Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Seeing Mr. Watson

Today we had our weekly virtual staff meeting and the feeling was unanimous from both the teachers and the kids—everyone misses everyone. We're all starved for human connection, particularly with our friends. No surprise that. 

Our first impulse is to up the number of Zoom meetings and yes, it is good to see people and to hear their voice. But there’s another “yes and” possibility that perhaps only an old codger like me would bring up or even remember. Writing letters.

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” That was the first sentence spoken on a telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. A bit ironic, because just as the invention made it unnecessary to see the person you’re talking with. Mr. Bell was already hungry to see him! At any rate, it was not a profound communication.

Some 4,000 years earlier, there was another extraordinary technological breakthrough—written symbols on a clay tablet in Sumeria that communicated a message. And the message? Was it a poetic utterance worthy of Shakespeare? A profound message to future readers? No, it was the details of a business transaction involving copper goods. Some of the documents that followed were records of the number of slaves someone had. 

And so. Deep communication and deep connection between human souls does not arise simply from technology, be it a clay tablet, a telephone or a video Zoom meeting. It doesn’t in and of itself appease our hunger for connection. Just because we can wave at someone and talk casually while slurping our breakfast cereal doesn’t mean we will now feel less alone.

Ah, but a letter. Of course, again, not automatically. But the technology of setting pen to paper both suggests and helps create an atmosphere that can send out golden threads between two human hearts. Consider:

1.    It’s unplugged. You can write anywhere. Sitting under a tree, on a bench at a train station, in your favorite chair at home with soft light and a candle burning.

2.    It’s intimate. Your handwriting reveals something of your character, becomes as much a feature of your uniqueness as your face and voice and the way you walk. Simply seeing the handwriting of a loved one can evoke their presence the way smelling the kind of cake they used to bake.

3.    It’s slow. Pen to paper slows you down and slowing you down puts you in a different time-zone than the fleeting moment, allows you to dig back into the past: “I’m remembering that trip to Mexico we took…”, tip forward into the future; “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend Christmas together some day?” and be more present in the moment; “It’s twilight and there’s a gentle rain. Your favorite lentil soup is bubbling on the stove, Bach’s Cello Suites are softly playing over the speakers and here I am writing to you. And there you will be reading this, maybe sitting on that bench in the park where we used to talk.”

Nobody writes an e-mail like that. No one begins a Facetime conversation at that level.

4.   It’s storable. So is e-mail, but no one is going to go through your old mails on the screen when you have passed on except to delete them as they close your account. But that box full of letters as you’re cleaning out the house of your departed loved one is a treasure beyond price. 

5.  It invites and evokes the imagination. To see someone in your mind's eye imaginatively instead of literally on the screen, to hear their voice in memory's ear, to feel their presence when they are not present—this is the Heart-work that allows for real connection between two souls. Setting pen to paper alone won't bring you there, but it will set the table for the imaginative feast that might follow if you do your work well.

Now of course 8-year-olds writing to each other during their sheltering-in-place will probably not achieve great heights of profundity. But they have to start somewhere to cultivate that possibility, to mark the moment more deeply than the passing flash of electronics and yes, occasionally say something worth reading again in the years to come. Something that will edge them closer to truly seeing Mr. Watson while thanking him for his generous gift of copper candlestick holders. 

Just a thought. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Kiss

In my dream, a skunk waddled up to me and climbed on my lap. I held still, it got up on its hind legs, kissed me on the cheek and then waddled off. (Two friends took a photo, but don’t think we have the technology yet to Airdrop photos from the Dreamworld.) Soon after, I was teaching a workshop in which we all held hands while I wove the group into a tight, intimate circle, the way I have thousands of times before. What does it all mean, Dr. Freud?

Hard to imagine that happening again, but of course, I hope it will. Having practiced social distancing, how long will it take before we can trust again to do such things? Even when the doctors give us the green light, I imagine some corner of the psyche will keep flashing red for quite a while. And who would dare to kiss a stranger on the cheek? Especially a skunk?

