I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

Global education (Candy Store, part II)

I crashed my South African pal Janet’s favorite course on the study of Africa and its problems, taught by the Pulitzer-winning scholar Caroline Elkins. We were walking toward the classroom building with another Nieman, Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin’ono, when photographer Gary Knight swept up to join us in his wonderfully British way (is bescarfed a word)?

BTW: This is the first time I have ever seen Gary Knight holding a camera.

“You two together in a course on Africa?” he said to Janet and Hopewell, eyebrows raised, his usual grin its usual huge. “You two examining how her European ancestors decimated your African ancestors? …  Fantastic!

My favorite thing about being tossed into the intellectual/multicultural stew that is the Nieman Fellowship is making friends with journalists who have covered extraordinary events all over the world — the end of Apartheid, drug wars in Mexico, conflict in Kosovo, gunfire in a Fallujah mosque and just about every other modern-day big event you can think of. (When one Nieman said she was itching to go cover the Haiti earthquake, our curator was said to chortle something about “golden handcuffs” — the pledge we signed not to work during the Nieman year. To which I respond: Cuff away.)

My second favorite thing is the range of brain candy available to us as class auditors at Harvard. Courses this week have ranged from Pentecostalism in Liberia and Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt (a sampling of Harvey Cox’s Religion in America) to the new “paleo” movement of New York hipsters who restrict their diets to meat and other foods of the caveman era (Food and Culture, taught by Ted Bestor).

Henry Louis Gates led his second Af-Am studies lecture with a rap song by G-Mike that went, “Read a book. Read a book. Read a Book, Mu-tha-fuck-a, Read a book,” then segued to a talk on Enlightenment-period philosophers’ belief  that blacks were closer to apes than humans. (Gates had a great piece on root.com earlier in the week about the “real curse on Haiti,” which he traced back to Thomas Jefferson.)

Just for kicks — and because I heard you don’t want to spend a year at Harvard and not see this guy in action — I sat in on Rory Stewart’s human rights class. This is the British chap who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, ran a province in Iraq and will leave Harvard in March to run for British Parliament, where he’s favored to win the Conservative seat (“When I told the dean I was leaving early, I explained that it’s like running as a Democrat in Massachusetts”). He talked about Nietzsche, Bentham and Mill and their criticisms of human rights legislation. The introductory material didn’t quite move me, but it was interesting to get a glimpse of the charming, eloquent Big Brain at work.

Sri Lanka Tsunami, Joachim Ladefoged, 2005

Last night a bunch of us braved snow and a wind so bitter that our car doors froze shut to get to Tufts University for the opening of a photo show called Questions Without Answers, a truly stunning (though sometimes hard-to-stomach) exhibition from VII, the photo agency started in 1999 by our favorite bescarfed Brit and his mates.  This massive show depicts the defining events of the post-Cold War period — the fall of the Berlin Wall,  Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Congo. … These are some of the most heartrending, intimate photographs I’ve ever seen — or not seen (because editors deemed them too graphic or politically unpalatable), as was sometimes the case.

This morning I get to return to Drawing with Anne McGhee, who is post-retirement but still teaching, making art and — get this — learning how to figure-skate. Last month she came to class with a purple hand, after a bad fall on the ice. Many her age might worry about breaking a hip, but Anne shrugged the bum hand off and, sure enough, the following week she was good to go, fearless and full of sass. Her favorite move is the sit-spin, “which I like to do really fast,” she explained. She’s a fabulous teacher, especially for beginners, because she wanders around the studio looking at your work, cracking jokes and making suggestions. Just when you’re feeling too clumsy to advance beyond Charcoal for Dummies, she asks: “Are you sure you’ve never drawn before? I don’t believe it.”

I guess that’s what I hope to take away from our year in Cambridge — the desire to keep exploring new possibilities, no matter how remote or improbable they seem. I may never walk across a continent or report from a war zone, but I know now with certainty: If you believe there are many journeys still ahead, well then, damn straight there are.

Sans model for this January drawing class, Anne arranged a still life of Niemans instead: Marcela Valdes, Alysia Abbott and Beatriz Oropeza.

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