Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bridges and Bridges

As I mentioned earlier, one of the aspects of this last trip to Jordan which made it so special was that I was able to do things I had never done before.  Eventually I'll blog about those, but I'm still in a buzz (even a few weeks later) about the time we spent in the Wadi Rum.  Again, as Steve Wehmeyer opines as he paraphrases Lawrence of Arabia, I am one of those desert-loving English.  Why?  Well, I've devoted time to this question before, and I'm probably no nearer a definitive answer.  Although, once again to paraphrase Wehmeyer paraphrasing the film, maybe it is because the desert is clean.  Now, if the Wadi Rum had not paid back my fascination by eating my camera (or at least sliding sand into the aperture) and thus prematurely ending my picture-taking I'd be posting many more pictures.  I'm sure I'll make up for it by dragooning my students into sending me copies of their pictures.  Maybe the best place we stopped was at the base of an astonishing rock formation that formed a natural bridge.  Of course, we all had to climb up the rock face so that we could cross the bridge.  Unbelievable.  I'm sometimes tweaked by administrators because of my desire to take students places that I consider to be truly transformational (which is a lovely metaphor for what I think I do best in the classroom every day), but there's no way that any of the students who crossed this bridge - and more generally the bridge into Jordan - will ever be the same.

Like most of the places we visited on the trip I could have easily spent half a day here just soaking it all in.  It was more imposing in real life - the picture doesn't do it justice.

My excellent friend, boon traveling companion, and titular little sister, Cyndi Brandenburg.

Clockwise from the top: Taylor Post, Andy Beain, Devin Carlin and Mike Albrecht.  About 3/4 of the Champlain crew voted for the Wadi Rum as their favorite spot on the trip.

Try telling a bunch of 19 year olds that the rock formation may be too high for climbing (herding cats became herding feral steroid-infused cats).  The best you can really do is just climb up there with them.

"Bedu" nee Katherine nee "Keebee" nee "Dexter" Chapin - she was the one who I was most convinced was just going to wander off into the desert and give herself to the life of a bedu (and be happy as a lark).

Monday, March 23, 2015

Nothing To See Here

. . . and plenty to see here.  Here's a picture of one of the jeeps on our Wadi Rum desert tour, gloriously embedding itself up to the axles in the sand.  It's not quite as dramatic as it looks, mainly because I've never been on a desert tour (and, oddly, I've been on several of them) that didn't feature one of the jeeps burying itself on top of a dune.  Essentially, it's one of the things you pay for on the trip. If it were more uncommon or dangerous or unexpected it wouldn't have taken all of three minutes to rectify. That said, if it's your first desert tour then it's pretty exciting - and, truthfully, even if you've been on many of them it's still a lot of fun.

Naturally, I mainly blame my excellent friend Cyndi Brandenburg, who was in the front seat at the time.
Oh, and since this is, amazingly, my 700th posting, I think this forms a lovely metaphor for most of my foreign travel.

Zale Wedding

And here, finally, is the wedding ceremony for my excellent friends Sandy and Debbie.  I officiated at their wedding last summer, which was the second time that I've had this tremendous honor.  Many people booed at my clumsy words and threw objects at the officiant, but the couple are still very happy so I view it as a success.

Sanford & Debbie’s Wedding

Gary and Sandy will be standing where they will stand during the ceremony.
Music: ABBA, "Take a Chance on Me"
Eugene and Wendy will come down the aisle and take their positions.
Tony and Carol will come down the aisle and take their positions.
Music: the bridal march.
Debbie and her father will come down the aisle.  Her father will sit down at the front.  Debbie will take her position.

Gary: Greetings and welcome to everyone who have come from near and far to join us on this special day.  First off, I’d like to pass along Sandy and Debbie’s sincere appreciation to each and every one of you for joining them today.  Secondly, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you both for letting me play a small role in this wonderful day.

Gary: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the presence of these witnesses, to join together this man and this woman in matrimony, which is an honorable estate, instituted in antiquity and rightly esteemed as a noble and tender human relationship.  It is therefore not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but with gravity and deliberation.  Into this estate these two persons come now to be joined.

[Here, Gary makes whatever remarks he would like to make.  Sir, please use the word "redemption" during the course of your remarks.]

