Sunday, April 28, 2013

Naked in Amman?

On April 1st, I posted on Facebook the following status update:
A brash, young colleague kinda dared me, or challenged me that I couldn't go Vegetarian for a month. Hey, I'm competitive and I accepted his challenge. While this seems like the perfect April Fool's joke from me, it's real! Today is the first day of a meatless month for me...notice I did pick a 30-day month! Bring on the whole-wheat everything!!

So 28 days in…and I am still vegetarian. But the month ends soon, and yes, I have picked out where I will resume my carnivorous ways. There is a new-ish place in Amman called “The Burger Shack” and it makes a great burger. That is where I will end this month-long project of vegetarianism! The man who runs the place at the Shack calls himself ‘Fatty Dabs,’ and he better have a good hunk of beef for me! Wednesday night, I will be there.
When I posted on Facebook lo those many days ago on April 1st, (and actually that was the last time I wrote a blog entry too…both a desert of meat consumption and writing this month of April!) I had so many comments from the Facebook peeps—comments ranging from curiosity to incredulity, to prayers, to testimonies of how long they too have gone without meat, or how vegetarianism would help me taste food better…oh my, the support and the comments simply from my announcement of going meatless! But my wise and delightful friend Anne Siviglia provided me with one of my favorite comments about accepting the challenge. Anne wrote, “I hope no one challenges you to walk naked in Amman.”
Anne knows me well—she knows the competitive side of me, either from the time I tried to out-accelerate a speeding train next to us on an Arizona highway, to playing card games and fake gambling and getting a little too excited about the competition. She blithely says she isn’t interested in competition herself (okay, those of you in the blog audience, have you ever seen Anne play her fave game, Celebrity???? She is brutal! She wipes everyone up off the floor!)
Anyway, it has been an interesting month going veggie. Frankly, it’s not as hard as I think it would be in the USA—and I love a good challenge and a good project anyway. The two hardest days came on Advisor Lunch days when we had a roast lamb one day that looked and smelled like THE IDEAL pot roast of your dreams (I could have eaten the entire platter I am sure) and then last Tuesday when we had Chicken Tenders. One colleague who keeps an eagle eye out for the Chicken Tender days, called me at 7:00 a.m. to let me know from the school menu that today was the day! I reminded her that I was a vegetarian for a month, and she actually suggested I give up and give in on that day. Not when I got so far! No, that young Peter Damrosch will not have that satisfaction that I caved!!
So, in the last four weeks I have had many vegetable soups and pasta dishes, gnawed on parmesan and manchego chunks and even made a meatless meat loaf. On line is a vast veggie community and they offer such helpful hints. You boil lentils and then eventually they actually become sort of a consistency of ground beef, minus, of course the fat that makes ground beef taste good. But if you put enough BBQ sauce on top, it tastes pretty much like regular meat loaf.
I took advantage of this experiment to see how the real vegetarians of the world survive, especially in the KA Dining Hall. They have pretty good options, and most of the time, you manage. There are always a couple salads, loads of hummus and white beans and spinach are staples. But on the day the school had burgers, well, I made a point of telling Ola, the Czarina of the Dining Hall, that the veggie burgers taste like dust. Oh well…Fatty Dabs will be sizzling for me soon.

As it turns out, the colleague who suggested this really said this all in passing, but as I told the story more and more, it seemed he had a knife to my throat and threatened my job security if I walked away from the challenge. It has been an interesting month, much less of a big deal than I imagined. I am sure that the end in sight made the decision easier…and I love a good challenge. Surviving projects is so much of what we do, and as my father has said my whole life, “You can stand on your head for six months!” I used to wonder what he really meant by the oft-repeated phrase, but it certainly stopped the whining in our house—we knew what the retort would be.

