zeal for living. Even when she described the family chicken-plucking business, every story had her sounding like a Rosie the Riveter!

Edna was born in 1917. I loved thinking about that and that she was born in the same year as John F. Kennedy as well Leonard Bernstein. When she married Walt in 1939 they couldn’t decide where to go on their honeymoon. She wanted a big trip, and they debated going east to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, in New York, but instead the newlyweds opted for a cross-country trip out west instead. She loved recounting those exciting days on the honeymoon trip—“We tried to see the world Johnny! There we were—two young kids—seeing the West.” And like with almost every story she told, she relived the enthusiasm and energy of her youth with style.

Over the years Edna became a fixture at family dinners, church solos, dance and piano recitals, funerals, anything where she could join our family and act as the surrogate grandmother. At one point she visited my grandfather in the nursing home of a retirement village (the very one where she would exit the stage of life) several times a week, offering companionship and friendship. Edna practically kept Hallmark in business in the years we have known her—I have a collection of cards ranging from Easter to birthdays to just hello cards. Edna never faltered in the holiday greeting department.

As with any member of a family, we may have taken Edna for granted from time to time. Some days she was just too perky, or it was out of your way to drive over and pick up another pie…I mean think about it—not bad indictments on a life if the perkiness/spunk factor is so high, or you may not have room in the refrigerator for another pie!

Edna was always dressed as if her day included a party. Her favorite shade was purple, and she had enough variations on lavenders and violets to beat any champion clothes horse. Edna cleaned her house as if she were the matron in a 1950s sit-com, and I caught her mowing her grass in a lavender outfit complete with pearls! Finally, around age 90 she let a son or grandson mow her grass for her.

For over a decade Edna joined my father for the breakfast ritual at the diner. Four days a week, they spent breakfast together in the company of the other breakfast bunch. The men may be discussing politics or sports, and Edna was usually in on another discussion, but no matter, everything got solved by the time the fourth cup of coffee was downed.

When Emma and Jack were born, in 1998 and 2002, respectively, Edna couldn’t have been happier to be in their lives. She loved making cakes, for showers and birthdays, and she could keep up with whatever theme each child desired for the birthday extravaganza. On Halloween, it was to Edna’s street that they trooped for the rite of trick or treating, and Edna was always excited to buy another present.

Edna bought a portable pool for her perfect back yard, and so there are many pictures of the children enjoying a summer swim in Edna’s back yard. Edna would create a luncheon, “no trouble at all,” and we would sit in the shade of her perfect backyard and relish those seemingly mundane summer treats. One of my favorite memories is watching Edna play softball with Jack—when she was 90—throwing the ball to Jack, and excitedly cheering his batting.

Eventually arthritis took a hold of Edna and her dinners ceased. Well, not exactly. She may not have been able to make the whole meal, but she would bring in LaRosa’s or City Barbecue—anything for a chance to invite us over and celebrate something. But I will always cherish my favorite meal of hers, those succulent Autumn Harvest Pork Chops. These would be the pork chops of your dreams…

So today as I think about the blessings I have known, I count our friendship with Edna as a distinct pleasure. She loved to go out to lunch, out shopping, anything to be out and about in the world. Only in the last year was she slowed down when her sons decided it was time she should give up the car.

As I said, it was not just the good times when Edna showed up. Edna was there when someone was in the hospital, or when we worried about the next turn in life. She was there with a hug, actually a ferocious hug, and a smile, sometime a little gloom and doom thought, but mostly there to help smooth over the bumps in life. Then there would come the laugh. Edna had a laugh that was like a giant tickle. Even in her 90s you could hear the school-girl coquettish laugh that drifted back to the 1920s and 30s.

A month ago I called my sister from Boston and lo and behold she was visiting Edna at that moment. I had seen Edna, of course, while home at Christmas, but had worried about her since she had suddenly gone from her vibrant self to a woman more like what we think of nonagenarians. I got to talk to Edna, and the astonishment in her voice that we got to talk again, and I could remind her of the loving moments we had shared in our 20-year friendship. “I’ll see you in heaven, Johnny,” she said as we said good-bye.

Edna held on longer than her family expected—I don’t think they know about her “grit,” her stamina and her ability to weather almost anything—but last night when I got the call, I sighed for the loss of a dear friend. Of course, I know, not many get into our 95th year on earth, so that is itself astonishing. Edna never became cynical—more than once in the last year, if we went out, she would exclaim, “This was the best day of my life!” How wonderful that she could have so many “best days” to warm her heart.

