Sunday, December 28, 2008

What the World Needs Now

The Hannukah riffs of a busy sax drift through the airy Tel Aviv-Ben Gurion terminal as we wait by the hundreds for our flights to other places. It is unclear how many of us are tourists returning home and how many of us are residents seeking solace and safety, looking for a place beyond the borders of this tumultuous half-nation.

Two days ago, one day after Christmas and halfway through Hannukah, Israel began an air raid over the Gaza strip after futile repetitious requests to Hamas to stop firing rockets into neighboring Israeli towns. Many believe that war is imminent, and from southern Israel to Tel Aviv, Israelis are evaluating their staircases for their stability against rockets and planning escape routes, as they have done dozens of times before. Many remember 2004, 1995, 1967, even 1948, and even more remember countless nights in between of sleeping with the TV on, ears alert for a warning, thoughts searching for anything other than the threat of a detonation or a war or a loss.

These words echo those I wrote in 2006, on a plane from London to Amsterdam when Beirut was under attack. This is no surprise; the tune is very much the same. Call it what you will: the clash of civilizations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the War on Terror, these terms are all identical at their core. In Israel, they mean constantly questioned authority, fervent persistence of hope, cautiousness after centuries of exile. They mean fighting for national legitimacy when every neighbor denies it. They mean calling home a place that scores of individuals, organizations, nations, even a religion, claim you do not own. This is no easy task.

Like most, I do not agree completely with Israel’s mission, nor do I agree with the Arab nations’ perspectives on the land that is so greatly contested. I do, however, fear that the global community is not being fair to Israel in its judgments. Irit pointed out today that no matter how Israel responded to Hamas, the global reaction would have been the same. Had any other nation acted this way in the face of an attack, it would have been accepted. But in global eyes, Israel never acts appropriately. Without global legitimacy, without the Middle East and the general world order accepting Israel as a nation, we will never perceive Israel as doing anything right.

Meanwhile, the United States has invaded Iraq and worsened the situation in Afghanistan. We have received endless criticism for many of our military decisions, but hardly any of it (at least the criticism from legitimate critics) has attacked our very existence. Nearly none of it has questioned whether we deserve to subsist.

As one person, I cannot convince the world to be fair. There are far too many actors and interests. This globe is structured around splintered sovereignty and international cooperation only as a means toward local benefit. Only secondarily, we are individuals seeking camaraderie in a global community, in which we act within and slightly beyond the smaller national entities that govern us more than we might like.

The challenges of our world order are exacerbated by these generally trying times. We face economic uncertainty, the splintering of families and communities through increasing divorce rates and the impersonality of a tech-driven, achievement-focused world, disturbing violence among youth, threats of terror locally and abroad, and international conflicts that question whether collaboration and mutual understanding are values that anyone can successfully live by.

But we need to challenge ourselves to be accountable. We talk about building the world we want for our children’s children and building the world our ancestors were never able to build for us, but this is clearly not enough. We need to own our own lives; we need to build the world we want now. What does it mean when we agree, in conversation, that this madness has to stop? How can these millions of tiny conversations translate into an achievable reversal of our self-destructive trends? Where is the message of peace lost? When do we collectively, collaboratively, say loud and clear and strong that we have had enough?

We must be the change we wish to see in the world. It starts here, from me and you, within and between us.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Back on 120th St, Dreaming of 120th St

For years we have paced this block on our way somewhere. To home, to work, to school, downtown, uptown, cross-town, even beyond the rivers that bind this island. It has held us when we have been marching toward a class we hope we won’t fail, a performance we hope we’ll nail, an encounter we’ll never forget. It has been our gateway.

I am here now, almost everyday, for different reasons. This street is no longer my gateway to somewhere else but my destination. I arrive here on 120th Street to learn, to argue, to develop, when from this same street I used to launch, bold and fearful, to learn everywhere but on this very street.

We’ve all departed somehow. To Chicago, to Alfred, to Poughkeepsie and back, to Washington Heights, we’ve found new launching pads and new places from which to depart. These new places are too new to define us. They seem temporary, ephemeral, like places we are visiting or lands we will conquer and then abandon. How long did it take for 120th Street to own us, and for us to own it? When did it become our starting point, the place at which we end and then begin again each day?

One intersection divides this 120th Street we used to know from the 120th Street that serves me now. On Amsterdam, turning left coming up from 119th Street has become my normal routine, though I constantly find myself glancing at what lies to the right, just making sure that it’s still there. Normally when people move they literally move, they relocate themselves and return just to visit. How often does someone’s former habitat become redefined for them? How common is it to learn to re-navigate a neighborhood because it serves a different purpose for you now?

New York, no matter how big it seems sometimes, is full of these reinventions. In such tiny city blocks we live every part of our lives here, and in doing so we categorize these little radii in order to organize our behaviors. This is where I work, this is where my daughter goes to school, this is where my doctor is, this is where I get my hair cut—we compartmentalize small spans of blocks, associating corner markets and flower stands and Indian restaurants with the places where we are going nearby. But when something changes, say your doctor moves to the same block as your daughter’s school, or your best friend changes jobs and now works in the building next to your favorite bagel shop, we re-invent, we re-categorize. We accommodate one more in this tiny radius of city blocks.

The problem with this recategorization, though, is that we lose things sometimes. I want 120th Street to always be the block I walked down to pick up lunch from the Apple Tree on one of our spring-cleaning Sundays. I want it to always be the street where I watched Cordelia, 6 years old with fire and glee in her eyes, jumping over the glittering sidewalk proclaiming that she saw the stars in the city ground. I don’t want these things to change, yet the more I re-invent this place the more these new moments seem to take their place.

I remember once hearing that the more things change the more they stay the same. I hope for me, for here, for this street, that is the case. I want it to always be simultaneously everything to me—the place where I first lived in New York City, the place where I learned how to reform education in America, the place where I left and the place where I will always, in my heart, begin.


It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page…

-“Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion

Friday, December 12, 2008

In Rememberance of Those We've Lost, and Those We Have Yet to Lose


Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

-A.E. Housman

Friday, December 5, 2008

Creativity, Innovation, Leadership

When in Oberlin, I always find myself thinking about the Oberlin experience. Every time I return, after anxiously wandering the 5 square blocks wondering whether anyone remembers me still, I encounter some intangible, magical experience so unique and so full of an insuppressible momentous excitement that I am forced to reaffirm that this truly is one of the best places in the world. Ironically, you would have been hard-pressed to get this affirmation out of me while I was a student here. Yet as a visitor, looking around, I see this acknowledgment, this satisfaction with what Oberlin is living and producing, in the smiling eyes of everyone else who has happened upon the moment, who has surreptitiously discovered this intersection of whatever they were doing before and the uncontrollable energy and creativity that is constantly channeled into these undefinable things.

