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…