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)