Gary: At this point in the ceremony the bride and groom asked me to say a few words.  But, before we continue I just have to say something – is anyone else here feeling the most amazing sense of déjà vu?  Yes, it was almost exactly a year ago that these two first met.  It was the eve of the wedding of the excellent Heidi Steiner and the passable Andy Burkhardt that several of us were sitting upstairs here at the Saint John’s Club playing a game of chance. 

As the usual crowd began to thin out, Sanford, as is his wont, went to find new players.  He returned a few moments later with a beautiful, intelligent and funny woman that we all immediately adored.  At the end of the evening Sandy asked this mystery woman to accompany him the next day to Heidi and Andy’s wedding, and to the shock of all of us she said yes.  Naturally, before the ceremony there was much betting on whether or not she would actually show.  And, as with all bets that are associated with Debbie, I lost – and she showed up looking even more beautiful than the night before.  And now here we are today.

It’s certainly a mystery, and in an attempt to solve this mystery I turned to philosophy for possible answers.  I discovered the works of an obscure 18th century philosopher by the name of Denis Diderot – who I really wish Sandy would have mentioned to us at some point. 

Diderot proposed that “Life is but a series of misunderstandings.”  So I thought, maybe Debbie just didn’t understand.  Except that if anyone understands Sandy it’s Debbie.  She understands him and accepts him and cherishes him – just as he understands her and accepts her and cherishes her – just as we all want to be understood and accepted and cherished by the person we love the most.  So, it’s hard to see it as a misunderstanding or an accident.  And truthfully the older I get, the less I believe in random chance.  You can call it fate or divine intervention, but from the first night they met – and every night in between - it was obvious to everyone that they belonged together.

Still, at first blush they seem a mismatched couple – Debbie: the sweet and gentle optimist, and Sandy: whose personal motto is “it doesn’t matter if the glass is half-full or half-empty, because eventually you’re just going to spill it”. But you know, they just work – and they make each other very happy – and they make the people around them happy.  A little difference is a good thing.  As Diderot reminds us, “Nothing is duller than a progression of common cords.  One wants some contrast . . .” 

Sandy and Debbie asked me to say a few words about the two of them, which I’m happy to do because I love them both.  First off, what does one say about Debbie?  Diderot warned us that, “The wisest among us is very lucky never to have met the woman . . .  who could drive him crazy enough to be put into an asylum.”  But, instead, Sandy ended up with Debbie, who is actually making him saner .  And he even looks younger – which we can only associate with Debbie’s good graces.  Debbie is kind and sweet and smart and funny and courageous.  Sandy told me that Debbie is so kind and pure and good that he can’t even be bad, and, really, with Sandy that is an amazing compliment.  However, don’t be fooled, because behind that beaming smile lies the heart of an assassin.  And please don’t ever play poker with her.  The only reason why I agreed to perform the ceremony was her promise to expunge my gambling debts.

Now, what does one say about Sandy?  First off, Sandy will doubtless drive poor Debbie into an asylum.  I didn’t actually know Sandy very well until a couple years ago when we decided to undertake a cross-country trip to Guymon, Oklahoma.  Many people doubted the logic of this trip, since we both possess, to be kind, over-sized personalities.  On the eve of the trip our friend Mike Lange said, “I have two words for you – shallow grave.”  Nevertheless, we got along famously.  For two weeks and 3000 miles we never popped in a CD or turned on the radio or TV, we just talked.  We discussed life, which we’ve both seen way too much of, and philosophy, which we argued about endlessly, and women, which we mainly knew from hearsay.  What I discovered is that Sandy has the biggest heart and the most tender soul of anyone I have ever met – and who also appreciates friendship more than anyone I have ever met.  Last year I had a job offer overseas, and all of my friends, including, oddly, my fiancée, encouraged me to take it; with the exception of one person, Sandy, who simply said, “You can’t go.  I would miss you too much.”  Diderot advised, “My friend, keep your old friends.”  The big turnout today proves how much we love and appreciate this “old friend.”     

I’ve already talked too long, although it only scratches the surface of what I’d like to say – what we’d all like to say – about these two wonderful people.  So I’ll leave you with one last passage from Diderot.  In one of his novels he has a lover say to his beloved the following, which I think expresses what Sandy and Debbie feel toward each other - “I am wholly yours – you are everything to me; we will sustain each other in all the ills of life it may please fate to inflict upon us; you will soothe my troubles; I will comfort you in yours.”  Who could want anything more than that?

Now, let’s get these two married before Debbie comes to her senses.

