Thursday, April 30, 2015

Some Other Time...



When was the last time you sat down and listened to a CD?
I know just using the moniker ‘CD’ reveals my Jurassic age. We are an MP3 world or Shuffle Song world, or many other jazzy names that I do not even know.
 
Anyway, back to my question: when was the last time you sat down and listened to a CD?
 
At the end of what has been a kinda stressful week, I decided to get a CD I had bought back in the USA over Spring Break, a CD of the 2014-15 Broadway revival of On The Town, a show I saw in the fourth row back in January (and for $69 a seat, what is now a steal for a Broadway show) and loved. This afternoon I thought—no one needs you for an hour or so. Just listen…don’t multi-task, don’t put it on the ipod and shuffle.  Just sit there with the warm Jordanian breeze blowing in the window, and just listen to the music…

What a beautiful recording. And full of memories of a magical January day in my favorite city on earth. The sound was glorious—and why wouldn’t it be?  The producers of this revival have sprung for a 28-piece orchestra.

A little context for those of you who do not know this 1944 gem of a show. On the Town is a show about young people written by young people. Twenty-somethings put this show together in 1944, the year after the revolutionary musical Oklahoma!   Brash, young dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins created a ballet called Fancy Free, about three sailors on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple.  Brash, young composer Leonard Bernstein provided the music. The ballet found success and these two creative types decided to turn the ballet into a Broadway musical comedy. Robbins and Bernstein met up with brash, young writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green and they all created On The Town. Their youthful exuberance and unyielding optimism would prove some of the most infectious components in On the Town. I had seen a revival production in 1998 that been very good, but not great. As I listened to this CD it was clear how great this production is and sharp the score is. Bernstein infused the score with a pulsing insistence that captured both the ticking-clock of the story's premise and the ever-changing beat of the city.

What pleasures as I lay on the couch this afternoon bathing in the brassy fullness captured on the CD.

This recording (and the revival itself) opens with a delicious nod to history. During World War II, many Broadway musicals dispensed with overtures and chose to substitute “The Star Spangled Banner.” That glorious 28-piece orchestra transports us to that wartime context, invoking the powers of patriotism and nostalgia with their splendid rendition and powerful singing.  This opening is followed by the gentle and lazy melody of “I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet,” sung by a quartet of workmen who help us register how early in the morning it is. They sing it as a morning lullaby, their voices blending in exquisite, tranquil harmonies. The muted sounds of dawn are quickly dashed, however, when our three central sailors, the poetic hayseed Gabey, the eager and nerdy Chip and the libidinous Ozzie, burst onto the scene ready for 24 hours of shore leave in “New York, New York.” This explosion of energy and melody gets our hearts beating along with the throbbing cadence of On the Town. From this point forward, we are on a musical rocket that propels us (and the boys) on a 24-hour whirlwind adventure.

Each sailor sets off on their own journey, and each finds a lady along the way. Of the three duos, the most fun are Chip and the lustful cabdriver Hildy. His need to see every landmark in his guidebook is interpreted with dorky cluelessness and a charming earnestness who proves a comedic asset to both the production and this recording. He is equally matched with the zesty performance of Hildy in “Come Up to My Place,” a tour-de-force comedy duet, one of the best ever written for the musical theatre. Chip climbs into her cab and proceeds to insist on seeing landmarks that no longer exist. She provides titillating alternatives, the destination: always her apartment. Hildy drips with both sexuality and comedic desperation, her smoky voice lending itself adeptly to humor in both this number, and her sassy raison d'etre “I Can Cook, Too,” equivocating her skills in the kitchen with her talents in the boudoir. She has a one-track mind.

Gabey is off to find “Miss Turnstyles,” known as Ivy Smith, the monthly winner of a city-wide beauty contest whose picture he has seen plastered on the subway walls. It's a palpable longing that pours out of Gabey as he conveys Gabey's shy reticence and deeply felt ache where matters of the heart are concerned. You can almost buy that ‘love at first sight’ is possible and has indeed infected this poor idealist.

Ozzie finds his heart is quickly won over by anthropologist Clare de Loone when they bump into each other at the Museum of Natural History in front of a caveman exhibit. The two are a peculiar matching, but somehow their worlds collide and their baser instincts ignite in the Neanderthal-inspired “Carried Away,” a comic duet that is sung with verve and abandon.

But towards the end of the CD, and thus, of course, towards the end of the show is the song that roused tears in my eyes at the performance, and this afternoon as well as dusk settled in. The song “Some Other Time” just got me. During the performance I remembered a conversation I had had that week in January with Peter Filichia, a theater critic and I guess my idol.  (The man sees between 300 and 350 shows a year. He loves the theater! He has made a career as a critic.) But that morning when we met for coffee, he lamented that very few Broadway shows make an “emotional connection” anymore.  He misses the “Golden Age” when that was part and parcel of a great show.