So the end of the Vegetarian project is in sight. This is the time of year when many projects come to a conclusion. I suppose it is one of the things I like about school life. It begins with an overwhelming bang, keeps moving at breakneck pace, but then one by one, starting in April, the projects begin to wind down. This year has been a lot of projects—in large part why the blog gets neglected more than I wish.
A week ago right now we brought to a close one of the biggest projects of my year: the Recruiting Project. Since early December so much energy and time has been spent looking at candidates for teaching at KA. You look through the emails of people who send you resumes, then we spend time on the websites of the search agencies we use, write emails, have skype interviews, go to job fairs (Remember, I have been to Bangkok for two fairs, London, Cambridge, Boston and San Francisco for job fairs!) You check references, you have half-hour interviews, you make “Depth Charts” (that is my new sports phrase for the year, and yes, someone else came up with that phrase for me) and you schmooze with the candidates you love, act diplomatically as you explain to others why the match is not ideal, make offers, accept the acceptances and accept the declines. So many hours spent since December! In the first three job fairs we went about 0-15…whoa.
This year did have a sizeable number of replacements needed. There was no real problem, particularly, but the problem of about 50% of the faculty as ex-pats. In most international schools the average tenure for ex-pats is about two years! Seriously, that is it! Our headmaster hopes that our average will be 3-5 years, and this year a whole number of the twenty-something ex-pats had been here 3-5 years and so they felt the need to return stateside. So last week, when Matthew accepted our position in English, we concluded our recruitment of about 20 new faculty. I will have 9 teaching fellows to work with, and about a dozen regular full-time teachers. That is a major project to conclude.
And then this weekend I concluded the project of the spring play. I will write a blog entry this week about the play, but suffice to say another project to put to bed that is exciting and exhausting and energizing and time-consuming.
I remember last weekend as I watched the news about the manhunt project in Boston coming to an end. I first heard about the Boston bombings from a quick, casual check on Facebook at the end of our school day. I saw all these status updates either praying for Boston, or Bostonians announcing that they were fine, or mean-spirited people clucking about how others will know what it was like to live with bombs and death. Social media does an interesting job of alerting us to breaking news. One of my dearest students here is from Boston, and actually lives a five-minute walk from the bombing site. Every February for years I have stayed just down the street at Copley Square, either at a Model Congress or a job fair event.
I can’t add much that hasn’t already been said about the bombings, the humanity of the helpers, the pride of Boston, the Islamophobia, or the clenching tension that kept the city in its grip all week, but I did have an interesting reaction about those few days while the manhunt project continued. I worried. Now, that isn’t a surprise—you kind of hope you worry. It means you care about humanity! I worried about my college friends in the area and I worried about our former students in the Boston area. There are so many KA students around the Boston area. But I realized that I worried about them the way so many friends and family have worried about me coming to the Middle East. As I have said on occasion, I have never felt scared here in Jordan. I know there have been news reports that would suggest I should have been, but the worry I felt 10 days ago was one that I hoped these people I cared about would be okay in their daily lives. That manhunt project allowed us all to feel the grip of fear. I have never felt that here, but I felt that for my compatriots in the USA. I am relieved the project is over.

As relief swept over Boston last weekend, I wondered what pastors in churches would say last Sunday. I wondered about how my grandmothers, stalwart, faithful women, or my father, he, of the You can stand on your head for six months philosophy would react. I play this game fairly often since I have been blessed with wise people around me, from Anne warning me not to accept every challenge, to parents who knew how to face adversity with courage and grace.
I recalled a brief passage that my grandmother liked that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, reminding them to “give thanks in all circumstances.” My grandmother, ever the teacher, would sit me down and tell me that phrase. And so as I look at the projects here in Jordan winding down, to the manhunt project in Boston, I give thanks. I give thanks for all those brave first responders; I give thanks for the chaplains; I give thanks for the selfless helpers; I give thanks for the therapists; I give thanks for the TV crews and reporters telling the stories of loss but hope; I give thanks for the social media for providing a forum where people can send messages wrapped in prayers; I give thanks for the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts and the President of the United States, for wrapping Boston in a bear hug; I give thanks for the Boston Red Sox and for Neil Diamond; I give thanks for the hockey team that had the stirring “Star-Spangled Banner.”
These projects can be excruciating, everything from my quotidian tasks of avoiding meat, to searching the world for the finest educators, to carving out brain space to do a play, to the monumental tasks of calming a city and searching for perpetrators to restoring peace.
My grandmother would always say, “Let’s look carefully at Paul’s words. He is not saying we must give thanks for everything, but in everything. There is evil in the world. We do not give thanks for that, but in each circumstance we can find a reason to give thanks.”
As I see so many of the stories from the crisis in Boston, I also give thanks that out of the troubles of those days there have been so many stories of light in the darkness, and not allowing the darkness to swallow the light. It seems hate caused these bombings, but Bostonians did not permit hate to make them haters.  And that is certainly something for which we can all give thanks.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Nobody From Nazareth

Easter is a little confusing for me. I mean, I know I live in two worlds, the western world and the Arab world, but Easter, and the schedule is confusing. For the west, yesterday was Easter. Here in Jordan—not yet, we have to wait five more weeks until Orthodox Easter when the 6% of Jordanians who are Christian celebrate Easter. All last week I was home in the US, seeing the Easter build-up in stores, hearing the excitement in people’s voices—I remember in Kroger’s the other morning in Cincinnati, a clerk offered me a “Happy Easter,” and I guess I didn’t reply loudly enough, and she just said it again twice as loud and twice as enthusiastically!

