Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What expectations?

Yesterday I finished Great Expectations.

Now, I have read the book before cover-to-cover—twice in fact! The first time was the more memorable time, long ago in 1982 when as a senior at Western Hills High School I was hand-picked to be in Jean Michaels’ special class on Charles Dickens’ novels. I had the legendary and iconic Mrs. Michaels for AP Modern European History (and had had her the year before as well for AP U.S. History) and half-way through the year, every year, she would lead a seminar with about 6 students as they made their way through a number of Dickens’ novels. I did indeed hope I would be in this class!

We first tackled Dickens’ breakout-to-fame work in Pickwick Papers and down the road we explored Great Expectations. Oh, I could spend a whole blog entry waxing nostalgic about all the novels we read, the Dickensian-era dinners Mrs. Michaels hosted for us, the Victorian-era games she taught us—but I digress, I finished GE yesterday!!! The second time I had read the book was in a British Literature class in 1984 in college, and then it was fun to re-visit the book, but not as powerful an experience as that first time with Mrs. Michaels.

However, let‘s get back to my 2013 feat! I finished the book yesterday. I am reluctant, nay, ashamed to say, it is my first Dickens novel in 20 years that I have finished. I read 12 of his novels in the 1980s, and then I taught Hard Times a couple times in the 1990s, but it has been now, sadly, about 20 years since I have finished a CD novel. Why did I read the book this fall, you may ask? Well, my delightful niece Emma, who is 15 and in the 9th grade in an Honors English class in a new (for her) Catholic girl’s high school, had assigned to her to read Great Expectations this month and I thought I should read the book along with her.

In some ways, this cutesy assignment of uncle and niece reading the same book, talking on the phone about it over our thousands of miles apart, reminded me of film critic David Denby and an assignment he gave himself 20 years ago. Denby, an alum of Columbia University, decided to re-take a humanities-literature class he had taken as a freshman 30 years before and see what he thought of the books as an adult. He wanted to plumb the depths of his memory for what these “great books” had meant to him at age 18, and then assess whether or not the books meant much to him 30 years later. So I am about exactly at the same point as David Denby when he went back to class and re-discovered the western canon.

First of all, as much as I loved reading Great Expectations with Mrs. Michaels as a budding european historian and senior in 1982, I have never been a fan of how many schools across the US assign Great Expectations to 9th graders. I thought I was the perfect age to encounter the travails of young and impressionable Pip as a senior in high school, but I have had too many peers, and then students, assigned the novel in 9th grade, detest the density of language and plotting, and vow never to read Dickens again! That horrified me!!! I couldn’t even tell you which one was my favorite Dickens novel! I loved almost all of them so much from our close reading back in the 80s, although I would probably say Bleak House, but then no! Hard Times  with Stephen Blackpool and Jane Gradgrind get me so sad, and then there’s the picaresque and comical Mr. Pickwick and his gang, and who could forget…well, I am not here to rank the novels.  I gave a little rant to my sister about the follies of assigning the book to freshmen. Maybe that’s why I decided to re-read the book so I could play “Dickens Fan” to Emma in case she wavered in any admiration of his 19th century prose.

Second of all, Emma sends me the schedule of reading. Ohmigosh! We have to read the book that fast????  Within the first five days, I got behind. Great! However, I did have two transatlantic flights coming up, allowing me to spend some more quality time with the intricacies of the plot. I really remembered only the barebones of the plot, and found it fun to get caught up again in the action.

Third of all, as I re-read the book, taking a tour through the ups and downs of Pip’s life, much like David Denby, I found the book meant way much more than I remembered 30 years ago. My rediscovery and celebration of Pip’s personal odyssey has been an engaging blend of self-discovery, cultural commentary, reporting, criticism, and meditation. In other words, I must tell Mrs. Michaels at Christmas that I have been re-inspired by Dickens’ written word.

Fourth of all, I tried to think about why so many teachers assign this complex book to 9th graders. I am all for challenges—love them—but I kept trying to think why 14-15 year old adolescents are the right/best audience for this text. I am sure some teachers simply assign what they are told, but I wanted to dig down and think why, why, why, this grade and this story might match well. And yes, I came up with excellent reasons. Hopefully the book is not so rushed, the plot over-emphasized that they don’t think about these reasons themselves, those precious and volatile adolescents.