This afternoon as the song played, and the guys knew their 24 hour leave was coming to an end, they sang with a touch of regret and resigned acceptance as they summed up the day's adventures each couple making their sad goodbyes. This was a genuine-theatrical emotional connection. Here are the words from the spunky writing duo Comden and Green:

"Some Other Time"

Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

This day was just a token
Too many words are still unspoken
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

Just when the fun is startin'
Comes the time for partin'
But let's just be glad for what we've had
And what's to come

There's so much more embracin'
Still to be done but time is racin'
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

There's so much more embracin'
Still to be done but time is racin'
Oh well, we'll catch up some other time

 

 
Not only did the performers make an emotional connection in this song, but it hit me how this song, or certainly that last phrase, is my feeling when I am in the USA before leaving. Not true sadness and certainly not tragic, but a beautiful sigh about time well spent, and about how I will have to leave loved ones again, and how do we part?

What a great way to spend 70 minutes of time…listening to the gorgeous sounds, melodies, voices and orchestrations. Certainly thinking about the US friendships, far away in miles, but how in only about five weeks I will be back there, and then, yes, at the end of the summer, I will sigh and utter the classic words, we’ll catch up…some other time.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

What about the North?

 


This morning I turned on the news, and besides all the continued U.S. weather-related news, in the comfort of my 70 degree day in Jordan (sorry beloved friends in the US!) I saw a story about the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama.  Of course with the outstanding recent movie about the march this event had been on my mind anyway, but watching the footage and hearing of the exact day 50 years ago that the protestors were turned away as they marched across a bridge, I thought about my own slim connection to this event in Civil Rights history. I thought of co-teaching the Civil Rights Era course at Hackley in 1999-2000 with my friend Doris (one of the supremely gratifying moments in my teaching career). I thought of reading the memoir by Congressman John Lewis (the moving Walking With The Wind) and then meeting him in New York City in 2000. I thought of going to the city of Selma in 2003 with my indefatigable travel partner Anne and walking across the Pettus bridge with her, talking with people who were there that day, and driving through Lowndes County towards Montgomery. I thought of the conversations about race and rights I have had over the years. I thought of students and marchers, protestors and educators, all who have struggled to make sense of problems and equality and the memory and legacy of historical events. Yes, all in all, a pretty weighty think on this sunny day…

Slavery is universally condemned, but I thought about how the meaning of its legacy is still so contentious. I remember an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, maybe a decade ago, about the role New Yorkers had in the slave trade. So many slick New Yorkers walking through the excellent exhibit with that strange look on their face—you mean New York had slaves?  Until 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You mean New Yorkers were slave traders? You mean New Yorkers rioted in the hopes that slavery would not end??? I forget the year, but one year I assigned the provocative book, The Debt about Randall Robinson’s scorching argument that the United States owed blacks reparations. While I did not support the reparations movement, it certainly got ordinary people talking about race.  One parent said to me, “Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?”

Around the same time Brown University (one of my graduate schools) appointed Ruth Simmons as the first African-American Ivy League president. Here was a descendant of American slavery taking her place as the leader of a prestigious university. In her first year there was a debate on campus about reparations, and some students and most alumni opposed slave reparations. But there was debate! Simmons created a committee to discuss what role Brown University founders had to do with slavery. But wait—in the North? And Rhode Island of all places? This was a colony founded expressly to avoid the evils of slavery.

The committee researched and found what many had gossiped about: not only some of Brown’s founders owned slave ships but that slaves were among those who built University Hall. But the point was not, is not, to shame Brown University. However, last fall, as part of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Brown, they dedicated a new Slavery Memorial on the Front Green. Take a look above at the work by African-American sculptor Martin Puryear. As I ask in any class I teach with an art work, What do you see? This ductile-iron work depicts a broken chain rising from a half-buried dome. Hmmm… I went on-line to look at the images of the sculpture and I liked seeing it from many sides, up close, a little more perspective across the green, trying to see what the work would like going across campus on the way to class, home to study. The image suggests a ball and chain, but the broken link is polished to a mirror finish that reflects the sky, maybe an element of motion, surely glimmers of freedom and hope.  This minimalist memorial was also the brainchild of that committee started by Simmons, and they chose that 250th anniversary weekend to discuss and memorialize that part of the legacy Brown University played, perhaps more nuanced than the angry debates of 2001 over the reparations issue.

