Sunday, November 30, 2014

Never Be So Forceful in Blog Titles!

and by the way...I am back with my barber Edris.

I couldn't find the new barber--somehow his store front must have changed and of course there is no address to use or follow.

So I am back with Edris--I have been there five times, taking people each time...he has no idea we had broken up!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Moment in Abu Dhabi

Every now and then the universe has an uncanny way of reaching out, tapping me on the shoulder, and bringing me back down to earth. Sometimes the message is delivered to remind me of something that I’ve forgotten or maybe just to grab my attention in the midst of my usual frenetically packed schedule. Other times I feel the tap as a big jolt that leads to an important discovery or decision—like the realization that hit me early one morning around dawn in the Abu Dhabi airport.

On October 8th I was changing planes from Amman and heading back for a week in the United States, and needed to find Gate 86 in the Abu Dhabi airport. I was a little groggy since there was practically no sleep at all on that flight from Amman (it did leave at 3:30 AM), and I had not been in this new part of this airport before.  I noticed extraordinary plants, but didn’t have time to relish their presence—my flight had left Amman very late and I needed to get to Gate 86 immediately or I might not even make my Chicago-bound flight. I usually love looking around in new airports and feeling the vibe they have created for travelers, whether a shopping vibe like in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, or the zoo and butterflies and sunflowers in Singapore’s user-friendly airport. Waiting in airports (which I do frequently) actually allows me some solitude to think about things. But this morning, I am rushing around, trying to get my bearings, and hope that a sign will pop out of anywhere alerting me where I might find Gate 86. I am trying not to be distracted by the food court at the center of this terminal. Finally, I see a map of the airport and I scan and scour the map until my eyes land on the mark that shows where I am at that moment, pointing out the spot with bold red arrows and the words in English, You Are Here.

Those three words, intended to state the obvious, do have a congratulatory vibe, don’t they? Wouldn’t it be helpful, I muse for a second, if we could start every day with a map and a marker to tell us: You Are Here ???!!! Ahhh…

That’s when I felt the proverbial tap on my shoulder. My first reaction was to ask myself if, as the map tells me, I am here where exactly is that? More to the point: how did I get here? In truth, these aren’t easy questions to answer. But seeing as I live abroad and continually must answer to friends and family in the United States why I feel the need to continue to live and work in the Middle East—I realize that that’s cause for reflection. Clich├ęd as it sounds—staring at that map suddenly brought me face-to-face with the past and a life lived, for the most part, at full throttle.

It’s hard to ignore the message of You Are Here—cosmically, it’s almost an order to take time to slow down, look back, take stock of one’s life and decisions so far. All of it: the choices, the triumphs, the defeats, the smart moves and the mistakes, and everything in between. Oh—but not right now!!! I have to get to Gate 86! Daunting as that countdown was through the Abu Dhabi airport, I realized I needed to carve out some time sometime to think about that other race, the race through life. As we all come to terms at various points in life, I accept that only by recalling where I came from will I be able to see more clearly than ever where I am, who I am, and where I’m headed.

A half hour later I am nearing Gate 86, about to go through security again, and the sun has broken through the horizon. I can’t help but smile as I look out past the airport toward the expanse of wealthy Abu Dhabi—yes, when I glance over my shoulder at the expanse of airport territory I have just covered, all the way from the You Are Here sign to Gate 86, I smile, even laugh a little about the journey that morning, and the journey over the last 7 years in the Middle East. Maybe I will ponder that a little on the 14-hour flight to Chicago.

Of course if you have been a steady reader of this blog, this is where you might have a maddening impulse to yell at me through your computer: Okay, I get that you were momentarily lost in that airport, and then realized where you were, but where have you been the last 12 weeks!!!!! Yes, without so much as an announcement, a plan or decision, I have taken off the last 12 weeks (exactly I might add) from writing on the blog.  That is the longest break I have ever taken in the 89 months since I started the blog.  You might have wondered if I could have checked in, left a message, something.

I don’t know. I didn’t consciously abandon the blog. I did, however, have a more domestic lifestyle in the last three months that probably ate into the blog-writing time. My friend and educational soul-mate of 20 years, Christy Folsom, came to Jordan for three months while on her sabbatical and worked here. We fell into a typical domestic pattern of cooking, cleaning, washing, spending time like a comfortable married couple (don’t even—long ago I said that homicide is a distinct possibility if that ever happened). So all the time I might have written blog entries about the fun Saturdays in Amman, or the insights in human nature, the spa days, the sharing of insights and epiphanies, all of that got rolled into domestic existence and a kind of bliss that had never had much traction for me in Jordan.