On the board we talk about improving three things: the value of an Oberlin education, the perceived value of an Oberlin education, and the sustainability of our commitment to educational access. These are sometimes hard for current students to understand. They spend so much time in these wonderful, undefinable moments that these moments are just everyday life to them. Instead, they look for the value of an Oberlin education elsewhere. Does it lie in the books they've mastered for an assignment or the connections they're making through ongoing conversations with peers and professors? Immediately afterwards, does it lie in their first job title or the ranking of the graduate schools to which they're admitted?

In these challenging times, when the world faces a trying economic situation and a constant threat of terror and a growing environmental challenge, we sometimes miss the point. Seeking normalcy or perceived promise or hope, we cling to metrics and measures, things that we can define and evaluate. But what if the most intangible elements of us are those with the most value? What if the value of an Oberlin education lies not in the fact that x number of people are impacting x number of industries, but in the ethical and intellectual caliber of its lifelong community members and in the spontaneity of true creative production in which these members engage daily?

It goes without saying that Obies are fierce. We are dedicated and fascinated (and often fascinating); we plunge powerfully forward into solving the problems that we identify as meaningful; we pick battles not just because they impact our own lives but because we see them impacting the lives of our neighbors, both in our own towns and cities and in our global society. Perhaps most importantly, we think critically and thoughtfully, carrying with us ethical standards and expectations that we have labored over defining and maintaining, demanding equality in access and opportunity, expecting a level playing field and, when not finding one, creating one. We are innovators and dreamers; we take the facts and methods that we have learned and sync them in new ways; we look for connections that haven't been tried yet; we build bonds that had never before been imagined.


THIS IS THE HUGE DREAM OF US / THAT WE ARE HEROES THAT THERE IS COURAGE/ in our blood! That we are live! / That we do not perpetrate the lie of vision / forced upon ourselves / by ourselves. That we have made the nets of vision real!
-Michael McClure, The Flowers of Politics (I)

Free of politics / Liberty and pride guide you / You pass from ancestral myths to myth of self / And make the giant bright stroke like that madman Van Gogh.

-Michael McClure, The Flowers of Politics (II)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

You Never Seem to Recognize My Face

preoccupation (n.): The state of being preoccupied; absorption of the attention or intellect.

preoccupy (v.):
1. To absorb or engross to the exclusion of other things.
2. To occupy beforehand or before others.

Many words have multiple definitions, but preoccupation and its root, preoccupy, have been on my mind for a while now. If a thought or a subject has completely preoccupied you, has consumed you completely, are you occupying that thought pattern before anyone else? Have you claimed that preoccupation as your own? Does it belong to you? Or, is it just the opposite? Does preoccupation own you by preventing you from owning whatever the preoccupation is?

Usually, the verb "preoccupy" is modified by the preposition "by." In effect, this means that whatever follows the "by" is what's doing the action of "preoccupying." The actual subject of the sentence then becomes that which is being preoccupied rather than the preoccupying agent.

When I am preoccupied by something, I feel helpless, unwillingly transformed from the agent to the recipient of some other action. I know I don't want to think about this thought or subject anymore but, try as I might, I cannot get myself to think about anything else. Preoccupying me wholly, it takes over my sensibility and, like an unavoidable demon, forces my attention on something undeserving.

"She was preoccupied."

Maybe what all of us are looking for is the less common form. "She preoccupied him." "The fate of the world preoccupied them." Maybe this switch of the agency is all that we need to feel meaningful rather than powerless: to occupy beforehand or before others, rather than to be occupied at the exclusion of all other things.

Friday, November 28, 2008

This One's for Mumbai

In August 2006, I started an entry with this: "As has been said one thousand times before, we live in a world of terror." Almost five years after September 11, we were still living in fear that someone out there would turn anger into mass destruction at the cost of people's lives. Now, two years after I wrote about the terror in Lebanon and seven years after my own city saw this grief, the world is mourning and fearing on a large scale once again.

Terrorism is not a new term; it's not a concept that has been introduced and defined in the last twenty or thirty years, like the internet or fiber-optics or in-vitro fertilization. In the last few American political administrations, though, the term has taken on a significant political weight. It has become a method for perpetuating an "us" vs. "them" rhetoric and, as a result, has become something we think about on a regular basis in evaluating how we behave versus how other people behave. It's important to look beyond the way we are taught to think about terrorism, though, and understand what it really means absent of our own political and social interpretation of it. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council defined terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act." In short, terrorism means trying to promote a political agenda by seriously harming regular people.

There are two facets of terrorism that I find most disturbing. The first is the idea that physical force against innocent people is a useful mechanism for instigating political change. This has nothing to do with our group versus that other group and everything to do with the perception, held even by a small group, that violence against civilians is a constructive method for change. This is something that sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, and political scientists are all studying, but once we know the cause, will we then know how to change it? Since this discovery seems unlikely, we must operate with terrorism as a reality, as skewed as it may be, and learn how to live with it rather than against it.

This brings me to the second element of terrorism that disturbs me. Terrorism, in the most unfortunate of ways, takes precedent over all other things because of its unpredictability. In my normal, day-to-day life, I am training to be an educator. I believe that schools make a difference in our society, and my goal is to make American schools training grounds for capable and engaged citizens. Yet when tourists and businesspeople are trapped in a Mumbai hotel under siege, having spent one minute sipping a cocktail in the hotel bar and the next being ushered by men in masks into a hostage situation, the mission of education seems quaint, like a topic for cocktail party discussion or some sort of idealist, hippy-dippy dream distracting from the "real" issue. Terrorism does more than inflict pain on individuals and their families and pressure governments to change political stances. An act of terrorism commands the attention of the world. It pushes all other matters to the wayside and, like a child doing something unfathomable just because he hasn't received enough attention, momentarily shocks us into abandoning our long-term missions and day-to-day activities.

Fear is debilitating, and terror, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a state of intense fear." Our challenge, as global citizens, is to recognize terrorism as a misguided agent of change and continue onwards in building the kinds of agents and mechanisms that will instigate change appropriately and civilly. Though thinking of terrorism through an "us" vs. "them" lens, in which we are able to victimize ourselves and feel helpless against psychologically disturbed and violent rouge groups, is easy given the constant rhetoric of our political leaders, we must look beyond this self-victimization to work towards the world we want to see rather than fearing action in the world in which we currently live. Fear is all-consuming, and loss even more so; but the greatest thing we have to fear is leaving a terror-drenched world for our children and grandchildren. If we instigate positive change in our domestic social systems (like education) and our international interactions, we could reshape this world and slowly begin to see the change we need. Facing forward through challenge and potential loss, prioritizing the power of the future over the immediacy of grief and fright, we must remember what FDR said in his 1933 inaugural address: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ushering in the Next Era

I have never been one to write about politics. During the 2004 election, my parents told me to write about my experience in Ohio so I wouldn’t forget; they said it would be an experience for the books, a time unlike any other that was mine to document. Here we are, four years later, singing a reprise of that blazing chorus of hope and fear, and though I let it all seep over me before, maybe the time to write about it is now.