What’s left when all is said and done about a life? About a friendship? What is the legacy?

I guess with Edna it is the exclamation of joy about life. Whether she was greeting you in LaRosa’s with her characteristic, “What a surprise to see you people here!” (“Really Edna? We have been meeting you here for Sunday lunch for years,” we might have said…) or the waving adieu at the door of her pristine home, or the applause at the children playing the piano, or the proffering of a gift of her favorite fancy Fawn candy, or the thrill at hearing my voice on the phone from the Middle East, it was just a re-iteration and re-invigoration of how, indeed, Edna never “dropped out of life.”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Smorgasbord Abs


What is that foreign language? An apologia? What is that, an apology? Yes, even for those of you with no Latin will recognize in the sonorous term apologia something that looks remarkably like our word, apology, and we all know what that is.

Or do we?

If you go to you will find that a meaning of the word is: an explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offense was intended. It is certainly in this sense that we understand the remark attributed to the Duke of Wellington, “Never apologize—never explain.” And the slimy Charles I of England once said, “To apologize is to lay the foundations for a future offense.” Was that before he was sentenced to be executed??? And one last quotation is from American writer and entrepreneur Elbert Hubbard, who advised, “Never explain: your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe it anyhow.”

Well, funnily enough, none of those is how I am using the word apology today, on this cold and snowy day in Jordan. The oldest use of apologia was a formal argument to speak in defense of anything that may cause dissatisfaction. It is more explanation than excuse. It does not ask for pardon but rather seeks to offer light to those who may need it but may not want it. That is what an apologia is, and one who makes such an argument is known as an apologist. Both Paul and Augustine were apologists.

There is certainly a risk in embracing so ancient a term with such an ambiguous contemporary resonance to it. Easily, one thinks of hapless presidential press secretaries, usually called names like “shameless apologists” for a morally bankrupt administration, and it doesn’t take a degree in linguistics to recognize that apologists, in the evolution of the species, became savvy public relations experts and spin doctors. So, by beginning the blog entry calling oneself an apologist is to risk confusion and court disaster.

Why the apologia?

Well, I missed February.

As recently as 12 hours ago I received an email from a lifelong friend wondering where the blog entries are. “Why in 2012 has there been only one blog entry?” opined lovely Dawn, and then last week my sister told me of dear friend Sylvia proclaiming me a “slacker” in terms of the blog. Recently a student asked me when I was going to get back to the blog. (I didn’t know he was a reader of the blog!) And then not too many days ago our head, the great John Austin, asked me if I still wrote blog entries. I said, “You know I have only done one entry for 2012! By this time in 2008 I had had 14 entries!” JA laughed and said, “Good! That means I am keeping you busy!”

So, yes, I missed February, and I missed writing blog entries. As you can see, I still have something to say, and can spend an entire page of text not even explaining my absence, but defining a word! So, I am back, and want to catch you up as to how John Austin has kept me busy!

On February 1st I boarded a plane with a delightful and smart colleague named Lilli. We were Boston-bound to join John at two job fairs in the Boston area over the next 9 days. That should have provided ample time to write blog entries, sketch out the characters we met, weigh in on the recruitment psychology, discuss Boston politics and football (don’t forget—I was there during the Superbowl). Somehow I also thought I would read 5-6 books, maybe brush up on Spanish or French, prepare professional development lectures, exercise every day in the hotel gym and eat bacon every day.

Guess which of those things was the only one checked off on the grand To Do List. Hmmm….I remember coming back from the Bangkok job fair in mid-January not having exercised during that job fair. It was a pretty weak gym in the hotel, and there wasn’t much free time for walks about Bangkok. And they had free sandwiches and candy throughout the day. And a breakfast buffet. So I came back from that job fair determined to go to the gym every day. AND I DID. I hasten to add that sentence before your holier-than-thou smirks broaden too widely. So for 17 days in a row I went faithfully to the gym. Now, some of that was reading lecture notes on the exercise bike, but you certainly couldn’t call that slothful! So, as I geared up for the Boston job fairs, I determined—every day I will go to the gym. I did make it one time—I checked out the gym, noted that it was pretty nice and then somehow never returned.