Gary: I ask you both, as you stand here in the presence of your families and friends, to reflect upon the nature of the vows that you are about to make.  They are not frivolous, they are not temporary, and they are not subject to change.  They are sacred, they are permanent, and they are inviolable.  You must never forget that you are not at liberty to break them.  You must always remember that, on this day and before these witnesses, you made a promise, and that your promise is forever.

Gary: Sanford, will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the estate of matrimony, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others and keeping only to her, to love her, to honor her, and to obey her, till death do you part?

Sandy: I will.

Gary: Deborah, will you have this man to be your wedded husband, to live together in the estate of matrimony, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others and keeping only to him, to love him, to honor him, and to obey him, till death do you part?

Debbie: I will.

Gary: These rings are an outward and visible sign of an inward love, signifying to all the uniting of this man and this woman in matrimony.

(Tony hands ring to Sandy.)

Sandy: Ms. Jaimes, I unite myself with you for the rest of my life.  Wherever the gods may take me, there I shall take you, in my heart.  With this ring, I thee wed.

(Sandy puts ring on Debbie's finger.)

(Carol hands ring to Debbie.)

Debbie: Mr. Zale, I unite myself with you for the rest of my life.  Wherever God may take me, there I shall take you, in my heart.  With this ring, I thee wed.

(Debbie puts ring on Sandy's finger.)

Gary: Forasmuch as Sanford and Deborah have consented together in wedlock, and have witnessed this before this company, and have made solemn vows to each other, I pronounce, by the power vested in me by the state of Vermont, that they are husband and wife together.  You may kiss the bride.

(Sandy and Debbie kiss.)
(Sandy crushes a glass with his foot.  Some of the people will shout "Mazel Tov.")

May no one set this union asunder.
May all blessings attend you.
May joy pervade your lives together.

Music: Still to be determined, but I sort of have to insist on Ms. Edith Piaf, "Hyme a l'amour."

Eugene and Wendy walk down the aisle.
Tony and Carol walk down the aisle.
Gary walks down the aisle.
Sandy and Debbie walk down the aisle.
[I know that this order is unconventional; it is deliberate.]

Gary:  Thanks again for coming.  Please make your way upstairs for refreshments.  The wedding party will join you in a few moments.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jordan Again

As promised, the blog will be dominated for the next few weeks by a bunch of postings from Jordan.  We just returned yesterday after a spring break trip, the first I ever led.  It was an amazing trip, and reenforced why I love Jordan - and why I was right in fighting to take students there.  As always, it was completely safe and the students were blown away by the warmth and hospitality of the Jordanian people.  I traveled with my wonderful friend Cyndi Brandenburg - and we left with nine students and returned with nine students (although not the same nine students - I think every one of them was transformed by the experience).  However, I'm insanely behind in my grading, so it will have to wait for a while.  I thought I'd get started by posting a picture of myself standing in front of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the Wadi Rum.  The formation itself gave its name to Lawrence's autobiography.  Words cannot describe the Wadi Rum.  I'll even forgive it for destroying my camera (as I should know, sand and camera apertures are not friends).

My expansive bucket list grew ever so slightly shorter.  I've passed through Jordan so many times - and it is my favorite overseas spot - but somehow I had never made it to the Wadi Rum.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Back to Zanzibar?

Well, I think it's way too early to say that with any certainty, but at least it's a possibility.  First off, however, I need to get nine students and my great friend Cyndi Brandenburg to Jordan and back.  I've never led a student group to a foreign country before, so the next three weeks will determine whether I have the desire/courage to do it again.  That said, I've been thinking a lot about potentially leading a student group to Zanzibar in the spring of 2016.  In addition I've drafted my friend Steve Wehmeyer and he's now an enthusiastic supporter or the trip.  First off, I loved my time in Zanzibar and have always wanted to go back.  Moreover, I'm teaching a class called The Periphery of Islam, which is focused on the travels of Ibn Battuta.  So, we've been reading his account of, among other places, the east coast of Africa (he blew by Zanzibar on his journey in the 14th century because it wasn't anything then - and devoted his time on Kilwa, which has since faded into obscurity).  We've also been reading the fascinating Tim Mackintosh-Smith three-part travelogue where he follows the path of Ibn Battuta.  What really drew me in were the accounts which almost read like an Islamic form of voodoo (obviously very haram, at least to the Wahabbis).  To me the chance to study this very syncretic corner of the world seemed like such an extraordinary fit with Steve's expertise (see my posts about traveling to New Orleans with the excellent Wehmeyer).  It would be a wonderful, but also an emotional, trip.  Whenever you revisit someplace where you were really happy - and also living in a different universe - there is always the potential for bittersweet moments.  However, who could ever turn down a chance to return to Zanzibar?  More on this later . . .