Brown has often thought of itself as forward-thinking and progressive, and I wonder what those debates felt like in 2001. I wonder what ideas Puryear went through and discarded as he worked in his commission to acknowledge and provoke us to think of the legacy of slavery. I love the buried half-dome of this sculpture, something that looks ancient and solid, of course, half-buried like the half-buried history of slavery itself, the unresolved tensions. I thought about the flack I took back in the late 80s when I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my U.S. History class in North Carolina. One family to whom I was particularly close, did not approve of my choice, and the grandmother of my student remarked to me, “That book, you know, made my grandmother lose her property.” Oh my…

I am sure there are those—all the time—who don’t quite know what the fuss is all about. Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown until 2012, always emphasized that while embracing her heritage, she never wanted to be measured as a black Ivy League president but as an Ivy League president. As an academic, she exhorted graduates every year with her mantra: “One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views.” Simmons hoped her place of employment, the alma mater of my A.M. degree, would research and discover what role slavery played in the founding of this university. What the committee reported was the observation, “What remains troubling about slavery…is the ease with which utterly reasonable, upright citizens decided to participate.” I can only imagine the burden that Mr. Puryear felt as he designed a memorial about the buying and selling of human lives. How can he use art to do justice to historic truth?

As I look at this sculpture, and read about the nearby (unseen above) engraved text on a stone plinth, I admire the work for not being polarizing. The text connects Brown’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and “the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island and the nation.” I read Puryear’s remarks at the dedication and he observed, “Those of us who can claim ancestry originating from Africa and the slave trade often have to struggle against a sense of shame from being descended from a people who were believed to deserve the treatment of being considered property to be bought and sold….The people who have descended from Europe, I think their struggle is not feel ashamed of a structure that privileged certain people for so many years at the expense of others. I think we are really much more family than people on two sides of a divide.”

I wish I had my copy of Lewis’ memoir here in Jordan so I could quote it, but I remember the conclusion of his book echoing some of that same sentiment as Mr. Puryear. I remember reading John Lewis’ book the week before I saw him speak. This memoir—more than other—made me cry. I cried for the suffering and hatred experienced by African Americans at the hands of Christian white people; cried for the depravity of heart and soul in those who inflicted such horrors upon others just because of the color of their skin; cried for the courage and hope of all the men and women who placed their lives at risk so that we might all be free of discrimination and segregation; cried for being inspired by those who came before me, with a newly found conviction to help people understand the legacy of these historical phenomena.

Last week at this time I was spending the afternoon with a group of Syrian refugee children who had come to campus to learn some English and play with some of our students who volunteer their time to work with these orphaned children.  These children were about aged 7-10 and I delighted in watching our students work with them. One of them, a boy named Walid, took a shine to me, and followed me around. We spoke in our broken Arabic/English, and I wondered what would happen to this charming yet somewhat neglected boy. Here is a young boy engulfed by the events around him—the civil war in Syria, ISIS and all that that mystery entails, certainly on a side in a conflict that many Americans don’t quite understand.  I am thinking of Mr. Puryear’s conclusion as I think and wonder about Walid: “I think we are really much more family than people on two sides of a divide.”

 

 


Friday, February 27, 2015

February Leftovers



Three weeks ago right now I was at the job fair in Cambridge, MA—the mother lode of recruiting fairs for international schools in the United States. We landed on the Wednesday narrowly avoiding the recent three-foot dump of snow on the Boston area.  We got there fine.  Two weeks ago right now we were at another recruiting fair, just across the Charles River in Boston, and again, that fair avoided another recent one-more-foot of snow. The day the fair ended another blizzard dumped two more feet of snow on the Boston area—cancelling my return flight. One week ago right now, just back from Boston, nearly a foot of snow fell in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan shut down for several days. These February leftovers are all about the weather.  When I wrote on Facebook about the “biblical-esque Epic Snowstorm” that left Boston with 8 feet of snow (now over 100 inches!) on the ground just in February alone I got an email from an old North Carolina friend who noted a verse from the Old Testament about weather: “God’s lightnings enlightened the world: the world saw, and trembled.”  (Psalms 97:4)

Weather may be the single most frequently discussed topic in the world. Certainly in New England this month that was a surefire ice-breaker conversation that never let you down. A decade ago when I lived in this lovely elderly Greek lady’s second-floor apartment, the weather was actually the only topic we could discuss since her English was limited, and my Greek was just a bunch of historical words from the writings of Sophocles, Homer, or Aristotle. In Jordan, the weather—be it the beastly heat of summer, or the surprise unexpected snowfalls that come once or twice a winter—the weather never lets you down for conversation.

