Saturday, January 24, 2015

Returning to Jordan

After years of threatening to do so I'm actually going to lead a student travel course trip this spring.  I've had students and colleagues, both here and on the other side of the planet, repeatedly encourage/dragoon/beg me to take advantage of my experiences and connections to lead a student group overseas.  For any number of reasons I've always begged off, but this year I've changed my mind.  My dear friend and stand-in little sister Cyndi Brandenburg are taking nine students to Jordan over spring break in March.  Initially I was considering a study abroad trip to India, but my excellent friend and student Mahmoud Jabari dashed the idea.  Mahmoud and I meet for coffee every month and solve the problems of the Middle East.  When I proposed the India trip he essentially said - and I'm not paraphrasing much - "no, you're going to Jordan, because you do love Jordan and the students will love Jordan." (spoken like a true Palestinian, I might add)  Who am I to disagree?  I'm embedding the trip in a couple sections of my Heroines & Heroes course, and I always have the students read a short retelling of the Ramayana, so the India trip made perfect sense.  Instead, Mahmoud proposed that I should build it around Lawrence of Arabia, both the reality and the legend.  It is a great idea, and so I took his suggestion.  I haven't turned my back on an India trip, although Jordan is certainly much easier to throw together in a hurry as compared to an Indian excursion, which would take much more planning.  So, get prepared - Jordan will be dominating the blog again very soon.

As these trips tends to be, it has been more than a bit of a logistical nightmare to put together (although it will pale in comparison to planning a trip to India).  Still, I am getting very excited.  There is so much to be revealed in Jordan.  As my friends quite correctly point out - I like to introduce my students to parts of the world that their parents aren't going to take them to on family vacations.  And, truthfully, can you think of a time when American students need to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of the Middle East?

A Friend of Mime

I suppose that if you've been teaching at a small college for some time - and you possess something akin to a personality - you'll eventually be asked to appear in either a play or a student film.  Oddly, since I don't possess even the shadow of an interesting personality, I've been asked to appear in both.  I have always - and will always - duck appearing in a play.  I do not like public speaking and the thought of it just fills me with dread.  However, I was finally dragooned by two of my students, Ben (the writer and director) and Davi (the producer) to appear in a student film called A Friend of Mime.  I agreed to be in the film because of either a) their willful and skillful misrepresentation of the role, or b) my senior moments, which are expanding more rapidly than the universe: I would bet on the latter.  My understanding was that they were looking for me to pop in for a walk-on, and thus around a two hour time commitment on my part, and their understanding was that I was the "star" of the film.  Of course, if I had actually read the script before I showed up for filming I might have had a better idea of what I was in for.  Not since Brando in Apocalypse Now has the lead actor been more negligent in prepping for the role.  In the end it turned out to be around three full days, but, truthfully, it was a lot of fun.  As everyone knows I'm a complete film nut, and so it was really interesting to see how a film is made.  For the actors - in my case, the "actor" - it consists of a lot of sitting around and watching the director and cameraman discuss lighting.  I didn't have a trailer to retreat to, although Davi was very responsive to my diva demands for donuts.  Certainly, I am not actor, but the students were incredibly patient with me, especially with my tendency to improvise lines - and in this case I think I improvised every line (which had less to do with the tenets of my particular acting school, but rather my inability to remember the lines as written).  Sadly, and happily, the film has disappeared (so if you're looking for a link you'll be bitterly - but fortunately - disappointed) either because of a technical problem with someone's laptop or classic Hollywood creative differences.  So, I have no fear of it popping up on the Internet down the road.

My colleague Karen Klove preparing to apply the makeup.  She showed the students how to do it and they carried out the arduous routine repeatedly after that.

Heavy makeup and a beard is a really bad combination (and my contract did not require me to shave it - thankfully my agent deleted that codicil), and I essentially bathed in bottles of baby oil to remove it.

Not since John Wayne Gacy has s seemingly benignant character inspired such nightmares.

Although I was the "star" I pitched in, which was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.  Of course, it probably would have been better for the film if I had used the down time to actually learn my lines.

Yes, and the only thing more embarrassing for a camera-shy non-actor is to film in the middle of Hauke Courtyard in the middle of the day.