So Christy is gone, the will to think and articulate what is going on, where I have been, where I might be headed, all studded with family reminiscences, show tunes, and sit-com references…it’s back. I missed the blog. I just needed another hour in every day. I love teaching about writing and I love the process myself. Of course, as Oprah explained, (by way of the original speaker, Ben Franklin) that she/he wrote to know what she/he thought (the ambisexual reference is if we look to Oprah or Ben). Writing allows you the space to sit down and open yourself up to the memories. It’s about retracing your steps to gain a deeper understanding of the journey.

Without question there have been highs and lows this autumn term. But as in any journey, life is not really about arriving at that one spot marked You Are Here.  It’s about all the choices and excitement and frustrations and challenges and triumphs you experience in getting there and about the consequences of those choices.

Okay, for what it’s worth, universe: I’m back.  I am here, and will be back in touch again soon.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Voluptuous Panic

Sometime over the summer, I don’t know where or when, I heard someone say that they operated in a world of “voluptuous panic.” I found that a delicious phrase and I couldn’t wait to find a use for it once I got back to blog-writing.

I have been back in Jordan for over three weeks, have started to write a blog entry a dozen times, but the beginning of the school year, going from the slumberous summer days to school daze really does fit the bill for voluptuous panic.

I decided to do a little etymological digging, because that word ‘voluptuous’ implies a saucier adjective than I might normally use to modify the noun ‘panic.’ But when you look a little in the on-line sources, you find that voluptuous comes from an Old French word for “full of pleasure and delight,” and linked to the word for ‘wish.’ Hmmm…actually, that word fits very well for the ‘panics’ that creep in at the beginning of a school year for me.

I should state, for the record, that the beginning of this school year has seemed the calmest, strongest, and most stable in the 8 years of our little academy. So it isn’t ‘panic,’ with a capital P, but rather, all the hopes and wishes of an entire school year are wrapped up in the opening weeks of school. And if you have been a faithful reader of the blog, you know that I derive great pleasure and delight from school. So all my little panics are wrapped up in the voluptuous hopes of the school year…

So what have I been doing since I arrived 25 days ago? Let’s review the exciting days of late August and early September!

I never arrive back in Jordan with much time to spare. I stepped back on campus on a Tuesday evening and 12 hours later I was at meetings with the school’s senior staff, looking at the entire year, checking on calendars, talking goals and expectations, and jumping into the minutiae of new faculty orientation. We greeted 25 new members of the faculty, showing them around Jordan, engaging in discussions about teaching, about the nature of the project of our little academy. It was exciting to see them again—I had interviewed almost all of them and it was fun to see them gel and cohere together as a group. We had dinners every night—fancy dinners to acclimate them to Jordanian food and hospitality, discussions about their babies, their textbooks, their hopes and dreams of journeying to Jordan, always taking me back seven years to when I first arrived and the school opened for the first time. I tried an unusual exercise with them one day to see how they would do in a group setting, dependent on seeking out answers and fitting pieces puzzle pieces together. And they did marvelously, transcending a break-the-ice game and working to solve the puzzle. That is my theme this year for the faculty—will you be the piece that completes the puzzle that is King’s Academy??

The four days with the new faculty ran smoothly and served as confirmation that we had hired faculty with intelligence, grace, humor, stamina and grit. As I worked with them I remembered the exciting interviews that led us to offer them contracts, eager to see them with our students very soon. I guess I say this every year, but this group seems especially strong and congenial. It is a panic, a voluptuous panic, watching all these disparate people come from around the world and settle in.

Then the returning faculty descended on campus. About fifty of them came back on my first Monday back, and off we went to race through all the orientation process. Our leader and headmaster, truly worthy of the label ‘fearless,’ decided that we should not sit and just hear speeches all day, but that we should engage in small-group discussions and conversations about pedagogy and critical thinking and the mission of the school. Each table group chatted away, new people contributing and sharing freely, and within a few hours, a new faculty had been born. We had honed the questions, trying to think of the best ways to shake off the summer doldrums and rev back into the overdrive that is school. Again, little nettles of voluptuous panic poked at me, and each day, another exciting day watching a faculty settle in.