Now for those of you, dear readers, who have never read the novel, or for whom it has been a seriously long time, let me see if I can give you an overview WITHOUT SPOILERS since that would impede your  desire, perhaps, to pick up the book…okay, in about a half-page here it is:

A young boy named Pip lives on the English marshes with his cruel sister and her gentle and kind husband.  One Christmas Eve, Pip meets a scary, escaped convict in a churchyard. Pip steals food so that the convict won't starve (and also so that the convict won't rip his guts out). Soon after, in apparently unrelated events, Pip gets asked to play at Miss Havisham's, the creepy lady who lives down the street and cannot let go of the past. The only good thing about the mansion, as far as Pip is concerned, is Estella, Miss Havisham's adopted daughter. However, as far as we are concerned, Estella is cold and snobby, but man oh man, is she pretty!

Several years later, when Pip has been apprenticed to his brother-in-law, the blacksmith, a great surprise befalls Pip! He comes into a fortune by means of a mysterious and undisclosed benefactor, says goodbye to his family, and heads to London to become a gentleman. And it's pretty sweet at first. Mr. Jaggers, Pip's guardian, is one of the biggest and baddest lawyers in town. Pip also gets a new BFF named Herbert Pocket, the son of Miss Havisham's cousin. Mr. Jaggers says many times that with all of this money, Pip now has “great expectations.”

That’s enough to tell you. I wouldn’t want to rob you of the fun of Pip’s doings around London and what happens to everyone in the story.

I discovered that I understood Pip much better now,  got madder at him, lost patience with his insensitivity, felt ashamed of his braggadocio, and yearned for him to be a better man and friend. When I was 18 I guess I hoped I might be like Pip—someone would bestow on me a fortune, I would get nice clothes, swept away somewhere glamorous, and wait for my great expectations to do it all for me. I mean, isn’t that what many of us feel? At least those on reality shows! But I don’t think I got so upset with Pip then as I did now.

I looked at Pip along the way and kept thinking, “youth is wasted on the young,” sounding every bit as decrepit as that sounds to utter! Why was Pip not kinder to his ever-patient and reliable brother-in-law Joe? Was anyone more faithful than Joe? And Herbert, his new BFF—why did Pip not appreciate him more? Don’t even get me started on Estella!!!!!!! Estella was as annoying and “mean girl”-ish as, well, as a percentage of the teenage girls I have known and taught over the years. Maybe the biggest reason why a girl’s high school should assign the book is to trumpet: Do Not Be Like Estella! How cruel and heartless and ultimately unfulfilled and empty that girl is.

Once I got through the big surprise plot point—which wasn’t really as exciting and profound this time around—I found that the book took on a poignance and profundity about gratitude and the appreciation of life. I thought of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But mostly, I thought of my own dumb Pip moments in life, and treasured the few, truly blessed-to-know people who have helped me the most on this journey.

Isn’t it always wonderful to think of parents who sacrificed for you? Isn’t it always glorious to think of friends who have stood by you, stood the test of time, and continue to stand shoulder to shoulder as we figure out that money and fame and great expectations can be a little hollow and unfulfilling? Not that I have had a real taste of money and fame, but I have seen some who have, and I think about those moments in my non-money and non-fame lifestyle that have made me eternally grateful I pursued teaching the Pips and Estellas and other adolescents of my world.

I don’t want to give away much about the book, but there was a passage that just got to me in much the same way Jean Valjean’s purity of heart in one scene in particular has stayed with me. Let me talk about the theatrical production of Les Miz for a moment: Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home,” my favorite song in this show, and I have always found it the first and most genuine moment in Valjean’s life when he pleads with God to take him, and spare the young and noble Marius. Valjean had been told by the priest years and years ago to do good in the world, and Valjean had endeavored to follow those orders. But it felt a little like just the motions of it until this moment when Valjean beseeches God that he should die, and not the heroic Marius. That moment gets me every time.

In Great Expectations, Pip has found out that the seemingly great expectations are maybe less-than-great, or at least certainly not what he expected! Pip finds himself in a situation attacked, and the violence could claim his life. Pip doesn’t plead to live because of the money or the expectations.  No, Dickens writes that Pip thought:

            “My mind, with inconceivable rapidity, followed out all the consequences of such a death. Estella’s father would believe I had deserted him, would be taken, would die accusing me; even Herbert would doubt me….Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night…how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through. The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. And so quick were my thoughts, that I saw myself despised by unborn generations…”

Pip wished he had made things right. Pip wished he had understood what expectations are really about, not the fancy clothes, the fancy meals, the fancy entourage, but later in the book, Pip yearned to make things right. In the end, he felt for those who had supported him. Pip stated at one point, “I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.” Pip realized his ingratitude and set out to make things as right as he could.

