Monday, December 17, 2018

It Has Come

I have a thousand or so record albums in my basement and a still functioning turntable upstairs in our front room. But there is only one record I ever play on it. It’s simply called Christmas Carols by the Prague Madrigal Singers and features songs from some fourteen European countries. Suspecting I will never find it on CD, I’ve kept my turntable functioning just for this annual ritual of hearing these songs.*

So tonight, the house clean, calm and quiet after the joyous energy of last night’s ritual Caroling Party, I fired up the turntable and out came the familiar voices with the familiar melodies and the familiar accompaniments (including organ and occasional bagpipe). I was transported, lifted back to a world out of time and everything changed in only the way music can change it. This was not a recording from my childhood, but it was from my children’s childhood and each notes carried memories of all those years. Not so much remembering, but actually living in all those moments again. The way music can gather time into one unfolding moment that embraces us and comforts us, an antidote to linear time’s cruelty. In this moment, no one gets old and nothing dies, we are simply here in full presence and the gods are in their heavens and pay no attention to the talking heads on TV, all’s right with the world.

In the face of all the hoo-haa and the ridiculous consumption and people jostling at department stores to get deals and the sickly sweet manufactured Christmas spirit brought to you by…, this is the real deal. I can picture these singers in a snow-filled Prague, the ringing head tones of the sopranos soaring over the organ’s bass pedals lifting spirit up our spines. I can feel the annual renewal of love huddled together to stay warm amidst the snow-white magical world, see the images of a baby offering the promise of a new life, wholly innocent of the millennia of bloodbaths that would follow in his name, for now, just stars beaming down and kings bearing gifts and animals gathered in a lowly manger. It’s a beautiful story and beautiful images, regardless of what ensued. And it’s ours to remember with the simple act of singing—or lifting a needle onto a vinyl disc.

It’s not the usual Christmas for me. Without the grandkids coming down this year, we opted to save a tree, though did bring a live Norfolk pine from our light-well and everyone who sees it marvels at its unique shape. We have lights on it and kept meaning to bring up the ornaments, keep the annual ritual of unpacking things both my wife and I have kept from our childhoods and from our first Christmases together. But we leave in four days to go to Hawaii (with the grandkids!) and it seems less and less likely that we’ll finish decorating the tree.

Last night’s caroling party was lovely, but some of the regulars couldn’t make it and we got rained out from the part where we actually take to the streets. And though I’ve done a few Holiday Sings at school, I’m not there each day to feel the kids’ excitement. All of it was okay with me, even feeling proud that every day was enough Christmas for me all year long that I didn’t need to make special fuss when the calendar tells me to.

But from the first notes of the Prague Madrigal Singers, I realized I did need it and do need it and we all do. Doesn’t have to be Christmas per se, but some touchstone that reminds us of our own shining excitement and innocence and wonder at being alive. It always is a fleeting thing for me, coming in fits and starts and never lingering for too long. But it is enough that it has come.

Thanks to my still-functioning turntable.

* PS After writing the first paragraph, I decided to check to see if against all odds, this old obscure LP had been made into a CD. And lo and behold, there it was!!! I can order it on Amazon from Switzerland and it will arrive in a month! I’ll miss the part where it skips without fail on Deck the Halls, but hey, I think it’s worthwhile. And still I’ll keep my turntable.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Tree Not Climbed

On a bench in Golden Gate Park

I happily sat reading

        poetry by Carl Dennis.

In front of me was a tree

with inviting branches,

the kind I would have instantly climbed

        in my youth.

All these long years later,

           I pondered how much daring I had lost.

Now it seems I’m content

           to just sit on the bench

                 and write a poem

                            about not climbing a tree.

Which is exactly what I did.

And then climbed it.

Friday, December 14, 2018


One of the most memorable moments in my life of education was a trip in the Ecuador rain forest guided by a Shuar Indian named Sebastian Mora. He was a fascinating man who first learned about the forest as his family, brought up by his culture to intimately know every leaf and twig and insect and bird and animal as one of his family neighbors, sometimes, friendly, sometimes dangerous. He then went to Europe to study botany and biology and had his foot in both worlds. But he was very clear that when he came back home with his European colleagues that his first education was far superior. They were book-learned and could identify plants by Latin names and knew something of their behavior, but really were at a loss when it came to understanding the deep intertwining relationships of all the living beings in the forest. And couldn’t have survived on their own in the place with what they knew.