Wave after wave of people came in—the student proctors returned to campus, followed by the couple hundred new students, and finally, all the hundreds of returning students. Each day the now well-oiled machine of orientation kicked into higher gear, absorbing more people, but kindness and civility ruled, and each day, each department seemed ready to tackle all the burdens and moving parts in our organization.

One of my responsibilities is the Teaching Fellow program. We invite about 8-9 young teachers each year, kids fresh out of college, and I set up a seminar hoping to send them off to classes armed with ideas, insights, tips, strategies and techniques to find success. This is the fourth year that I have been at the helm of the seminar, and each summer I totally revamp the way I will run the seminar. It is an interesting and scary mission—trying to think of the multifarious things to equip these talented young people with the right amount of knowledge and faith to teach effectively. They are bound to make some mistakes—hey, isn’t that half the fun???—but it is so rewarding watching them grow in these first few months. But talk about a voluptuous panic!!!!! What should be the first thing you tell them? What should be the warnings? The trumpet sounds of joy? How can you talk about teaching and not sound utterly sentimental? Do you discuss classroom management first? Do you share your horror stories first, second or third?????? What a delicious panic stew ordering this seminar and seeing how it should work!

This year another little feature of the voluptuous panics is that my friend, and education soul mate, Christy Folsom, has arrived for the fall term. Christy is on sabbatical from Lehman College in New York, and has come to work with the faculty for the next 100 days. It is a bit of a panic in that I know of her brilliance and I hope she works as well as she might here, coaching and mentoring faculty as they search for a higher level of effectiveness.

There are always the voluptuous panic swoons about new things—new courses, new directions, new adjustments. Each year one must adjust to students who have graduated and faculty who have departed. This year I have the unprecedented newness of launching a radical new AP course, called the Capstone, which is unlike any other kind of AP course that the College Board has designed in its history. AND I have the exciting, delightful, pleasurable panic of inaugurating our faculty appraisal system. We have spent several years methodically studying and working on a system, evolving into one that truly does seem predicated on growth and renewal. Oh, but the voluptuous panic stings over that!

I can’t remember a school year that started without pangs. I remember writing a letter to a friend in 1996, as I started working in New York at Hackley, in which I hoped I wouldn’t be discovered as a fraud. I don’t think that’s it—I think it is as simple as I love this career path so much and set such high hopes and wishes each year, and hope to match and even surpass each year’s delight and work.

But there have been a few lapses into a nostalgia trap in the last three weeks as well. At the beginning of the second week here, I paused on August 20th, to remember the birthday of Casey Brown. Casey graduated from Charlotte Latin in 1993, having been in my AP Modern European class, and starred in several of my plays, most legendarily as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  By any account I would ever give, Casey ranks among the most colorful, fiercely brilliant, and charismatic students I have known. Sadly, in 1995, he took his own life. Rarely has a month gone by that I haven’t thought of him for one reason or another. But this August 20th I paused to remember that Casey would have turned 40 this year. I couldn’t help but think of what we would be like as friends had he lived. There is always that panic about a student you love and worry about.

I also got a little caught up in an alumni magazine from Hackley this weekend, reading all the Class Notes, remembering the faces and triumphs and panics of that school. I don’t think of Hackley very often, but this was a lovely reminder of that important and bittersweet chapter of my life.

But when all these voluptuous panics mount, threatening to become real panics, I do stop and marvel at the beauty of the people around me. I am a bit of a novelty in the faculty since I am the American who has stayed the longest at our school. Several of the new people asked me what has kept me here. I started to say, “Oh, the students are wonderful.” And they are. But I have found the students in each of my four schools in which I have taught to be wonderful. I have stayed here because of the team I work with, the inspiring adults I call colleagues and friends. Never in any of my schools have I worked with such a dedicated group of educators who take on the voluptuous panics of this kind of school and continue to grow and improve. I stay because I am willing to take on all of these little stinging panics of a new school year since we back each other up kindly and with integrity and honor.

Oh, I know…it’s school time again, and here is Idealistic Johnny waxing on and on about a perfect work place. I didn’t say that. And there are those little attacks every day if I am going to get it right. But again, I work with a team of visionaries who make the panics as voluptuous as imaginable. I wish it so for everyone.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Sondheim-ian Summer

The summer of 2014 is winding down…I have one last lazy summer afternoon, today, and then tomorrow I board the planes to Chicago and then Amman, back to school.

Don’t get me wrong—I love school, but there is something precious about summer, and I pack my summers full of visiting friends and family, long diner mornings with my dad, and happy reading on the front porch.