What do we expect from life???

Ah, but maybe the best moment of last night was talking on the phone with Emma, having an intellectual discussion about the book with my niece about symbolism, about the 19th century English penal system, about Pip’s coming-of-age, about Pip as an entitled misfit. In her 15 years we have never enjoyed such an intellectual and scholarly discussion. It was divine.

So Great Expectations destroys Pip’s great expectations. But the book reminded me of my last 30 years and my own expectations, my own sense of gratitude, and pointed me toward a sense of peace about how to expect, and what to expect from each glorious day. Go read the book and see what you think. Call Emma and have a great conversation.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Faith, Iconography and Power or Decay and Glory


Maybe I should have just taught some art that relates to Halloween today. I don’t know, I don’t think I taught  very well today, and that bothers me, but it is always a, shall we say, delicate balance to figure out how to teach well, pedagogically, content-wise, at the beginning of the week, all filtered through our own personal neuroses and miasmas. Good, Heavens!  Indeed, maybe that ghoulish painting on the bottom, a 1973 work by contemporary Austro-Canadian Otto Rapp, entitled, The Deterioration of Mind Over Matter would have been more successful.

The work on the top, a 6th century very precious and rare icon of the enthroned Virgin Mary, was at the centerpiece of today’s art history lecture. Okay, sure, which one of these art works would probably have generated more heat and action in the classroom??!!! But, in a survey as expansive and rushed as the AP Art History curriculum, we really don’t have time to stop and just “have fun” like with the diabolical, surreal Rapp piece. And that icon is from the coolest monastery in the world—St. Catherine’s at the base of Mount Sinai, in Egypt…yes, I have been there!

So, why didn’t it go well today? A parade of Byzantine icons is always a difficult “sell” to any audience, yeah sure, but there is an exciting urgency to this week. This week I call “Our Encounters with the Divine” week and in this four-day week (one day is given over to a school-wide PSAT test, yeah, great)  we careen through the visual imagery of Byzantine Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I try and frame the art as a way to reveal the beliefs and practices of each faith, also hoping the quick-connect-the-dots students will see universalities among and between these major world faiths. But today I saw more yawns and anxious looks at the clock (hey, it was right before lunch!) than in a month of Sundays (slight religious pun intended!). So I thought it might be fun to write a blog entry about a tough day in class and a day that did not engage as well as I had hoped.

Gee, writing about a bum day in class…sounds like interesting reading, huh??!!

But actually, this period of art is fascinating, and I wanted to reclaim it for myself tonight, so read on dear reader! Byzantine art has been described by one of my textbooks as “about paradise—meaning it is everywhere and nowhere.” That alone is a fascinating assessment. If you check out one of the study guides for AP Art History they reduce almost two millennia of these images as simply, The Four F’s: flat, frontal, formal and floating. Okaaaaaaayy…well, that works as a mnemonic device in discerning a Byzantine work with a cool  little F trick, but oh, there is more beneath the surface!  Like really all religious art, these images are meant to serve as a refuge from the real world. Increasingly in this historical time (which would be from about 550 and for the next thousand years, but even continuing in many contemporary Orthodox churches) there would be no art images in their real world, and one would visit a church as a refuge and solace from that everyday world. You step inside one of these churches, and the gold backgrounds and the jeweled colors and the images of an all-mighty Divine One would envelop and embrace and stun you.  But beside the image as refuge, one can’t escape how the works are not made in a vacuum—they are against the landscape of the tumult of real history. That dichotomy ought to set your pulse racing!

From Crete to Moscow to Constantinople to Cairo, these icons faithfully represented the same reality. This reality was not depicted by the image but contained by it: icons held the “presence” of Christ or the Virgin or the saints, as if in a kind of limbo, waiting to be activated by the fervor of the faithful. That is why they are difficult for us…if they seem “boring” it is because we have not stepped into its world of infinite reflections and crossed that threshold into what you fervently long to get, that glory beyond the glory that you see. You can see how easy it is for our 21st century eyes to resist such a vision.