In fall 2004, Lorain County, Ohio saw an influx of visitors from across the nation pile out of vans to “get out the vote.” Celebrities made appearances, rallies were held, blue and red signs dotted front yards for miles. On Election Day, we watched the outcomes in other states come in from lines at our own polling places. During the six and a half hours that I spent waiting to vote, I was fed and entertained by fellow students and townspeople afraid that the long wait would send tired would-be voters home. I enjoyed Chinese food from a local restaurant, brought to my spot in line with a choice of sauces, listened to some of Oberlin’s best musicians perform violin concertos and organ pieces, avoided local media covering the “unexpected voter turnout,” did some schoolwork. Every so often, I’d chat with the others in line; we’d say we couldn’t believe how few voting machines there were, would our votes make it in on time, avoiding the real subject of why we were there: to change the nation. In 2004, unprecedented numbers of college students exercised their voting rights in Ohio. Home states like New York and Massachusetts and California seemed undeserving of our votes. Instead, we imposed ourselves on our temporary state, Ohio, not to impact life there but to impact the nation for which we stand, no matter which state we stand for it in.

In the end, our votes in Lorain County weren’t counted. Kerry indicated intentions to cede long before many of us even made it inside a polling booth. For weeks, it felt as though we had lost six and a half hours of our lives for the basic, unrealized premise that, in a democratic nation, every vote counts, when really ours didn’t even matter.

Like a dream deferred, the hope for change became focused on four years down the road, November 4, 2008, a date that seemed too many days of poor leadership away. We watched the American image abroad decline substantially through intifadas in Israel, invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a slew of other questionable foreign relations decisions. Outside our own front doors, we sent children and teachers into underfunded failing schools, invested our money in an increasingly unstable economy, struggled to afford healthcare, and further perpetuated the view that Americans are greedy, uneducated consumers of the world’s products and resources who think about nobody other than themselves. Having by majority elected monkeys in suits to take vacations from a big white house on the American dime instead of improving our lives, we were held responsible for this action, in a sense, by getting what we deserved.

Now, on November 3, 2008, we brace for another day of reckoning. Most of us think we are ready for change, or at least know we desperately need it. Many of us think we see an opportunity for this in one of the candidates, though quite a few of us think we won’t see the change we need in either of our options. In the 2004 election, voters had the choice of the incumbent; they saw the familiar face of a man who didn’t seem to totally mess up our lives, compared to a stranger who said he would do great things but hadn’t had the opportunity to show that he really would. In 2008, the starting ground is flatter. Though both candidates have track records, neither has been the chief executive. Neither has had that unfair advantage of not totally messing things up, an advantage that sadly instills trust rather than disapproval in this country. As a result, we can hope that the man who wins tomorrow will be the one elected by the majority to show us what a fresh face in the White House can do for our nation.

On November 4, 2008, we exercise our right to elect the leaders of our government. We cast our votes for the person who most represents the values that we adhere to and the future we see for our country. All that we know now is that the Bush era is over; we can only hope that after tomorrow, we will not spend another four years waiting on a dream of strong, competent leadership deferred, but instead move full-force forward into four years of re-evaluation, reconstruction, and re-determination to make America a place where we want and deserve to live.

Monday, October 6, 2008

We Were Never Nightmare Hooligans, But Seekers of the Blond Nose for Truth

Ben Jones asked the trustees of Oberlin to write about their fearlessness for the launch of the new site. I hesitatingly agreed but have regretted it ever since. My main problem with this task is that, as fearless Obies go, I am certainly not one of them. I have not overcome some insurmountable barrier, defied a social institution or stood up for a cause that no one else has dared to stand up for. I can tell you about the fearless people with whom I surrounded myself while at Oberlin, like Nivan, who boldly bounds boulders and now teaches 2nd grade in North Carolina, or Krista, who is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, or David, who moved to a small city without a single friend around, 3000 miles away from his family, to commit himself to his passion for photography. There are many of that fearless breed of Obies running around the world, fearlessly and passionately pursuing noble causes and/or their ultimate truths. Then there are the rest of us. Like this other breed of Obies, for whom "fearless" has caused a personal self-doubt and overwhelming apprehension, the debut of this aggressive neon branding deeming Oberlin as a training ground for fearless leaders has left me asking a question I never imagined I'd ask: do I deserve to be an Obie?

As psychologically disturbing as this question might be (now that it's after-the-fact, and I've been granted a diploma and even a spot on the board of trustees), I'm going to write about it anyway, for two reasons: 1) because I am not afraid to (fearless?) and 2) because, like every other Obie, I believe I have something meaningful to say. In this case, my meaningful contribution will be to let you know that you do not need to ask yourself this question because Ben Jones, in requesting that I do this exercise, has convinced me that all Obies have a fearlessness within them, no matter how latent this trait may seem when our peers and classmates, youthful and bold, are speeding swiftly ahead of us to change the world before we even get there. Here goes.

On a recent visit to Oberlin (the same visit on which Ben Jones inflicted this time-consuming thought process on me), I climbed the stairs to the 3rd floor of Rice and saw familiar faces nose-deep in Kierkegaard. To no surprise of mine, David Kamitsuka, a professor of religion, sat in brow-furrowed conversation with three students who were impressively awake and engaged for the Saturday morning hour. This is not a sight seen often at my current academic institution. It is this very moment of engagement that defines Oberlin and, by power of association, makes all those involved fearless whether they know it or not.

Education is the most powerful mechanism of our society, and as Obies we have made a commitment to educating ourselves. This is the most fearless act that we have engaged in collectively. By joining a small academic community, each of us as individuals has affirmed that there is knowledge out there to be gained and we do not yet possess it. Each of us has committed to taking whatever risks are necessary to gain even just a piece of this knowledge. We will sacrifice time and money, the proximity of family and friends, the comforting reality of ignorance as bliss, and we will put our worldview (literally, the way we know and organize the world; this is no small concept) on the line and open our minds wide open. This all for the sake of learning, an eight-letter word that encompasses that unencompassable, insurmountable task of knowledge acquisition.

