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.