Let’s add on top of this the “tumult of real history” I tempted you with earlier! In 726 Byzantine Emperor Leo III felt the tremors not too far south of his capital in Constantinople the incursions of a new faith, Islam. As I mentioned in class that this is one of the first instances of a Christian reacting to the rising surge of Islam, I fumbled to find the right verb, and Rami, a student far more engaged today than maybe I deserved, Rami said, “This is when Christianity and Islam first collided.” Great verb Rami!

I noted that Leo worried that Islam, with its rather daring ban on representations of human form, decided that the faithful in his empire should therefore destroy the icons like that one from Sinai above! Some obeyed and some did not. Ohhh, it gets rather interesting and kind of class warfare like: the rich defend the precious, expensive icons, and the poor have at it and destroy away! For 150 years there is this debate over icons, their use, their veracity, their idol-like control, and that is why the icon above from St. Catherine’s is so precious since very few survive from this time. We have a Christian icon, a source of refuge, that is very much caught between the storm of Christianity and Islam. Wow! And still I managed to be on the dull side today!
Yes, I suppose the ghastly Rapp painting would have been more fun today, and it also stands for some of the same feelings of iconography and power, but I like the little lesson on icons as well. Faith—and its ability to inspire the most soaring of visions, the most rarified of craftsmanship, as well as the most zealous attacks on non-believers, is the underpinning of this week’s exploration. The icons tax our 21st century attention spans, but they also allow for a peek at the tumult of history and the way it can lead to an astonishing cross-pollination.
On Friday night, the night our school celebrated Halloween, I was on my way to the school’s Haunted House. A student, a captivating, compelling, quixotic young man came to my door, and wanted to talk about good and evil in the world. Great. One trip would have been easy (um, to the Haunted House) and one taxed my mind as he explored whether or not history has been inevitable about evil…oh, my, nothing really weighty is ever easy, and so I think about today’s class, look at how it is a difficult lesson, and kind of chuckle as I ponder Ralph Waldo Emerson’s semi-Halloween saying, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  Let’s just leave it at faith and glory.

Sunday, October 20, 2013



Last night I returned from a quick week-long trip to New York. Of course it was marvelous. How could that glimpse and taste of my old life in New York not be wonderful? And as I thought about the trip on the plane ride back across the ocean, I realized it was just that: wonder-full. My time in New York is always exciting and invigorating because of the friends I see, the old haunts I visit, and the curiosity and energy of that metropolis. I had a lot of time to think on the flight back since the computer system had malfunctioned and there were no movies or maps to watch during the long flight. Oh well. No matter! I thought of several upcoming blog entries! But most of all, I decided that New York, for me at least, is like this delightful old German word, a wunderkammer. Hmmmm…say it a couple times to yourself, ja? And make sure you say a ‘v’ sound on wunder and not a ‘w’!!

What is, or, was ist, a wunderkammer, you may ask? It is literally a cabinet of curiosities, of wonders, about art and the world. In Renaissance Europe such wunderkammer became quite popular—each nobleman aspired to have an encyclopediac collection of objects whose eclectic categorical boundaries were hard to define. These charming curios of curiosities conveyed symbolically the patron’s control he had of the world around him. These “cabinets of wonder” are the precursors to our modern museums.

In reaction to my usual verbose self I decided to sum up in a phrase or two why I love New York so much. I decided that I go to New York to refresh my sense of awe with the world. (Now since I have devoted a whole blog entry to this discussion, I don’t suppose I have avoided verbosity in the least!).  As corny as this sounds, when I am in New York, I find myself gasping in wonderment at all that is around me—the theater, the restaurants, the friends, the museums, Central Park, and I find lessons that can be gleaned so easily from all that is around me in New York. So I decided to look back into my wunderkammer of last week’s trip to see what curiosities dazzled me especially. Art, like the heart, can sometimes defy logic, and it is often the most ordinary things in New York that remind me of beauty. Beauty is often where you don’t expect to find it; that it is sometimes we may discover and also invent, then reinvent, for ourselves; that the most important things in the world are never as simple as they seem but that the world is richer when it declines to abide by comforting formulas.