Just wondering. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not Alone

What’s one of the hardest things about our personal sorrows? The fact that they’re personal and we think that only we suffer in this way. That to attract some empathy, we have to explain what’s going on to someone who is not experiencing what we are and so has difficulty wholly understanding (or caring about) what we’re going through.  We feel that everyone is having a Pepsi moment except us. And so in our sense of aloneness, our suffering increases. 

But not now. It’s really extraordinary how many people are having the same experience right now and though, yes, it’s different depending on how many people are in your house, what kind of people are in your house, whether or not you’re actually in a house. But mostly we are all having the same foundational experience of feeling confined, worried about sickness/ money/ job security, off of our game, uncertain when or how (or for some, if) it will end. 

And that means we’re not alone. There are thousands of ways to suffer—sickness, loss, difficult relationships, mental imbalances, diet issues, feeling the victim of social injustice, taught to hate other people, drug and alcohol problems, learning differences, money troubles—shall I go on? It takes imagination on our part, especially in our have-a-nice-day culture, to realize that we are all the walking wounded, we are all broken in some way hoping for healing, we are none of us escaping the dues of a human incarnation. Didn’t Buddha tell us that in the first noble truth—Life is suffering?

But now we don’t have to imagine quite so wide and deep to understand that we’re all in the muck and mire of this unprecedented pandemic. Accent ALL. All political persuasions, religions, sexual orientations, economic status, nations, the whole sorry lot of minor differences that divide us so needlessly and deeply, none of it matters now. Please, friends, let’s use this opportunity to learn from this. And the simple moral is…

We are not alone. 

We are not alone. 

We are not alone. 

We are not alone.

We are not alone. 


Whatever word you accent, the truth is there. Let’s remember this when the doors re-open.

Pandora's Box

It’s a cozy rainy day. The refrigerator is full, the heater is on and (miraculously), toilet paper is re-stocked. Earlier, I stood in the early morning drizzle outside Trader Joe’s remembering the photos of the breadlines during the Depression. But instead of a crust of bread and cup of soup after a long wait, I entered a store with stocked shelves (toilet paper!), friendly people and drove home in a car with a tankful of gas. It could be—and might become—so much worse, but meanwhile there are innumerable blessings still to be counted. 

Post-grandkids, we’ve been straightening and sweeping and dusting and vacuuming and doesn’t that feel good! I’m about to tackle (after this tactic of procrastinating) the front room and deal with the stacks of overflowing CD’s, music books piled helter-skelter, papers begging to be re-filed or recycled. There’s a drawer in the bathroom crammed with old medicines and toiletries that has been waiting for attention some 3-5 years (!), other drawers in other rooms with old cassette tapes and videos, file cabinets with outlines of workshops taught these past four decades—and don’t even get me started on the basement! I thought I’d ease into it all with my approaching retirement and I do think there’s wisdom in limiting right now the number of Pandora’s boxes that I dare open, but hey! might as well get started.

But first, felt like I should investigate more closely the metaphor of Pandora’s box. I imagine this as a box filled with things you eventually need to deal with—be they misfiled papers or emotions you’ve repressed—that you need to think twice about before letting them out. In short, you need to be prepared for what will emerge, have the necessary time and needed bandwidth to meet it. So sometimes it’s wiser to keep it closed—at least for the time being. 

Well, almost. The real Greek tale begins with Prometheus stealing fire from heaven. Zeus is mad, so he sends Pandora to Prometheus’s brother, who asks her to care for a jar but not open it. Of course, her curiosity got the better of her and when she opens it, out flies sickness, death, mayhem, the Republican Party (updated version) and other evils to wreak havoc in the world. She quickly covers it again before the last content of the jar (later referred to as a box) flies out—Hope. As described by the poet Theognis of Megara:

Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the 
Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men's judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.

Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind.

The erosion of trust, restraint, grace, reverence. Judicial oaths not carried out, men purposefully not recognizing the rules of conduct. Did Theognis look ahead 1500 years to witness the Senate Impeachment Trial farce? Meanwhile, there lies Hope, still sheltering in place inside the box/jar/urn. This could be pessimistic—hope is locked away—or optimistic—hope is awaiting for the moment when we’re collectively brave enough to re-open the box. Who knows?