Then, after saying "yes" to this petrifying sacrifice of all things we think we know for certain, we enter a constant flurry of discourse that is uncontainable. It finds us in our dorm rooms, in the hallways of King or the Science Center, even in the cities we inhabit after we leave Oberlin--it asks us questions, finds a way to make itself applicable to our daily actions, and hardly ever leaves us alone.

Every Oberlin student knows that head-in-hands moment, when you cannot hide from that sinking, awful, anxious feeling of reaching and reaching and reaching for the answer that you painfully know might not even be there. Every alum, whether or not they can tie it to a particular paper or course or year in school, remembers the gut-wrenching, exhilarating (in retrospect) sensation of not quite getting the point. This is something each of us willingly subjects ourselves to. Reflecting on it now, can you believe it?

If allowing oneself to get to this point of utter submission to the universe of knowledge isn't fearless, then I don't know what is. Every individual who has made that affirmation, who has said "yes" to questioning what we know and seeking to know more, is deserving of every positive trait associated with being an Obie. No matter where you are now or where you end up, your Oberlin experience is a part of you wholly and deeply. Obies don't just change the world--they constantly grasp for the absolute ends of it, bravely, entrepreneurially, infinitely, and fearlessly.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Careful, This is About Vouchers

I attended a private Episcopal school where the student body was about 65% Jewish. What were they all doing there? Were there no decent Jewish schools around? Was this school better than the secular schools in the area? Is it possible that some parents figured that some value-based or faith-based education was better for their children than whatever the state or some other private entity deemed most critical for an "educated citizenry"?

Surprisingly, these are the kinds of questions people ask when they talk about voucher programs. The legal precedent allowing states to establish or ban voucher programs stems from average citizens filing suit against the administrators of voucher programs and other incentive programs with the argument that these programs unconstitutionally provide extensive and exclusive benefits to religious schools (see Lemon v. Kurtzman, Agostini v. Felton, Mueller v. Allen, Zelman v. Simmons Harris). As a result, the difference between having a problem with government endorsement or facilitation of religious schooling and having a problem with the government enabling a pervasive opt-out of public schooling is frequently blurred. Which is the issue that the American populace really cares about? As a nation, which are we more afraid of: the domination of religious education or the continued decay of public education?

I think the most alarming issue here is that no one's vocalizing the distinction between these two concerns. Secondly, even when we do parse out the issues, we're focusing on the wrong one. The fact is, if a religious school is the best school around, many parents will opt for it regardless of religious affiliation. The religious school isn't forcing these children into religious education; the parents are weighing their options and deciding what they think is "best" for their children. If these parents have a problem with the religious component of the school, they'll teach their children something different at home; the overall gain of the education the children will receive is greater than the losses associated with this particular curricular or social component. On the other hand, if a religious school is the "best" school in an area and enough parents think that religious education is not the way to go, then why isn't there increased demand in these areas for "separate but equal" educational accommodations in the secular sphere? Why are the cases and battles about benefits to religious schools when they should really be about turning those funds into creating a competitive public schooling system that rivals the private school product?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Plight of the Overeducated

Many people dream in clear, focused vision--they see a role they will fill, the specific ladder they will climb to a pre-identified destination, and the end at which they hope to arrive. I don't know if it is the eighteen years of top-notch schooling or the whirlwind of New York or just the way my brain works, but I am restless and lack a solidified dream-plan. Frequently a "plan" will appear to me, and I will convince myself that this might be my destiny, the path which I was meant to pursue and the area of life where I can make the most impact. Then uncertainty and other options push into this perfect portrait and I am reminded that, thus far, I have not settled for anything less than an ambiguous destiny, blurry as a coastline in the morning fog.

This is a common tale--I've heard it in the ramblings of classmates and seen it plaguing and confusing colleagues and friends. There are three features that form this situation that I find most troublesome: (1) the great American emphasis on "destiny" and having a particular path that you are meant to pursue, (2) the upper-middle-class perpetuation of the mythical beauty in believing that all doors are open to you, and (3) the liberal-idealist perception that "I" must stand out by making a profound impact on this world.

I've been thinking a lot about the "American dream" because of Amy Stuart Wells, my professor who has been assigning readings on the paradox of the whole thing. Even though I've known it all along (and we all have, by believing in it and pursuing it), I'm still shocked to realize that the dream consists of opportunity for the whole/collective success along with maximization of individual achievement. This is where that question looming in the minds of every Oberlin graduate appears: How can I make a positive change in the world/for humankind and be recognized as an individual for doing so?

As a result of asking this question, we rack our brains for the most innovative solution, and when that fails we rack our brains for the most achievable option. Our minds are racing towards a thousand destinations, and struggling to hold onto all of them we find ourselves advancing towards none of them--lost soldiers uncertain of neither our battle nor our weapons, we are defeated.

This is where I stand right now, particularly in the face of collapsing markets and mudslinging campaigns, overpriced airfares and the realization that yes, I do need to hold down a job now if I want to go anywhere (at all) from here. Will rationalizing the American dream and the plight of the overeducated to dream big without direction help me identify my own path to pursue?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Verde Que Te Quiero Verde

As a student of psychology, I learned that the human brain needs categorization for comprehension. As an example, children formulate a definition of a "tree" based on the elm tree outside of their Massachusetts school or the palm trees lining the Los Angeles boulevard near home. Then, when an unfamiliar tree comes into the picture, it is at first foreign, undefinable, until that category of "tree" is expanded to include this new meaning and all the features that accompany it.

It turns out that we rely on this categorization mechanism to process nearly all the information that we encounter. Faces, places, names and objects all filter through a complex series of categorical worlds until suddenly (hopefully) a match can be made. Recognition follows shortly after.

Paradoxically, what enables us to pick up where we left off day after day also binds us to a strangely limiting need to process events and features based on what we have experienced and seen before. For relationships, this means an inevitable and awkward consideration of who we are currently dealing with in relation to those we have dealt with before, in other situations, in other moments, in seemingly disconnected scenarios. The result is a perpetual string of relational ties that enables us to make some sense of a situation that would otherwise be intangible, incomprehensible, and wonderfully, beautifully new. Why do we fight against this relational activity that our brains immediately plunge into? Why do we desire original experiences yet immediately rationalize them through comparison to anything that shares a feature or two with what we have, momentarily, found exhilaratingly fresh?

Monday, September 8, 2008

This Is Not About Me

Once, someone wrote about New York. This did not seem challenging because it was the second city of light, the sister city to the city of brotherly love, the city where push-comes-to-shove in nearly every encounter and the city where most people seemed to be to be someone.

New York had always been a paradox to this writer--it seemed to host an immense pride coupled with a disconcerting unfriendliness in nearly all interpersonal exchanges. She dreamed of a comraderie generating a calmer, happier atmosphere, and though she loved New York this vision always haunted her, like the unknown freckled past of a quiet lover.