But then I got on the plane Friday night and returned to Jordan, just a few miles from the original Easter location, and it’s not Easter at all here. Easter here was a regular school day, no sun-rise service, no alleluias, no ham dinner for sure, and no weighty baskets of treats. Just a little confusing.

But then again, wasn’t the original Easter pretty confusing???

I mean, can you blame them? Can you blame the disciples’ confusion on that Sunday morn? The confusion of the Marys at the tomb? Can you blame them that disorientated by grief they falter and fumble? Can you blame them that in the aftermath of Jesus’ gruesome death, and with the discovery that his body is missing, they fail to rise to the high occasion of that day? Who can blame them for running to and fro like confused chickens with their heads cut off?

Fear and grief do strange things to people. They can rob you of reason. They can wring the sense out of you. They can leave you raw: twitching and trembling ... and without direction.

Let’s put that Easter confusion into better context: it was only but two days earlier that they had witnessed a train-wreck. They were helpless onlookers, bystanders as Jesus and the Roman Empire hurtled toward each other. They watched—as if in slow motion, I am sure, awful frame by awful frame—as their dear Palestinian peasant collided, head on, with the mighty Empire of Tiberius. Jesus collided with its armies and arms, its prisons, powers and prickly potentates.

It was no contest. None! Jesus was crushed. And the empire muscled on ... oblivious to the human wreckage it left in its wake.

Or, maybe not ... this really is confusing. Could Jesus actually have survived? Think of how his followers must have grappled with that on that Sunday morn. They were trying to wrap their minds around what all they had witnessed in that last week.

But they can’t. They’re not up to it. Not yet. It is too big ... too much for them. It is unbelievable, unimaginable ... inconceivable that Jesus could survive such a collision. So confusing!

I gotta tell you: if you asked me back then to wager on the contest between Jesus and the Empire, yep, my money’s on the Empire. Hands down! Would we have ever imagined the Empire with the edges of the frontier in Palestine would eventually collapse and crumble under its own excessive weight and hubris???  Infected by corruption, dependent upon intimidation, it began to rot from within.

And Jesus? Yeah, what about that guy? What of the Nobody from Nazareth? Whatever became of the Palestinian peasant, the Cow-town Carpenter who faced down an Empire? Whatever became of him? Take a look! Yesterday hundreds of thousands stood in St. Peter’s Square in Rome because of that guy. Seventy people attended my family’s church in Cincinnati because of that guy. Millions in the western world went to church because of that nobody. 

And, here’s the kicker: look at last Friday… Guess what mighty thing happened... what mighty-empire-like thing ... closed on Friday in honor of the Palestinian peasant, the Nobody from Nazareth? Wall Street! Shut down. Lights out. Doors closed. Computer monitors blank. Trading ceased!

The fact that Wall Street closes each year on Good Friday is nothing short of breathtaking.

And as I flew back from Cincinnati to Jordan on Friday into Saturday, at the same time that the original Easter mourning would have taken place, I thought about what survived from that original confusing Easter morning… Jesus did. And with Jesus, love survived. And peace. And life. And kindness. And justice. And grace. And, mercy... do not ever forget mercy.

The Roman Empire is history.

In the annals of history, Time is divided by him. The luminous brushes of Michelangelo and Raphael and Caravaggio... inspired by him. Bach and Beethoven riffed on him. William Wilberforce and Sojourner Truth, Desmond Tutu, Chavez and MLK Jr ... learned from Jesus. They learned from Jesus the sweet taste of freedom ... not only freedom from oppression (as if that were not enough) ... but freedom from hate. Freedom from fear ... even fear of death.

Last week when I arrived in Cincinnati I came to my family’s home of 51 years at 2460 Montana Avenue alone. My father was in the hospital—severe rectal bleeding the result of long-ago months of radiation treatment. It wasn’t life threatening exactly, but it wasn’t good.  And seeing my father—the most stoic and powerful man I have ever known—in the hospital made me a little afraid. As I spent those nights at home, alone for the very first time in our house without either parent, it was a little confusing, too. But confusion can give way to joy.

My father came home a few hours before I left to return to Jordan. And he sounded better on the phone yesterday as we reminisced about Easters of long ago. And he sounded even better today as he left home for the first time since his trip to the hospital. My sister drove him over to her house to fix a leaky bathtub. Yep, Papa Ken is fixing things again. Life is back to normal, but perhaps a little more transcendent today.

Yes, as I flew back from Cincinnati to Jordan about 65 hours ago, at the same time that the original Easter mourning would have taken place, I thought about what survived from that original confusing Easter morning.   Jesus did. And with Jesus, love survived. And peace. And life. And kindness. And justice. And grace. And, mercy.

Love and peace and life and kindness and justice and grace and mercy…all qualities I have witnessed in the person of my father as well.

Confusion gives way to joy.