Of course Facebook and its instantly posted photos allow us all to take in the varied, striking, magnificent beauty, and awesome power and destruction of weather. But in the days before social media diaries and sermons of centuries long past reliably featured weather as well and often weather as a spiritual matter. In just this century we have witnessed a tsunami of horrific proportions, deadly mudslides, rapacious wildfires, vicious tornadoes, and humongous hurricanes like buzz saws that appear out of nowhere, wreak their havoc, and then disappear. We are left to deal with the consequences.

Life upon this earth is lived with weather, reminding us of the fragility of our mortal lives and the transitory nature of whatever securities we treasure. Each day as I look at the news from the day before in the United States, the leading stories are about the February weather.

Should I tell you what today is like on this fine Friday afternoon in Jordan? It is sunny, in the 60s, blue skies, and trees are showing the first buds of spring.  But enough of the weather.  Surely there has to be more than just weather to discuss!

Let me return to the job fairs—these exhausting, interview-packed days meeting candidates, reading resumes and recommendations, judging and evaluating who will want to come to our school and best enrich our community. Two topics dominated the sign-ups at the job fairs this year: the New England weather and the news that was front and center about Jordan in the media. Oh yeah, that’s right. There was another thing in February. Just hours before I boarded the plane for Boston the news world pronounced the tragic death of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Mu’ath Kassasbeh at the hands of ISIS. I didn’t get to see the reactions in Jordan because I left just hours later for the job fairs—but the American news media portrayed the scenes and fearful possibilities for Jordan as apocalyptic in the news. Again, it was so difficult to know what was really the feeling in Jordan since I wasn’t there. Again, like with the weather, fragility and transitory themes resonated in my head.  I will come back to the story in an upcoming blog entry.

The news of Jordan affected our prospects with recruiting veteran teachers—when we left Jordan we had email correspondences all set up with 18 seasoned teachers to meet at the sign-ups of the first fair. None of the 18 showed at our table for the sign-ups (despite our having baklava for prospective candidates). That does not mean we did not have a slew of interviews—the buzz is good about our school and its young faculty, and we had college seniors and recent graduates signing up in droves for interviews. 

The most invigorating and fulfilling interviews were with extraordinary young women.  The young men paled in comparison to the young women. We several dozen—eager to teach, transform the world, smart, tenacious, you name it. So many of these young women passed my twin rules for interviewing: will I learn from you, and do I want to see you every day? Several candidates confessed that this was their dream job (I think the first time I heard that) and several genuinely moved to tears with a job offer. Two of them realized that this would be a hard topic for their families, and we invited their families to the hotel so we could meet them and talk with the,  Both families came with many questions (one family came bearing food!) and we spent about an hour with each family. In the end, both young women signed their proffered contracts.

For me the most moving thing about the job fairs has been the interaction between these young teacher wannabes and our veterans. Oh wait—that’s me! I’m the veteran, along with my job fair buddies and colleagues Lilli and John.  For so long, I was either the youngest one on a faculty or close to it; now I find myself at the opposite side of the spectrum. Shocking! These conversations are more than just interviews but very real exchanges between the generations. Here on campus I spend some of my day working with the 9 Teacher Fellows in our training program. Experience and a reassuring word are traded for a timely boost of energy or an inspiring new way to look at something. And once again we have real life reflecting the core of the weather message — life goes on, we experience the wonders of Nature, we learn from one another, and it's all as it should be.

When asked why I have stayed at this school in a volatile area of the world so long, I quoted Teddy Roosevelt, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I didn’t get to see the finale of the TV show Parks and Recreation, but I read about how the character of Leslie Knope quoted that 1903 line of Roosevelt and added her own twist, “Do the work worth doing with a team of people you love.”  When I think of the fragility and transitory nature of life in all its forms, I echo that wonderful assessment.


 

 

Monday, January 12, 2015

In the meantime…


 

During my recent winter break, which was just wonderful with two weeks in Cincinnati and one week in New York, an old friend asked me, “What is it like to go back and forth between this world and that world?” That is a fair question, although I think the sameness of the two worlds would probably astound some people—I neither live in a war zone nor do I go without western television much. This high school friend asked, “We enjoy your company, but in between your visits, we just go about regular life in the meantime.” I don’t even entirely understand what the observation means, and I don’t know why that last phrase stuck in my head—that in the meantime… But as I have enjoyed essentially three New Years’ (the actual one in Cincinnati celebrating at dear Sylvia’s house, the one in New York with all the artistic and theatrical revelry that I enjoy, and then another “New Year” when I returned to Jordan to teach for my 8th New Year at KA) I keep coming back to that phrase lolling about in my head. But back to the newness of the new year!! My, how we love a new year—isn’t that ‘blank slate’ thing just wonderful and intoxicating? Ah, but sadly it doesn’t take long for the blankness to go away, for the events of real life to mar the shiny newness of a new year. Last year it didn’t take long for the troops in Ukraine to surprise the world and ruin the perfection of a new year or the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, among other events. This year the tragic events in Paris have ended the revelry of the blankness, the newness of 2015. I am also awaiting news of a tragic car accident in North Carolina where a niece of a dear, dear friend lies between life and death. And “we just go about regular life in the meantime.”