Doubtless, this has proven to be the most iconic scene.  After a series of bad breaks the Mime has snapped and attacked his landlord, played by my friend and colleague Ken Wade (who actually is a very good actor, and very graciously helped me out).  There is no truth to the rumor that I intentionally messed up my lines so that I could attack him repeatedly. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Good Soul - and a Bad Coach

One of life's greatest truisms is that you should never, ever, finish last in your fantasy football league.  My excellent friend Bob Mayer, coach of the Royal Poodles, has had the misfortune to finish last in the Twin Peaks Football League two years running.  His penalty, through the conniving of Craig Pepin, was to wear one of the world's worst sweaters as he presented at Faculty Senate.  Fantasy football is a cruel mistress.  Still, if you win the Wixon Trophy, named after our great friend Bill Wixon, mainly because he's out of the country and thus can't defend himself, there is a price to be paid.

It is a testament to what a good soul that Bob is that he didn't squawk about this horrible penalty and went bravely to his fate.  It was "a far, far better thing . . ."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Castle of Sao Jorge

I'm not quite certain why Portugal has been running through my mind so much lately, beyond the fact that it was a remarkably cool, albeit way too brief, trip.  I suspect it is because I was so happy, although my life was, per usual, in a state of chaotic flux - reflecting back on the previous post, I was the master of neither (nor any) world.  One of the highlights of the stopover in Lisbon was visiting the Castle of Sao Jorge, an old Moorish castle, which resides on the hill overlooking the harbor, so the views, not surprisingly, are extraordinary.  It was also a magnificently rainy and windswept day, and how I avoided being blown off the castle walls is beyond me.  After months of searing dry heat in Abu Dhabi I think I was drinking up the rain both figuratively and literally. 

The castle has been built and rebuilt countless times, and apparently the first fortifications on the hill date back a couple thousand years - not surprising considering the strategic value of the post at Lisbon.

And you can imagine what this looked and felt like after months of blinding, dry artificiality in Abu Dhabi.

Occasional glimpses of the brilliantly painted buildings of Lisbon.  If you look hard enough you can see what you're looking for.

One of my favorite shots; the glorious green surviving amongst the battlements.

I kept expecting to run into Tyrion Lannister - now that would have been a conversation.

One of my many failings as a photographer - my fascination with doorways.  However, it may be one of my strengths as a person.

And the harbor in the distance.

Macbeth and Sock Puppets

For years now whenever I've discussed the nature of an upcoming student presentations I've joked that I would give the students immense latitude in their approach, including the use of sock puppets.  It never really occurred to me that any of them would take me up on the offer - that is until last year.  In our Heroines & Heroes class here at Champlain the students have to write an analysis of their favorite heroine/hero using various critical lenses such as Campbell's monomyth or Marxist criticism or Feminist criticism.  Inevitably it's a much more challenging assignment than the students realize at first blush, when they initially assume it's a great chance to tell me how much they think Darryl from The Walking Dead is kick-ass (and, to be fair, he is).  My student Vincent Loignon, who has bravely taken me a couple times, stopped by after class and asked if he could choose Macbeth as his hero.  Obviously, he immediately scored major points for choosing a complex character from Shakespeare, as compared to the endless run of video game characters I get.  He then settled into the pantheon of my favorite students by asking if I was serious when I proposed a sock puppet presentation.  With the due sense of dread I said yes.  True to his word he presented his Macbeth presentation in sock puppet format, and it was fantastic, only partially because of his mastery of the too-often overlooked field of sock puppet literary analysis.  At Champlain we pride ourselves on pushing our students to implement critical and creative thinking, at it's difficult for me to think of many better examples.

Vincent and Macbeth.  Notice the little crown.

Vincent was ably assisted by the excellent Nicole Follini who graciously volunteered to assist with running the Powerpoint, because she's a good soul - and because Vincent had socks on his hands.

Vincent dramatically reading from Shakespeare.

Now, having said all this, the reason why Vincent received an A on the assignment was not because of the unique approach, but because of his sophisticated analysis of the material.  Here he is stopping to explain why this particular scene represented Campbell's monomyth, specifically the Master of Two Worlds.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thinking of Yemen

It's amazing how a remarkably short little visit can stick with you.  As I've chronicled earlier I was only in Yemen for a weekend, and even then I didn't really get out of the old part of Sana'a.  Nevertheless, it has stuck with me in a way that few other places have.  I've read several books on Yemen and obsessively follow their unfolding history/tragedy on the news and especially on Twitter.  And through Twitter I've actually been in contact with several folks, both inside and outside of the country, who have kindly answered my questions.  I set up a blog last year where I wanted to post actual Yemeni stories but in the end I was not able to track down any material from inside the country; truthfully, I think Yemen has more problems to deal with that answering requests from anonymous Americans.  That said, I don't normally ever give up on anything so maybe I'll pursue it again.  Lord knows the world needs a different view from the country other than the constant drum beat of war.  In my Ibn Battuta class this semester I'm using three books by Tim Mackintosh-Smith who actually lives in Sana'a.  I'm a big fan of his work and if I had been more familiar with him on my trip there I probably would have tried to track him down.  Oh well, on the next trip . . .