Each day, I guess due to the jet lag, I arose about 4:00 AM (without the aid of an alarm clock, of course). It turns out that John and Lilli, in their respective rooms, also had arisen by 4:00. None of us ever called each other in the vain hope that the other(s) might be sleeping in before we met officially at 7:00 for the breakfast buffet to discuss that day’s strategies for recruiting and interviews. My 17-day-straight gym regimen faded away and I joked to someone that my washboard abs were turning into smorgasbord abs. At least I kept a light-hearted look at my softening physique!

But at 4:00 AM there were emails to answer. Remember that Jordan is 7 hours ahead, so by 4:00 AM school had been in session for 3 hours at least and people always have something to squawk and crow about. So there were emails, the American daily newspaper, the great coffee machine in the room, resumes to read and organize, and the glorious sunrise over the back bay of Boston to enjoy. Who has time to go to the gym and maintain washboard abs between 4:00 and 7:00??????

Lilli and John and I would meet over breakfast and strategize, or check our appointments for the day. All in all, we interviewed 67 people during that trip to Boston, a few more than once, but that is at least 67 half hour interviews. It was actually fun since John and Lilli are fun and smart and make for great company. But that is a lot of togetherness time! We generally interviewed until 6:00 PM (sometime forgetting lunch, well just twice—you don’t make that mistake more than twice!) and then John would have evening plans with donors or board members, Lilli would unwind and shop for her sons, and I would visit with Boston friends. Since we all collapsed, again in our respective rooms, about 9:00 PM, I asked all the Boston friends to come down to Copley Square so I wouldn’t waste time traveling (or risk falling asleep and ending up either in Providence or Maine on a train). So each night was a great treat for a couple of hours. I visited with college friends Jill and Susan, dinner with Anne’s daughter Judy and her family spending the year in Cambridge, dinner with KA former student Ghassan, dinner with former colleague Peter Greer, and an evening with members of the greater group of the Denison Singers. Good meals—pizza, fish, Asian noodles, burgers—and great conversation. Then collapse about 9:00…I didn’t make plans for Superbowl Sunday because I figured I would not make the duration of the game. I watched faithfully (remember I am a sports nut) and then some time in the second half I dozed off, happily secure that Boston was a ahead. I woke up during the news to find they had lost and Boston police were trying to keep down any violence in the city in the aftermath. Oh well.

Copley Square is a great place to be even if you have only a few hours free a day. Of course there is the skybridge, or whatever they call it, skywalk thing that takes you to this enormous mall with book stores (!!) and fun restaurants. But across the street is the main branch of the Boston Public Library. John and I took in a tour one evening there, and it was an enthusiastic docent, eager to tell you about the scandals of the building in the late 19th century as the building opened and people had such disdain for the classical style and the murals inside. It is a gorgeous building and the tour made it even more exciting. Then at the end of the square is the Old South Church, a church I have wandered into for years, ever since coming to Boston for the Harvard model congresses. I decided to go one late afternoon and see if the senior minister was in. I had read her sermons on-line and always marveled at her beautiful and elegant sermons. She was in, and we went and enjoyed tea. I asked her about the church. She asked me about Jordan. I thanked her for her sermons and wondered if she knew how far away someone read them and appreciated her meditations. We enjoyed the new friendship in the cafĂ© of the Public Library. Ahhh… very nice…

So what else has kept me busy? I have been leading a new sub-committee on evaluation and appraisal, creating, from scratch a new system for evaluation and appraisal. So that has taken time. Then there has been the Office of Student Life cracking open a cheating ring (and by the way, students came forward to inform with disgust the cheating and purchasing of work going on) and the fall-out and discussions about that, the book orders, and, well, as John said, he has kept me busy.

But I have missed the blog. I didn’t mean to go nearly five weeks—all the other stuff just kept going and got in the way! But I am back to the gym for the cardio/reading time and so it is imperative to get back to the blog. There are always things to share, such as the work of some students in art history as they break through the B barrier into the realm of A’s, or the ones who refuse to sharpen their writing skills, and so the divide between the soaring and the soar-less yawns wider and wider. And there are the Oscars to discuss and the campaign. Oh, there are things to share!

Right now the boarders are outside enjoying the first campus-wide snowball fight since the winter of 2008. The picture is from Jordan, sent, from sir, with love.