Last week someone asked what my summers were like, and I almost answered, “Well, schizophrenic, I guess.” Parts of the summer are jam-packed and busy every minute, with the hustle and bustle of travel, and some parts are those kind of summer lingers, shopping with coupons at Kroger’s, discovering new books at my public library where I have gone since birth, and leisurely watching old episodes of Monk or Columbo with my dad.

In honor of the upcoming film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway show, Into The Woods, I have been humming some of the songs from this show, and I realized that a line from one of those Sondheim songs summed up my schizophrenic summers:

            “Must it all be either less or more

Either plain or grand?

Is it always or?

Is it never and?

I kind of approach my life from a place of and! It is frenetic at times, and leisurely at times as it almost feels time stands still. My first day back in Cincinnati was a jam-packed day starting with visiting my dad’s diner, The Imperial, and then going shopping at Findlay Market with Sylvia, my Cincinnati wife, as she calls herself. I visited with my KA friend Sue who is in town grading AP tests. Then I end the day celebrating with Doris, a childhood friend turning 50. A good showing from our high school class was there to welcome another friend into the 50 Club…and of course, how many times that evening did someone say, Where has the time gone?

I endured 10 flights this summer as I flew to New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Disney World, and Dallas…sometimes to a professional conference, sometimes to a new place to enjoy, sometimes to an old place…and then ending with a relaxing and busy 16 days in Cincinnati.

One night in July, Sylvia and I went to the beautiful Music Hall in downtown Cincinnati to see the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Silent Night, a new opera about the true story of the Christmas truce of 1914, when World War I soldiers came out of their trenches on the Western Front to celebrate Christmas Eve together in no-man’s land. This terrific cast of singing actors worked with this glimmering, hauntingly beautiful score by Kevin Puts so well, and the staging was also beautiful as it allowed us to care deeper and deeper about these characters. Kevin Puts, a youngish man, came and spoke to a group before the performance to explain some of the compositional choices he made in creating this piece. In a world that still struggles with war—a full hundred years after the start of the “Great War,” Silent Night is a work that resonates as a reminder of war’s human toll.

While a good deal of my reading this summer was about the new AP Capstone course I will be teaching this year (I will talk about this in an upcoming blog entry) my favorite book of the summer turned out to be an unexpected delight. I had a tall stack for the summer to read, but my niece Emma added one more book to the towering pile. Emma’s Catholic Girl’s High School had assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the entire school community. She asked me if I would read the book so we could talk about it. I read the book on the long flights to and from Hong Kong, and I loved the mix of themes in this book. If you have not read the book yet, run and get yourself a copy! Henrietta Lacks died of cancer at the age of 32, a seemingly unimportant African-American woman. Before she died, doctors harvested cells from Henrietta’s body that have proved to be the biggest Rock Star cells in the history of medicine. The book is about the author’s quest to learn more about this mundane mother who left children and a legacy of miracle cells that have helped the research community over the last half-century come closer to solving some of the most vexing problems in medical history. I loved the convergence of scientific research issues, medical ethics, and the sociology of race and poverty in 20th century America. The author inspired you to care deeply about the woman behind the famous HeLa cells, and care and wonder about her family, and the legacy of Lacks’ early death. Great book!

I caught up with old friends over breakfasts and ice cream visits. I also saw 5 friends from childhood—none of whom have I seen in over 30 years! I met up with Laura, a church and high school friend, at Doris’ 50th party; I drove 50 miles to meet Sharon, my senior prom date; in New York, I had coffee twice with Cate, a friend with whom I did plays with Sarah Jessica Parker on the Showboat Majestic in Cincinnati in the late 1970s; and the other day, I had Graeter’s ice cream with Kathy (a friend from Kindergarten through 12th grade) and Molly (a friend from 4th through 12th grade). There were days of appointments and busy To Do Lists, and then there was the laziest day of the summer, a Sunday afternoon and evening picnic at cousin Tom and Kathi’s house. Perfect weather, no family dramas unravelling, and just sitting and enjoying a memorable, perfectly leisurely day.

In many ways, summer for teachers is more than just a break from the gerbil-wheel pace of a harried school year. These breaks are opportunities to recharge and restore one’s psyche. The calmer pace allows questions and wonderings, not just about dinner, but about what it is all about. It meaning Life. I spent time this summer with Anne and Judy, two friends who have kept me on track for years. Just as the Kevin Puts opera can turn on a dime from a battle scene, with its cacophony of dissonances, edgy intervals, and machine gun sounds, to moments of serene, lyrical beauty, a summer allows the quick change from running into museums  and then introspectional time for reflections about the passage of time, the joy of laughter, and the great tastes of pancakes and sausage.

