Interviewing the next head of AFSC

This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.

I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.

I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:

I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.

I think AFSC will be in good hands with Ajlouny.

Camp Acagisca

A two-night scouts camp­ing trip with two of my kids to the coun­ty facil­i­ties at Camp Acagis­ca nears Mays Land­ing turned into a one night with one kid affair (my 11yo got way too mouthy when it came time to decide who was going to share a tent with dad and went home imme­di­ate­ly; the 9yo end­ed up in a melt­down mid morn­ing on the sec­ond day.)

 

Rain camp­ing

A video post­ed by Mar­tin Kel­ley (@martin_kelley) on

 

And while I assumed the name was some sort of Lenape con­struc­tion, it’s appar­ent­ly an amal­gam of Atlantic City Area Girl Scout Camp.

Can we count the ways that the McKinney video is messed up?

mckinney2When the McK­in­ney video start­ed trend­ing I wasn’t in a state to watch so I read the com­men­tary. Now that I have, the whole thing is com­plete­ly messed up but at least three parts espe­cial­ly unnerve me:

  • The com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary commando-style dive-and-roll that intro­duces Cor­po­ral Eric Case­bolt. Some reports describe it as a trip but to me it looks like he’s play­ing a Hol­ly­wood action hero stunt dou­ble. Has he just been watch­ing too many of the police videos he’s been col­lect­ing on YouTube?
  • That none of the oth­er offi­cers saw his derring-do and said “yo Eric, stand down.” Is this some­thing cops just don’t do? And if not, why not? We all know what it’s like to be hopped up on too much adren­a­line. I know peo­ple do weird stuff when their rep­til­ian brain fight-or-flight mech­a­nism cuts in. It seems that offi­cers should be on the look­out for just this sort of over­re­ac­tion and have some sort of safe word to tell one anoth­er to take a chill.
  • The video­g­ra­ph­er was a “invis­i­ble” white teenag­er. He walked near­by – and occa­sion­al­ly through – the action with­out being ques­tioned. At one point Case­bolt seems to pur­pose­ful­ly step around him to put down his dark-skinned friends. The video­g­ra­ph­er told news reporters that he felt his white­ness made him invis­i­ble to Case­bolt.

I nev­er quite real­ized all the race pol­i­tics behind the switch from pub­lic pools vs pri­vate pool clubs. I grew up in a Philly sub­urb with two pub­lic pools and very much remem­ber the con­stant wor­ry that Philadel­phia kids might sneak in (“Philadel­phia” was of course code for “black”). The town­ship did have a his­tor­i­cal­ly African Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood so the pools were racial­ly inte­grat­ed but I’m sure every dark-skinned town­ship res­i­dent was asked to show town ID a lot more than I was. And it’s hard to think it was entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal that both pub­lic pools were locat­ed on the oppo­site ends of the town­ship from the black neigh­bor­hood.

There are no pub­lic pools in the South Jer­sey town where I live. A satel­lite view picks out thir­teen pri­vate pools on my block alone. Thir­teen?!? There’s one pri­vate pool club across town. There’s a lot of casu­al racism around here, pri­mar­i­ly direct­ed at the mostly-Mexican farm­work­ers who dou­ble the town pop­u­la­tion every sum­mer. If there was a town pool that reflect­ed the demo­graph­ics of the local Wal­mart park­ing lot on a Fri­day night in July, we’d have mini-riots I’m sure — which is almost sure­ly why we don’t have a munic­i­pal pool and why wealthy fam­i­lies have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into back­yards.

(My fam­i­ly has joined the Elmer Swim Club, a pool locat­ed about half an hour away. While the major­i­ty of mem­bers are super nice and I haven’t heard any dodgy racial code phras­es. The pool is diverse but is most­ly white, reflect­ing the near­by pop­u­la­tion. That said, I’ve read enough Ta-Nehisi Coates to know we can rarely take white towns for grant­ed. So.)

Crows Woods in Haddonfield NJ

The blog­ger behind South Jer­sey Trails orga­nized a “dads’ hike” today in a small pre­serve along the upper reach­es of the Coop­er Riv­er.

The pre­serve is remark­ably inter­est­ing despite its rel­a­tive­ly small size and posi­tion­ing between soc­cer fields and train lines. There’s lots of hills ands wet­lands. We saw two tur­tles fight­ing and a snake of some sort swirling around an eddy in brack­ish iron-filled bog water. There was a lot of flow­er­ing moun­tain lau­rel, one of my favorite wood­land flow­ers.

Many local trails in deep woods are on land that has seen waves of devel­op­ment over the past two hun­dred years but a check of the 1930 New Jer­sey aer­i­al sur­vey shows that this same patch was deep woods then.
      I

What could have been: a review of Hitchcock’s flawed Torn Curtain

Torn_curtainI recent­ly lis­tened to Alec Baldwin’s pod­cast inter­view of Julie Andrews and thought I mis­heard when she men­tions work­ing on a movie direct­ed by Alfred Hitch­cock. The effect was only height­ened when she men­tioned that her co-star was Paul New­man. Although I could do the math and real­ize the careers of these three leg­ends would over­lap, the younger stars seemed to come from a dif­fer­ent era. Julie Andrews espe­cial­ly seemed a mil­lion miles from the ubiq­ui­tous icy blondes of Hitchcock’s lat­er movies.

The movie is 1966’s Torn Cur­tain. The plot is dri­ven by a clas­sic Hitch­cock MacGuf­fin: a sus­pense sto­ry where we don’t ful­ly under­stand (or even care about) the objec­tive over which everyone’s fight­ing. In this case it’s a for­mu­la for some sort of anti-missile defense rock­et, some­thing called the Gam­ma Five (umm, sure Hitch, what­ev­er you say).