One of the many people who befriended me in the streets of the old city, and who could not have been nicer to me when they didn't really have much reason to be.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Calling Lahore

I am making a more concerted effort to stay active on blogging - while also devoting too much time to Twitter, and even Facebook has snuck back into the rotation (although that's mainly related to the fact that I just celebrated another birthday and thus received many kind notes from friends around the world (which is pretty amazing/cool since I don't publish my birthday on FB).  Initially I typed in "endured" instead of celebrated, mainly because it was a birthday I wasn't looking forward to, which I'll discuss on a later post, but it turned out to be a wonderful day - and I've survived another year.

Today I want to take a very quick break from syllabus construction to talk about an odd event that happened in class in the fall semester.  I was teaching a class called Crossroads, which is a junior level course I designed.  Of all the classes I've taught over the last thirty years it may be the oddest, which is really saying something.  The idea behind the class was to look at the convergence of societies that came together in Central Asia, so, naturally, there was a big Silk Road component, which is a topic that fascinates me (and, which, I've traveled on).  A big part of the class was the in-class analysis of various artifacts from the area.  I would project a picture of a sculpture or a mosque or a painting or a mummy on the board and the students would have to, within the 75 minutes of the class, write up a two page bulleted paper.  The British always refer to these as "white papers," although I guess for our business-focused students the best comparison was to an executive summary.  I gave the students no information at all.  Now, they were not completely adrift because a) we had devoted a few weeks to discussing the foundations of the cultures that met in Central Asia, b) they could work in groups, c) they could bring in technology, and d) they could, ask a class, ask me as many as three questions (which I sort of vaguely answered).

Strangely, they were enjoyed the process, and I suddenly found myself with a group of budding archaeologists and historians.  One day one of the students said, "OK, explain to me why there is Zoroastrian iconography on that Hindu statue."  My response was, "First off, shut up, this isn't Middlebury, and, secondly, I assure you that that is the first time that sentence has ever been uttered at Champlain College" - although, obviously, I was delighted.  In short, they really enjoyed the challenge.  It also had some real world application, however, since it was one of those transferable skills - bosses do ask you to become "experts" on a subject with an hour's notice and want you to produce the executive summary that they can read as they walk down the hall to talk to potential clients or the board of trustees.

One day we were looking at the famous ascetic Buddha and the groups were happily working away.  I was in the back of the room helping one of the groups when I noticed that my student Zachary Svobada was on the phone.  The other members of the group had an amused look on their faces.  I started to give Zachary some well-deserved abuse for being on the phone in class (one of my huge rules that result in torture and death) when he gave me the "hold on, I'm on the phone" hand signal, and before I could say anything one of his group members said, "he's on the phone to Pakistan."  Yes, he was trying to call a museum in Lahore, Pakistan.  As part of their research they had figured out that the Buddha itself was in a museum in Lahore and Zachary figured out that the best approach to just call them and try get some resident expert on the line.  Sadly, the time difference meant that even though he actually got the museum on the phone it was closed for the day - which saved him from the potential language problem.  Still, I had to give him major credit for the effort.  Clearly, we're not Camp Champ anymore.

This is a Buddha from the ancient area of Gandhara, which would be in the area made up of a chunk of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It was a remarkably rich period culturally.  The first artistic representation of the Buddha with a physical body, as compared to symbols, is believed to have been in this region - a merging of Indian and Greek concepts.  This is the ascetic Buddha, coming in from his years in the wilderness and right before the moment of Enlightenment.  It was a perfect artifact to use since it expresses the coming together of these different societies.

Zachary on the phone to Lahore.  Late in the semester he did, successfully, manage to call a museum in the UK and learned all sorts of inside information about Parthian kings and their coins.  I told him that I didn't want to be dismissive of his major here at Champlain, but that I wouldn't rest until he pursued a doctorate in history.  This is definitely one of my favorite moments in a long career.