Ever since Facebook allowed us to find people with greater ease, I have tried to find some people I had lost along the journey. I certainly had the appointments with my regulars, but I saw those old lost friends, and each time this summer those reunions held laughter and affection about the transactional moments of childhood friendship. While we are all 50, there was something so joyous and youthful about these tete-a-tetes.

Such reunions make some people nervous. After all, are these visits just sentimental clap-trap and nostalgia traps? Just last week, outside of Facebook, Jim McIntosh, a treasured colleague in my first year of teaching found me after a decade of being lost from each other. Thousands of miles separate us, but the warmth and wonder of this important youthful friendship brought back memories and keeps me grounded today.

So as summer fades away, and the excitement for the new school year mounts, I think about another Stephen Sondheim show, Follies. This is a strange show for me to reference after all these happy memories of summer reunions since this show, while about the past catching up with the present, it is bitter and cynical. 

But that is just the show at its surface—underneath it is a meditation about how we change, reconciling who we thought we were then, who we are now, what we hoped for then and what we’re stuck with now…not so simple, not so black and white. Follies is a sober look at those reality checks. My summer was light, happy, and wonderfully connected from my past to my present.

As I return to Jordan for Year #8, I am amazed and grateful for these friendships and moments to treasure. Plain and grand. A very and summer…

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I Broke Up With My Barber

When I return to Jordan in a few days—for my 8th year at KA—there is one ritual that I will not be repeating. I will not be going back to my barber Edris. Sigh. You see, this spring I broke up with my barber after 7 years.

Hey, don’t laugh! That’s a pretty big deal! Edris had been my only barber in Jordan, and while students and ex-pat teachers have come and gone at our campus, Edris had been a constant for my entire tenure in Jordan. I combed through the early blog entries from August, 2007, and found one about my introduction to Edris, lo those many years ago:

There is an electrician on campus named Fadi, and he and I have talked a bit in the last week, and he lives in nearby Madaba. Fadi said we should get together sometime. As I hope I have made clear, Jordanians are immeasurably friendly. I asked him he if he could take me to a barber, so I could have a good cut before the students arrive.
Going to a new barber is fraught with tension in the best of circumstances, like when you speak the language. So today when Fadi met me to take me to Madaba, he first wanted to go on a field trip to Mount Nebo and enjoy the view. I reminded him that I had a meeting at 6, and a fancy dinner at 7 to celebrate the beginning of student orientation tomorrow.

Fadi drives like a madman—heck, driving in Jordanian seems to be utterly rule-less. There are no lanes, as I can tell, and people just try to get where they are going expeditiously. As we enter Madaba I tell him about the grid system of the streets in New York City above 14th street, and he thinks that is ridiculous. The roads in Madaba just go everywhere and anywhere and in my mind nowhere.

We end up at Fadi’s friend, the barber, and away we go. Every five minutes Fadi asks me if I like how the haircut is going. The guy does a great job, and washes the hair at the end. Now that does make more sense, doesn’t it? You don’t leave with all those hairs in your inner ear.
Before heading back to campus Fadi takes me to his house for tea. Fadi comes from a family of 12 children, and I meet a couple of them (or they are nephews or, I don’t know Bedouin cousins or something). One guy raises sheep and has between 300-600 sheep he tends. Just not at teatime I guess.

Anyway, my real point in telling the haircut story is that it was another “package” of sorts—spending time with generous Fadi, not quite knowing what this package would entail, and utterly reveling in a kind man’s friendship.

I kept returning to Edris for haircuts, even after Fadi and his friend Edris had a falling out, and Fadi told me, “You should not go there now. He is a bad man.” When I got a car I figured out how to maneuver the crazy streets of Madaba and knew how to get to that barber shop on the far side of town. While there are dozens and dozens of barbers in Madaba, I remained loyal to Edris.  Over the years I have said that going to see Edris was my most Jordanian thing I did—few of the guys speak English there, and they bicker and yell about politics, down cups of coffee, smoke, and hang out. One man even offered to sell me his sister. I swear it.  I learned a few months in that I should call in advance for an appointment since Edris came and went to his barber shop all day long. After I gave up my car, it took a little more effort either to borrow a car or take a taxi to see Edris. I would walk in his place, and he would beam and shout my name (and offer me tequila).