There’s a rare alche­my need­ed to cast famous stars in dra­mat­ic roles. Do it right and the star­dom melts into the char­ac­ter. Hitch­cock can pull it off. We love watch­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex Cary Grant in North by North­west, part­ly because so much of his lat­er comedic act­ing had becom­ing self-referential (he was almost always play­ing Cary Grant play­ing a char­ac­ter). Some­how Hitch­cock used Grant’s famil­iar­i­ty to turn him into a quick-witted mod­ern Every­man with whom the audi­ence could iden­ti­fy.

But the mag­ic doesn’t work in Torn Cur­tain. From the moment I heard Andrews’ famil­iar chirpy clipped voice from under the bed­cov­ers I won­dered why Mary Pop­pins was engag­ing in post-coital pil­low talk with The Hus­tler. I could not muster enough belief sus­pen­sion to see Paul New­man as a bril­liant math nerd and I cer­tain­ly couldn’t imag­ine him as a lover to prim and fussy Julie Andrews.

The sto­ry revolves around per­son­al and nation­al betray­al and defec­tion but we nev­er real­ly under­stood why Newman’s Michael Arm­strong would defect or why (as we lat­er learn) he has gone into a kind of free­lance espi­onage behind the Iron Cur­tain. The defec­tion of prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect Julie Andrews, who as Sarah Sher­man we now know to be par­tic­u­lar­ly deter­mined and loy­al, feels even more inex­plic­a­ble. As I watched the movie bounce aim­less­ly from one close call to anoth­er my mind drift­ed away to imag­ine the Hol­ly­wood board room where some mogul or anoth­er must have strong-armed Hitch­cock to cast two up and com­ing stars for roles which they didn’t real­ly fit.

Then the plot. It mean­ders. But even more damn­ing­ly, it focused on the wrong lead. Newman’s Michael Arm­strong is pre­dictably lin­ear in his objec­tives. The most inter­est­ing plot turns all come from his assistant/fiancée, Andrews’ Sarah Sher­man. She is full of pluck and intel­li­gence. It’s Sher­man who insists on com­ing along on the ini­tial cruise to Copen­hagen and it’s her sharp eyes that spot the mys­te­ri­ous actions that tip off the com­ing betray­als. She notices Armstrong’s tick­ets, picks up the mys­te­ri­ous book, fer­rets out the true des­ti­na­tion, and then has the chutz­pah to board an East Berlin flight to fol­low her lying and errat­ic boyfriend. Her tena­cious impro­vi­sa­tion remind­ed me more of Grant in North by North­west than any­thing New­man did.

There are some intrigu­ing scenes. The strug­gle with Gromek in the farm­house is fas­ci­nat­ing in its length and has the kind of bril­liant­ly bizarre cam­era angles that could only come from Hitch­cock. The the­ater scene was legit­i­mate­ly nail-biting (though I found myself imag­in­ing Cary Grant ’s face as he real­ized how hope­less their escape had become). One of the most mes­mer­iz­ing scenes was the bus chase — will they have to stop for a pas­sen­ger?!? It’s the the kind of Hitch­cock twist we all love.

After read­ing the spoil­ers from WIkipedia and IMDB, I see that many of my com­plaints have good sources.

  • The basic plot was Hitchcock’s idea, inspired by husband/wife defec­tors Don­ald and Melin­da Maclean and In the fall of 1964, Hitch­cock unsuc­cess­ful­ly asked Vladimir Nabokov to write the screen­play.
  • The orig­i­nal focus was on the female lead (I was right!) The first screen­play was writ­ten by Bri­an Moore, a screen­writer known for strong female char­ac­ters. After Hitch­cock cri­tiqued the script and hired new writ­ers, Moore accused him of hav­ing “a pro­found igno­rance of human moti­va­tion.”
  • For cast­ing, Hitch­cock had orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to reunite North by Northwest’s Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Grant told him he was too old; Hitch­cock then approached Antho­ny Perkins. But…
  • Lew Wasser­mann was the Hol­ly­wood exec who insist­ed on bank­able stars. Hitch­cock didn’t feel they were right for the roles and he begrudged their astro­nom­i­cal salaries and con­strained sched­ules. How is it that Alfred Hitch­cock hadn’t secured total con­trol over his projects at the point in his career?
  • The actors and direc­tors were indeed from dif­fer­ent eras: Newman’s method act­ing didn’t fit Hitchcock’s old school direct­ing style. Hitch­cock used his casts as chess pieces and expect­ed the direct­ing and edit­ing to dri­ve his films. When New­man pressed the direc­tor for Armstrong’s moti­va­tion, Hitch­cock report­ed­ly replied “moti­va­tion is your salary” (can’t you just hear him say­ing that in his famous­ly arch tone?)
  • Hitch­cock didn’t like the way the movie was unfold­ing and shift­ed the atten­tion to Newman’s char­ac­ter part-way through. It’s always a bad idea to tin­ker with some­thing so fun­da­men­tal so late in the game.

I think Julie Andrews could have stepped up to the chal­lenge of act­ing as the main pro­tag­o­nist. If Hitch­cock had treat­ed her as the Cary Grant “Every­man” char­ac­ter — and made New­man stand in as the dumb blonde! — it would have bril­liant­ly turned Hitch­cock on his head. As it is, this movie rates a mid­dling “meh” rat­ing, more inter­est­ing for what it could have been than for what it was.