I’m going to think about this while I clean the front room. 

How To Live With Uncertainty





Repeat as needed.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Report from the Bunker

My wife had a long first labor and in the second day of our home birth, we couldn’t remember (and especially SHE couldn’t remember) life without contractions every 15 minutes or so. Within 24 hours, it had just become the new normal.

And so with sheltering in place, finished our second week and this has just become life. As needed, the days have taken on their own rhythm, as follows:

7:30-9:00—I feed the kids breakfast while my daughter Kerala and wife Karen jog.

9:00-12:00— Kerala and I retreat to online meetings and work obligations (me with online school lessons) and Karen takes the kids to the basement for a three-hour (!) art class. 

12:00-1:00—We all meet for lunch

1:00 -4:00—Bike rides in Golden Gate Park.  (I hear that some towns have closed city parks and I dread that day because Golden Gate Park has been a blessing, every day biking with the kids— and the 4-year old can happily bike 7 miles— for the triple boon of exercise, fresh air and the sanity of Spring.)

4:00 -6:00—Time with Aunt Tita at her house or ours while Kerala cooks dinner (she loves to do it and insists that she needs it). Sometimes I join them to do some music and/or make some music videos for the kids at school.

6:00-7:00—Dinner and clean-up.

7:00-8:00—Whole family Uno game. Stories and bedtime for Malik.

8:00-10:00—Reading with Zadie or Rummy 500 or share some classic movies with her (Singing in the Rain, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Big). 

More or less within that schedule, other things like Legos, jump-rope, playing catch with balls, recorder lesson, little drama skits, helping in the kitchen and more keep us all active and engaged. The reason for our time together is anything but happy, but the time itself has mostly been delightful. 
It will be a little different now because my daughter and the grandkids just left. To avoid planes and hotels and restaurants, we left San Francisco at 7am and I drove them through the newly non-trafficked freeways to Redding 3½ hours north, they picked up a rental car to drive another 7 plus hours to Portland while I turned around and drove back to San Francisco. All food in the car, minimal contact and touching of surfaces other than the gas pump with a cloth and the rest room with vigorous hand-washing and hand sanitizer.

Now the family is reduced from 5 to 2, with daughter Talia still allowed to come over, no more wild kid energy which is always a welcome break, but also something I will miss. A short weekend break from the much, much harder online schoolwork, confirming my long-held view that technology can be efficient in some areas, but maddeningly inefficient and unsatisfying in other kinds of learning experiences. Give me a live school staff meeting over Zoom any day and a room full of kids singing and dancing instead of sending little videos for them to watch at home. I hope we will come out of this more convinced than ever that live interaction, touch, smell, real-time 3-dimensional conversation, moving together, singing together, playing instruments together, eating meals together, is an irreplaceable blessing and non-negotiable human need that we have been spending WAY too much time trying to replace with computers. Another week or two or four of this isolated life and we will be bouncing off the walls yearning for big group hugs!!! Though will probably have to ease our way back into that. 

Much more I could say without the kids trying to beat me up or steal my glasses from my front pocket, but the long-neglected piano awaits and enough is enough. Just a little snapshot from one of millions of sheltered-in-place bunkers. 

And how are your days going?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Importance of G

Amidst the many stupid first-world problems of this increasingly scary pandemic, I’m having trouble with the “g” on my computer keyboard. Either nothing comes up when I press it or I have to repeatedly press it and it’s driving me crazy. For example, I wanted to tell you about a satisfyin online homework for 8th rade and even typin this sentence, I missed three of those aforementioned letters. Like all we’re understandin now, how you don’t know what you’ve ot till it’s one. (Fill in that letter!) Here’s my short report. Can you et it?

“I  ot the idea of ettin the kids to do a report about eore ershwin and his son  I ot Rhythm. Found a ood Youtube clip of Ella Fitzerald sinin it and also a tap dance version by reory Hines that was reat!”

uess I won’t be oin to the Apple Store for quite a while to fix it. Any suestions? You can send them to Dou oodkin.