So why the break-up??? Well, this past spring Edris was more erratic about his appointments and keeping them and being at the shop, even after a pre-arranged time. It steamed me that he was a little too cavalier about my business and loyalty, and I walked out one time. He didn’t show up at all one day, and then once I was 10 minutes late, and he made me wait almost an hour. So I decided to break up with him. Of course he doesn’t know it.

But as I noted in August, 2007: Going to a new barber is fraught with tension in the best of circumstances, I didn’t look forward to starting all over with a new barber. A young teacher, Daniel, suggested I try Eyad, his barber. I didn’t know. But I needed a haircut and I knew I had to break it off with Edris cold turkey. I tried Eyad, and he did right by me. He was nice, a little tentative, pleasing, happy to see me at the next visit, knew what I wanted, remembered my name and seemed glad to see me…exactly what you want with a new barber.

You know, back in June, when I first thought I would do a blog entry about my new barber, I thought I would be cute and compare the old/new barber with Israeli-Palestinian history. But then as the summer unfolded, and the crisis in Gaza deepened, it seemed tacky and insensitive to make some light, clever comparisons between the two. I don’t know if a day has gone by this summer without someone asking me about my safety in the region, shaking their head about the endless, incomprehensible conflict we have seen played out on our TV screens this summer.

Of course, none of the coverage has been particularly deep, or enlightening. The news reports have played out as we have understood them to be for years and years. Hmmmm….and practically no “gray” at all in this affair.

Last week, David Brooks wrote a thoughtful analysis of the conflict entitled “No War Is An Island,” piercing our facile understanding and showing layers upon layers inside the vortex, emphasizing that this conflict should not be seen in a vacuum, it is not the same as it has been before, and we need to look more at Arab tensions to better understand it. One of his most prescient points was that Turkey and Qatar have backed Hamas in large part to give them the upper hand in their struggles with Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Brooks suggesting that they (T&Q)  might even hope Israel does okay in this so they can maintain that upper hand…) Oh, the more things change…yep.

As people have asked me my opinion—yes, some have asked, and I don’t just shove my opinion in the diners’ faces (oh, the rhetoric at the Imperial Diner every morning!!) I have explained there is a strange symmetry in the Israeli-Hamas Summer of ’14 disaster (now, this is looking at the conflict more in a vacuum, but just to isolate their respective needs). The symmetry is that both sides have things that they are right about. Israel is right that it should not be subjected to wanton bombings and kidnappings. Palestine, according to the UN, and many, many thoughtful people around the world, has a right to exist as a state, and even if you do not aver, they are right in that they should be able to exist and have businesses and not be treated as 2nd class citizens.

There is a symmetry that both are right about some things. And there is a symmetry in that neither side seems to allow that the other side could ever possibly be right! This is a painful symmetry where each side says there is no symmetry at all. So there is a collision in this symmetry. Hamas is too violent, and Israel undermines peace. Another level of symmetry.

But of course, this conflict cannot be seen in a vacuum. Hamas has more than Israel in its sights: I think Hamas is aiming its discord at Cairo as well, and it becomes all muddled with issues of control and even Arab against Arab tensions.

Here is where, in a more perfect Seinfeld-ian blog entry, I would weave the story of my break-up with Edris and point out the similarities from my little mundane world with this Middle Eastern crisis. But it’s just not that easy. The more you unravel the crisis, the less manageable it seems. That is of course why diplomacy has failed. That is why, perhaps, non-violence is tossed aside as an option, and invasions and rockets are cheered on many sides. Does it explain our Attention Deficit Disorder with the Syrian civil war and the fact that 170,000 Syrians have died in the last couple years? The crisis in Gaza has been like Groundhog Day and we may not even be aware we are watching the same movie over and over. But wait, it’s not quite the same. Maybe it’s almost as confusing as the films Being John Malkovich or Memento?!

Would that this story could end a little more like my thoughts on Edris, a nice guy I visited a couple times a month for seven years, then found a new barber in Eyad and all is well again in the Land Of Receding Hairlines for Middle-Aged Teachers. But of course, Edris doesn’t even know I “broke up” with him. He may even wonder if I will pop in again and make things right.  Hmmm…sounds like peace brokers for the Middle East…

Where is the symmetry now? If we see the symmetry, what do we do next? Where and how can a breakthrough emerge?