Christy, my intrepid partner-in-wonder-for-all-things-New York, and I went to an unusual theatrical event together. It was part improvisation, part walking tour, and part detective procedural show. In the Lower East Side we met others in a dingy bar and learned about an unsolved crime of a brother and sister in 1873 “Five Points” in New York. We then had a map and a bag of clues, and set out to find the suspects, all of whom were walking around the neighborhood, and we questioned the suspects about motives and alibis, always trying to crack this case. After a couple of hours each group got to state who they believed the murderers were and why. What an exciting way to spend an afternoon exploring and researching and reliving a bygone era of New York. The actors did a remarkable job fielding our questions, speaking in long ago idioms and prejudices and reminding us of the social history of the late 19th century Bowery.

On another day I went with my former student Talal to the Met. I had looked forward to this since Talal is one of the most exciting students I have had in art history. How fun to go through and see some of the works we studied. But I also wanted to look at a work that is rather new and contemporary, one we hadn’t studied in class, and that might excite a certain amount of wonder. I chose a work by contemporary Japanese artist Kohei Nawa, an artist under the age of 40.

Nawa has developed an original technique and term called “Pixcell” in which he works. The term Pixcell is derived from both “pixel” and “cell”—the most basic building blocks of the digital and the organic. Mr. Nawa has been working with his unique artificial glass medium of Pixcell beads since 2000, using them to address the discrepancies between exterior and interior, what is perceived and what is actual. Take a look at the top of the page at art work Talal and I encountered. What do you see? 

Hundreds of crystal clear beads coat a once living, now taxidermied deer, complete with a full and proud rack of antlers.

It is a strange sight!  The Pixcell Deer stands in a room, surrounded by ancient Japanese screens that are coated in natural imagery. Nawa’s Pixcell Deer (from 2011) is a solitary figure emanating a cool, silvery light in an otherwise warm, golden room. But its magnetic attraction becomes weird when I realize what lies beneath the bubble-covered skin. A deer, once living, breathing and feeling, is now stuffed, frozen and silent! From afar, the stag deceives viewers into believing that it is simply a sculpture, an inanimate object that was made from nothing into something. The realization of being tricked, as well as being confronted with what is essentially a carcass, is very strange.

But strange is okay. Strange is usually also about wonder. Nawa invites us to look, to wonder, to learn, and then to be a little more confused. It is obvious that the Pixcells reflect what is around the room—but every image is upside-down!!?!

From the wall text I learn that a deer is traditionally considered a messenger for the deities of the Japanese Shinto faith. Nawa repurposes the ancient Kasuga Mandala (the compositional motif of a white deer turned toward a mirror that sits on its back) to create his own harbinger of deception, which communicates the release from physical reality in preference for images. Kawa is quoted in the wall text:    By covering a surface of an object with transparent glass beads, the existence of the object itself is replaced by a ‘husk of light,’ and the new vision ‘the cell of an image’ (Pixcell) is shown.”

His focus on the space between perception and reality, or what might be called illusion, inspires ominous feelings. The outer layer of things, the skin, is the most immediately attractive portion of the work, but it also physically and metaphorically distorts what lies beneath it. A single bead, similar in size to a fortuneteller’s crystal ball, rests in the slope of the deer’s spine. As the largest Pixcell it is the easiest to peer into, but grotesque fun-house-mirror images form within it. My own twisted and bent reflection mixes with the contorted features of the deer into a vortex of light and color. The glass eyes of the stuffed animal are near human eye-level; a dark and piercing stare hangs beyond the fractal divide.

Reflections force a viewer to both look and be looked at. But this often leads to forgetting the divide between what is presented and what is seen. Knowing that I was both staring at, and being stared at, forces me to reevaluate the relationship that was forming between this art object and myself. Is then this deer that lived into adulthood before being killed, stuffed and sold, still a deer? No. Now this animal exists solely as an image—pixels made of light and color created by its new, artificial skin. The living animal was translated to an image on a website, repurposed into a sculpture, and then recreated as a hybrid physical-image. Nawa’s use of the Pixcell beads on everything great and small, living and dead, imposes a sense of wonder that breeds uncertainty in my mind. What is nature in the technological age? Are we people or are we images of people? And finally, will the human eye eventually lose the ability to tell the difference? I wonder…

I could go on and on, because it seems every episode in New York lends itself to a beauty and wonder for me. But just one more little drawer in my wunderkammer will I share today…about another play. Christy and I went to see a new (only days since it had opened!) and splashy musical on Broadway called Big Fish.