Her favorite encounters with New York were aerial. She savored the moments before arrival when she returned from London or Chicago or Ohio, when the city glistened below her and she was able to see Manhattan in its entirety. Glowing with the glaze of red traffic lights and the yellowed lamps of a million homes, her Manhattan from this angle was simultaneously containable and limitless. Almost always in the seat beside her would be a visitor, some wide-eyed dweller of some other incomparable city, amazed at the strength of the glow in every direction. Manhattan, that tiny island in the midst of New York City, would to that visitor be the home of giants, and the boroughs and suburbs that surround it would be the fortress, an army of two-family homes and New Jersey-tagged Volkswagens owned and operated by masses of immigrants...

The Truth Is...

I'm not really a redhead. I spent the first 6 years of my life proclaiming to anyone who would listen that "I have auburn hair," and it's the truth. The tragedy of being auburn-headed is that one is neither a redhead nor a brunette. Culturally, those of us straddling the median must pick one side or the other: will we go through life claiming high levels of pheomelanin and all the expectations that accompany this, or will we join the boring brown sidelines where those with less exciting pigmentation must find other conversation topics? Obviously, I've opted for the former and spend my days impersonating some meant-to-be real redhead whose life I am most surely co-opting.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reflections on Days in Paris

On the eve of my departure from Paris, I am disturbed to realize that I feel that melancholy feeling that all writers have described about Paris. For all its demoralizing and unpleasant features, this is a place that wrenches its way into your heart. This is the city of love, of light, of magic in the face of bureaucracy (a word that in its very nature seems French) and language barriers and never-ending queues. This is the city to which all those who can return do--if not for habitation, than for that small sensation, that uncomfortable fluttering that occupies one's depths when saying goodbye to this city.

Yet for all its hate-to-love-but-do, Paris is not for me. The view of Paris from the 59th floor of Tour Montparnasse did not rouse any feelings of excitement or even interest in me. My city is New York--from the 110th floor of a city building I could spend hours peering over familiar neighborhoods from a new perspective or spotting gaps in the novel my feet have stomped out in 13 years of being in New York shoes. To Paris I have no connection. A view of all of Paris is nearly the same to me as a view of Seattle or Berlin or Seoul. It is an image, a fascination from the novelty of an aerial view, a moment to enjoy but quickly forget the specificities of. On the ground, Paris continues to be a new frontier to explore--this will never cease. Yet the Paris frontier, unlike New York or London for me, evokes anxieties that are prohibitive to true absorbtion of this city. My calmest moments here, those during which I can mimic most fully the sensations and habits of Parisian life, are silent and solitary. On a park bench in Jardin de Luxembourg, beside the pyramid of the Louvre, on the metro or strolling down a tiny rue, engaging in peaceful, coordinated coexistence, I am most in tune with Paris. Yet these moments are few, and are abruptly burst by a confused, flustered exchange of inadequate words with a Parisian, angered by my French-less intrusion on their city. No, Paris is not for me--I'll keep my quiet, distasteful love of this city close to my heart, as I pass through this place on my way to somewhere else.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In the taxi to Tel Aviv, Moshe (our driver) pointed out the intermittent concrete wall and barbed-wire fencing that separate the Palestinian Territories from Israel. On the other side, apartment complexes like those seen anywhere are inhabited with people like anywhere else--except they are in nation-less territory. Some people have compared Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories to Luxembourg, proposing a multi-state-ownership solution. This has worked in Luxembourg because the participating states are content (enough) with their own territory. The Palestinians do not have any state right now--what feasible solution will be sufficient enough for them?

David Schulman and Yigal Bronner told me a bit about the Jewish settlers--people who live in the Old City's Arab Quarter or in the Palestinian Territories and attempt to make the Palestinians around them miserable. These people should not be given a medium through which to promote their inhumane perpetuation of a complex crisis. The Arab terrorists who do the same, who force all in Israel into a level of fear that reaches everyday paranoia, should be denied these mediums as well. However, quieting the extremists is not the solution, and if it is even part of it, it does not make a large dent.

Why is the United States the nation that has been designated as the third-party mediator? Other than the surrounding Arab nations, it is exceptionally biased and unlikely to serve as a fair mediator. Why has no other nation stepped up to the plate? Though the stakes are high, the rewards of facilitating a sustainable solution are much higher. While the UN and other multinational organizations will be influential, it may take the resources and status of a true nation-state to facilitate a mutual solution.

Pensive in Paris

Basilica of Sacre-Coeur

In Paris' Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, pilgrims and tourists follow familiar stations of the cross around the nave. How many of these people have walked down Via Dolorosa? It is incredible how a short series of historical moments have defined a universal routine that unites and divides. For Christians, and mainly Catholics, the stations of the cross serve as symbols of a collective memory and a shared set of beliefs. In their exclusivity, they create a particularity that for non-Christians denotes "otherness." Though the Muslim shopkeepers on Via Dolorosa peddle Christian memorabilia, the street will never have the same religious connotation for them as it does for the tourists (their patrons).


Le Select Cafe, Blvd. de Montparnasse

Cafes serve nearly every purpose in Paris--they are offices, living rooms, studies, park benches, hotel lobbies, restaurants, bars. In appearance they resemble the classic diners of America--some are retro, others tacky, a handful chic. Yet with rows of chairs facing the street and domineering the sidewalk, they are unlike anything America has to offer. Even in New York, outdoor cafes are neatly enclosed, with each seat facing another. Here, chairs spill out onto walkways, all chairs facing the passersby, as if they will be occupied by an audience or a judging panel. Is observation the central tenet of this setup? If so, which direction is it meant for, outside looking in, or inside looking out?


Rue Saint-Dominique

At its terminus at Place de les Invalides, ancient men play bocce and smoke cigars in a tiny, street-surrounded park. Rue Saint-Dominique is worth revisiting, I think. Strewn with clothing stores and sandwich shops, interspersed with an occasional barbershop or pharmacy, it is a placid dose of normalcy between two of Paris' grand attractions.

I have decided that Paris would be better experienced with a quiet companion. Traveling comes with difficulties that, when stubborn Parisians are involved, are successfully dealt with in pairs. However, the gentle romance of even the most mundane facets of Parisian life begs a reflection and serenity that can most fully be achieved in silent observance of goings-on. One is overwhelmed, distraught nearly, if he or she attempts to maintain this reflection for too long. A companion could help balance all this.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Understanding Communication

Despite the fact that English is widely recognized now as the international language, you cannot reasonably expect it to be spoken on international flights between two non-English speaking countries. For this reason, I find myself sitting in the Tel Aviv airport listening to announcements about my Air France flight being given in French and Hebrew. I seem to be the only one who doesn't understand. Are we really in that straight-forward of a world? Are Israelis and Parisians truly the main demographic on the Tel Aviv-Paris flights? How many of us are just passing through? How many of us are ex-pats of some other nation? How many of our reasons are unaccounted for?