I was only three days with Sebastian, but was consistently amazed by the stories he could read in his close observation of everything we passed and what all the signs meant. Where I just saw a collection of nouns, he was tuned to the verbs of interactions between them all and the finely-nuanced adjectives and adverbs. He got his daily news looking at animal tracks, scat, leaf closures and openings, shifts in the breeze, sounds in the night and more. No need for newspapers, magazines and certainly Facebook would have nothing to add to that exhilarating, always-changing, fascinating story about who walked here and what happened and what was worthy of notice and what was telling him to beware (“be aware”) and would was passing on some good news.

While I still have some time off, I made the wise choice of accepting my wife’s invitation to go with her to a class on Nature Drawing by a teacher she had been raving about. He had the prophetic name of John Muir Laws, something his nature-loving parents purposefully gave him to encourage his own emerging love of the natural world. It worked. His vocation is drawing plants, trees and birds (found in various publications) and sharing it by teaching classes that are partly about drawing, but equally about observation and understanding how much is written on a twig or a leaf.

I immediately saw why my wife was raving about him. He is an inspired and inspiring teacher who taught from the core of his self, using Powerpoint as the tool to do what it does best, but also a white board, his own body dancing out certain shapes, stories, humor and live demonstration of drawing on paper with colored pencils and water colors. And in a short hour and a half, he accomplished the two most important things a teacher can give a student:

1)   Revealing the beauty and mystery and miraculous nature of the world at our feet that often goes unnoticed. I like walking in the woods and was proud that I made an attempt years back to identify at least some plants, flowers, trees and such, but still was (and am) profoundly ignorant of the larger story—the character of each thing in Creation and how it is necessary to the next and how they interrelate and so on. The verbs of the whole deal. After this class, I walked in Golden Gate Park and already was looking at leaves and twigs from a whole different perspective, noticing details I never have before. 

2)  Leading you to do something beyond what you ever thought you could. The way my colleague Christa Coogan can lead anyone to dance better than they ever imagined, the way I try to lead people to discovering that they can play a jazz blues solo on the xylophone, he helped this non-artist draw a leaf that actually looked pretty good!

At the end of class, he invited people to continue to observe and notice and draw leaves and twigs and to make a conscious commitment to get beyond their “twignorance.” (I asked him
If he just made that up on the spot and he did! If it goes viral, please credit Jack Laws!)

Local folks, I highly recommend you look him up and drop in on a class. He also does whole day nature journaling walks in Marin County. Meanwhile, I’m off to remedy my twignorance.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


“The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.”

There are forces in this world that can’t be seen, but are deeply felt. I feel them so often in sports games— that remarkable final drive by Tom Brady in the Super Bowl a couple of years back, the Warriors famous 3rd quarter surge. It’s not just the sum of the player’s efforts and talents. It’s this third thing that enters the mix and the fans feel it as well, urge it along with their cheers. The opposition has no choice but to soldier on, but you can feel the way they feel defeated by the surge of the momentum against them. Like swimming upstream, it’s just larger than one’s willful effort and starts to sweep things along by the sheer force of its power.

I’m feeling it now with the Mueller investigation. The midterms revealed that “there is a quantity of motion of a moving, more kind and just and tired of lies and deceit and mean-spiritedness, body, it’s mass is growing and it’s velocity increasing. Things are heating up in the back rooms of the good ole boys and even the Master Denier himself is beginning to look worried. For two years, the momentum was in the other direction and all we could do was retreat to the eddies and bide our time. But now, it’s a new story. Those bad people loyal to nothing beyond their own greed and ambition are now turning on each other and to keep mixing metaphors, the rats are starting to desert the sinking ship. Can you feel it? Every day, it’s getting closer and oh, dream of all dreams, might Santa come down the chimney, take the cookies and leave a subpoena at the White House?