I approach the art of theater in the spirit of an amateur. I mean amateur in the original sense of the word, as a lover, someone who does something for the love of it, whole-heartedly. Big Fish was a delight! I went to see it simply because of four names attached to the show (It was a 1990s movie by Tim Burton, but a film I never saw). The three leading actors and the director are well-known in the New York as consummate pros and outstanding theatrical animals.

Big Fish is a musical built around the tall—or at least well-stretched—tales  of an Alabama-born traveling salesman, Edward Bloom who has a penchant for embellishing his life. With his stocky build, short stature, and thinning hair (wait! Am I starring in this???), lead actor Norbert Leo Butz is an unlikely leading man, but he has the loose-limbed energy and charisma of a young Dick Van Dyke.  For the most part, though, Big Fish finds theatrically inventive ways to reel audiences into its central love story. In this case, it isn't boy-meets-girl but father-hooks-son. And Edward Bloom is quite a catch. But not every critic took the bait (stop me!!! I could on and on with the fishing puns!!) One critic wrote last week: “A lot of loving craftsmanship has gone into this musical, and it delivers satisfying entertainment for those who don't mind being emotionally manipulated.”

Don’t mind?? I have no problem with something that tugs on the heartstrings!

Wholesomeness gets a bad rap on Broadway these days, usually regarded as the kind of unbearably sweet and inoffensive entertainment that sophisticated theatergoers must endure while taking their conservative grandmas out for a night on the town...But Big Fish displays no fear in plopping its unabashed wholesomeness right in your lap. Its spirit is steeped in Rodgers and Hammerstein decency that propels an evening that's adventurous, romantic and, yeah, kinda daring. It was an imaginative and heart-tugging evening, just the kind of wonder I adore.


I guess what I love so much about my wunderkammer trips to New York is that I find art really everywhere in that city. There is the accidental masterpiece in lunch with Kate, catching up with Harrison, visiting with a friend who has suffered a tragic loss, enjoying a walk in the park. The art is certainly on display in one of the gazillions of museums in New York, but it is the wonder of discovering it, enjoying it in an Irish suspect in old New York, in a dead deer, and in the hopes of catching a big fish. Time to close the drawers of the wunderkammer but boy I can’t wait to open the cabinet again!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Immeasurably More

Yesterday I turned 50 years old. I kind of whispered it at first, since it is somewhat hard to believe, but then since my boss, John Austin, yelled it out at a senior staff meeting on Thursday morning, and longtime colleague Fatina screamed it out in a History department gathering on Thursday afternoon, the cat is out of the bag anyway.

As some of you may know, and chuckle about, I haven’t always been entirely truthful with my age. When I was 23 I decided that I would age myself a few years so that I had a little more credibility in my first school. I thought if I came across as 26 or 27, then I would appear that I knew infinitely more than I did. Then when I moved to my third school in 1996, I thought, hmmm…let’s turn 30 all over again. People always act like that’s a fun decade to turn into, so let’s do it again! So I shaved a couple years off the actual age. As time went on, I had to keep straight in my head who thought I was what age…good heavens, what a ridiculous charade to maintain!

So, now that I have reached the half-century mark, I would rather someone think I looked all right for my age, instead of, “Oh, well, he looks fine for his mid-40s,” and I guess I just don’t care what people think if I know more than I do, or less than I do. Whatever I am, whoever I have become, whatever I know or do not know, it is simply the summative achievement of this particular moment in time. Oh, how very Zen I am at age 50…

Yesterday was one of those birthdays people wish for all the time—a day not at the workplace, a day that could actually be totally lazy and self-indulgent (meaning no grading of papers, no writing of college recommendations, no meetings, just a slowed-down, self-indulgent day…). My King’s Academy friend Lubna and I always go to the Dead Sea to celebrate her birthday (two weeks from yesterday) so I decided that we should go on my semi-centennial birthday. While lazing around in the spa I looked back at these other birthdays that mark the beginning of a new decade…very interesting the trip down memory lane. As I looked back, I realized I was kind of “king of the hill” for the beginning of the decade and then changes and unforeseen things happened in the journey. I know, I know, that is exactly what happens in life, but very interesting to look back at the beginnings of each of these decades.