I go home for “events”—for Christmas, Easter once, Thanksgiving once, summer always, even my birthday once, but when I go home it is in a way an event; however, most of our lives is indeed that period of time between exciting things, or unexpected things, the time when the stuff of life generally happens, the quotidian events, the in the meantime.

Last week on January 6th, I thought of those ancient wise men following a star, and while I know the story so well, the profundity and audacity of what they did struck me again. As many faithful believe, on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, those Magi saw a star rise, and there must have been something different enough about that star to follow it and to journey and see where it led.

As I was sitting in church on January 4th, hearing the familiar story of the Magi, I noticed a woman in front of me making a list. At first I thought she was jotting down notes or insights from the sermon. But instead, I noticed she was working on a list of resolutions for the new year. Oh, yeah…that impulse too. Her list looked like most people’s list probably look. Can you guess what she had on her list? She noted that in 2015 she would (1) lose weight  (2) exercise more  and (3) save money. She hit all the targets of what the majority of us resolve to do in the new year! It seemed strange to me—why even make that list? Everyone makes that list—it is beyond clich├ęd!  I was thinking of the Magi again, and somehow, and I do not know why, but the image of Ellen DeGeneres taking her “selfie” at the Oscars telecast with all those A-list celebs popped into my head. I even wondered if the Magi had had the technology would they have taken “selfies” as they followed the star?

While the sermon was good, I had another parallel track going, wondering about selfies, and what we have become with the selfie, the flattering, casual pictures of ourselves that include that odd puckered-mouth pose. Is the selfie what we have become???

I made it back to the sermon, and the stargazers, and thought about what those Magi would think of us and our selfie-obsessed culture. The Magi and their quest reminds us of the bright star focused on something else, something besides ourselves. The star guides us beyond ourselves and we should follow where it leads and believe. I was thinking earlier about my decision to come to Jordan, made almost 8 years ago, and how terrified I was to look beyond my ken, my NYC and Cincinnati worlds. I scoured the Bible then for examples, of Abraham as he left his comfortable surroundings and picked up and moved, of those Magi who travelled in search of, did they have any idea??? The Magi had to look up and out, away from themselves, towards something different.

But then that phrase comes back in my mind, “Yeah, but what about in the meantime?” What do we do in the meantime? What if we don’t see a star?

I think that is one of the great things of a new year, a reminder to look out, to look up, to look for unexpected things in the meantime. The star might guide you in unexpected ways, but we must look outward and find that star and believe. On my final day in New York I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my “art diner” and gazed upon Washington Crossing the Delaware, the largest canvas in the mighty Met. I have looked on this work dozens of times, but I thought I might teach it soon, and so I thought I would look at it again, and look for something unexpected.  It is a great work, and a contentious work because it has so many inaccuracies in it that many in the Art World Establishment have utter disdain for it. But it is not the inaccuracies that make it interesting (or uninteresting) but for me, this painting went on tour during the Civil War, hoping for a miracle that Americans would see this art work, band together once again, as they had during the Revolutionary War days, and find guidance and progress. As I looked at this painting that children just adore, lo and behold, who would have thought, but there was something new for me. I had never noticed that up in the upper left, as the soldiers crossed the Delaware, there appeared in the dawn a morning star. I had never noticed this little detail before. I had always been more attentive to who each person was in the boat, and snarkily joked about the things that were inaccurate in the painting from the reality of the crossing. But there was a star!

And back to the Magi…God chose stargazers to find Jesus, our God incarnate in our midst, to urge us to move out and upward from ourselves. Why did God turn to stargazers? Left to ourselves…well, we really are selfie people, but the stargazers remind us to look for that light. The apostle John says the darkness will not overcome the light...the light shines in the darkness and will not be overcome.  There is always a star, but we need the reminder of the Magi, of the new year, of tragedies, and even in the meantime to look for it.  I wish I could go back to Sunday, lean forward and whisper in the ear of the woman writing her resolution list, “Pssst, in the meantime, why don’t you look for the star?”