One can never confidently predict anything in the political sphere these days, but I’m hoping others feel the momentum too. Momentum begets momentum and I can’t wait for the day to tell the children I teach, “You see what this kind of behavior and selfish character bring?” And if jail time were wrapped up in the surprise Christmas present, I would shriek like the child getting her first bicycle. How good to know that the fairy tales can come true! The bad guys get their just desserts and it ain’t milk and cookies. The hardest thing of these last two years is seeing how much the American public was willing to excuse and how much ugliness and nastiness was getting rewarded or bypassed.

I’ve lived most of my life going against the mainstream, but now I am happy to go with the flow and help nudge the momentum along. Go, Mueller, go!!!! We’re past the 50-yard line!!!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The End of Procrastination

How do we decide what we do every day? For most of us, our job takes care of that. Especially teachers. You have a schedule, kids show up at your door, you do something with them until the class is over and here comes the next bunch. There’s a clarity and comfort in this kind of work, no room to think, “Hmm. Should I teach these group of kids or lock the door and practice piano?” I imagine the same holds true for plumbers or cooks or clerks in stores. Just show up and do your work.

But for retired folks, administrators in-between meetings and most people on weekends, the day yawns before you with its blank hours and says, “Here I am. What are you going to do with me?” Feels to me like there are maybe five types of activities:

1)    Things that feed your soul. Play piano, paint a picture, meditate, write a poem, walk in the forest. There’s a thousand dishes that Soul loves to eat, depending on your taste and interests.

2)    Things that feed your body. Cook, eat, exercise and occasionally make love.

3)    Things that feed practical necessities. Caretaking activities like water the plants, feed the cat, wash the dishes, put air in the bike tires, get groceries at the store.

4)    Things that feed your social life. E-mails, coffee with a friend, gatherings with friends, Facebook posts, board games, cards or charades.

5)    Things that feed your need to relax. Read a book, magazine or newspaper, watch videos, movies, Youtube clips, listen to that new CD, things that allow you to shut off your thinking/ doing self and plop down on the couch with one directive: “Distract or enlighten me as you will, just entertain me!”

I’ve had such a productive and pleasurable three months off from school this Fall (one more to go!), feeding the mind through my writing and reading, the soul with morning meditation, the heart with playing piano, the body with bike riding and walking around the city (and time to cook good meals!). Without the school schedule, I’ve had the chance to create my own rhythmic cycle of activities—meditate, write, play piano in the morning, bike, walk, do errands in the afternoon, read-movie-listen-to-music-go-to-concert at night and truth be told, I love it. A bit worried about waking up in the dark come January, driving the route hoping to make the right lights, teaching some seven classes a day, going to staff meetings, planning the next day’s classes and so on. I imagine sometime after lunch, the kids will keep showing up at my door and I’ll be thinking, “This is really cutting into my day!”

So yesterday I got to a thrilling place in my writing where I declared myself done with the second draft of my new book and went to Kinko’s to get a bound copy made. There was a long wait in line there and I browsed through what I had written and was thrilled to discover I liked it! I had written exactly the kind of book I like to read and it was feeling like music with the rhythm and cadences of the sentences and the evocative images and the surprising left turns as I took ideas out of their lane and passed a few cars and then got back to the main route. That felt good.

But then today, without the next chapter or sentence to write, I was confronted with the opening question: “How do we decide what to do each day?” And not happy with my answer: “Deal with that thing you keep putting on your list and never do!!” It has to do with going through my book sales and figuring out how much money I owe my two colleagues whose books I’ve published, a skill that is complex, confusing and not up my anti-accountant-personality alley. But one I’ve felt guilty about for the last nine months! This very blog post is another step in my procrastination strategy! But there’s no more excuses. I’m going to do it! At least, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

What are the things we procrastinate with? I suspect the things that don’t automatically bring us pleasure and remind us of what we’re not good at. Yet still must be done. And let’s talk more about this… NO! Enough! Get going!!

Okay, I give up. Wish me luck!!