Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And then again, Begin!

As the slightly cooler air signaled the close of a hot summer and insinuated, gently, the arrival of fall in Athens, Greece, I climbed the steps to the second floor of the turn-of-the 20th century house that holds the facilities of PORTA – the Albanian culture center. This stately, neo-classical house that once served as the surgery and private residence for the doctor who was the medical attendant to the King of Greece, now is my primary workplace. A tight grip on the circling, wrought-iron banister pulled my aging limbs and body upward to the place where students were already gathering. It was the first night of the Fall Session of the English-as-a-foreign-language classes which we offer through our center for Albanian immigrants.

Despite my weariness, I sensed renewed energy, a fresh wind, a new-found grace and an elevated hope within. Although I wouldn’t dare physically to leap up those stairs, my heart wanted to, because it was time for school to begin again. Breathless, I arrived upstairs with a few moments to reflect on all of those times in the past when I and some students somewhere have, together, faced the first day of class. Since 1968, with precious few exceptions, I have celebrated the autumnal commencement of learning from the professorial side of a university lectern. In such varied settings as a small town in northeast Mississippi, a moderate sized city in Kentucky, the megacity of Houston, Texas and now, in the old, Balkan, metropolis of Athens, Greece, I have welcomed the fall and the first day of class.

I am certain that I favor the first of school because of the new beginnings which it celebrates and affords for all involved. There is something comforting, if also, somewhat artificial, about the academic penchant for beginning and ending seasons of learning. When the course of study begins again, there are fresh opportunities and renewed possibilities. Regardless of what has gone on before, one can begin again.

It put me to thinking about those distinctive lines from the first stanza of Matthew Arnold’s classic poem, Dover Beach. Written, some say, on Arnold’s honeymoon, against those beautiful white cliffs of Dover on the English seacoast, the poet reflects on the sights and sounds of the sea which was, perhaps, just outside his window. Perchance while his new bride slept, he first penned the words that speak of the regularity, the security, the melancholy and the comfort of the life’s predictability, where things end and begin:

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.

Whatever Arnold might have originally intended these words to celebrate, this year, I am observing up close and respecting with great gratitude, just over thirty Albanian adults of all ages in Athens, Greece, who, despite the many obstacles in their pathway toward freedom and opportunity, are diving into the sea of knowledge again, seeking to learn how to speak English. With the rhythm of the sea, the actual sound and fury of which are no more than twenty minutes from their classrooms, they and their teachers are beginning again.

And, so am I!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It Certainly Is a Jungle Out There!

Living in Athens, Greece and choosing not to have satellite television coverage, we are somewhat limited in the English-language programming we can receive. Late at night, we get reruns of American-made movies, usually interrupted by 30-minute commercial breaks! Earlier in the broadcast day, we get reruns of such notable television series as “Hart to Hart,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Nanny.” One of our all-time favorites, however, is the on-going saga of the quirky, slightly mentally fragile, private detective, “Monk.”

Adrian Monk, formerly with the San Francisco Police Department, is the quintessential acute obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferer. His condition has been exacerbated by the murder of his wife, his unstable reaction to which resulted in his suspension from the department. Despite his emotional problems, however, he is a brilliant detective, styled along the lines of Sherlock Holmes with a little of Inspector Clouseau and Colombo thrown in. Monk has a record 312 phobias, chief of which are germs, milk, needles, death, snakes, mushrooms and elevators. He refuses to touch door handles and other normal objects with his bare hands, preferring to use sanitary wipes even after shaking hands. In addition, he is unable to eat food that other humans have touched!

Among the typical evidences of artistic genius in the development of this show, the people in charge chose Randy Newman’s ecological warning ballad, “It’s a Jungle Out There” as the theme song. Newman’s otherwise serious words of warning about the poisoning of the environment, placed against the backdrop of the slightly unwell Monk, are seen in a new light:

It's a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do
Hey, who's in charge here?
It's a jungle out there
Poison in the very air we breathe
Do you know what's in the water that you drink?
Well I do, and it's amazing
People think I'm crazy, 'cause I worry all the time
If you paid attention, you'd be worried too
You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much might just kill you
I could be wrong now, but I don't think so!
'Cause there's a jungle out there.

The genuine irony about this TV series is that it is precisely Monk’s relative illness that is, at the same time, the source of his detective genius. While his fears may often be ill-founded, it is his attention to detail, his penchant for symmetry and his obsession with orderliness which so often help him to notice the clues at the crime scene. And this is how Randy Newman’s appropriate warning about ecological concerns and Adrian Monk’s obsessive behaviors actually come together for me.

It truly is a jungle out there! There are very sinister and powerfully authentic and ugly realities about which each of us should be frightened and careful, at a minimum, if not active and corrective, at our best. Despite the fact that some may label us alarmist, overly-cautious, or moral sticks-in-the-mud, this good world has, in many instances, gone bad! How, then, can we be appropriately aware of the presence of evil in the world? How can we take seriously the many indications that this creation has been warped and thrown off-course from the original trajectory of its divine designer? How can we live with courage and fear and face our own, as well as the cosmic demons that destroy life’s happiness for so many? How do we dare to confront the social, personal and global "germs” that so easily pollute our world?

Adrian Monk’s trademark method of examining a crime scene may help us here. In what Monk’s able assistant, Sharona usually refers to as his “Zen Sherlock Holmes thing,” Monk wanders through a crime scene with apparent abandon. He holds up his hands, as though framing a shot for a photograph. Tony Shalhoub, the actor who portrays Monk, explains that Monk does this because it isolates and cuts the crime scene into discernable pieces or slices. It allows him to look at parts of the crime scene, rather than the whole.

Maybe that is what you and I need to do in this dangerous world. Perhaps we should stop easily ignoring and passing over the little evidences that our world is out of whack. Perhaps, we should give minute attention to the small evidences of discord, both in ourselves and in the cosmos. In all of the furor over health care, immigration, the economy and global peace, it might be Monkly wise of us to sense that something is way wrong, look at the small pieces of the puzzle and reflect on potential corrective scenarios, because, “It’s a jungle out there!”