10th birthday I spent my 10th birthday in a funeral home. I had looked forward to this birthday for the obvious reason that I would finally have two digits to call my own for an age! How would I feel to have two hands completed in numbers? I was this much closer to the teen years! And then my Aunt Ann Griley died. So here I was in the funeral home, moping around, not so much because my aunt had died fairly young (you don’t think of 46 as young when you are turning 10!) and my rambunctious cousins had lost their mother. No, I was disappointed that this was how I got to spend my 10th birthday. Wow. Childhood had kind of lead to this day, I assumed, and then I was stuck in a suit in a funeral home. My mother had arranged that I could go to my friend David Freeman’s house later on. His mother had made stuffed peppers. I didn’t like stuffed peppers. So she made me some hot dogs. So that was the birthday dinner the night I had two digits to claim as my age. Big whoop. Of course, who knew what lay ahead of me at that point. I hadn’t yet had Miss Wilson in 5th grade, the teacher who transformed my thinking. I hadn’t yet gone to Gamble Junior High and played in the orchestra, the band or sung in the choir. I hadn’t yet learned French. I hadn’t yet gone to Western Hills High School and discovered their music and theater programs, and the great friends I would make with those groups, no discovered Mrs. Michaels and Mrs. Schneider…I was excited to turn 10, but I had no idea what lay ahead of me as an adolescent.

20th birthday On this birthday, the day I left behind the childish dreams and notions of teenage-hood, I spent as a sophomore at Denison with all my cool college friends. We probably played “Tears For Fears” and “Men At Work” (and yes, probably “Air Supply”) on a stereo and hung out with our clique, our very independent, non-Greek clique of smart, mostly Ohio-public-school friends. This was the era of big glasses and Bill Cosby-esque sweaters. We had survived the freshman year with panache, and as sophomore year began, frankly, we were king-of-the, well something. We weren’t juniors or seniors, and we didn’t have cars, but we had already entered some junior and senior seminars due to our high school AP grades and our top performances in freshman year. I had joined the Denison Singers as a freshman (with a European tour, no less, the second of my not-yet-out-of-my-teens-life) and had decided that I would become a history professor. In fact, I plotted out my life, or the important stuff, you know, up to your 40s. I would be a history professor like my idol, Amy Gordon, start a family, teach at Denison and then assume the presidency of Denison in lovely Granville, Ohio. The same month that I turned 20, the current-president of Denison, Robert Good, a former ambassador to Zaire, announced that he had an inoperable brain tumor and would most likely die within the next year. The student body soon after surprised Dr. Good with a party, all 2000 of us in sweatshirts emblazoned with “The Good Years,” to celebrate his tenure and his life. In fact, he did die the next September, and I remember thinking in that year how he had packed a great deal into his 60 years, and that was a pretty good way to live life. But on the birthday, we were forever 20, excited about college experiences and our friendships. I had no idea yet that I would study abroad the next year, would accidentally miss my grad school deadline as a senior forcing me to re-think the plan to immediately  become a professor, that I would become a high-school teacher instead, move to the south, finally get on with graduate school at Brown, hate grad school so much that I knew I had to return to what I loved, the high school classroom, and direct plays. None of that would have made much sense at that long ago party on the west quad at Denison.

30th birthday   This birthday came in the middle of preparations for my most complicated and audacious play EVER—Noises Off.  So my life plan was a little off-track. I probably wasn’t going to be the president of Denison, but I owned a three-bedroom house on a quiet street, in a beautiful section of an up-and-coming metropolis. I had been at Charlotte Latin for three years, become unbelievably happy teaching AP Modern European History, directing plays for a school with a generous budget, and teaching students who were amazingly committed, brilliant and fun and kind. Noises Off  requires a two-story set that revolves and the structure was there by the birthday. The blocking was done. The cast worked like the finest Swiss watch! I taught students who loved being in class—I mean, can it get any better than this?? Is this what my 30s, heck, the rest of my life, would be like???? My sister had found the man of her dreams—hey, he loved me! She was planning a wedding to celebrate family and love. We celebrated my birthday on the set (I joked that the set of Noises Off was better decorated than my house—no joke actually, and then I made a sick joke to a friend after the success of this play. I said that I might as well kill myself since I couldn’t see how I could top myself!). Who knew that I would soon apply for the Klingenstein program in New York, get whisked off to a sabbatical in New York, bid a sad farewell to the brilliant Casey Brown, incur the wrath of headmaster Ned Fox, and look to move back to New York and start all over somewhere else, selling my house in under 48 hours. I remember wondering to Catherine Justice, “Maybe this has all been a fluke. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing,” just a few weeks before I packed up the car and headed to Tarrytown, New York. You can see why I might have shaved a couple of years off the actual age…