It takes the experience of being left-out, of having no comprehension of what's being said, to understand the value and weight of communication. In Jerusalem, Adeesh said he felt like a child sounding out the words on signs. Learning a new language is beginning again. It involves the most basic maneuvers--those we learn by rote through the simple act of being a child--to achieve any level of comprehension. The patience and commitment associated with this act, and the resulting allegiance to the language which one learned first, and even second, is so great that the possibility of one universal language surpassing all others seems inconceivable. Language is so thoroughly embedded in history and culture that some languages have words for emotions or settings or crops that cannot be translated because the very concept is inexplicable beyond the particular cultural context. The result is often the incorporation of another's word into a language that desires or adopts the word's object. Schadenfreude, cabaret, and yallah are examples of this. Hundreds more are exchanged everyday. But this incorporation is piecemeal; a new, foreign word is a shortcut to save us from a lengthy explanation. It does little to bridge the barriers between French-speakers and Catalans, me and the Hebrew-speaking flight attendants, the two of us who sit in silence, strangers though our language is the only thing that distinguishes us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jerusalem's Old City

The transition from the Muslim Quarter to the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City is stark. On one end of a walkway, Arabs man crowded storefronts with hookahs, rugs, and brass spilling into the street. Pedestrians crowd every cobblestone and Arabic conversations continue across the gritty ends of the road. On the other end, a pristine and empty passageway is dotted with Israeli flags and quiet, women-run shops touting glassware and high-end paintings. The newness is eerie, utopia-like, throughout the quiet, deserted streets of the Jewish quarter. The distant laughter of children echoes and it is apparent that this is what the Jews were longing for. How has something so Western been created within the same walls as a preserved Arab community continues to thrive? The lack of integration is the most surprising feature of the Old City. The transitions in language on street signs, apparel, and goods between quarters in the Old City signals that these quarters serve almost as ghettos--as enclaves with clearly defined borders and boundaries.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Does an Eye for an Eye Make the Whole World Blind?

Initial Reflections on Israel

There are many realities here that I am trying to unearth, to explain or rationalize or just see clearly. It all begins with history, with the perpetual persecution and "othering" of the Jewish people. When Israel, the Jewish nation, became a reality in 1947 and then extended in 1967, it seemed that Jews would finally be able to live as one in the absence of ghettos and markers and all the things that made Europe and other locations unbearable for the Jewish people. But as David Schulman pointed out tonight, Jerusalem is defined by ghettos. Whether this can be called projection or retaliation or the nature of human dynamics is not for me to say. It is so clear here that the branding, the consequences of being identified as Jewish or Palestinian or Arab or tourist, defines daily life to an extreme extent. People are not living here simply as people living in a nation. They are living here as communities and enclaves that connote dangerous potentials--their ID cards and passports and religious affiliations are demanded of them at random, in drugstores, at historic sites, on city sidewalks. Has the collective memory of persecution, first in the Jewish community and now fermenting in the Palestinian community, really led to respite from this persecution? Doesn't an eye for an eye make the whole world blind?

There are too many parts that I am struggling to piece together here: the Palestinian experience, the many Jewish perspectives, the role of the Israeli government, what it means to claim what you deserve, to speak a different language, to ignore similarities when the particularities define the deserving-ness. These are only some of the things I'm trying to understand.

I am also thinking about newness. Though I have no real sense of what was here before 1947 or even before 1967, I doubt it was in Hebrew. How has an entirely self-sufficient, self-perpetuating, self-defined nation developed in such a short time? How is it that it seems as though this is how life has been here forever?

Another element to process is fear. Two incidents today paused the pace of daily life in Jerusalem for a handful of moments before business returned to usual. Near the King David Hotel, a Palestinian turned a construction tractor onto pedestrians, injuring about thirty people. Nearly simultaneously, the doors to the Old City were closed, creating a fortified section of what has become a much larger urban realm. Around the same time, two blocks from where we stood, watching, an Israeli officer detonated an abandoned duffel bag that was considered a suspicious package. Once the streets reopened, locals photographed the charred contents--coping by calling it a novelty. In these moments, fleetingly, I understood the fear with which many residents of this terrain must life. Especially during intifadas, when anything is possible, how do you maintain both patience and composure?

Amongst all these thoughts, I visited some of the most holy sites in the world today. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the birthplace of Mary, the tomb of Jesus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa. These are the footprints and cornerstones of modern history. These are the symbols that restrict and presuppose the ways that I will interact with Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Simultaneously, they should be informing and enlightening my own personal relationship with my spirituality. Each of these thoughts, or brackets of thoughts, could occupy me wholly. Which should take precedence? What is my duty? How can this visit define (in part, at least) the plot of my course?

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Epic Crossing from Jordan

I have just arrived at the Fellows Lounge on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The journey door-to-door from my hotel in Amman to here was surprisingly only five hours. After all the hype about crossing the border, I expected much more chaos. I took a JETT bus from Amman to the Jordanian border terminal. It was odd to be the only rider, other than a few men who seemed to be friends of the bus driver. At the terminal, families at the head of the departure line moaned that they had been there for hours and I expected the worst. It was not long before I headed for the next bus with my 5JD departure stamp in hand. The bus waited until it was full and then took us across the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, after which we were unloaded for a young Israeli with a machine gun to board the bus for 30 seconds and then tell us to re-board. A 2-minute drive brought us to the Israeli border terminal. Luggage in hand, I passed through a series of easy checkpoints and then reached passport control. The entire operation was being half-heartedly handled by 18-year-old girls (and a few boys) wearing required garb paired with current youth fashions. Alternating between vaguely gesturing toward a line for travelers and furiously texting on their cell phones, these girls commanded absolutely no sense of security or authority over the state of Israel and those who enter it. On my turn, though, a terse teen demanded my return ticket home and spewed a list of Middle Eastern countries that she wanted to be certain I hadn't visited. It was both terrifying and laughable. After stating that she intended to stamp my passport (with a brief pause for me to speak now or forever be marked with visiting Israel), the guard waved me through a corridor where I wound up lost in a slew of cafe deliveries with no sense of how to exit. Finally an employee gave a helping gesture. Outside, I followed the building's side until I came to what looked like two guys with a hut and a van. I gave them 35 shekels to ride in an extremely hot servecee to Jerusalem's Damascus gate. From there, another taxi took me to the Givat Ram campus, and a few kind souls struggled to help me find the Feldman building. It fascinates me that Israel is so focused on security. I still can't figure out who is allowed to enter and live here, what the status of the West Bank's residents is, and why many Muslims continue to live here. Hopefully this visit will provide some insight.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Petra

In the 1980s, the Jordanian government turned Petra into an official tourist destination. The Bedouins who previously occupied Petra's caves were made to leave, despite their continuation of the cavernous living that the Nabateans began here. In 2008, ten Bedouin families remain in Petra. All of them offer some tourist service--they run cafes, sell jewelry and other goods, and offer "taxi rides" on donkeys, camels and horses. Bedouin children run up to passing Germans and Swedes and in perfect English offer compliments and necklaces for 2JD. These people, like gypsies and pirates, have traditionally been nomadic. The requirement that those Bedouins living in Petra contribute to the tourism industry somehow means that goat-herding has become a secondary priority, and learning English, European languages, and Japanese essential to survival.

