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?