40th birthday   By now, the age thing had become much like legendary entertainer Jack Benny—I would perpetually stay 39. But this birthday is celebrated with a surprise party in Manhattan at Christy’s house. My visionary-but-not-well-organized-friend Christy had planned a party with Hackley friends and other friends to celebrate my new decade. This was a quintessential 40th birthday—all of us at perhaps the “peak” of our careers, celebrating in an apartment on Central Park West, near all my favorite things in my favorite playground on earth—New York City. I raced out of Hackley School every Friday afternoon, escaping by way of Metro North into the City for a weekend of theater, camaraderie, art, good food, walking, laughing, music, church, and eventually heading back north those 18 miles for Sunday night planning for the next week. I headed home to Cincinnati several times a year for the important re-connections with my family. Ahhhh…could life get any sweeter? I felt intellectually challenged at Hackley and with New York at my feet, I directed several plays a year with marvelous actors, I worked with Chuck Edwards, my former student from Charlotte, and now an incredibly strong teacher and remarkable colleague…go ahead, let life continue…Who knew that soon there would be a trip of bad students that created bad feelings that set the stage for me to know I couldn’t stay at Hackley forever, forsaking the “gargoyle” I hoped to earn with 40 years of service.  Who knew a magazine article spied by the wondrous Anne Siviglia would lead to a dinner out at swanky Le Bernardin with Eric Widmer, an old friend of the Siviglias now founding a new school in Jordan. Who knew I would leave the hearkness table of my room, the exceptional students at Hackley, that I would bid adieu to Manhattan and come to the plains of the biblical kingdom of Moab?????

50th birthday   So here I am—at my semi-centennial, towards the end of this most self-indulgent blog, in the most self-indulgent media of our self-indulgent world. I teach a course I love, direct a play once in a while, live in a challenging place, sometimes lonely since it is not as full of people and activities as other chapters of my life. Doris Jackson, another angel of a friend, prophesied that I would find clarity in the desert. That is true. I help run the school, help develop the talent of teachers, and have learned an enormous amount from people around me about how schools work and how other groups in the world survive. In some ways, I feel successful. But it is always, or should be, always about more than whatever success means. Have I lived up to the talent and potential of when I turned 10 or turned 20? Have I internalized the integrity and sense of fair play and generosity and hard work that marks my father’s contribution to this earth? Have I imagined and executed things in the precise and enthusiastic way that my mother operated and contributed to this world?

So I chose a painting, a Chinese painting, the one at the top of the blog entry, to mark not only my 50th birthday, but how it feels at the turn of a new decade. This is a work by Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan, called Mountain Path in the Spring. We see a scholar looking out at the world in front of him, rather obscured in the way Chinese artists loved, not sure what lies in front of him. There is a young charge near him, helping with the journey. The scholar sees a bird in flight beyond him, intersecting that activity with his contemplative stillness. I imagine he looks back in his mind at what the other decades have been like, but certainly in the misty stillness before him, even with his scholarly pedigree, he has no idea what still might lie ahead.

I suppose that is the beauty of it all and the risk of it all in this journey of life. Doris Jackson loves to send me devotion books, and yesterday, on that semi-centennial since my birth, the title of the day’s devotion was “Immeasurably More.”  The piece refers back to a passage in Ephesians where Paul thanks God for all He has done, “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” My goodness, even Doris, in all her wisdom, couldn’t have guessed those perfect words would appear on my 50th birthday.

I talked to some of these people mentioned in the blog last night, the ones who have loved me and blessed me through these 50 years. I probably should have closed with the words of Paul, but since he got the title of the blog, I can’t resist going back to the final words of one of my favorite TV shows of all time (you didn’t think I would have a blog entry about my entire life and not mention a TV show, did you???????!)

The Wonder Years ended its run the year I turned 30. I loved the words then, and I showed this clip at a drama banquet in May, 1993. But the words are even better now, with a half-century under my belt:

“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers; next day you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place...a town...a house like a lot of other houses... A yard like a lot of other yards...on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is...after all these years, I still look back...with wonder.”