What would Petra be today if it had not been so heavily tourified? Would its inhabitants be migrants, traveling between here and the desert, speaking languages that only fellow Bedouins and Jordanians can understand and pursuing trades that their ancestors have pursued for centuries? Would Petra be deserted, lost, empty?

This ancient metropolis is stunning. It reminds me of a time I have never known--when cities were self-contained and self-sustaining--when a city's residents were a people, with a shared ambition or culture or believed purpose.

Yesterday we climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice and the Monastery. From both, the rolling hills, cascading mountains and sandy deserts of Jordan unfold before naive, non-native eyes as untouched, unexplored, full of potential. To a student or historian, this unfolding serves as a physical manifestation of centuries of historical events, discoveries, destinies, battles. These soft, soundless lands muffle violent conflicts and trying passages that, though bereft of any remaining witnesses, are so deeply embedded in the collective memory that our modern decisions, both large and small, are determined by them. It is on these lands that Christianity was built--it is here that Islam flourished--it is just across that sea in the distance where Jews are creating new dynamics with their fellow Peoples of the Books.

Yet thousands of years ago, a Nabatean priest was performing a sacred ritual at this very spot; a Nabatean family was mourning the loss of a loved one; a young boy was collecting sticks for a fire. The basic processes and priorities of life remain the same--though the spaces have changed (what used to be the high altar, perhaps the holiest of places in Petra, is now a stomping ground for scarcely dressed foreigners with Nikon cameras and sun hats), the way that we as people interact and grow has perpetually defined our existence.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Can We Make Such Comparisons?

I have been thinking a lot about the parallels between India and Jordan. Both are full of ungraspably ancient sites that serve as living reminders of some of the earliest human memories. Both have witnessed an onslaught of increased tourism in the last 25 years and have reaped the benefits and suffered the consequences of this constant global migration. Driving along the King's Highway today, I could have changed the shop names, slightly altered the women's clothing, and been in India all the same. Scattered towns with either immensely scattered or densely packed storefronts, many peddling the same goods, dot the drive south along the King's Highway. Between them, Bedouins herd goats and set tents on lifeless desert terrain, resembling Indian farmers who cross lonesome roads with their flocks.

Yet for all the similarities, some crucial differences are striking. Jordan seems to live life much more privately. Though traditional gender roles saturate both societies, Jordanians do not seem to conduct as many of their affairs in public as the Indians (or even the Dominicans). With a significantly smaller presence of beggars and a tendency towards patience, Jordan has surprised me by the lack of attention its residents pay to me, and the friendliness I encounter when they do engage me. Coupled with a minimization of private business in public spaces, this quiet co-existence makes Jordan seem less primitive, cleaner, more advanced than what I saw of India.

In Petra, things are different. In the mid-1980s, the primarily Bedouin town and its neighboring Wadi Musa were transformed into tourist enclaves, with buses of Russians and Germans unloading at new 4-star hotels. The local culture has responded with disdain and curiosity, it seems--both welcoming of its visitors, as Jordanians always are, and concerned about the future and status of this formerly peaceful area. Only here have I been called out to by streetwalkers and store salesmen, while in Amman and Madaba, I walked by unnoticed. There's a tension in the air that suggests an unfamiliarity with how to manage the transition from an ancient base for nomads to a static preservation of the past on view to the world. I fear that we're contributing to a stifling of the energy here, the stopping of this town's movement through time, its progression along an ever-unfolding tale.

On our way to this strange, haunted Wadi Musa, we traveled along the King's Highway to see spectacular countryside, Wadi Mujib (what many compare to the Grand Canyon), and the Crusader castle in Karak, the site of many of the Crusade's holy wars. Will the United States ever have such history? In the castle we peered through slit holes for archers onto endless rolling hills, spotted with houses of people whose families came from all across the region to that spot. Unlike Petra, Karak remains a living, breathing city--did it get the right balance of preservation and continued transformation?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On the Dead Sea, Identity, and Carpets

At Mount Nebo, tourists peer through the haze over the rolling hills toward Israel. They strain their eyes, close them, squint--they try to see what Moses saw, what Jesus proclaimed--they remember this as the Holy Land. At this site, Moses was buried. From here you can see across the Dead Sea and the River Jordan, Jerusalem and the glaring deserts of Jordan. We begin our morning here, reflecting on this historic site, this place that shaped most of modern Judeo-Islamo-Christian civilization. Then, we descend through the hills, past Bedouins and camels, to the border that didn't exist for Moses. After 2 checkpoints, we arrive at the Amman Beach on the Dead Sea. Israel lies just a few miles across the water, and guards keep watch for any signs of illegal crossing.

The Dead Sea region is not nearly as hazy or as putrid or as calcified as all the guidebooks have led me to believe. At 400m below sea level, the Dead Sea shore is rocky and sandy, like any ocean shore. The sea, an eerily calm basin separating two barely amicable nations from one another, muffles sound, as if this were the quietest, most solitary place in the Middle East. But then the Arab families and the French tourists arrive, and happy children squeal at the strange sensation of floating on water. Breaking the sheet of serenity, Jordanian salesmen pedal mud products while women in hijab wade steadily into the sea. We walk into the water until our feet are swept up from under us, and we are turned horizontal by a silent, powerful, motionless force. Floating effortlessly, unable to right ourselves without conscious strategy and careful motion, we gaze at Jordan to one side and Israel to the other, alone in a lifeless, dying Dead Sea. Is this where Jesus walked on water? Where Moses dreamed? Where countless explorers reached a seemingly insurmountable barrier?

Stinging from the salinity, I pull myself toward the beach. It is a strange sensation, but not one that is particularly alarming or fresh. On the beach I dream of sharing tea with the Bedouins, being nomadic, shepherding. Are these things I could ever do? I cannot stop thinking about the boundaries that we can't surpass, those things that by defining us confine us: the color of skin, gender, language, to a much lesser extent now, nationality. In a borderless world there are some borders that will always remain. There will never be a day when I can sit with a group of Bedouins or Parisians or African-Americans and not be, even just a little bit, an outsider. This makes me strangely sad, this permanence of identity, so malleable but ever-present.

