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.