It's an odd picture to post, but it just reminds me of one of my happiest moments - just sitting at the end of the dock, talking, staring into the water, enjoying the blissful breeze, and waiting for the sun to go down.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Let's Rock

Last Friday I enjoyed one of the oddest and happiest classes of my generally odd and mostly happy career.  In my Heroines & Heroes class we were discussing psychoanalytical literary criticism, preparing them for the paper they're writing this weekend on "Death" from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (which, as all right-thinking individuals know, is the greatest American novel).  Whenever we're talking about conceptual tools I liked to give the students a text to examine (I'm a huge believer in having students learn a theory and then use a theory - which I must have picked up from my father's discussion of medical school).  In this case I showed them the iconic Cooper's dream sequence from Twin Peaks.  I am a firm believer in the notion that David Lynch, with all of his peculiarities and failings, is the most influential director of his generation.  There are movies before and after Blue Velvet, and TV before and after Twin Peaks.  Not surprisingly, very few of the students were familiar with the scene, although a few more had heard of the series, which is not particularly strange since we're almost a quarter-century removed from its inception.  What I loved was when it came time for the midget to dance about half the students began to snap their fingers along with the music; and so we sat there in the darkened room on a snowy day, watching a dancing midget speaking in subtitles, and the students gave themselves to the moment.  All we needed was Lynch himself filming away.  As Nietzsche reminded us, when you stare into the abyss the abyss stares into you.  I guess my students just stare into me, and the weirdness flows.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Journeys - to the West and Elsewhere

I was sitting at my desk at home contentedly writing away when I glanced at the precariously structured pyramid of books to my left (the view to the right wouldn't have much more organized) and thought I would pause for a moment and reflect.  Several years ago when I was living in Quarry Hill for a year and living the life of a faculty resident for first-year students I posted a picture of a large pile of books, composed mainly of different versions of epics such as the Ramayana and the Iliad and Beowulf and the Sundiata and Journey to the West and the Popol Vuh - as well as a few select copies from the related small libraries that each of them has inspired.  At the time I was preparing to embark on a semester-long sabbatical to work on my long-delayed book on the epics, which would have mainly consisted of me tramping around the UVM library stacks or me monastically hiding myself away so that I could write.  And then out of the blue Zayed University asked me to spend a year with them in Abu Dhabi and Dubai running professional development programs and redesigning some classes.  Obviously, my life changed dramatically both professionally and personally, and I would not trade that time for anything, even if it led to some heartbreak along the way.  So, here I am a couple years later older and wiser - or at least older - and I'm back buried in the project.  I'm really happy with the progress, although it is an exhausting one.  I made the decision to tackle the longest and most complex works - and the ones that included the largest collections of related scholarly commentary and media (films and graphic novels and video games) - first, mainly because I like to take that approach with any large project.  In one form or another I suppose I'm a believer in the concept of a tipping point or a moment of critical mass when the project is so far advanced/evolved that it will write and complete itself.  With that in mind I immersed myself in the Ramayana and then the Journey to the West, and now I'm working on the Shahnama.  Theoretically, I will finish the Shahnama this semester (as much as these projects are ever finished before they're finished) and then delve into the Sundiata and the Popol Vuh over the summer (they're shorter, both in length and also in related scholarly research, although still fascinating) and then jump into the Iliad and Beowulf next fall.  I'm getting tired just thinking about it.  There's still much more to do after that, but I think that's a workable schedule for the next year.  As with all projects it takes a while to find your "voice," and especially so in this case because I'm treading a narrow path between scholarly and more generally accessible, but I'm really happy with how things are flowing now.  That said, check in with me in a year when I'm a shell of a man - or, more appropriately, even more of a shell of a man.  Still, this project is making me very happy, and providing me with a raison d'etre that I really need at this point in my life and career.

I would raise the issue of whether this pile of books is so high that neither Hanuman (from the Ramayana) nor Sun Wukong (from Journey to the West) could fly over it, but then I'd have to get into the debate over whether or not they're actually the same character and that's where it get complicated . . . as it always does with research.