After visiting the Dead Sea, we drive back up the winding road through the hills to the Mariam Hotel. We decide to mail our carpets and embark on a Madaba adventure. The post office gives us mildly credible information, and we visit a small stationery shop in hopes of finding packing supplies. A friendly man plays charades with us as we try to obtain packing tape and a box. After many comical interactions with other shopkeepers, we return to the hotel victorious. We end the evening poolside, supposedly the "hot nightspot" in this town, after overfilling our bellies at a reasonable restaurant.

I am not overwhelmed by difference here, as I expected to be. I am not sure if this is a pleasant or disappointing surprise.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On Palestinians and Jordan

We ended tonight in a sweets shop, ordering 3JD worth of sugary, sticky treats. This morning, falafel and fresh juice in Amman from friendly street vendors fueled an hour of taxi rides around town to purchase bus tickets for destinations beyond Jordan. After noon, we board a bus to Madaba with students, police officers, and tired men, and arrive in this small city in time for a poolside lunch at the adorable Miriam Hotel. In this largely Christian town, we discover mosaics in countless churches, play with wide-eyed children, share tea with a weaver-shopkeeper who sells us handmade carpets. I purchase two--a runner from Iraq and a unique piece by a Bedouin woman. The shopkeeper's brother gives us a ride back to our hotel, and we peer through the hazy windows of an ancient, wide-bodied Mercedes-Benz at tiny shops catered at the tour groups we have magically avoided. In the evening, we stroll down mildly populated streets in search of food and find full stomachs with a little room left for sweets.

I am glad we came here and saw the Greek Orthodox churches--a reminder that religious diversity exists in the Middle East beyond the Jewish-Muslim conflict that plagues this region. I am thinking more and more about Palestinians--what it means to be a displaced population so large and so much in the public eye. Canada and Jordan offer passports to these people--what does it mean to be a citizen of a nation to which you have no relationship beyond the acceptance of an act of generosity?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

At 2:00am in New York, I Am in Jordan

At Queen Alia airport, the sun sets over the desert, bleeding into the immigration chamber where we fight, passport to passport, for the JD10 entry visa. Shuttled through the diplomat line, I claim my luggage and greet two khakied, familiar, facial-haired grown-up boys. Nick, Andrew and I ride in a taxi past a small amusement park, countless fruit stands, the sun disappearing into more and more distant sand. At the Palace Hotel, a dingy room greets us with its one perk: a balcony which brings the sweet Amman evening air in to cool our tired bodies.

We venture up a hill, or many hills, to the Wild Jordan, where we order many bland courses and incredible smoothies. The green florescent lights within hundreds of minarets speckle the Amman panorama--neon awnings for a city's biggest trade: faith.

At first, coming in from the airport along a mid-sized populated road, I reminisced about India--the clusters of mis-matched shops, the free flow of traffic and pedestrians and goods, the busy-ness of the shopping streets even late at night. Further into my first night in this country, in this city, I am not so confident that India and Jordan can be compared. Walking along a deserted Jebel Amman street at 1:00am, with two friends alongside, I sensed a serenity, a comfort, that India may never know. Here in Jordan, this tiny, peaceful nation amongst warriors, the pace is purposeful but relaxed, the mission meaningful yet not urgent. What more will I discover on its worn and lively streets?

(You + Me =) We Are Here

When we landed in Paris, everybody applauded, banded together like witnesses of some feat or spectacle. It is 9:55am and it is Bastille Day. Will we de-board to a celebration? Or will we go our separate ways, as we did for all those moments prior to that in which we, as individuals, families, groups, lost souls, boarded this plan and formed "we"? I love the ephemeral quality of this particular pronoun.

It is 10:00am in Paris and we are here, arrived from New York JFK full of cognac and coffee and sleep.

Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 2008

"Here's where I am, here's where I stand," tearing down the walls of apartment 2G in 90 Morningside Drive, pushing papers into heavy cardboard boxes, as we say goodbye with sweeping brooms and ladders to reach the cabinets we haven't touched since day one. It feels like we have been moving always--13 years of trips to storage and spring cleaning initiatives blend together now. We have lived here the longest, we keep saying, both as an excuse and as a coping mechanism.

How do we reflect? When do we look back to C.'s 1st grade "presidents" birthday party and M.'s senior prom? When do we honor these hallowed hallways?

We can see where we are now. C. is a young woman--she eats at school now and doesn't count her handwashes. Mom is tired but still exuding creative energy. Dad is the same as always but more worried. I am too practical, less passionate, disoriented.

For years we have defined ourselves as a family that lives in New York. Do we define ourselves as a diaspora now? Dispersed for economic and educational reasons? In Chicago, Dad inhabits a world of academia that many see only in movies. In Alfred, Mom will re-learn (or discover for the first time?) rural life and a real opportunity for leadership. Back in New York, remaining in New York, C. and I will navigate the remains of our youth. Like ghosts, we will traverse the streets of Morningside Heights pursing new, revised dreams. We will cross independently at crosswalks that used to require a held hand; we will make decisions that used to be made for us; we will open doors we could not have yet imagined.

Yet some doors, like that of 2G in 90 Morningside Drive and like 5J in 400 W. 119th Street before, will close to us, vaulting previous phases of our lives so that they are accessible only in the memories that visit us when certain smells or notes or conversations invite them. Now remembering seven odd years earlier than this moment, writing a poem that begins: "there comes a time when memories are all we've got. A shoebox of photos, an attic of pasts, decorating the modern memorabilia." We are so vulnerable to our memories--this has never occurred to me before. Nostalgia is the most powerful feeling that has no immediate rooting in the present moment. It is the past intruding on where we have arrived--it is a reminder that we may or may not need.

How long have we used this apartment, this home, as our base? From here we learned New York. Speeding down Broadway on the 1 train, we learned the restaurants of the Upper West Side, the Stardust Diner, the need to avoid Times Square, Younghee in Tribeca, Canal Street, the World Trade Center. Privately, we made our own discoveries, building secret New Yorks that no one else will share. We found patterns that suited us, routes we found preferable, places that meant comfort and safety and hope. We began to define ourselves through these individualized ties, these constructed days and weeks that we could allude to across the dinner table but never fully recount.

When did our relationship with this city change? Was it when M. left for college? When D. left for Israel? When the plan became to leave this city, to go our separate ways? Or was it only when we packed the last straws, the wrapping paper boxes, the Ganeshas over the doors?