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Say what you might…

There are detractors out there…and you may be one of them. Well, to confess, this past month my family went back to Walt Disney World for the 7th time in 10 years. Yes, we went again! And as I told various people of my summer plans, more than a few winced, and said, “you’re going again??” with a heavy emphasis on the ‘again.’ Yes, we went again, and for those who know our family well, my sister loves Disney World (did I  put enough emphasis on the verb in that sentence??) and our family enjoys going.

The detractors out there—and WDW does seem to be as polarizing as almost anything else (Obamacare anyone??) with legions of fans and legions of detractors. Some do not like the MMMM (I made that one up, for you detractors out there, and it stands for Mickey-Mouse-Money-Machine) and some think the park and its attractions are delusional, or vapid, or…do you detractors need any more help???

But I gotta say, while I may have chosen another destination for our family (we could walk through the Disney properties blind-folded and successfully reach the next stop on the itinerary), I am not unhappy that my family makes its Pilgrimage to Magic (another designation I just created!) so frequently. I love studying the success of the place.

First, for those wondering why my family frequents the Orlando park so often: besides the obvious reasons that it is family-friendly, a known quantity, and on and on, I have referred to WDW as “my sister’s fur coat.” My sister does not actually own a fur coat, but like anyone who enjoys luxury and comfort, WDW, and specifically where we always stay at the Polynesian resort right on the Disney property (no, she does not want any suggestions of where and how to stay cheaper in Orlando!) her vacation plans for her family at WDW are a source of enjoyable, indulgent luxury and comfort—much like a beautiful and treasured fur coat. Elizabeth arrives at the Polynesian, on the Magical Express (seriously, that is what WDW calls their easy airport pick-up service) and for her the luxury and comfort and enjoyment begins…

My family went to WDW once when I was little—when I was 9. I went again at the age of 39, and we have since been going more regularly than Audra Macdonald wins Tony Awards (for those non-Broadway fans, she has won 6, and we have gone to WDW 7 times in the “modern” era. For the serious Broadway fan, Audra has won those 6 awards over 19 years, and my family has gone, again, 7 times in the last 10!). But each time that I go, while I know what to expect, I come away with appreciation and awe for the imagination, design, and forward-thinking of the Disney experience.

Forward-thinking??? Oh, you detractors think you are so smug out there, sighing with ennui that Disney is the same in the 21st century that it was in the 1970s. Au contraire, to quote one of the dishes from the Beauty and the Beast new restaurant experience called “Be My Guest.” I would argue, and even with those Broadway junkies who know everything au courant (I can’t seem to get the Candlesticks out of my head!!) and who could not possibly concede that WDW is forward-thinking. On one of the days of our trip I specifically looked at the parks and the attractions for what is theatrically forward-thinking (and not just focus on thrill-seeking, as my excited 12-year old nephew does on the Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror) and makes the experience even more enjoyable. Here are my findings:
      Disney is a leader in piquing the olfactory sense. When you attend Disney’s Philharmagic 3-D experience, or Epcot’s Soarin’, one of the important elements of satisfaction is the olfactory design and all the pleasant smells on the journey. If you attend Animal Kingdom’s “Bug’s Life” you even have the purposefully unpleasant odor of squished bugs. This spring, Audra Macdonal (you knew there must be a link, didn’t you??) uses a purposefully powerful perfume on stage in her portrayal of Billie Holliday. All those theatergoers sitting up close and personal in the simulated bar area get to smell and enjoy the reverie and enhance the performance. Where might we go next?

      Walt Disney pioneered those human-animatronic-robots, starting with his Hall of Presidents (I have actually heard people say. “That couldn’t possibly be Andrew Jackson, could it???” Um. No.) and extending through to the great Hollywood Studios “Great Movie Ride” that mixes real people with those simulated robots and they get more and more sophisticated all the time.

     Seriously, more people should go to the live shows at WDW. I went to Finding Nemo and in 40 minutes they told the story, had great songs and dances, creative costumes, and these performers are doing 7-8 performances  a day!! Here you have the whole Disney shebang, the powerful narrative with emotional connections, songs and dances, production design, and yes, an opportunity to buy gifts in the shop on the way out. No one puts a gun to your head to buy! But back to forward-thinking…WDW has pioneered an audience interaction that is exciting. You can have a conversation with Crush, a cartoon character, up on the screen as a cartoon. I don’t want to think too hard to how they do this, but this cartoon can engage the audience, speak to people and respond, and each performance will be unique, organic, and up-to-the-minute funny and touching. Disney magic…

Nephew Jack rode the “Tower of Terror” three times (thank you concept of “reward-the-planner” FastPass!) and while earlier I said he was a thrill-seeker only, in the time Jack and I rode it together, he and I took our time in the build-up and set-up of the attraction. The “Tower of Terror” is set in an old abandoned Hollywood hotel, circa 1939. As we made our way through the hotel (a creative and expensive way to keep patrons “in line”) Jack joined me in noticing the details that they chose to create the image of a 1939 hotel. He looked at the old book ledgers, all the knick knacks and we happily discussed how these details created the experience and enriched the narrative. Yeah, he totally enjoyed the “ride” part of it, but he didn’t mind indulging me in enjoying those theatrical details.

Is WDW perfect? Well, one of the new rides, the Snow White roller-coaster with the dwarves’ diamond mines, is a hot ticket but ultimately did not satisfy us enough. Somehow they neglected to emphasize all the strong narrative as wekk successfully as they usually do. It was more just a ride than an enhancement of a beloved story. It was an interesting exercise to critique the attraction as a family.

Ultimately, I do not mind going back to WDW, and while some of you detractors might yawn and say, “same old, same old” about our frequent treks to the humid, former swamps of Orlando, these trips act as a marker of time as well. Think back to when you were children and on birthdays you eagerly stood by the family room wall where the markings of height, and the passage of time chronicled your growth and siblings’ growth. These trips to WDW do the same for my family. A decade ago, Emma was in full-princess mode as she crept closer to age 6, and Jack was just past 2, and the WDW experience captivated them both. Here they are, a decade later, still captivated, but of course, in different ways. Each trip I take a movie of the family, interviewing them, trying to capture those wonderful big and small moments as they get wrapped up in the Disney theatrical machine. If we edited all those films together, it would resemble the current film, Boyhood a little as that film peruses through a real child’s real coming of age. The magic still lures and delights.

This year we stopped by the WDW HR department, called of course, the Chamber of Commerce, and wrote compliments about the five employees who most exceeded our expectations and charmed us. WDW is known for great service, and while not every employee is perfect, the very best employees struck me as similar to great teachers. A great teacher’s exuberance is palpable, even contagious, transcends the multiple times one has perhaps taught the same lesson, and personally thrilled when the transaction and experience is joyful. It is not easy to deal with frustrated students/park-goers, but the wonder, the magic is still possible.

You know it must be time to start thinking about school again if it all becomes an analogy of the teaching process!

Say what you might—the expense, the song of “It’s A Small World,” the familiar surroundings of the Polynesian, the why don’t you guys try some place else???? questions—but the family came home happy, planning the next trip to Disney, and…speaking to each other still after 24/7. Wow.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hey, Diogenes! I got one right here!!

For the first time in a number of years I get to spend Father’s Day with my father, Ken Leistler. Now I know practically everyone else feels they might have a monopoly on “the best dad,” but I want to cast a vote for my father as an admirable and good man.
I mentioned to him that I was going to write a blog post about him, and he said with characteristic modesty and charm, "Now don't go on and on like you usually do."  'Nuff said. I will be brief!

I have extolled his salt-of-the-earth and straightforward virtues before, but I want to highlight just a few qualities I most admire about him in an otherwise short-but-sweet blog post.

Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher, spent a lifetime in search of honesty and concluded that an honest man could not be found.  Of all my father’s traits, I may be most in awe of his honesty and integrity. My father has said that “honesty is not the best policy—it is the only policy.” There are countless paintings of Diogenes with his lantern searching for that elusive honest man. Here he is, buddy.

The other night my dad and I were out to dinner with two of my cousins and their wives. As we talked about various things over the course of the evening, one cousin’s wife leaned in to me and remarked quietly, “You know Kathi and I have talked from time to time about how your father loved your mother. We could only wish to be loved in the same way,” she marveled. I know that those cousins are indeed loving husbands, but I treasured how their wives looked at my father and his capacity to love in a very special way.

Look up at the photo from around 1971—I am now 10 years older than my father was in that photo, but I don’t know if I could ever master many of the things he has in his lifetime.

Finally, if you were to look through my Bible, there is an old bulletin saved from a church service in New York from about a decade ago. The sermon title from that day reads “The Grip Of A Loving God,” and I saved it in large part because the sermon title reminded me of my father and his relationship with those for whom he has cared and protected. There has always been a strength about him, and always a tenderness in his love for his family. I have been in the grip of this loving man's arms for fifty years.
Brevity--nice to meet you!  Happy Father's Day...